Editor's note: An earlier version of this article linked a $15,000 grant received by the Colorado Symphony from the National Endowment for the Arts to the symphony's 2014 "Classically Cannabis" series, which encouraged attendees to smoke marijuana before and/or during the show. This link was in error, as the funds were earmarked instead to finance a series of four symphonic concerts, as well as in-school performances, for elementary and middle school students. We regret and apologize for the error.
For years, I've opined that understanding your cash flow and maintaining a working and adjustable budget are some of the most vital keys to a comfortable retirement. Unfortunately, the biggest "business" in the world, the U.S. government, hasn't heeded that advice and continues to spend far more than it brings in from taxes every year.
After relatively small budget deficits ranging from $161 billion to $318 billion prior to the Great Recession, the need to reinvigorate the economy sent deficits soaring past the $1 trillion mark between 2009 and 2012. This year, the budget deficit is estimated to be a little below $600 billion.
Regardless of your political affiliation, some of this spending will make sense. Social programs designed to help the impoverished, retired, or assist the unemployed get work can yield great returns. But, to be honest, not all government spending winds up looking smart in retrospect -- and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) ensures that the American public knows about it.
For the past three years, I've been reporting on Wastebook, Sen. Coburn's annual project that outlines 100 of the dumbest and most outrageous ways the government spent taxpayer dollars in the previous year.
In October, Wastebook 2014 (link opens PDF) was released -- and is, according to Coburn, his final edition of the book given that health issues may soon force him to step down. What wasn't lacking was the typical candor we've come to expect when Coburn discusses the various ways lawmakers wasted your tax dollars.
Overall, Wastebook 2014 details about $25 billion in wasteful spending. Although that's a veritable drop in the bucket based on our nation's annual spending in the trillions of dollars, it nonetheless represents the need to tighten our belt as a nation and really get a grasp on our cash flow to get our deficit under control.
Though arbitrary (because these are all outrageous in their own ways), here are the 10 most outrageous ways the government spent your tax dollars in 2014.
1. Now there's something to "Marvel" at!
According to Wastebook 2014, the Department of Defense is hard at work developing a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, which would be bulletproof. In reality, they're trying their hand at building a suit reminiscent of Iron Man. Unfortunately, TALOS is really in its early stages of development and will likely weigh 400 pounds when it's complete -- hardly Iron Man-like. Further, this $80 million, four-year budget could need as much as $1 billion, according to some industry analysts, just to make a workable prototype. Could you imagine the cost if these were produced on a larger scale? Ouch!
2. A marijuana musical?
In an effort to raise excitement surrounding the Colorado Symphony, the National Endowment for the Arts provided the Symphony with $15,000 to be used for it's ArtWorks Program, which includes "innovative projects" that offer insight through "unconventional solutions." One of the more unconventional solutions presented in 2014 by the Colorado Symphony was "Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series," a classical ensemble complete with none other than marijuana. Designed to attract a younger audience, symphony-goers were encouraged to smoke marijuana either before or during the show (in designated patio areas).
In its defense, the Colorado Symphony has refuted the insinuation made by Coburn and WasteBook regarding a link between the funds and the "Classically Cannabis" series. The Symphony doesn't deny receiving $15,000 from the NEA, but it says that the money was earmarked for other, more widely acceptable programs. According to Jerome Kern of the Colorado Symphony:
In 2014, the Colorado Symphony applied for and received a $15,000 grant from the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts. The grant dollars were specifically earmarked to support a series of four symphonic concerts, as well as in-school performances for elementary and middle school students, in Salida, CO. The grant covered approximately half of the Colorado Symphony's expenses for this concert series; the balance is paid through ticket revenue, sponsorship and contributions from individual donors.
3. NASA: Looking for life on other planets... and their phones
We entrust NASA to boldly go where no one has gone before (or was that Jean-Luc Picard?), but these same geniuses who can precisely calculate shuttle trajectories hundreds of millions of miles from Earth can't seem to keep track of their smartphones or tablets.
According to Wastebook, 14% of NASA's devices, or more than 2,000 devices, went unused for a period of seven months between 2013 and 2014. The estimated costs of these lost or unused devices is about $1.1 million per year. Best of all, per Wastebook, Hewlett-Packard, the contractor for NASA, "couldn't accurately account for the full inventory of mobile devices it provides to the Agency." Not very encouraging.
4. America's team on America's dollar
The Dallas Cowboys might be America's team, but they and a host of other sports stadiums in this country are living off of America's dollar.
Sports stadium subsidies cost the American taxpayer an estimated $146 million per year in lost revenue based on estimates from Bloomberg using U.S. Treasury data. The municipal bonds that fund the building of these stadiums, and the interest earned from these bonds, isn't taxable, and it leaves taxpayers regularly footing the bill. For instance, the Cowboys' mammoth stadium will result in $65 million in subsidies being paid to investors over the next 29 years.
5. Literally, watching the grass grow
Sometimes the government will even pay to watch the grass grow. Literally! In what is perhaps the silliest expense on the list of 100 provided by Sen. Coburn, researchers are spending $10,000 to study saltmarsh cordgrass and how quickly it grows back when pulled out of the ground. While golf course owners will assuredly be on edge with this groundbreaking study (cordgrass is most often used on golf courses), the rest of us might be left shaking a golf club or two at our state representative.
6. Sounds like a case of sour grapes
College students across many states, including the University of Tennessee, have been granted $5 million to spread awareness about healthy eating habits. The campaign, known as "Get Fruved" (taken from the first few letters of fruits and vegetables), has involved students dressing up as fruit and vegetable mascots and spreading awareness throughout their campuses.
Although it bears a social media presence, Wastebook notes that few if any posts or tweets have been made, and the website itself is "largely underdeveloped."
7. Voodoo doll grants. Seriously!
Courtesy of the National Science Foundation and a $331,000 federal grant, 107 couples over 21 consecutive nights were given 51 pins and a voodoo doll and allowed, without their partner knowing, to stick as many pins into the doll (which represented their partner) as they pleased. The number of pins driven into each voodoo doll was recorded each night.
The catch behind the aggressive voodoo doll stabbings? Researchers wanted to study the correlation of anger and hunger, better known in slang as "hanger." Unsurprisingly, researchers discovered that low blood sugar did lead to more aggressive stabbing of the voodoo doll.
8. Social Security's nearly $300 million fail
The Social Security Administration may be a critical component to ensuring the financial well-being of close to 60 million U.S. citizens on a monthly basis, but it has cost taxpayers $288 million and counting over the past five years while trying to develop a program that's capable of tracking disability claims. This IT program was being designed to lower administrative costs, but in each of the past five years, its timetable for completion hasn't changed from 24 to 32 months. Even better, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee notes there is no single individual in charge of the project.
Maybe it'll be ready by 2018; keep your fingers crossed!
9. U.S. Postal Service losing money on shipping -- a real shocker!
If the U.S. Postal Service were a non-federal company, it would probably have gone bankrupt by now. We've witnessed the USPS lose millions for the last couple of years as email and supply chain improvements have cut into its business, but one of the most outrageous wastes of tax dollars are its annual shipments to remote parts of Alaska.
As Wastebook documents, the USPS is regularly spending more than $3,000 to ship 1,000-pound palates of soft drinks (yes, soft drinks) via commercial airliner to remote Alaskan cities and getting just a fraction of the cost back on delivery. Overall, the Alaska Bypass program, as it's known, is costing taxpayers $77 million per year.
10. Those parts cost how much?
Last, but certainly not least, Wastebook details rampant overspending by the Department of Defense (DoD) for helicopter parts via a $128 million noncompetitive contract with Textron's Bell Helicopters. As quoted in the report, the DoD spent more than $8,000 on gears that should cost less than $500, and it spent around 10 times more than the implied wholesale cost on one-inch bushings, pins, and round inner caps. All told, the report alleges overspending of $9 million, although Textron's Bell disagreed with the findings and noted that it was essentially sticking to the terms of its contract.
These represent my choices for the 10 most outrageous ways the government spent your tax dollars in 2014. Did I miss one of your favorites in the report? Feel free to share it in the comments section below.