One Person’s Waste [Part I]

During my years in government, then as a consultant dealing with government regulations and environmental and energy issues, and even afterward, I’ve heard thousands of people say that we could just solve the budget problem by getting rid of the “waste” in government.

And when I hear that tired old phrase, I want to strangle whoever has last uttered it, because “waste” – at least in the way it’s commonly used – is a tiny fraction of federal or state spending. Now… before you start screaming, let me at least try to explain.

First, I’m defining waste as unnecessary spending for no purpose and that accomplishes nothing. Second, I do believe that government spends a great deal of money on programs and projects which have little to do with the basic objectives of government as outlined by the Founding Fathers… and I suspect most intelligent individuals believe something along the same lines.

The problem is that one person’s waste is all too often another person’s gain or livelihood. For example:

The Georgia Christmas Tree Association got $50,000 from the Department of Agriculture for ads designed to spur the buying of natural Christmas trees. To the Christmas tree growers of Georgia, this was not waste, but advertising designed to help them sell trees and make money.

The Department of Agriculture spent $93,000 to “test the French fry potential of certain potatoes.” Do you think the potato growers objected to this?

$15,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to create a device that monitors how long hotel guests spend in the shower. Is this so wasteful, given the water crises in the west and southwest?

And then there’s Donald Trump’s use of a $40 million tax credit to renovate the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. into a luxury hotel. I’m certain that the city would support another tax-paying and revenue generating hotel.

The Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program provided $400,000 to the liquor lobby, which used part of those funds to transport foreign journalists to different breweries and distilleries in the southeastern United States. The liquor industry doubtless feels that this will boost liquor exports.

At the same time, there is definite out-and-out waste. According to the Government Accountability Office, in 2014 the federal government spent $125 billion in duplicative and improper payments. GAO made 440 recommendations to Congress for fixing these problems. To date, it appears that Congress has addressed none of them.

One waste-watching outfit came up with $30 billion in supposedly wasteful projects for FY 2013, including studies of the threatened gnatcatcher bird species. The only problem with the gnatcatcher “waste” was that such a study is mandated by federal law when an endangered or threatened species may be adversely affected by building or expanding a federal facility.

More to the point, however, is the fact that these self-proclaimed waste-finders only came up with $30 billion worth of waste out of federal outlays totaling $3.5 trillion – so their waste amounted to less than one percent of federal spending. Even if Congress addressed the GAO’s much more sweeping findings, such actions would only reduce federal outlays by less than 4%.

Now… I’m not condoning waste in any amount, but when the federal deficit has been ranging from $440 billion to $670 billion in recent years, it doesn’t take much brain power to figure out that merely getting rid of even all the obvious waste isn’t going to do much for constraining federal spending, assuming Congress would agree, which, as an institution, it doesn’t despite the scores of politicians who claim they’re against waste.

And all those who support a strong national defense should be appalled at some aspects of defense spending. Right now, DOD has stated that as many as 20% of the 523 U.S. military installations are unneeded. This doesn’t even count the more than 700 U.S. bases and facilities outside the United States, yet the present Congress has enacted specific language in the appropriations bill for the current fiscal year that absolutely forbids base closures.

What about my “favorite” airplane, the oh-so-lovely-and-over-budget F-35? A recent report cited DOD officials stating that “essentially every aircraft bought to date requires modifications prior to use in combat.” A plane that isn’t yet ready for combat for which the government has already committed $400 billion? An aircraft that was outmaneuvered by a much older F-16?

DOD also wants to build a new long-range strike bomber with full stealth capabilities, 100 of them at a projected cost of $565 million each.

As a former Navy pilot, I don’t object to better planes; I do have problems with very expensive aircraft that don’t seem to be better than their predecessors, and especially attack aircraft that can’t defend themselves. I also have problems with politicians who decry waste, but won’t allow DOD to reduce it because that “waste” is in their districts. Those are far more expensive examples of waste than $50,000 studies on laughter or Christmas tree promotions. It reminds me of shell game misdirection – look at these ridiculous examples of waste, and, and for heaven’s sake, don’t look at that man over there behind the curtain… or at the pork in my district. And yet, politicians, especially Republican representatives and senators, continue to attack “waste” while doing absolutely nothing meaningful about it… and they get re-elected.

8 thoughts on “One Person’s Waste [Part I]”

  1. John Prigent says:

    What it boils down to is that, to most of us, ‘waste’ is ‘any taxpayers’ money spent on something I don’t benefit from’ – or at least ‘can’t see how I can benefit from’. ‘Non-waste’ is ‘anything that directly benefits me’.

  2. Daze says:

    I thought the drift of the Second Amendment was that you could just close all 1200 DoD bases and rely on the armed militia to bring their automatic weapons to bear on any problem? That would save a lot of money.

  3. Joe says:

    To underline your point, $400 billion is more than the last five years’ budget for the entire Russian military. Despite their reputation for corruption, they do a lot more than their Western counterparts with very little money, which suggests to me that they would do better in a war of attrition.

  4. Tim says:

    @Joe. You are right but the US and the UK tend to have (relatively) transparent accounting. A diplomat once told me that Russia and China do not need or care to declare exactly what is spent on Defense.

    When I worked on military stuff, it was also clear that our weaponry was much more state-of-the-art and so expensive. A little like making 5000 Tigers for the price of 30000 T34s.

  5. JimEwins says:

    How many of those who currently are seeking nomination for president would agree with your views? They only attack each other and don’t present their views on how to rule.

    1. All the Republicans claim to be against waste, but not a single one has actually taken meaningful steps to cut it, while the Democrats seem to think that the only waste is in the Defense Department and the failure to tax the wealthy.

  6. I remember reading a short story of yours about a “new and improved” type of military craft, but I hadn’t realized it was based on a real thing happening. Horrifying but unsurprising, I suppose — I’m curious where you stand on the subject of defense contracting, though, because from my limited experience, it seems like the shell game of “look, we’re going to reduce spending this time!” is even worse there, because those budgets are kept separately from the regular military budgets, and it all just gets juggled back and forth.

    1. In my opinion, the basic problem with defense contracting is that there’s no real control… and little agreement about anything. The Congress won’t allow DOD to reduce unnecessary spending if it means closure or cutting of jobs in congressional districts. The Pentagon too often doesn’t listen to the junior field grade officers about what they really need, and, for reasons I still can’t fathom, despite my years in the Navy and in Washington, D.C., seems obsessed with building “one aircraft” for all the various services, despite the fact that this makes the result a “camel” [i.e., the equivalent of a horse designed by a committee] that fulfills none of the services’ needs very well, and does so at a vastly inflated price. The “all-volunteer” military requires a much larger — and far more expensive — civilian logistical support structure, which has swelled the DOD budget. Add to that a conflict between Congress, the Pentagon, and often the President about what our future military needs will be, and then add in the failure to realize that each foreign military adventure not only costs more, but creates more enemies, which then “requires” more military spending. And that’s just for starters…

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