The Federal Aviation Administration once spent $57,800 measuring the boobs, butts and bellies of a bevy of airline flight attendants. (The FAA-funded study comprised 79 body measurements of 432 women.) The study earned the FAA one of Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards as an egregious example of wasteful spending. Every month between 1975 and 1988, the Wisconsin Democrat issued a pun-filled news release pillorying federal agencies like the FAA for fleecing taxpayers with such dubious expenditures.
Proxmire, who died in 2005, is being channeled by Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who would feel right at home knocking back a cold sarsaparilla with Orrin, Jason and the rest of Utah’s doctrinaire congressional delegation. Coburn recently published Wastebook 2012, a collection of 100 examples of “mismanagement, wasteful spending and special-interest deals” by the government.
“Washington spent much of the year deadlocked over whether to cut spending or increase taxes to address our fiscal crisis, all the while allowing or even supporting these questionable projects,” writes Coburn in the book’s introduction. Three of those “questionable projects” are in our own backyard:
A $6,000 grant to the University of Utah by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for The Mother Goose Translation Project. Writes Coburn: “The NEH is funding over half a million dollars in summer stipends for scholars and teachers to examine a variety of projects, a large number of which range from the irrelevant to the bizarre.”
The city of Ogden received $1 million from the Department of Commerce to create a Mobile App Lab intended to “inspire entrepreneurs to get creative in application development.” Coburn asserts app developers are doing just fine without government money: “Thirty billion apps have been downloaded on iPhones since 2008,” he writes. “At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, it makes little sense to spend money in an economically thriving industry.”
A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant helped University of Utah engineering students develop a video-game controller whose thumb-size joysticks provide tactile, “skin-stretch feedback” as the game’s scenario plays out. If reeling in a virtual fish, for example, the joysticks would transmit the tug of the hooked fish, thereby replicating the feel of a real spinning rod.
Coburn’s polemic cites a number of examples of “misguided spending” relating to video games. One of them is a NSF study to determine whether or not video games could improve the memory of aging adults. Thirty-nine seniors between 60 and 77 played the fantasy game World of Warcraft two hours a day for 14 days. Subsequent testing showed that those who performed poorly on cognitive tests before interacting with orcs, trolls and warlocks showed some memory improvement. Most did not. The NSF also funded Prom Week, “a video game simulating all the social interactions of the event based on a set of 5,000 social rules that programmers learned by studying ‘interactions in movies and television shows.’ ” Creators call the game “a new and powerful mode of personal expression.” Another $40,000 government grant paid for the development of a video game based on Henry David Thoreau’s iconic book, Walden. According to the game’s creators, players “walk in his virtual footsteps, attend to the tasks of living a self-reliant existence, discover in the beauty of a virtual landscape the ideas and writings of this unique philosopher, and cultivate through the game play their own thoughts and responses to the concepts discovered there.” Thoreau would be horrified.
Part of the NSF largesse in 2012 paid for a study that concluded that you can guess the sexual orientation of a person after glancing at his or her face. “Gaydar” was accurate 60 percent of the time when test subjects glimpsed a photo of a face. And the Michigan State Police, hoping to reduce DUIs, spent 10,000 federal dollars on 400 talking urinal cakes. Called Wizmarks, the Interactive Urinal Communicators are activated by a motion detector. They then play a recording of a female voice saying: “Listen up! That’s right! I’m talking to you. Had a few drinks? Maybe a few too many? Then do yourself and everyone else a favor. Call a sober friend or a cab. Oh, and don’t forget: Wash your hands.”
Oh, and don’t doubt that Coburn’s book was well received by Orrin, Jason, and the other Utah politicians whose mantra is “reduce government spending.” In Wastebook 2012, they find their starve-the-Potomac-beast position validated: The more taxes the government collects, the more it will spend, the more it will waste—spending for spending’s sake, in other words.
It’s a fair point, but hardly definitive if for no other reason than one senator’s earmark is another senator’s pork.
William Provancher, principal investigator* of the skin-stretch-feedback project at the U, complains that Coburn’s criticism is selective. It also ignores the breadth of the research, the professor of engineering says, along with potential applications in robotic surgery, navigation for the blind, and control of robots and drones on future battlefields.
The overriding message of Wastebook 2012 is no surprise. “All of the outrageous and wasteful contents of this report were made possible by either the action or lack of action of Congress, earning it the well-deserved but unwanted distinction as the biggest waste of taxpayer money in 2012.” Not much has changed since Proxmire awarded a Golden Fleece to Congress in 1975 for “living high off the hog while much of the rest of the country is suffering economic disaster.” Wouldn’t it be swell if in 2013, the Utah congressional delegation gave up on entrenched political positions and spent more time really evaluating questionable expenditures?
*Editor's note: This article has been updated with William Provancher's correct title.