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Jan 20 2017

Top 10 Ways Government Wasted Your Money in 2016

It’s that time again for the annual reports on government spending and all the fun ways that tax payer money was completely wasted. Senator Jeff Flake’s annual Wastebook report was released this week and included 50 examples of ridiculous government spending that totaled over $5 billion. With a national debt about to top $20 trillion, which by the way is the LARGEST amount EVER owed by ANY nation in HISTORY, spending is kind of a big deal.

Historically, the Wastebook report rustled enough jimmies that the National Science Foundation wrote their own 19-page counter report to prove how important and necessary it was to research how to write the perfect tweet but for many of the items on last year’s Wastebook, the NSF just sort of shrugged and explained that sometimes they just hand researchers money without actually knowing what they’re researching. Seems very fiscally responsible.

So, without any further ado, here are my top 10 picks for the most ridiculous items in the new Wastebook report.

1. Paying in Peanuts/Cutting the Cheese ($74 million/ $1.82 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Peanuts are subsidized by various government programs, one of which allows farmers to pay back their government loans in peanuts. Literally. Instead of paying back their government loans with money, peanut farmers have the option of paying in peanuts. And because the government will pay more for peanuts than the market, AND there’s already a peanut surplus, why not? This little gig cost taxpayers $74 million last year.

Thanks to this set-up, the government started out 2016 with a stockpile of 383 million pounds of peanuts – which is enough to meet the US’s demand for an entire year. And the government couldn’t just sell them back into the market, because that would flood the market even MORE and the cycle would continue.

Last year, the government barely pulled off reducing the surplus – we couldn’t even get Haiti to take our peanuts FOR FREE. If the surpluses continue – which they’re expected to do – the government has the options of either selling the peanuts at a discount, or paying $1 billion for storage on top of that $74 million payback program.

In a similar situation, the USDA spent $20 million to purchase 11 million pounds of surplus cheese and spent an additional $1.8 BILLION, with a B, subsidizing 16 new cheese making ventures even though there’s more surplus cheese being stored in the US than any other time in the last 100 years. Again, farmers aren’t encouraged to produce less and have no incentives to do so. But, the subsidies for both products continue because subsidies magically fix everything and never have any consequences ever.

2. Social Media Popularity Contest – $2.4 million, Department of Defense
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka that crazy DARPA that conspiracy theorists are always warning you about, has dumped $2.4 million into research by the Georgia Institute of Tehcnology as part of an initiative that seeks to “counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information.”

ARGH GOD, IT’S THAT FAKE NEWS AGAIN.

The researchers determined that if you want to get more likes or comments on Instragram, you should have lots of followers and post pictures with faces. Researchers were stumped as to why a photo with a face was 38% more likely to get a like, which is INFURIATING because anyone who has ever taken child psychology knows we were born with brains that are naturally attracted to faces and that people of all ages try to find familiar patterns in images, and faces are like LITERALLY the most familiar pattern there is.

They also found that images with color, especially red, get more attention. Again, they didn’t know why. I mean it’s not that crazy, the color red has been used to draw and guide the eye in art for hundreds of years. This isn’t secret knowledge – I heard it on a museum tour and from pretty much every design student I’ve ever met.

So really, this research begs the question, who ARE these people and how are there scientists that don’t know these things?! Also is anyone weirded out that the Department of Defense is researching Instagram? I mean, that’s weird, right?

3. Frat Guys Drink A Lot ($5 million, National Institutes of Health)
The National Institutes of Health awarded a $5 million grant to a Brown University researcher that found that fraternities and sororities like to drink and have parties. Other research under this grant found that non-Greek affiliated students will drink more at Greek parties, that pretty much all college students drink more when they’re at a sports event, and that on average, frat guys sleep more than their non-frat guys. The researchers hypothesized that this was due to the students being more aware of the importance of sleep and didn’t think to control for hangovers.

They also learned that beer pong is a centerpiece of the college drinking experience, and that the purpose of drinking games is to get drunk. Soooo the government shelled out $5 million for researchers to figure out what all non-researchers already knew and then failed at finding any substance abuse interventions for fraternities and sororities, because everything they tried actually made the students drink MORE. Cool story, bro.

4.Teaching AI Through Desperate Housewives – $460,000, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense
$460,000 from the National Science Foundation and additional funding from the Department of Defense went to seeing if computers could learn human behavior from watching 600 hours of The Office and Desperate Housewives. At the end of the learning process, the MIT computers could predict when two people would kiss, hug, or high five only about 40% of the time. They hope their research will be used to develop emergency response robots that will help 4 out of every 10 people that are in danger.

5. Music Gives Sharks a Bad Reputation – $3 million, National Science Foundation
A study funded in part by a $3 million NSF grant found that the ominous background music in Jaws and shark documentaries contribute to audiences’ fear of sharks. It totes itself as the first study to “demonstrate empirically that the soundtrack accompanying shark documentary footage can affect viewers’ perceptions of sharks.” They theorized that all of this started with Jaws and that it’s basically all Steven Spielberg’s fault that people no longer recognize sharks as majestic creatures rather than scary assholes.

Now even though they used Jaws as an example, the researchers didn’t use the Jaws soundtrack or any Jaws footage. Instead they showed participants documentary footage with either uplifting background music or music that was assessed by an “independent music expert” who decided the music was “unsettling” and then asked the participants to rank sharks either positively or negatively.

So they used mood music like in the movies and were surprised….?

6. Home Improvements – $326,000, Federal Emergency Management Agency
FEMA is spending $326,000 on improvements for a private home in Virginia valued at $331,000 that is repeatedly damaged by flooding. BUT, it’s owned by a former Olympic gold medalist and repeat convict, so that’s okay. But the best part is, the GUY DOESN’T EVEN LIVE THERE. He spends most of his time in ANOTHER house in MARYLAND.

The home belongs to Steven E. Riddick, who has one gold medal and two forgery and counterfeit check convictions. FEMA is paying to raise the house to help protect it from flooding, even though it is less than 100 feet from a tributary of the James River. Even though 322 properties statewide are considered severe repetitive loss cases, only 6 cases were forwarded to FEMA last year. Riddick’s was one of them, with his application claiming 10 separate flooding incidents in 9 years. Also, he applied for the money while he was still in prison.

7. Empty Airport ($200 million, Federal Aviation Administration)
Despite complaints of long lines at almost every major airport that have caused tens of thousands of passengers to miss their flights, the Federal Aviation Administration has dumped approximately $200 million into the MidAmerica airport in Illinois. The airport is only 40 miles away from a major international airport, currently serves only one airline, and only sees about 20 flights a week. The airport actively loses money every year. Despite this, the director continues to rack up bonuses and the government continues to pay for renovations. The government paid for most of the initial construction, after which the airport went mostly unused for TWO YEARS. It was originally planned to accommodate hundreds of daily flights, but nearly every airline to ever fly through it has either left or gone bankrupt.

After those fiascos, the airport was again empty for another THREE years, until Allegiant Air began offering flights in 2012. They continue to be the only airline providing service at the airport, and offer only 20 flights to 6 destinations per week. They also offer free parking that no one takes advantage of and spent an additional $550,000 last year to add 277 new parking spots. The parking lot now holds 841 parking spots for a yearly 30,000 passengers.

The airport has NEVER made a profit and lost $12 million in 2014 alone, despite the director making a six-figure salary and getting $64,000 in travel expenses from the government.

8. Stuff and Things Government Will Never Use – $12 million, IRS; $1.2 million, FBI; $313,000, VA
Government agencies are no stranger to purchasing things they can’t or will never use. In this case, the IRS spent $12 million on a subscription for an email archiving service it didn’t have the proper software to actually use. The Treasury Inspector General for the Tax Administration even ADMITS they didn’t make sure the service was usable before buying it, and broke a bunch of federal rules along the way.

The FBI also made a purchasing blunder when they spent $1.2 million to purchase, install, and then remove a giant wooden sculpture because it caused severe allergic reactions that hospitalized more than a dozen staffers in the Florida location. Despite 17 employees being hospitalized or removed to off-cite locations, the regional commissioner refused to remove the sculpture. It was final removed months later and now sits in storage.

9. Fear of the Dentist – $3.5 million, National Institutes of Health
The National Institutes of Health gave three grants totaling over $3.5 million to West Virginia University to determine what causes fear of the dentist. The researchers found that the number 1 factor is pain, and that the number 2 factor is a genetic predisposition to anxiety. Factor 3 is a specific gene associated with being red-head.

10. Running Over Birds – $118,000k, USDA
To date, the USDA has spent nearly $118k determining how fast a truck needs to go to be able to hit a bird in the road. As part of one project, researchers lured vultures into an area with raccoon carcasses and then drove a Ford F250 at them 72 times to see what happened. The truck never went above 56mph, which was to determined to be a speed fast enough to get a response but slow enough that no vultures would be struck.

For cowbirds, anything above 75mph was found to be overwhelming. To figure out why, researchers are calling for more money to investigate the responses of various bird species to even faster vehicles.

Copy of the newest Wastebook can be found here:
http://www.flake.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/4fcf3486-328a-40de-a1cc-f88515002d0d/wastebook-2016-final-pdf.pdf

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