Politics

Tom Coburn's Annual "Wastebook" Report: Facebook, Space Pizza, Sleeping on the Job

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Tom Coburn's Annual "Wastebook" Report: Facebook, Space Pizza, Sleeping on the Job

Federal Government Spending, Government waste, NASA, Sen. Tom Coburn, Wastebook

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released his annual “Wastebook” report that details what those in his office believe to be ill-advised government spending, and what he calls “waste more, want more.” In his preamble to the report, Coburn asks readers to “place your personal political persuasion aside and ask yourself: DO each of these represent a real national priority that should be spared from budget cuts are these excesses that should have been eliminated in order to spare deeper cuts to those services and missions that should be performed by the federal government?” One would also need to put aside the snarky tone in which the report is written.

If one takes the Senator’s advice, then not all of the programs seem exactly wasteful. For instance, the report slams the National Guard’s integrated marketing campaign tied in with the latest Superman movie (p. 5) and also for cutting the number of troops at the same time. Still, the report glosses over the fact that the cuts were a result of the automatic sequestration that was never “supposed” to happen, and only did after the marketing plan was already in place.

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Also panned in the report (p. 66) is an almost $125,000 project funded by NASA “hoping to build a 3-D pizza printer.” The entire section is flippant about the project, making hacky jokes about the taste being “out of this world” and musing about whether or not “Uncle Sam” needs to leave a “tip.” However, 3D printers could become one of the most important tools in the future of spaceflight. If Apollo 13 had a 3D printer on board, it would be remembered as the mission where something almost went wrong but it was an easy fix. Also, like with many other NASA technologies, the real-world application for a 3D printer that can generate food is self-evident. Although the agency’s study in which participants lie down for 70 days (and also costs almost three times what the printer cost) is less defensible.

That said, the Wastebook does highlight some mind-boggling examples of government spending. For example on page 68 the report pans the U.S. Postal Service for it’s over half-a-million dollar contract with “futurist” Faith Popcorn to study how to keep stamps “relevant, interesting, and integral.” Also the report notes that the USPS “does not currently use taxpayer dollars for its operations, but Congress continues to bail out its many losing operations.”  It also highlights the tax-exempt status of professional golfers (p. 69) and Facebook (p. 26).

Despite having revenues “in more than $1 billion in US pretax profits” Facebook will not pay taxes and filed for a “$429 million refund.” Last year, Facebook used a tax deduction on employee stock options to lower their taxes owed by “around S1.03 billion.” The report also criticizes the State Department for falling victim to the Facebook business model (p. 52). They paid $630,000 to promote their Facebook page and it netted them 2.5 million subscribers. However, the level of interaction from those users was very low. Because Facebook restricts updates from the newsfeeds of users based upon interaction, most of the posts were hidden from those users. Thus the report states that the “only solution available was to ‘continually spend money on sponsored story ads.’”

Ironically, the first item in the Wastebook (p. 3) decries the money spent in back pay to workers furloughed over the government shutdown that was orchestrated by “fiscally conservative” members of Congress. The passage excoriates the 113th Congress for not doing anything so as not to appear to blaming the civil servants. Although, the report does suggest that some are overpaid highlighting the fact that 100,000 workers making “at least” $100,000 per year were furloughed as “non-essential.” The report also suggests that Congress should not be paid during the shutdown, but that remains a constitutional issue. It’s also worth noting that if every single federal dollar mentioned in this report had been cut, it would have represented $30 billion or one-millionth of one percent of the national debt. Still, the Wastebook is a very interesting snapshot of some of the more odd things the government pays for, but a program’s inclusion in this report should not be an automatic indicator that it’s wasteful.