In honor of the release of the new "Star Wars" movie, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., subtitled this year's "Wastebook" as "The Farce Awakens." The latest edition of this annual report details 100 spending programs, totaling $108.5 million, that are a complete waste of your money.
On the list, we find $1 million that went to the National Institutes of Health to study a dozen monkeys running in hamster balls on a treadmill. That's right. But as strange as the spending may seem to us taxpayers, it's not unique. The report states, "In a case of monkey-see, monkey-do, the National Institute on Aging is already spending more than $600,000 to conduct its own monkey on a treadmill study."
You should also know that $706,800 of your hard-earned money has been granted by the National Science Foundation for Duke University to conduct a so-called "shrimp fight club," where shrimp are pitted against each other so that researchers can "observe the punching power of mantis shrimp, which engage in ritualized fighting with powerful hammer-like claws."
Now, these may not be so bad as the $5 million spent by the National Institutes of Health on the organization of parties for hipsters at bars and nightclubs in an effort to entice them to "take a stand against tobacco corporations." The report, however, notes that when the "parties fail to achieve that goal, the intervention gets blunt, flashing cash in front of the hipsters' 'stache. 'Quit smoking, get cash' offers one of the programs that hands out up to $100 as a payoff to get hipsters to stop smoking."
We also spent $668,000 to study the hashtags "angrytweets" and "heartattacks," $77,000 on Yogurtopia and $448 million on free rent for freeloaders. But here's the thing: As much as this waste is annoying and undoubtedly a problem worthy of congressional attention, it's only a small component of government waste in this country.
First there are improper payments, which cost over $100 billion each year. But that pales in comparison with the pervasive waste that exists in current spending patterns. It also pales in comparison with the economic damage caused by misallocation of capital and the creation of perverse incentives — for example, the moral hazard created by government bailouts and terrible regulations.
In fiscal 2015, the federal government spent $3.7 trillion, or 20.7 percent of gross domestic product. The consequence of this spending was a $439 billion budget deficit. A large part of this overspending was not even spending too much on things but spending that never should have happened at all — e.g., money for farm and energy subsidies, as well as other crony subsidies, outdated weapon systems and Amtrak. Then there was all the spending that actually should have been paid for by the states, such as money for education and transportation.
According to the Congressional Budget Office's alternative scenario budget projection — the scenario under which widely expected policy changes occur, including legislators' concessions to interest groups, such as physicians and senior citizens — at its current trajectory, spending will increase to 21.9 percent of GDP in 2020 and to 25.8 percent in 2030 and to 30.4 percent in 2040.
The expansion of mandatory programs — such as Medicare, Medicaid, Affordable Care Act subsidies and Social Security — is the driving force behind this spending growth and our exploding debt. Unfortunately, as the debt grows, the interest payments on that debt will grow, as well. If the United States doesn't change course, debt will end up as one of its biggest budget items. Our unfunded liabilities keep going up, too. The net present value of the promises made to the American people for which the United States does not have the money to pay is roughly $75.5 trillion, according to the Treasury Department.
I guess the bottom line is this: As troubling as monkeys running on treadmills — in hamster balls — and hipsters being paid to party may be, we have problems that are exponentially more worrisome. It doesn't mean that we should tolerate the $3 million paid by the Department of Homeland Security to the owners of party buses, including one described as a "nightclub on wheels." It means that we should demand that lawmakers finally start to take the more serious problems seriously.
Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. To find out more about Veronique de Rugy and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Thomas Quine