March 24, 2013
Would you turn down a job paying $227,000 if all you had to do was look at animal photos in the National Geographic magazine?
Of course not. And if you did, you'd be a certified moron.
There can't be much stress in staring at animal photos, even of baboons with red behinds. Besides, you could probably take the early train home. And what's even nicer, it's all federally funded.
That's right, federally funded, even as the Obama White House shrieks about the sequester budget cuts.
It's all in a report on cockamamie federal grants put together by Sen. Tom Coburn. He's the Oklahoma Republican who's spent years aggravating colleagues of both parties by highlighting wasteful federal spending.
Coburn's report is chock-full of foolish federal grants, but my favorite — besides the famous $500,000 to watch shrimp run on a treadmill — is the grant to study how animals have been depicted in the National Geographic from 1888 to 2008.
"You mean the government will pay me to look at elephants 'doing it' and baboons?" asked a fellow taxpayer out on Michigan Avenue.
Yes, I said, baboons too. Even the baboons with the red behinds.
Also egrets, penguins, three-toed sloths, lions, every kind of critter, perhaps even the most frightening creature in all creation: the deadly blobfish.
Who wouldn't like such a job?
"Sign me up," said another guy. "I can see it now. We're all in white lab coats and I say: 'Hey, Charlie, I've got me another baboon with a red butt. That makes five this morning. Put it in the spreadsheet.'"
Not everyone would call such spending wasteful. Heartless fiscal conservatives may call it wasteful, but then, they just don't care about scientists who may wish to study the crimson derrieres of certain primates.
And scientists who receive such grants would call such studies by the proper name: "Intensely Valuable and Vital Research."
Taxpayers might call it all "a bunch of stupid stuff we don't want to pay for," but who listens to us?
I asked Sen. Coburn about this last week when he was a guest on the WLS 890 midmorning radio show that I host weekdays with Lauren Cohn.
"The one thing I try to preach to my colleagues is that the next dollar we spend ought to be the most important thing for the country, not the most important thing for your re-election," Coburn said in his interview. "And I pretty well hit a blank wall and get a stare when I say that."
That's because federal legislators of both parties don't like to say "No." Why is this? Because someone's feelings always get hurt. And just like elephants, they never forget.
What is clear is that our Democratic president and his congressional Republican opposition will make heartless spending cuts and foolish spending an issue in the 2014 midterm elections.
"The president's decision on sequester is to make it as painful for the American people as he can," Coburn said, "so they won't want us to cut any spending."
Then he offered up a partial list of grants to illustrate how taxpayers are nickel-and-dimed to death.
Like the $516,000 study to develop a so-called ecoATM that is supposed to dispense cash in exchange for old cellphones.
And a $349,862 study hoping to measure the benefits of meditation for college science majors.
A $600,000 grant hopes to develop a new website, SiteJabber.com, which is supposed to rate the trustworthiness of other websites.
And $325,000 was set aside by the National Science Foundation to invent a robot squirrel, and use it to study how live squirrels use their tails to talk to each other.
A robot female sage grouse named Snookie cost only $375,000, helping biologists study mating habits, although, if one "grouse" is a robot, who cares?
Is this science or is it a cruel practical joke?
There's also a $49,774 grant to develop a game teaching scientists about ethics, and $106,868 to chart the rise of candidate-driven elections over party-dominated elections, and $47,783 to help analyze how American presidents cooperate with Congress when issuing executive orders.
Wow. That last one, the analysis of how presidents cooperate with Congress, sure sounds like Viagra for the mind, doesn't it?
"It does employ professors at universities, I can agree with that," Coburn said of the research grants. "But I'm not sure that political science is a science."
Please, political scientists, don't pound your tiny fists in rage and write me angry letters. Write Coburn.
The senator allowed that many grants are indeed worthy and necessary, but not the stupid ones involving animal pictures in old magazines.
"It's about lack of control and respect for every penny from hardworking Americans," said Coburn.
"Most grants aren't followed up on. A lot of them do a lot of good. But we have no control over it. There's no metrics: What are they supposed to do? Did you spend the money the right way? What's the result? Did we get a good result out of the American taxpayer money that was invested in X grant or X research or X purchase?"
I guess that all depends on what the definition of research is.
If you're getting paid a quarter-million dollars to look at photos of baboons with red behinds, you'll think it's awfully important work.
Unless you're one of us baboons with red behinds who have to pay for it all.
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