As you can tell from my "CEO Gaffe of the Week" series, I enjoy pointing out when the leaders of publicly traded corporations are overpaid or seriously abuse company funds. If these egregious errors aren't pointed out, the possibility for reform will never be a reality.
It's for this reason that Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn is my favorite political figure on Capitol Hill. For each of the past two years, Coburn and his political team have put together a manifesto that they refer to as "Wastebook 2011" (link opens PDF file), which compiles the top 100 ways that the U.S. government wastes taxpayer money. If you've never had a chance to peruse this list before, I highly recommend it.
Today, I want to highlight what I regard as the 10 dumbest ways the U.S. government wasted your money in 2011 based on Coburn's findings.
1. Change for a dollar
With so much noise being made about how a penny costs more to produce than it's worth, we often forget that while paper money is cheaper to produce, coins tend to last longer. According to the Government Accountability Office, if the U.S. were to switch to $1 coins instead of printing $1 bills, as so many other nations already have, it would save $5.5 billion over 30 years, or $184 million annually.
2. Feces-flinging chimpanzees
William Hopkins, at Agnes Scott College, and researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center utilized a portion of $592,527 in federal funding last year to discover the origins behind chimpanzees and their desire to throw food and feces at passersby. After taking MRIs and performing multiple cognitive tests on the chimps, researchers determined that chimps with better feces-throwing skills had better communication skills than other apes. Thumbs-up, guys!
3. I tweet, therefore I'm happy?
Apparently, the government is interested in whether your Facebook likes are sincere or merely meant to kill time. In 2011, the University of California-Riverside was awarded a $198,000 grant to research whether social media programs such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn (NYS: LNKD) make people happy. Studies from other research institutes have already been released that point to users using social media sites for keeping up with friends and family and to pass time, so I fully expect these results from UC Riverside to be a barn burner.
4. A feel-good report
For this gem, the National Institute on Aging supplied the RAND Institute with $610,908 so that it could survey people throughout 120 countries in order to discover the determinants of life satisfaction and well-being throughout the world. It sounds like a noble effort; unfortunately, Gallup already has a poll that accomplishes more or less the same thing worldwide.
5. Michigan is how desperate?
While $6,279 may not sound like a lot of money considering the egregious abuses of cash we've witnessed over the years, this tidy sum of cash went to purchase 13 snow cone machines in Michigan. The purpose was dual: to counteract heat exhaustion and illnesses during large events, and to be used during Michigan's Citizen Corps events to encourage people to volunteer. Free snow cones? Sign me up!
6. Sonic dud
After costing the U.S. taxpayers a total of $3 billion, including $207 million in 2011 alone, the Pentagon officially canceled efforts by General Electric (NYS: GE) and Rolls-Royce (OTC: RYCEY) to create a second engine for the next-generation fighter plane, the F-35. It took years, but the government succumbed to pressure that running two competing engines against each other was a waste of money -- and boy, they weren't kidding!
7. Tree census
Last year, $60,000 of federal funds was apportioned to conduct a tree census and inventory in the city of Henderson, Nev. According to the Henderson City Council, there are 1,348 acres of "undocumented tree assets" in Henderson and 15,000 trees that have no recorded data other than a GPS location. The goal was to generate a tree maintenance plan. The result is too stupid for words.
8. Social not-working
That's right, not one but two of my top 10 dumbest uses of taxpayer money involve social networking. For just $764,825, Notre Dame University partnered with Dan Hesse of Sprint Nextel (NYS: S) (whom I dubbed one of the worst CEOs of the year in 2011) to give 250 college freshmen phones with a tracking chip that will monitor their various interactions, including proximity to one another. The best part about this study: No reason was given as to how this benefits the public.
9. IRS hand-me-downs
According to the Treasury Inspector General for the Tax Administration, the IRS has 22,486 items in storage (including office furniture and equipment) that have not had any activity in at least 18 months. This storage is costing the U.S. taxpayers $862,000 per year. Clearly the two most pressing questions are (1) Did the TIGTA count each item by hand or should we demand a recount? and (2) Can the IRS claim the depreciation of that office furniture on its taxes? Inquiring minds want to know.
10. I guess Charlie Sheen wasn't available
Last, but certainly not least, researchers at the University of Kentucky received $175,587 last year to research whether cocaine increased risky sexual behavior in Japanese quails. I'll let you recover from laughing for a moment because it gets better. Not only was this the second grant that researchers received (after netting $181,406 from the National Institutes of Health in 2010), but the study is slated to continue through 2015!
These are just 10 of the mind-numbing ways the U.S. government has spent taxpayer dollars over the past year according to Sen. Tom Coburn, and this doesn't even include the egregious wastes of money that have been profiled recently -- namely the Secret Service scandal or even Solyndra, which I decided to leave off this list.
Which wasteful program stands out the most to you? Tell me and your fellow Fools in the comments section below.
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At the time this article was published Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He has a Ph.D. in sarcasm. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of LinkedIn. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of LinkedIn. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that's just the right price: free!
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