Your Stimulus Tax Dollars at Work
Congress passed the $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. Americans know it as the stimulus bill. President Obama and the Democrats promised a skeptical public that it would stanch the loss of American jobs with a restorative flow of shovel-ready projects that would put the economy back on the right track.
Eighteen months later it is painfully obvious that the public's skepticism about the stimulus was warranted. The unemployment rate is higher, as is our national debt. Deficits run up in the Bush years, once a source of consternation, seem not so bad today by comparison.
Massive government spending has done nothing to shorten the unemployment lines but much to alarm Americans about the future of our country.
As for the stimulus, you knew much if not most of it would be wasted – spent on frivolous and unnecessary projects. Now Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn have confirmed our suspicions with a report entitled Summertime Blues which catalogs our misspent tax dollars in painful detail. Twenty examples from it are provided here.
Forest Service to Replace Windows in Closed Visitor Center (Amboy, WA)
There are no plans to reopen an abandoned visitor center at Mount St. Helens in Washington state. But that isn't stopping the U.S. Forest Service from spending more than $550,000 to replace all its windows. One government spokesperson compared it to "keeping a vacant house in good repair," while another one said there was hope the building would be put to some good use some day, perhaps as a hotel, a science camp or a restaurant. In the mean time there are no plans to use the empty facility.
"Dance Draw" – Interactive Dance Software Development (Charlotte, NC)
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte obtained more than $750,000 in stimulus funds to create automated choreography software its creators say might lead to a YouTube-like "Dance Tube" online application. According to the grant, UNC-Charlotte will "define an evolving system that assists in the design and production of interactive dance performances with real-time audience interaction."
Each dancer wears a device, which helps capture their movements on video, logging and analyzing them in the process. "This will allow choreographers to explore interactive dance without always having a full cast of dancers present," the grant reads. Some day in the future, the popularity of dance performances may rival the popularity of such YouTube hits as "Double Rainbow" or "Dramatic-Look Prairie Dog." The grant recipients foresee a system which one day would "... be extended into a Web-based 'Dance Tube' application that will allow the public to engage in interactive dance choreography."
Abandoned Train Station Reborn As Museum
Will taxpayers be gratified when they learn they're paying for a broken down train station not once but twice? The Glassboro train station was constructed in 1860 and closed down in 1971. Neglected now for almost 40 years, it sits boarded up and covered with graffiti. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the Borough of Glassboro, New Jersey almost a quarter of a million dollars to buy up the train station from Conrail. Officials said at the time they hoped to make the station part of the regional NJ Transit system. Alas those plans never reached fruition, and local officials have been searching for a way to fund renovations to find some use for the building ever since.
Now, eight years and an untold amount of deterioration later, the aborted effort has been revived thanks to a fresh influx of federal stimulus dollars, which local officials pushed hard for. They intend to spend more than $1 million for the project "interpreting local history in its proper setting and make it a museum, public meeting space and welcome center."
Taxpayers Pony Up for Ants
(San Francisco, CA)
The California Academy of Sciences has received nearly $2 million to send researchers jetting off to the Southwest Indian Ocean Islands and east Africa, so they can catch, photograph, and study thousands of exotic ants. The resulting photo gallery – over 3,000 species' worth – will be uploaded to AntWeb, a web site intended to be the ultimate resource for Myrmecologists .
Abandoned Iron Furnace Gets Second Facelift After First Facelift Botched (Fitchburg, KY)
Once thought of as ahead of its time, Kentucky's Fitchburg Furnace was boarded up after just five years of operation – and languished unused for nearly 140 more. Now it's getting a $357,710 makeover to restore the old structure's stonework and let historians move forward with new research. Fifty years ago a local moonshiner packed the structure with dynamite Wile E. Coyote style, intending to blow it up, but somehow inflicted only moderate damage. In 2004 the federal government forked over $661,000 for restoration of the furnace, much of which ended up being squandered because of "bad stewardship of money". Hopefully the second time's a charm...
Restoration of Remote, Seldom-Visited Island Park (Key West, FL)
Vacationers with copious amounts of time and money might be the only demographic willing to visit one of the National Park Service's most inconvenient destinations — Dry Tortugas National Park, in Key West. Situated 70 miles off shore, Dry Tortugas is (oddly enough, considering its name) almost entirely underwater and accessible only by private boat, ferry, or airplane. But for all its remoteness, the park has a benefactor somewhere in the government, and is set to receive $13,304,484 in repairs for its main above-water attraction, venerable Fort Jefferson.
Those motivated to take the 4 1/2 hour round-trip commute on the Yankee Freedom II ferry pay as much as $165 per person for the privilege, but will find on arrival that just 40 of the park's 65,000 acres are above sea level. Fort Jefferson takes up almost all of what remains of the island. Built in the mid-nineteenth century to guard important shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Jefferson was never completed or armed. Advances in artillery technology quickly made the Fort obsolete, and the Army evacuated in 1874, never to return.
Weather Prediction Technology for Other Planets (San Antonio, TX)
Whether you know it or not, you have a vital need to know if it's going to rain next week on Uranus – or was it Mercury? So say scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Texas – and who are taxpayers to argue? The SWRI researchers are certain that "The atmospheric forecasting of weather and climate on other planets has great public appeal." The government agreed – and lavished nearly $300,000 in stimulus funds on them. Now they can boldly go where hardly any weathermen have gone before: the lower atmosphere of Venus. (And they've got the right stuff too: oodles of expertise in "the atmospheres and exospheres of Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Io, Titan, comets, Chiron, Triton, Pluto, and the Jovian planets.") And how will you, the inquiring taxpayer, get your hands on this precious data? Not to worry. SWRI's findings will pop up on a regular basis in "popular publications, museum presentations, and radio shows," the researchers say.
Monkeys Get High for Science
It might be felony possession for the rest of us, but for a few lucky monkeys at Wake Forest University it's striking a blow, so to speak, for science. Talk about stimulus! The Department of Health and Human Services brain trust has written a check in the amount of $71,623 to the Winston-Salem college to see how monkeys react under the influence of cocaine (couldn't they just ask Eric Clapton?). Their project, enticingly titled "Effect of Cocaine Self-Administration on Metabotropic Glutamate Systems," will have monkeys self-administer the white stuff while researchers supervise and study the primates' glutamate levels. Asked how studying drug-addled monkeys can possibly improve the national economy, a WFU Med School Spokesman said, presumably with a straight face, "It's actually the continuation of a job that might not still be there if it hadn't been for the stimulus funding. And it's a good job." He added, "It's also very worthwhile research."
Scientists Attempt to Create Joke Machine (Evanston, IL)
Leno versus Letterman? That's old news. Competition among late night television hosts is about to heat up, and it better not be no laughing matter. A gaggle of laff-a-minute researchers at Northwestern University are using stimulus money to develop "machine-generated humor." Almost three quarters of a million smackers (all in pennies?) have been set aside for them to use artificial intelligence to create a "comedic performance agent" that "will be funny no matter what it is talking about." Computer systems will
steal mine jokes from the Internet and supposedly use them to generate knee-slapping presentations that hopefully mimic real-life comedians. The lead designer says he plans to model his new creation on News at Seven, a web-based "entertainment oriented system that combines clips from CSPAN with topical humor and comments pulled from Twitter to create a Daily Show-like experience."
Reducing Menopausal Hot Flashes Through Yoga (Winston-Salem, NC)
1n 1966, His Holiness Sri Swami Satchidanandaji Maharaj developed Integral Yoga, a branch of yoga with a particular emphasis on the spiritual. Now, Wake Forest University investigators have reaped a $300,000 windfall to find out if Integral Yoga "can be an effective method to reduce the frequency and/or severity of hot flashes" in menopausal women. "The goal of Integral Yoga, and the birthright of every individual, is to realize the spiritual unity behind all the diversities in the entire creation and to live harmoniously as members of one universal family." (Now who can argue with that?) A total of 60 post-menopausal women who experience more than seven hot flashes a day are being recruited to participate.
Research: Marketing Video Games to the Elderly (Raleigh, NC and Atlanta, GA)
North Carolina State University and Georgia Institute of Technology research scientists have respectively pocketed $770,856 and $427,824 in stimulus grants from the National Science Foundation for collaborative research into how video games, such as Nintendo Wii's Boom Blox, can improve mental health for senior citizens. "Results will aid designers who currently have little knowledge of the interface and game-play needs of older players." According to study overseers, "One of our main goals is to produce guidelines for producing games for older adults."
Microchips Track Citizen Use of Recycling Bins (Dayton, OH)
Guinea Pigs Residents of Dayton, Ohio, are being coerced encouraged to recycle more, using their new blue, 96-gallon, microchip-embedded bins that will be paid for with stimulus dollars. The microchips, which utilize radio frequency identification technology, are embedded in the bin handles, and will be used by the city to monitor citizen participation in Dayton's recycling program. In addition to paying for 8,000 bins and installing microchip reading gear on all collection trucks, $500,000 will pay for a consultant to craft an ad campaign that promotes recycling for Daytonians. The half-million dollars is part of a $1.6 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant awarded to the City. Dayton will also buy an extra 1,300 recycling bins with a $42,000 grant from Montgomery County and $18,000 of its own money.
14 Flat Screen Televisions for the State Department (NY, VT, GA, TX, CA)
State Department officials took every advantage of their stimulus loot and stocked up on 14 flat screen TVs. Ranging in size from 42 to 55 inches, Foggy Bottom paid Allied Contract almost $37,000 for their new Toshibas, together with wall mounts to attach them securely in their offices. But a quick price check raises serious doubts as to whether State got taken to the cleaners. The award was made on July 9, 2010, but the same new equipment on RitzCamera.com would have cost much less. Ten 42-inch Toshiba flat screens cost $1,084.94 each, with shipping, for a total of $10,849.40. Four 55-inch screens were selling for $1,522.94 a pop, with shipping, for a total of $6,091.76.379 The other purchases were mounts to hang the TVs on the wall, with a grand total for all gear coming to less than $18,000. That would have left almost $18,000 left over and a lot of questions about whether or not the State Department (or any other part of government) is a smart shopper.
Museum With 44 Annual Visitors Gets Funding for Bug Storage (Raleigh, NC)
What's the best way to save an insect collection, promote a haiku contest, and produce bug baseball cards, all at once? Piece o' cake! A grant to the North Carolina State University Insect Museum. NCSU museum trumpets itself as an "internationally recognized resource for the study of insects and mites in North Carolina, the Southeastern United States, and, in several insect groups, the world."
Because the Museum has practically no public presence (it averages 44 visitors annually), it has earmarked part of the money for promotional efforts. Happily it is not entirely unacquainted with the concept of PR; the museum has hosted the annual Hexapod Haiku Challenge every March on its blog for the last three years.
In 2008, the Insect Museum made a bid for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Biological Research Collections grant, which the NSF rebuffed. But, based on the same proposal, the NSF awarded the Museum $253,123439 in stimulus funds the next year for new cabinets, drawers, and units for its specimen, along with a new server and software. Using stimulus funds, the Museum has inaugurated an "Insect of the Week" series on its web site and plans a brick-and-mortar presence at the Yates Mill Pond County Park. For the yearly BugFest festival, the Museum plans to design and distribute "packs of baseball-style cards featuring North Carolina's native and fascinating insects. An image of the insect will be printed on the front, with statistics and information on the back. This effort will help raise awareness of how insects contribute to our lives (focusing on positive contributions [does that mean no cockroach card? – ed]) and why natural history collections are critical to understanding and documenting biodiversity trends."
There's an App for That: Stimulus Funds for iPods (Salt Lake City, UT)
About 1,600 students at Kearns High School in Utah will get iPod Touches next school year, thanks to a federal stimulus Enhancing Education Through Technology grant. They will use the devices in class, [for school? – ed] take them home after school, and according to one giddy student, get to keep them if they graduate on-time. "I think that will be the coolest thing ever," said another student. "I think that might be a little initiative for those who are thinking of not graduating to graduate, kind of a going-away present." "Teachers will be trained to use the iPods to engage students so their attention doesn't wander."
Meteorite Hunters in Antarctica (Cleveland, OH)
In some parts of the country you have a better chance of seeing a meteor shower than getting a job (unless you're in a public sector union). For Case Western Reserve University, economic stimulus money fell out of the sky and into their lap, thereby allowing them to search Antarctica for space rocks through its Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program (ANSMET). Since 1976, "ANSMET has recovered over 17,500 meteorite specimens from locations along the Transantarctic Mountains." Unfortunately, after more than 30 years of toiling in Antarctica for meteorites, all the prime searching grounds have been picked clean. The ANSMET teams are thus driven further afield every year. Fortunately they have American taxpayers to subsidize their long walks.
Let's Polka at the International Accordion Festival! (San Antonio, TX)
The 2009 International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, Texas is the beneficiary of a $25,000 grant for an event it promised would be "simply amazing" and a "celebration of all things squeezebox."
Lucky visitors got to encounter the "hippest and most happening accordion music from around the world ... [and] enjoy performances, workshops, open mics and jam sessions on multiple stages with the finest accordionists in the planet." While the popularity of the Festival has increased over the years, it has been criticized for receiving government largesse in a time of tight budgets. In defense of the Festival, organizer Pat Jasper pushed back at what she considered to be a wrongheaded anti-accordion bias: "The expression of disdain for accordions pins [critics] for what they are, which is cultural elites." Well shame on them, Pat.
Stimulus Money to Promote the Impact of Stimulus Projects (Silver Spring, MD)
When does a federal project cross the line from self-promotion into propaganda? Palladian Partners Inc. of Silver Spring, Maryland was given $363,760 to promote the world of good being done with stimulus money by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project tasks Palladian with developing "web-based real life stories that underscore job and infrastructure creation and accelerated ARRA research findings." Indeed, concerned citizens can visit the NIH Recovery Act web site and learn about the $12.2 million stimulus grant NIH is spending on "Facebook for Scientists" and another heart-warming story on how "Researchers Pull in Big Bucks Under Recovery Act."
A Better Way to Freeze Rat Sperm
For many years, scientists have found laboratory rats to be reliable test subjects for studying human disease. One drawback, alas, is that once you put rat sperm into deep-freeze, it becomes less useful when it's thawed out again. But scientists have stumbled on an ingenious solution: study the freezing process for rat sperm. Calling it an "urgent need," researchers at the University of Missouri were awarded stimulus funds "to develop freezing protocols for epididymal rat sperm which would allow reconstitution of genetics by using standard artificial insemination and initro fertilization methods." The scientists note that "[o]ver the last few years, our laboratory has generated ample amount of data related with optimal sperm handling." Now that's what we call hands-on science. Don't forget the Kleenex.
The Wheels of the Stimulus Turn, Turn, Turn (Clearfield, PA)
Fullington Auto Bus Company is a purveyor of fine luxury tours to such destinations as Penn State football games, and has recently been the lucky winner of more than a million dollars in stimulus funding. Fullington plans to buy a brand new 57-passenger luxury bus to add to its luxury motorcoach fleet, which is already 50-strong. The new luxury bus will take its riders from Harrisburg to a handful of small burgs across the state of Pennsylvania. With its $500,000 price tag, local bus officials tout it as the "future of intercity transportation," complete with seatbelts, electrical outlets, Wi-Fi, personally controlled air vents, and closing overhead storage bins. Roughly 80 percent of the funds for the bus came from stimulus dollars doled out to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Fullington Trailways also nabbed a $1 million stimulus award from the Department of Transportation of neighboring New York, and scored anti-terrorism grants from the Department of Homeland Security in excess of $200,000 to install GPS tracking systems in all of its buses.