Government Waste

Rand Paul: Feds Wasted $52 Billion on Slot Machine-Playing Pigeons, COVID Aid, Afghanistan, and More

No wonder the federal budget is so out of whack.


Researchers at Oregon's Reed College are hoping to learn about the behavioral economics that drive gambling addictions in humans by teaching pigeons how to play slot machines.

And federal taxpayers are paying for it.

Thanks to a $465,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), those researchers plan to teach pigeons to use "a monetary-like currency" to "decide whether to earn, accumulate, spend, or gamble tokens in a self-contained economic environment." Even though the grant application admits that "the focus of this research is on laboratory models rather than practical application," the NIH decided to shower taxpayer money on the birdbrained experiment.

That's one of the more eye-popping examples of federal waste included in the annual "Festivus Report"—a nod to the Seinfeld holiday that coincides with Christmas and includes an "airing of grievances"—published Wednesday by Sen. Rand Paul's (R–Ky.) office. Unfortunately, it's also one of the least costly items among the dozens that make the $52 billion list.

Right at the top of the list, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul notes the estimated $36 billion in misallocated unemployment payments—though some experts say the final tally could be as high as $400 billion. There's also $4.3 billion in wasted COVID relief funds delivered through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was intended to keep employees on payrolls during COVID-related shutdowns. Again, the amount of fraud that's been uncovered so far—including high-profile incidents like the Florida man who bought a Lamborghini sports car with PPP funds—is probably only the "tip of the iceberg," according to Paul's report.

Not included in Paul's report is another eye-popping number that became known this week, when the Secret Service reported that more than $100 billion of COVID relief funds have been stolen from various programs by scammers and organized criminal efforts.

America's drawn-out (and finally, thankfully, ended) military misadventure in Afghanistan has long been full of terrible spending decisions. This year, it accounted for more than $3.8 billion in wasted funds, according to Paul's report, including $549 million for planes that never flew, $88 million for farm irrigation systems that were barely used, and $2.4 billion for buildings that are either abandoned, unused, or already destroyed.

That final item is drawn from a recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) investigation, which found that "just 4.4 percent of U.S. funded building projects were being used and maintained in good condition." Despite spending a literal fortune on building projects in Afghanistan since 2001, the SIGAR analysis found that 61 percent of U.S.-built structures "had exterior structural damage" while 56 percent "had interior structural damage" and 55 percent had electrical issues. Nation building: What could go wrong?

But Paul's report makes clear that the U.S. government doesn't have to invade other countries to find ways to waste public dollars.

Among the most outlandish items is a $2.4 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant meant to fund the creation of movies that will "inspire" children to have an interest in dinosaurs. As if dinosaurs weren't already incredibly popular with kids, and as if Hollywood wasn't already spending many, many times that amount on dinosaur-centric films.

The NSF spent another $2.8 million, according to Paul's report, on a three-hour television program about the season of spring—something most Americans could experience for themselves by simply going outside, or by tuning in to any of the many nature documentaries that are readily available already.

Whether wasted because Congress authorized grant programs with little oversight or because scammers created fake accounts to score unlawful bailouts, every misappropriated dollar should be a warning to those who see higher taxes as the solution to America's problems. If you don't like how Elon Musk spends his money, just wait until you see how his $11 billion tax bill is put to use by the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

And if all this bad news about wasted public money makes you sad, well, maybe you should have signed up for the National Institute on Aging's recent $1.3 million study into how good news and bad news affect people's emotions. After all, you paid for it.