The Moroccan Pottery Distraction

And you laughed at the proverbial college course in “advanced basket weaving.” How about “impossible-to-replicate pottery techniques”… at your expense?

In 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development undertook the task of improving Morocco’s economic competitiveness.

Key to the plan: a training program for Moroccans to create and design pottery, led by an American instructor. Never mind that Moroccans have successfully made pottery on their own for centuries.

“Unfortunately,” reads our copy of Wastebook 2012, “the translator hired for the sessions was not fluent in English and was unable to transmit large portions of the lectures to the participants.” Worse, the dyes and clay used by the instructor can’t be bought in Morocco.

Cost to U.S. taxpayers: $27 million.

The Wastebook is an annual compendium of such outrages, compiled by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). And helps kick off one of our favorite episodes of The 5 Min. Forecast every year.

On the government dime, the Wastebook continues, researchers at two California universities sought to learn how rattlesnakes would react to the presence of mechanical squirrels.

RoboSquirrel 1.0, complete with wagging tail…

Using part of a $325,000 National Science Foundation grant, the researchers created RoboSquirrel — “a taxidermied actual squirrel that is stored with live squirrels so it smells real. The body and tail are heated with copper wiring, so the snake can see the squirrel’s heat signature as if it were real. The tail is controlled by a linear servo motor that makes it wag back and forth.”

In the field, the researchers found rattlesnakes reacted to RoboSquirrel as if it were the genuine article — and thus did not attack when RoboSquirrel wagged its tail.

We’re not sure what useful insights were gleaned from this groundbreaking research. Nor are the scientists themselves, judging by their final report.

Still… the work must go on. They’re already building other robot mammals.

If you golf, you’ll be interested to know that researchers at Purdue University used part of a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant to come to a not-so-stunning conclusion: Visualization helps improve your game.

Take it to heart. If you “imagine” a bigger hole, you have a better chance at making a putt. Or as the scientists put it, “Perceived increase in target size will boost confidence in one’s abilities.”

And grant subsidies, apparently.

“Some of our favorites,” writes the DC Decoder, an insider blog, “include $10,000 for talking urinal cakes in Michigan (to fight drunken driving), $142,000 for a Department of Transportation grant offering free bus rides to Super Bowl attendees in Indianapolis, $25,000 for the Alabama Watermelon Queen to tour the state to promote her prized crop, just under $50,000 for Smokey Bear hot-air balloon rides…”

To that list we might include the:

* $1.6 million NASA spent to develop video games to enhance the space agency’s cool factor among nerds… after scuttling the Space Shuttle program.

* $300,000 spent by the USDA to promote consumption of caviar… likely among their own staff, we are left to presume. What better fish egg tasters could there be, after all?

* A half-million bucks used to help develop pet shampoos… $1 million to taste foods destined for the planet Mars… $2 million more in financial assistance provided to upscale cupcake bakers…

The Wastebook documents $18 billion in such grants, exemptions and programs.

Here’s the “unfortunate but true”-ism… as much as “waste, fraud and abuse” stoke the ire of voters… $18 billion is only one half of one percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget.

Half a percent.

You could eliminate every one of these goofy programs and still be left with 98.2% of last year’s $1 trillion deficit.


The irony. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also released its latest “World Economic Outlook” this week.

Relative to annual economic output, the U.S. national debt is on par with four out of five PIIGS countries.

Not even big enough to make Coburn’s book, the U.S. Department of Transportation is funneling $275,000 to police agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the better to stop the “plague” of driving-while-texting.

“In order to more accurately identify and effectively stop the dangerous practice of texting behind the wheel,” wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday, “the demonstration grants announced today call for Connecticut and Massachusetts to develop anti-texting enforcement protocols and techniques such as using stationary patrols, spotters on overpasses on elevated roadways and roving patrols.”

Never mind that traffic deaths fell between 1995-2009, despite an eightfold increase in the number of cellphone subscribers and an overall increase in miles driven.

“Guess what happens,” Addison writes in his latest forecast, “when all these little interventions start to pile up. Guess what happens when you roll over and accept what bureaucrats do.

“I’ll give you a hint — you create the ultimate form of job security. Not for us, obviously… but for them. The more decisions we cede to the authorities, the less we’re able to make decisions for ourselves..”

Dave Gonigam