Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R) is the rare Republican these days who is willing to argue that cutting defense spending is not only feasible, but important. To that end, he recently published a report identifying nearly $70 billion in wasteful spending from the defense budget. Many of the items make his GOP colleagues who believe the defense budget is sacrosanct and untouchable look incredibly foolish. A quick run-down:
- The 100-Year Starship Project: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent more than $1 million to "foster a rebirth of wonder" and to make space travel to other solar systems feasible in the next century. To that end, the agency paid $100,000 to sponsor a strategy workshop in September featuring a session called "Did Jesus die for Klingons, too?" on the theological threat to Christianity that the discovery of life on other planets might pose. A related conference devoted to the future of space travel included a workshop on "what intersteller explorers might wear." (Hint: Not polos and khakis.) The event featured an "intergalatic gala" for which attendees were asked to come in "starship cocktail attire."
- Caffeine Zone 2: The Office of Naval Research supplied funds to Penn State University researchers who developed a smart phone app designed to "help people manage their caffeine consumption to suit their lifestyles." Coburn notes that two such phone apps already exist without the help of military financing.
- Beef Jerky Roll-ups: The Defense Department invested $1.5 million to develop a new twist on beef jerky. The savory snack is designed to be more like a "fruit roll-up" than a Slim Jim, and to double as a sandwich filling if necessary. Coburn notes that the private beef jerky market has no shortage of products that the department might use, and that the jerky industry is thriving without the help of taxpayer dollars.
- "Does this caulk gun make me look taller?": The US Air Force paid $680,000 to fund research on whether men were perceived as taller when they were holding a pistol than if they were simply wielding a caulk gun, paint brush or a power drill. Answer: Yes.
- The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute: Remember those old screen savers from SETI that supposedly tracked the search for life in outer space? Based in Berkeley (of course), SETI amassed a huge array of telescopes that scanned the skies for "electromagnetic signals that could hint at the presence of an intelligent alien civilization." In 2011, SETI went dark for lack of, well, finding anything interesting and lack of funding. Thank heavens the Air Force stepped in! According to Coburn, the Air Force saved SETI from extinction with a $2 million infusion of funds to see if the SETI telescopes might supplement the country's existing search for aliens.
Coburn's report, called "Department of Everything," is useful in poking holes in Republican arguments that the Defense Department should be spared a single dollar of cuts lest national security collapse entirely. But it's also sort of a sad testament to the way the nation's budgeting process has gone wildly awry. All sorts of domestic needs that are starved for funding—everything from medical research (Coburn finds DoD funding breast and prostate cancer research) to alternative energy development to paleoentology—have found their way into the defense budget because that's the only place Congress is willing to spend money these days.