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$16 Muffins, $600 Toilet Seats, and Other Scandals

October 29, 2011

I enjoyed this story about the rise and fall of the myth of the $16 muffin. It’s so much easier for politicians and pundits to gin up outrage about clueless, corrupt bureaucrats overpaying for breakfast than to take responsibility for the tens of million dollars a day our government squanders on wars of choice, the countless billions of added healthcare dollars levied by a strictly private system, or the trillions of dollars in added tax revenues that could be collected from corporations and the 1 percent.

My father was still alive back in the days when the scandals du jour were the $600 toilet seats and $400 wrenches that Caspar Weinberger’s Defense Department was accused of wasting its money on–the Democratic Congress’s answer to Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queens (billions for Star Wars, but not a penny for toilet seats, as I think the rallying cry went).

Though he detested all things Reagan, my father had been a civilian employee of the Army Signal Corps for many years. He’d been called before a Congressional Committee himself back in the 1950s, he told me, about a similar scandal, in which the outrage was a $10 lightbulb (I can’t remember the actual sum–it might have been more, it might have been less, but it would have seemed as exorbitant as a $16 muffin at the time). Nobody really paid $10 for a light bulb, he explained, and the grandstanding congressmen knew it too. The $10 was an accounting artifact. Just as the $16 muffin was a place-keeper for “catered breakfast divided by xx attendants” (like dividing the cost of a wedding reception by the number of guests and then assigning the dollar value to, I don’t know, a cup of fruit cocktail), the light bulb was assigned a dollar value of $10 because the contract for the piece of electronic hardware had been bid out for a flat sum. When it was delivered, they didn’t break down the price tag piece by piece, but put one price on the item, assigned everything left over to the package of “spare parts” that came with it, and divided them evenly. It might have been a stupid accounting method, but everyone involved knew that they were paying for a big package. Same with the toilet seat; same with the wrench. They didn’t go to Home Depot, buy them, and then mark them up for resale to the government.

That said, I think it’s safe to say that the government DOES overpay for all kinds of things. I don’t think it’s climbing too far out on a limb to suggest that there are individuals and corporations up and down the supply chain who steal, too. Some of the unaccounted-for cash that was sent over to Iraq for bribes and good will and other unspecified purposes probably found its way into the pockets of the people who requisitioned it, to name just one example. If men were angels, as Madison put it in Federalist # 51…

But when you see really outrageous prices reflected on official disclosure documents that not only can be audited but almost certainly will be, the likelihood is that something else is going on. Just as the fallacy in so much conspiracy theory lies in the presumption that the perpetrators would leave their signatures behind (“from years of research from this author and others into the Satanic / Illuminati / Freemason influence that is in control of these United States as well as other nations on this Earth [I can easily recognize 911] for what it really is and who’s behind it. This disaster from beginning to end is riddled with several occurrences of the occult worlds fanaticism with numerology. In this case the numbers are 9, 11 and 77″), embezzlers usually go to elaborate lengths to hide rather than advertise their existence. Not always, though, and this brings back another memory of my father.

When he was a kid, he told me, the father of a friend of his (I think he was some kind of a landlord) was solicited for a bribe by none other than Jimmy Walker. When his friend’s father said that he didn’t carry that kind of cash, the Mayor was all smiles. “A check will be fine,” he said. “Just make it out to me.” Itanimulli

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