Ask anyone who’s ever worked in the public sector: With a never-ending stream of taxpayer money and no competition in sight, governments are a breeding ground for stupid ideas.
In fact, coming up with a list of all the idiocy that governments have inflicted on the world would be an impossible task, so let’s just narrow it down to five really stupid government ideas.
#5 – Voluntary taxation
We all know that taxation is theft, and that’s why governments invest so much time, effort and taxpayer money researching the best way to get people to actually file their theft every year. (SPOILER: The answer is “peer pressure.”)
But in 2011, a group of Congress critters tried a very different approach: The Reduce America’s Debt Now Act of 2011 would allow employees to ask their employer to deduct a portion of their salary each month to help pay down the national debt. Of course, this would all be carefully presided over by the Treasury, which would be obligated under 31 USC § 3113 to put the money toward paying down the government debt…because the government can clearly be trusted to uphold the letter of the law.
People voluntarily paying more taxes because the government tells them it’ll help pay down the national debt? That’s stupid enough. But here’s the kicker: these voluntary donations to the government trough wouldn’t even be tax deductible. Those poor souls who fell for the scam would in fact be paying taxes on their gift to the Government Sachs workers over at the Treasury.
The best thing that can be said about this remarkably stupid idea is that it hasn’t been implemented…yet. The bill was shunted off into committee where it was never heard from again.
But they actually did try voluntary taxes in Norway this year. In June, the government bought its own propaganda and started allowing all those citizens who just love paying their theft the chance to pay even more!
“The tax scheme was set up to allow those who want to pay more taxes to do so in a simple and straightforward way,” Finance Minister Siv Jensen said at the time. “If anyone thinks the tax level is too low, they now have the chance to pay more.”
The result? The country of 5.3 million people raised a whopping…$1,325.
#4 – Studying the Mating Habits of Japanese Quail on Cocaine
We’ve all heard about wasteful government spending projects, but some of the pork, abuse and sheer stupidity that gets slipped into funding bills and research grants is beyond comprehension.
Since 2010, the National Institutes of Health has been providing an average of $175,000 a year to a researcher at the University of Kentucky to research the mating habits of Japanese quail…while high on cocaine. Thankfully we are assured that this very serious research is all vitally important for understanding risky sexual behavior in general.
How about the $331,000 National Science Foundation grant to study how likely “hangry” spouses were to stab a voodoo doll of their partner with pins? (Money quote from rival researchers: “it might be a big leap to interpret the results with voodoo dolls as indicating risk for actual physical aggression against a spouse.”) But don’t worry, the money went to a good place: a previous Ig Nobel Prize recipient.
Or there’s always the $169,423 that the NIH provided a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher to study “Water pipe tobacco smoking among university students in Jordan.”
After all, where would the world be without government-funded studies of water pipe tobacco smoking among university students?
#3 – Nuking the Moon
No, that isn’t a clever metaphor or witty bit of word play. In 1958 the US Air Force approached researchers at the Armour Research Foundation to look into the feasibility of literally nuking the moon.
The idea, according to the head of the once-top-secret but now-declassified project (“A Study of Lunar Research Flights“), was essentially to say nah-nah-nah-boo-boo to the Sputnik-launching Soviet Union. “It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth.”
Among the people consulted on the project: Carl Sagan. In fact, the entire plan was only brought to light in 1999 when Sagan’s biographers discovered he had (illegally) leaked details of the then-classified program on his application for a prestigious Berkeley graduate fellowship.
Thankfully, the idea was shelved and the Dr. Strangeloves in the Air Force gave up on their dream of seeing a nuclear meteor shower. At least the Soviets weren’t stupid enough to come up with such a crazy idea, am I right?
Oh, wait, they did. Their project was called E-4 and went along the lines of: “How can we prove we went to the moon? I know! Let’s nuke it!” Luckily their plan, too, was shelved, when it was determined that in order for the world’s observatories to witness the explosion they’d have to be informed of it in advance, and no one could figure out how best to do that.
#2 – The Tsar Tank
Ever heard of the Tsar Tank? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that. Although the name “Tsar Tank” (and even it’s nickname “The Bat”) brings to mind a ferocious, armor-plated, nuclear equipped fighting vehicle ready to inflict a world of hurt on all would-be opponents, the actual tank in question was just about the least intimidating thing ever to roll out on a battlefield. Built in WWI and described as a “monstrous backwards-facing tricycle,” this ‘tank’ was essentially a gun carriage on wheels.
Two ridiculously large front wheels create the backwards tricycle effect, and it carried a crew of ten soldiers who operated two gun turrets and some machine gun pods. The Bat was a rather bloated beast: designed to be 40 tons and with a top speed of 17km/h, it actually weighed in at 60 tons and could barely reach 8 km/h. As its name would suggest, the behemoth’s development was personally funded by Tsar Nicholas II who was duly impressed by an early prototype, but it failed to live up to expectations; the first battle-ready tank got permanently stuck as soon as its tiny rear wheel hit broken ground and the whole project was abandoned.
But that was WWI. Of course there must have been wacky, useless, poorly-designed ideas that were being thrown around left and right. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in modern militaries, does it? Oh boy, does it!
Take the Littoral combat ship, aka the “Warship of the Future.” It was envisioned as an all-in-one naval vehicle that would use interchangeable modules, helicopters, sea drones and missiles to complete missions ranging from ocean surface combat to anti-mine and anti-submarine operations. Five years and $37 billion later, the Navy got…a dud. The modules don’t work, it can’t take so much as a single hit without sinking, and each floating duck clocks in at a striking $440 million.
Still, the Littoral is not even the priciest dud in the annals of US military history. The winner of that prize goes to the Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 debacle is so legendary it will be taught as the prime example of military stupidity for generations to come. The program was approved in 2007 and already by 2010 things were going very, very wrong. The project was already two and a half years behind schedule at that point and the price per jet had ballooned 50 percent, smashing through a key containment threshold and forcing a thorough overview of the program. In a classic example of the sunken cost fallacy, the DOD doubled down on their insanity and decided the program was now “too big to kill.” $1.5 trillion and multiple, system-critical failures later, the Air Force is pretending not to regret that decision.
#1 – Animals as Weapons
Maybe you heard the story a few years ago about the military attack dolphins. You know, the elite squadron of dolphin assassins that apparently swam away from their Ukrainian military handlers during training exercises (“to mate with wild dolphins” a former Soviet naval officer speculated to RIA Novosti). You might have also heard those denials from the Ukrainian military that came out later and had your mind put at ease in the knowledge that there were no armed and dangerous cetaceans on their way to a beach near you. But still…
The Soviets actually did train dolphins for military purposes, including naval rescues or underwater mine detection. Apparently, in 2000 a squadron of specially trained killer attack dolphins were sold to Iran. (No word yet on when the US media is going to start hyping the newest existential threat of jihadi dolphins.) Not to be outdone, the US has its own military dolphin program which it runs under its Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. In 2003 it was admitted that the dolphins had been deployed in Iraq and in 2007 it was revealed that the dolphins had been “trained to alert human handlers to potential terrorists.”
But for those who fear that the military couldn’t think up anything more insane than attack dolphins, never fear: the government never met an animal it didn’t think could be weaponized!
Bat bombs? Yup. Back in WWII the American military thought it would be a good idea to drop bats with time-delay bombs strapped to them on Japanese cities. Up to 1000 bats could be dropped in specially made carriers that would descend softly to the earth with parachutes. The bats would escape and roost in Japanese buildings before blowing up, setting the Japanese wood-constructed cities on fire. In the end the Air Force realized it was much easier to just firebomb the cities directly, leading to one of the worst war crimes in human history including the infamous firebombing of Tokyo that killed nearly 100,000 people in one night.
Cat guided missiles? You better believe it. You can’t argue with the project designer’s logic, though. Cats don’t like water, thus they would attempt to guide the missile toward any ships in the area. What could go wrong? Cat lovers shouldn’t worry, though; B.F. Skinner had a much better idea: pigeon guided missiles!
So next time you are tempted to think of the government as a fearsome, all-powerful, all-knowing, coolly-calculating controller of world events, just remember: it’s mostly populated by ridiculous, incompetent, half-sane, bumbling morons. This may not be good news, but it’s at least somewhat more heartening than the idea that they are all evil geniuses. And hey, if we can’t laugh at them what can we do?