What, would you say, is the worst waste of taxpayer money we've seen in recent years? Maybe that $6.6 billion in cash -- yes, pallets full of bricks of $100 bills -- that went missing in Iraq? (Or maybe the whole Iraq War, but whatever.) Nah, it's a $16 muffin.
If you've been paying attention to the news since yesterday, you've heard of this muffin. The Justice Department's inspector general did a report on spending at the department's conferences, and found that they were paying seemingly ridiculous amounts for food. So how much did taxpayers get fleeced? Well, it's hard to say. The IG only looked at 10 conferences, to determine if there was a larger problem. They said that the department spent $73.3 million on conferences in 2009. Let's go nuts and say that three out of every four dollars, muffin-related and otherwise, was wasted. That means $55 million of waste in a year.
That number is just a guess, of course, but it's probably something of that magnitude. Of course, waste is always bad, and this problem should be solved. But is this big news? Oh, you bet it is. It was on TV, it was in the papers, it was all over the Web. Last night at 10 p.m., I searched Google News, and got 443 results for "Justice Department" with "muffin" in the prior 24 hours. But guess what? There actually was no $16 muffin. The number came from a misleading bit of math the IG report does with one of the conference bills.
Look, I'm not naive. I realize that individual, concrete, vivid examples like a $16 muffin, even an apocryphal one, will always be more compelling to the narrative needs and desires of journalists than larger, more systemic problems. It's true now, just as it was true in the 1980s with the Defense Department's $600 hammer (also a myth, as it turns out). And maybe the coverage that the muffin gets will actually spur agencies to be more careful about making sure they aren't overpaying for things like conferences. But that sure isn't where the real problems are. That $6.6 billion in $100 bills we somehow misplaced in Iraq? That's 412,500,000 muffins.