What Real Government Waste Looks Like

When it was discovered that the General Services Administration spent nearly a million dollars on a lavish conference in Las Vegas, the outrage thundered through Washington like a roiling tsunami. Congressional hearings were quickly organized, the scandal led the news every night for days, and you couldn't turn on a television or radio without hearing more horrifying details. The public trust was betrayed! Our tax dollars were wasted! Government was out of control! Yeah, maybe. But in the end, the whole thing was about $823,000, or .00004 percent of the federal budget for 2011. You want to talk real government waste? Get a load of the F-35 joint strike fighter:

Although the plane was originally billed as a low-cost solution, major cost increases have plagued the program throughout the last decade. Last year, Pentagon leadership told Congress the acquisition price had increased another 16 percent, from $328.3 billion to $379.4 billion for the 2,457 aircraft to be bought. Not to worry, however -- they pledged to finally reverse the growth...

A final note on expense: The F-35 will actually cost multiples of the $395.7 billion cited above. That is the current estimate only to acquire it, not the full life-cycle cost to operate it. The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion -- making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain. And that estimate is wildly optimistic: It assumes the F-35 will only be 42 percent more expensive to operate than an F-16, but the F-35 is much more complex. The only other "fifth generation" aircraft, the F-22 from the same manufacturer, is in some respects less complex than the F-35, but in 2010, it cost 300 percent more to operate per hour than the F-16. To be very conservative, expect the F-35 to be twice the operating and support cost of the F-16.

Read that again: Buying and operating this plane is optimistically expected to cost $1.5 trillion. That's trillion. With a "T." Or to put it another way, that's 1,822,600 extravagant GSA conferences. And if the F-35 was such a spectacular system that it ensured the safety of every American man, woman and child for the next 50 years, it might be worth it. But the plane is plagued with problems; the author of that piece, Winslow Wheeler, calls it "a gigantic performance disappointment," and that's a conclusion shared by many people who know a lot more about this than I do.

I'm not saying the GSA thing shouldn't have been exposed and condemned. It should have. Taxpayer money shouldn't be wasted, no matter how small the amounts involved are. But the biggest government waste often occurs in the areas that the anti-government crowd never wants to talk about when they talk about government waste.

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