NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 20, 2009

In a recent story, the New York Times reports some of the more controversial ways in which state and local government are using so-called federal "stimulus" dollars.  If anything, it provides some interesting background on the history of the word boondoggle (not surprisingly, it entered the American lexicon during the New Deal), says Tad DeHaven, of the Cato Institute.

For example, one person's boondoggle is another person's:

  • $14.7 million new airport on an Alaskan island that averages only 42 flights a month.
  • Half-million dollar new skateboard park in unemployment-ravaged Rhode Island.
  • $3.4 million fencing and tunnels to keep Florida turtles from becoming road kill.

Before it became a bad word, boondoggle was an innocent, humble craft.  But that all changed on April 3, 1935:

  • At a hearing in New York City on how New Deal relief money was being spent, a Brooklyn crafts teacher reluctantly testified that he was paid to show the jobless how to make "boon doggles," a braided ring used to hold a neckerchief, particularly in scouting.
  • The outcry was swift and a new, more sinister meaning was born -- the word came to signify government make-work, later referring to wasteful government projects in general.

Of course, none of these projects are likely to stimulate much in the way of new, long-term economic activity, a goal of the federal stimulus plan.  However, in the politicized world of the congressional sausage making, costs scarcely factor into the equation given that the burden is borne by million of taxpayers spread out across the country, says DeHaven.

Therefore, the few in Congress who crusade against these perceived boondoggles should spend more time trying to educate their colleagues and the public on the need to limit the federal government's ability to spend the money in the first place.

Source: Tad DeHaven, "Stimulus and Boondoggles," Cato At Liberty (Cato Institute), August 18, 2009; based upon: Michael Cooper, "One Person's Boondoggle, Another's Necessity," New York Times, August 17, 2009.

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