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Goofy Stimulus Projects Have Real Value

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Posted on Nov 5, 2009
Flickr / lucianvenutian

One person’s port-a-potty is another’s job creation box.

Don’t be fooled by stimulus critics who cite expenditures such as the “electric fish orchestra” (actually an educational demonstration of a larger project related to robotics and prosthetics) or trips to resorts (to train special-ed teachers). “Waste,” as ProPublica reports, “is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Obama administration has cut some projects that just sound bad—freezing fish sperm, cleaning up bird droppings and the like—but sounding bad shouldn’t be the standard (and perhaps it’s not). The question is, would the supplemental freezer at the Gavin’s Point National Fish Hatchery and other purchases have generated or saved jobs?  —PZS


Among the 150,000 stimulus expenditures released last week are dozens of iPods, toilets and trips to resort hotels. But, according to the reports, those seemingly questionable purchases are being used to enhance technology in the classroom, make bathrooms accessible to the disabled and train special education teachers.

[...] The award for most unusual stimulus project could perhaps go to Malcolm MacIver, a neurobiology and engineering professor at Northwestern University.

MacIver received a $1.25 million grant to use electric fish from the Amazon to study how animals take in sensory information to move quickly in any direction. The research could help in the development of underwater robots to find the source of toxic leaks. Further in the future, it could lead to new, far more agile prosthetics.

For public outreach – a component of most National Science Foundation [6] grants – MacIver has proposed an interactive art exhibit. Sixteen species of electric fish will be arranged in sculpted fish tanks. The tanks will be connected to an amplifier that can convert the different frequencies that the fish emit into sound. Using a hacked controller from the Nintendo Wii video game system, visitors will be able to turn the amplifiers on and off, essentially conducting an orchestra.

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By lohwengk, November 12, 2009 at 5:39 pm Link to this comment

Looking at the nature of successful stimulus projects (typically in so-called 3rd world countries), what works are usually infrastructure projects - repairing old roads and bridges, building new roads/bridges, replacing old water pipes, fixing/upgrading power plants, etc. Projects like these immediately create jobs while preparing the way for future growth (or economic recovery).

While Prof. MacIver’s project is interesting and laudable, how many jobs does it provide today? From propublica’s write-up, not many.

TARP spent a lot of money that was supposed to ease credit, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well. I feel that the stimulus money would be better used to provide credit to small businesses (mom & pop stores, sole proprietorships, small partnerships) which provide employment to people in the neighborhood. Along with the infrastructure projects, this credit creation would provide the most immediate impact in creating jobs (or at least reducing further job losses).

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By sigrid, November 6, 2009 at 5:45 am Link to this comment
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I think that it is very cool that a Professor MacIver is proposing to used hacked Wii equipment to make an art project to help explain the science behind studying electric fish and the information they might provide for prosthetic limbs and toxic spill robots.  He does the name ‘MacIver’ proud.

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By Joe, November 6, 2009 at 3:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


Are you sure that the COBRA insurance is a result of the stimulus?
My quick google search suggests that it was established in 1986.

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By OldManCA, November 6, 2009 at 12:01 am Link to this comment

Part of the Stimulus went toward subsidizing medical insurance premiums for
people who were recently laid off (so called “COBRA” plans). Since both my wife
and I lost our full-time jobs in February, the subsidy (65% of the Cobra
premium picked up by the feds for 6 months) has enabled us to keep our
medical insurance. In total it has added up to a good deal more than $2600
each. That, in turn, has meant that we have been able to go to the dentist, and
our doctors, in the regular course. That put money in their pockets to spend,
etc. Unfortunately that 6 month subsidy will end this month, for us.

The idea for any economic stimulus (in my “I am not an economist” view) is to
get money flowing in the economy. Some ideas, like G. Bush’s tax rebates, end
up paying old debt, or being saved. Good things, but not a stimulus to the

The best way to think of the Stimulus: - 1) an acceleration of government
spending that ultimately would take place anyway, and 2) special spending to
reduce some of the damage caused by the rutting pigs of Wall street (think
cash for clunkers 2.85 billion, and the Cobra subsidy).

As for the Professor’s research on electric fish to “study how animals take in
sensory information to move quickly in any direction” it sounds like something
that would have been funded under a federal research grant eventually anyway.
I can see the Navy being interested in that knowledge for future torpedos or
mines. He won’t make a killing out of it if it is structured like normal
government funding academic research.

If you want to see an interesting state by state breakdown, per capita, in 17
categories see -

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By Joe, November 5, 2009 at 4:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The Stimulus (excluding the “bailouts”) was approx $787,000,000,000
Divided by approx 300 million citizens that comes out to $2,600 per person And of course that doesn’t take into account the inflation increase and the interest losses.

I think its hard to make the case that just giving everybody $2600 cash wouldn’t have worked out better

As for the defense of wasteful sounding programs given here.  It all depends doesn’t it.  If this guy you are giving money to for robotic fish would patent it for his own profit if he succeeds, then it is clearly a waste.  If the patent would go to the government its only probably a waste.

Either way to make the argument that giving this guy a million dollars is stimulus is nonsense.  I’m sure you remember when the democrats were first pitching the idea, what examples did they give for how the money would be spent?  I kept hearing things like building roads and bridges.  Which would employ massive amounts of people and at the end of the spending they would have actually built something.  My assumption is that less than 5% actually went to programs like that

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