The NTIA’s $650 million outreach program

Hang on to your wallets; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is about to become law. This mammoth, 258-page bill makes all other government spending look like peanuts.

I downloaded the monster bill to read a few pages. The first topic I searched for was the DTV conversion process. Yep, the politicians have got that covered. Here’s what the ARRA bill says about DTV funding (on page 47):


Notwithstanding any other provision of law, and in addition to amounts otherwise provided in any other Act, for costs associated with the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Program, $650,000,000, to be available until September 30, 2009: Provided, That these funds shall be available for coupons and related activities, including but not limited to education, consumer support and outreach, as deemed appropriate and necessary to ensure a timely conversion of analog to digital television.

That’s it! These 71 words result in the spending of $650 million. That’s almost $10 million per word.

The most noticeable part of the bill’s specificity is the absolute lack of it. NTIA is given more than (another) $0.5 billion, and the only thing NTIA has to do is educate, support and outreach. I’d hope you could do a whole lot of those three things for that amount of money.

I once worked at a university that knew exactly how to fund itself with Federal grant money. It was the university’s policy to keep the first 25 percent of any government grant before it was passed on to the researcher’s department. So, for example, if a professor received a grant for $200,000, she would actually only get $150,000. The university kept the other $50,000 as an administrative fee.

That’d be like your company paying you $10,000 a month and the IRS keeping half of it. Oops, that already happens.

But, you get the picture. Government programs never give the recipient all of the money. The agencies keep much of it for themselves. Most of the $650 million will never actually be spent on coupons, and instead it will go to cover Washington, D.C., administrative fees and "outreach." I think the mafia calls this practice skimming.

The most recent research I’ve seen says that about 8.8 million households have yet to convert to DTV. That means over the next nine months, Uncle Sam is going to spend $74 per household just to give them a $40 coupon. For that kind of money, we could give every one of these home owners the biggest, most high-tech home theater you ever saw!

Isn't there a cheaper way to hand out free money?