(This is a satirical skit that I wrote some time ago, but it is likely to become relevant again as the government begins spending its multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages. Setting of the skit: The Head Honcho’s secretary discovers why government-procured items cost so much.)
A crisis erupted when the Head Honcho’s personal secretary announced that the Senator’s office had run out of paperclips. Long ago, this was easily remedied by issuing a purchase requisition authorizing a buyer to procure more. Unfortunately, the government had instituted severe purchasing controls to prevent fraud, abuse, discrimination, and environmental damage.
The government paper clip buyer took to heart the controls, which stipulated that a detailed specification was needed to make sure the product complied with all government regulations. Should the clips be one or two inches long? Should they be blue, pink, or metallic? Should they be bare or plastic coated? What demographic group could be threatened by the product? Would the product contribute to climate change? The buyer dutifully notified the Honcho’s secretary that he couldn’t fulfill her requisition without a comprehensive specification defining all of these paperclip attributes.
Unfortunately, the Honcho’s secretary didn’t know how to write detailed specifications, particularly for ordinary paperclips. Fortunately, a secretary who worked in the Pentagon suggested consulting with military technocrats, who were adept at specifying intricate acquisitions for things such as nuclear weaponry.
The Pentagon technocrats were eager to develop the specifications for the government’s paperclips. The mere mention of the Head Honcho, who chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was sufficient to get design engineers immediately reassigned from the latest missile project to the Paperclip Project. The Pentagon wanted to impress the Senator with their technical wizardry to guarantee a continued torrent of funds to develop weapons capable of deterring any enemies contemplating attacking mainland America.
To fund the effort, a special appropriation was hustled through Congress. The legislators assumed that when the Pentagon needed money for a project of vital strategic importance, it meant national security was at stake, as opposed to the job security of technocrats in the military-industrial complex. The code name Paperclip Project also misled Congress into believing that a substantial “black budget” effort was behind this innocuous moniker.
With the $500 million dollar appropriation, the Pentagon assembled a crack team of engineers who evaluated every design consideration. For example, the paperclips needed to be durable in order to avoid the expense of continually replacing them and to avoid the environmental damage from discarded clips ending up in landfills. Therefore, the engineers specified the rare metal Unobtainium, which has extraordinary tensile strength and resistance to corrosion. Unfortunately, its melting point is one million degrees centigrade, so the smelting process requires nuclear fusion.
Standard paperclips are either one or two inches long. However, the ergonomic engineers at the Pentagon determined that a paperclip 1 3/4 inches long provided the optimum balance between paper gripping surface and ease of handling. In order to prevent electrostatic discharge near sensitive computers, the clips had to be coated with conductive paint. They had to be magnetized to adhere to metals, and have a pH factor of 7 to prevent skin inflammation. According to OSHA standards, they also had to be weightless, to prevent back strain and carpal tunnel syndrome. Fortunately, weightlessness could be achieved by using the Pentagon’s top-secret anti-gravity rays.
The paperclips had to be gray in order to avoid discrimination lawsuits, since any other color would be construed by minority groups as a racial slur. They also had to be usable by physically challenged employees, so they were specified with miniature motors and rotors controlled by microcircuits able to react to voice commands.
When the design effort was completed, the engineers applauded their accomplishment. In the grand tradition of the military industrial complex, another product had been developed that was going to cost 411 times its budget and be impossible to manufacture. As colossal bundles of money fell into very deep pockets, the Pentagon delivered the paperclip specification to the Head Honcho’s secretary.
Now the procurement phase of the Paperclip Project could begin. Three competitive bids had to be obtained from qualified manufacturers, with the contract to be awarded to the lowest bidder who could perform to the specifications. However, the contract was actually awarded to the firm that enticed the purchasing agent with the best alcohol, prostitutes, and kickbacks. An unsuccessful bidder filed a lawsuit challenging the contract award, on the grounds that it was physically and morally impossible for paperclips to cost $3 billion per box, which was the winning bid. The lawsuit was thrown out because the secretary of the presiding judge had recently procured thumbtacks that cost even more. The judge concluded that this was the going price for government paper fasteners.
Despite being paid $3 billion per box, the winning bidder experienced staggering cost overruns because the design specifications did indeed prove to be impossible to manufacture. Early models kept failing the prescribed tests. The dust test, in which a paperclip was subjected to a desert sandstorm, was particularly troublesome. Sand kept gumming up the miniature motors and rotors, so the clip didn’t respond to voice commands. Worse still, the handicapped people giving the voice commands got their vocal cords gummed up by the ferocious sandstorms. The manufacturer went through 26 prototype paperclips and 11 handicapped people before passing this test.
The environmental stress tests were also difficult. Since paperclips might be used in Alaska or Saudi Arabia, they had to survive temperatures ranging from -40 degrees to 150 degrees. The paperclips themselves had no trouble operating in these thermal extremes. Unfortunately, the test operators weren’t quite as durable. The first tests resulted in 14 hypothermia victims and 17 heat stroke victims. This problem was corrected by using dummies from the Education Department as testers.
The final hurdle was the nuclear survival test, in which a five-megaton warhead was dropped on a paperclip. The Unobtainium clip survived the explosion. However, technicians suspected the test was flawed, because no other product had ever survived. For a more controlled test, a human holding a paper clip was placed at a desk on the test range. Another warhead was detonated. The control group, which consisted of the human and the desk, was obliterated by the blast, while the Unobtainium paperclip was unscathed. After examining the results, the technicians agreed the paperclip had indeed survived a legitimate nuclear test.
The manufacturing process was sophisticated and expensive. The smelter for the raw Unobtainium was a nuclear fusion reactor, with a core temperature of one million degrees maintained by four million-volt lasers focused on a plasma concocted of quarks and mesons. The cost to train the production workers was astronomical, because the manufacturer was required by its union contract to train existing workers rather than hire nuclear experts to operate the smelter. Their learning curve led to many errors, including a Chernobyl-like meltdown.
Mining the raw Unobtainium was even more difficult. Unobtainium is found in a single deposit deep within the earth’s mantle, directly below a habitat of the extremely endangered reticulated aardvark. The manufacturer had to do an expensive environmental impact study before drilling for the Unobtainium ore. They simulated the drilling process in a laboratory cage containing male and female reticulated aardvarks. During the simulation, the Endangered Species Commission carefully monitored vital signs and reproductive activity. The only appreciable effect the drilling had on the animals was to stimulate fornication by creating a suggestive thought in the erotic lobe of the male’s brain. The Endangered Species Commission reluctantly approved full-scale mining, and then moved on to prosecute a beachcomber for leaving a footprint in a protected sand dune along Lake Michigan.
Despite these hardships, the manufacturer eventually produced the paperclips. After four train loads of regulatory paperwork, $16 billion dollars of cost overruns, and the deaths of 43 unwitting test administrators, the paperclips were delivered to the secretary of the Head Honcho.
In the meantime, the government had gone paperless by converting all of their transactions and documents to being online. The billions of dollars of now-obsolete paperclips were then stored in a government warehouse that was guarded around the clock, in perpetuity, because of the value of the assets inside.
(Written by James Keena, author of the new novel “2084: American Apocalypse”, available on Amazon).