Thursday, November 3, 2011

7600 dollar coffee pot

Hey there,

I was reading a book called The Darwin Economy by Robert H. Frank the book has been really interesting thus far but there is this particular part that I wanted to highlight.

I guess in many countries, esp in my home country, Malaysia, people look at the government and might think how corrupted it must be. How much money must have been wasted in unnecessary spending. I remember when I was much younger, my mum pointed at a lamp post and asked me to guess how much it costs the government to erect one of those. I cant remember the number exactly but it was something vulgar. She then said, just imagine how much XYZ politician pocketed.

Anyways, this part of the book was talking about government spending. A man pointed out that the government should receive less tax dollars and less funding because of how inefficient they are at spending the money. He then quoted that the American Government paid 7600 dollars for a coffee pot and 640 dollars for toilet seats. I think those numbers then became ammunition for right wing people to campaign for tax cuts and so on.

When I read that, I immediately though, what a complete waste of money? Yeah, thats pretty bad, government spending must be controlled.. etc. For some reason, that is just what we (or I) assume, there is this perception that government is slow and inefficient. Which is true to a certain extent I guess. Private corporations are more inclined to make faster decisions if it brings them greater profits.

What I found interesting is what you find when the author digs deeper. That same guy who pointed out the expensive coffee pot and toilet seats also exchanged a few emails with someone that reads:
I was at Lockheed when the infamous coffee pot story surfaced.
Airplanes have two types of power: 28 volts, direct current; and 115 volts; alternating current, 400 Hz. The coffee pot had to be designed to run on the 400 Hz power, which made it completely different from your kitchen version. 400 Hz is used because it makes motors and things smaller and lighter than 60 Hz versions. The lifetime cost of every pound of airplane weight is enormous, given that fuel must be provided to carry it everywhere for 40 years or so. So this is a sensible economic decision. The next thing to remember is that the C5 (airplane in question) total production run is only about 120 units, so development costs have little in the denominator. Finally everything on an airplane must be tested to be sure it will work under military conditions and wont start a fire or something. These tests usually include MIL STD 810 Environmental Testing. This includes shock, vibration, high/low temp, and so on.

So now with the explanation that the coffee pots are specially designed for military plane use, does the spending make more sense? Naturally for me, the next question that popped in my head was, why cant the military just use instant coffee while airborne?

But I thats not the point of this post. I’m just typing this out to remind us that things are not always what they seemed. Some things can look completely stupid at first but when you give it some time and think about it, it might actually turn out to be the rational thing to do, vice versa.