Kyle Kashuv is Hilariously Wrong: A Fact Check on Government Waste
“A simple truth remains regarding fundamental scientific breakthroughs: Before these discoveries were made, these ideas, too, might have been considered novel or outside-of-the-box. “ - National Science Foundation, 2015
TL:DR: Once again we find that the “facts over feelz” brigade are actually using their feelings as facts.
It would seem that being horrifically inept at basic fact checking is a requirement for joining Turning Point USA (TPUSA) a conservative organisation and “student movement” designed to create the next generation of Republicans. The organisation was founded by conservative activist and professional meme maker Charlie Kirk in 2012 and claims to have over 400 campus chapters.
It would appear that Kyle Kashuv - TPUSA ‘Director of High School Outreach’ is no exception to requirement of being inept at fact checking. The first major video on his Youtube channel is not only packed with misleading and counter-factual information but - in a completely unforced self-own - also attacks key (so called) conservative values.
TPUSA has endured a number of controversies and each of its leading figureheads are controversial in their own way, Kyle Kashuv is no different. Still in his late teens Kashuv is a survivor of the tragic Parkland shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February 2018. The event catapulted him and a collection of others into the media spotlight. Unlike many of his fellow students the experience did not lead to him to lobby for stricter gun laws, instead it transformed him into a young conservative activist. Kashuv soon allied himself with TPUSA and worked hard within the organisation helping organise their Student Action Summit 2018.
Kashuv’s video is titled “Here's What Government Will Fund, But Still Not the Wall” and in it he makes the argument that a US border wall is necessary and then lists a number of foolish/mistaken/wasteful projects that he believes the federal government has funded. As usual the video obeys Brandolini’s law that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” In just 2 minutes and 20 seconds the video managed to cram in so many inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and straight up fake news that it took over 10 hours to fact check and write up.
Presented below are the results of my fact check. I have fact checked each of his claims however they are presented in a different order to the original video. It is important to note that the process was unnecessarily prolonged due to Kashuvs lack of sourcing. As a result I cannot be certain I have found all the cases he is talking about but I’ve made my best effort.
Who let the facts out?: Off by $9.8 Million
In his video Kashuv claims that the US government spent $10 million studying dog tail wagging. This is false on both the dollar amount and the behaviour being studied.
Each year the National Science Foundation (NSF) awards fellowships to 2,000 applicants out of a pool of over 16,000. Each applicant receives $138,000 over three years. This money funds the Fellows graduate education as well as providing an allowance. It does not fund a specific project. The $10 million figure is actually a rounding up of the $9.2 million given to the university of Pennsylvania to support all of its successful NSF Fellows. Only one of these students was involved in the dog behaviour research. Which brings me to my next point.
The research was not in fact studying dog tail wagging it was actually “to find more efficient ways to evaluate and train dogs as guide dogs.” Right now many guide dogs that begin training fail the course by the end. This leads to a waste of money and therefore as the NSF puts it: “improving that percentage [of successful dogs] will save money and time when it comes to training these important animals – dogs that support blind and visually impaired individuals – including the approximately 157,000 Veterans in the United States who are legally blind.” Does Kashuv not care about disabled Vets? Or about efficiency?
No Use Crying Over Broken Pottery: Off by $24.8 million
Another of Kashuv’s claims is that $27 million was spent on teaching Morrocans to make pottery. This is false and misleading.
In 2009 the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) launched a $30 million effort to improve Morocco’s economic competitiveness. The Morocco Economic Competitive Project accounted for 90% or $27 million of this. Of this $27 million roughly 8% ($2.2 million) was used for pottery training and promotion. By most accounts this training did not go massively well however as John Groarke - the Mission Director for USAID in Morocco - wrote at the time: “the quality of the pottery training is not indicative of the MEC Project’s past performance in designing, conducting, and evaluating training courses. Had the audit team examined other training offered under the MEC Project, a more complete and balanced picture would have emerged.” Whether the $2.2 million was well spent is a topic for another time however it is certainly no $27 million.
Can you Be-leave it? : Arguing Against Your Own Principles
The biggest example of government waste that Kashuv points to is the $3.1 billion spent on paying for workers on administrative leave. Unfortunately he gives neither a source nor a timeframe for this claim however I believe I have found both. Roughly $3.1 billion was the amount of money (excluding holidays) spent on administrative leave for federal employees for the fiscal years 2011-2013.
It is here that Kashuv makes two errors, one factual and one rhetorical. In fact the rhetorical one is so clear that even his own fans noted it.
The factual error Kashuv makes is in describing administrative leave by saying: “administrative leave is when you’re under investigation for misconduct. So we spent $3.1 billion paying employees currently being investigated for misconduct.” This is untrue. A quick way to disprove this to glance at the definition of administrative leave used by Office of Personnel Management (OPM) the agency responsible for managing the governments civilian workforce. An employee can be given an excused absence (another word for administrative leave) in a variety of circumstances e.g. if they wish to donate blood, take part in agency-approved volunteer activities, are dismissed due to severe weather or other emergencies, if they wish to vote, on the death of a president, or before or after a national holiday.
If you look at graphs of peaks in the amount of money being spent on administrative leave a correlation between severe weather events and national holidays is evident (see below).
All that is not to say that paying people being investigated for misconduct doesn’t make up a large proportion of that $3.1 billion, but it’s to say that it’s more complicated than Kashuv makes out. This brings us to his rhetorical error.
In the US there is a legal principle of a person being innocent until proven guilty. Conservatives are also quick to try to wave off accusations of sexual assaults with this claim - often in coordination with the lie that many allegations of sexual assault are false. If the principle of being innocent until proven guilty applies to both criminal investigations and allegations of sexual impropriety then shouldn’t it also apply in the cases of allegations of other forms of misconduct? Should we fire or suspend federal employee’s without pay at the merest hint of misconduct? Should a person's whole life be jeopardised just because of a potentially false accusation?
Even former Senator Tom Coburn the man who quite literally wrote the books (plural!) on government waste doesn’t take as hardline an approach as Kashuv writing:
“To be fair, administrative leave in select cases can sometimes be justifiable. It can also take time to fairly adjudicate situations where facts may be murky and not all employees on administrative leave are found guilty of wrongdoing. “
Kashuv’s audience picked up on this point with one Youtube comment reading:
“I agree with your general point and I find the general video to be funny but your video doesn't do a good job of making your point. If you want to invalidate the argument the wall is a waste of money you need things that are "as useless as the wall" in the eyes of your opponenets that cost 5 billion dollars. Only 1 thing you listed was close to that realm of money and a simple "innocent till proven guilty" argument invalidates that the 3 billion is a dumb expense.”
Who Cares About HIV Anyway? : Entirely Missing The Point
Kashuv actually makes two points about the government paying for research into sex workers in Asia.
The first claim is that the US government spent $2.6 million encouraging Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly. This is deeply misleading as one of the researchers noted in 2011: “There is an alcohol intervention aspect to the project, but the larger purpose is HIV study and prevention.” Put even more simply: the end goal of this programme isn’t to encourage responsible drinking in Chinese prostitutes, it is to: prevent the spread of HIV, examine the factors linked to the disease, and ultimately get closer to a cure or better preventative strategy. The effects of the study may initially be local but would radiate globally upon publication. If we want to totally eradicate HIV, this is a useful study.
Kashuv also claims the government spent $444,000 studying male prostitutes in Vietnam. This is false, they actually spent at least $1,442,515. And once again the study is aimed at eradicating HIV. As the original project description reads:
“Existing data are based on the assumption that HIV is found primarily in injection drug users and female sex workers, with only recent attention being paid to men who have sex with men. Beyond these groups, male sex workers, who may engage in sexual exchanges with men from foreign countries with high background HIV seroprevalence rates and other infections (exchanges referred to as international sex tourism), are a high-risk s heterosexual and engage in concurrent heterosexual relationships (including traditional marriage and parenting) and who, due to stigma and shame, avoid clinical care. This high-risk group is therefore a likely bridge to the larger population, and may become infected with novel subtypes of HIV and/or treatment-resistant HIV due to their sexual contact with foreign clients. Through comprehensive behavioral interviews, detailed ethnography, and state-of-the art biological tests (including tests for HIV and HCV subtypes and HIV treatment resistance), we will describe the demographic, social, and economic characteristics of the male sex worker population in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as the unique vulnerabilities associated with the onset and early social course of male sex work.”
Surprisingly male sex work isn’t limited to Vietnam - I know? Who’d have guessed? So the lessons learned here can provide useful data for researchers worldwide.
Misrepresenter? I don’t even know her! : Healthy Eating Part 1.
In his video Kashuv claims that $4.9 million was spent to dress up students in fruit costumes to encourage them to eat healthily. This is massively misleading. The $4.9 million was a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) award grant given to the University of Tennessee to help combat childhood obesity. As Tom Vilsack - the agriculture secretary at the time said: “These grants fund critical research that will help USDA and our partners implement effective strategies to support America's next generation so they can have a healthy childhood and develop healthy habits for life."
The University of Tennessee was to use the grant to create a program called “"Get Fruved:" A peer-led, train-the-trainer social marketing intervention to increase fruit and vegetable intake and prevent childhood obesity.” This program spread to a number of other campuses.
The project only actually wraps up in July 2019 and it is “an integrated approach combining research (process, formative, and outcome assessments incorporated into a theory based intervention design), education (the development and instruction of a multi-state, undergraduate health promotion course), and Extension (the development and testing of a 4-H health promotion program for students in college and high school 4-H groups led by Extension and 4-H faculty and staff).”
So far the project has already generated 81 conference papers and presentations as well as 10 journal articles. Not too shabby for a project that got students to dress up as fruit is it?
I’d also caution an organisation whose members once dressed in diapers to “own the libs” from making fun of how others dress.
Mommio, mommio, where art thou mommio? : Healthy Eating Part 2.
Kashuv also claimed that $10 million had been spent to create two video games aimed at fighting obesity. He found this very funny and questioned how video games could prevent obesity. Need I remind him that Pokemon Go, the Wii, and the Kinect exist? All these could plausibly be used to encourage exercise.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find which specific projects he’s referring to because the projects I have found only received $804,254. Perhaps he misread this as $8 million? Either way, I’d be happy to be shown which studies he is referring to.
The games that had $804,254 spent on them pointed me to some interesting research though.
The games are called Kiddio and Mommio (technically the second is just an advance on the first) and are designed to encourage healthy eating: “The hope for the game is “to give [parents] a safe, low-risk, nonthreatening way to sharpen their parenting skills,” according to one of the scientists behind ‘Kiddio: Food Fight.’” Interestingly “the developers hope to turn a profit off the smartphone video game by selling it on app stores.”
Now I agree the game sounds a bit silly but it may be useful: “Because traditional interventions to increase child vegetable intake have had little or no effect, innovative approaches are needed. Serious games provide a behavioral intervention opportunity to increase child vegetable intake, which has had a positive impact on health-related behavior change.” So while this whole idea may sound crazy perhaps this kind of blue sky thinking is necessary. Many things we now take for granted would have seemed crazy before they were tried (more on that later).
One study into using video games to aid weight loss found they helped reduce the body mass index of the children in the gaming group by about 3 percent while the control group increased their BMI by 1 percent. The children in the gaming group also had reduced cholesterol.
The $2 million intern: Do they even exist?
Kashuv claims that the United States Department of Agriculture USDA once spent $2 million on its internship programme but then hired only one intern. I spent half an hour on this claim but found no evidence of it. Kashuv is welcome to provide some. I was able to find out that as of 2018 the USDA has over 3000 interns. Perhaps the programme was too successful?
Underselling your case: Off by over $1 billion?
Kashuv claims that $175 million is spent on buildings that have been vacant for years. This appears to be untrue. The true figure is likely much higher. Likely in the billions. This is a rare area of agreement. This waste is ridiculous. Those buildings could be put too far better use, for example as housing for the homeless.
The EPA’s Millions
Kashuv claims that the EPA spent $100 million fixing a mess they created. He doesn’t actually specify what the mess is so I can’t really provide any comment. He may be referring to the water crisis in Flint Michigan, it would fit, but I don’t know for certain. I am unsure how private industry would have done better in Flint, but I’m open to hearing how.
Zoo poetry: Saving Western Civilization?
Kashuv notes that $1 million was spent on poetry in zoos to “increase environmental awareness.” I couldn’t really be bothered to research this too much, but it looks like it’s an at least somewhat accurate summary. However it is odd that someone on the side that constantly harps on about the fall of Western civilisation would be opposed to reminding people of Western culture in the form of Western poetry, but as the meme goes: that’s none of my business.
Massaging Rabbits: Easier Than Herding Cats
In his video, Kashuv claims that $387,000 was spent on studying the effects of Swedish massages on rabbits. As usual, he is wrong. It was actually $1,554,493 spent over the course of four projects. The resulting studies were actually examining a range of issues related to inflammation and the effects of massage on post-exercise recovery.
As the principle investigator said:
“If we can define the mechanism for recovery, the translation of these findings to the clinic will dictate how much massage is needed, for how long, and when it should be performed after exercise […] Our goal is to use this model to understand the biological mechanisms of massage as a guide to preclinical trials to test the effects of massage on muscle recovery after exercise, […] a trial in humans could look at optimal indications for massage. Ultimately, we could also find out how massage helps not just exercise-induced muscle injury, but swelling and pain associated with other medical conditions, as well.”
Attacking this study is a little like saying “why did we spend $x on curing cancer in mice?!” It ignores the fact that we use animal models to develop our understanding of science. Oh and for those saying “why can’t you just do the study on humans?”The answer is: because humans don’t take kindly to having their muscles mechanically damaged or being killed in the name of science.
An Extended Note on Kashuv’s (Non-Existent) Sourcing
Feel free to skip the conclusion if you’re in a rush. My fact-checking process is rarely linear. I often begin my research by examining the most ridiculous sounding claims because as a very rough rule of thumb: if the most ridiculous sounding facts are true, then the more sensible sounding ones probably are too. Conversely, if the ridiculous sounding facts are not true, then this does not bode well for the others. When I found that the most ridiculous facts were false I knew I’d be in for a long day.
Facts are easiest to check when they are sourced, but as is to be expected Kashuv doesn’t provide any sources either on Twitter or on Youtube. Most people use well known or widely reported sources when making claims, so it’s often easy to track down someones original source even if they fail to provide it. This was not the case with Kashuv. I initially struggled to locate even a single source that backed up his claims, and I’m still not sure if I’ve actually found his sources, but I can say I’ve almost certainly found the source his sources use.
The majority of Kashuv’s claims were published at one time or another in a series of “Wastebooks” which each list a number of alleged examples of federal government waste. The books were initially released by former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. Upon his retirement, several other conservative politicians released their own versions of the books. Former Senator John McCain - or more likely his intern - authored a volume called ‘Americas Most Wasted’ while former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake (notice a trend here?) authored two called “Wastebook: The Farce Awakens” and “Wastebook: PORKémon Go,” respectively.
These books did very well in Tea Party circles and were breathlessly reviewed on conservative blogs. Many of the examples they examine are to do with scientific research and badly misread or misrepresent the facts. However, they also contain completely valid examples of government waste. Unfortunately as evidenced above Kashuv chose to present more of the former. This is a shame as it undermines his whole argument.
A Brief Aside on Numbers
At a rate of 1 number per second, it would take you 11 days, 13 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds to count from one to 1,000,000. At the same rate, it would take 31.71 years to count to 1 billion. Adding up all the “crazy” projects that Kashuv mentions at the amounts he names gives you $3.4 billion. The majority of that comes from the $3.1 billion spent on administrative leave over 2 years, and even Kashuv’s fans agree that including that number was wrong. In the context of the whole federal budget these examples of waste wouldn’t be a rounding error even if they were accurate.
At the end of his video Kashuv asks why the government spends money on “crazy projects” like this. I think this is an important question and the National Science Foundation put it best in their epic 19-page smackdown of the 2015 issue of the Wastebook (see above):
“A simple truth remains regarding fundamental scientific breakthroughs: Before these discoveries were made, these ideas, too, might have been considered novel or outside-of-the-box. Sometimes, based solely on the title of the project, these ideas might have even seemed impractical or inappropriate at first glance. However, if one used project titles instead of merit review to make funding decisions, Google® might not exist today. What was the original name of this search engine when it was funded as an NSF Digital Library project? BackRub.”
Crazy ideas sometimes have the biggest payoffs. They save lives, they give us the internet as we know it, they lead us to further discovery, and they allow us to sequence the human genome. We need crazy ideas, and we need a government brave enough to fund crazy ideas.
The border wall is not a crazy idea though, it is a foolish idea. It won’t work, it’s not wanted, and it’s antithetical to American values. However, even if you disagree with that it is clear the Kashuv has not made a convincing or even watertight argument for the wall in his video. If Kashuv cares at all about truth and integrity, he should retract his video and re-upload a corrected version.