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$37 screws, a $7,622 coffee maker, $640 toilet seats; : suppliers to our military just won't be oversold

Jack Smith

July 30, 1986|JACK SMITH

As a citizen who has always paid his taxes honestly and without complaint, I am sometimes depressed when I read in the paper about some corporation that has grossly overcharged the government for something I was helping to pay for.

Of course most of our taxes go for weapons, and weapons are so expensive that few of us can feel that we are contributing in any substantial way to any one weapon.

For example, I have been paying taxes for 40 years, but one day I was driving along the San Diego Freeway through Camp Pendleton when a Marine helicopter flew over the car; I realized then that all the taxes I had paid in all my life would not pay for that one helicopter.

It makes you feel as if you aren't really taking part in our destiny.

You may have read in the paper the other day that a division of Litton Industries and two of its former executives are accused of defrauding the government out of $6.3 million on military contracts.

According to the U.S. attorney, the company "grossly inflated prices intentionally" on about 45 contracts from 1975 to 1984.

It makes you wonder if all our weapons aren't overpriced.

Remember when we found out that the government paid $640 each for plastic toilet seats for military airplanes? Now that was something I could feel that I personally paid for. I pay a good deal more than $640 in taxes every year, and I probably paid for several of those toilet seats. That is a concrete contribution that I can be proud of.

A handy book for any taxpayer is "The Pentagon Catalog" (Workman), which describes and shows diagrams of numerous pieces of military hardware that authors Christopher Cerf and Henry Beard describe as "ordinary products at extraordinary prices."

They claim that their firm, Pentagon Products, can supply any of these items to anyone at the prices our military paid for them, and they boast, "We will not be oversold."

Anyone who buys this paperback for $4.95 gets a $2,043 nut free.

The nut is glued to the inside of the back cover, in the upper right hand corner, and fits in a hole in the pages, so it goes through to the front.

This nut, which is described as "a plain round nut," was made by McDonnell Douglas for the Navy at $2,043 each.

But, as the book points out, wouldn't it be embarrassing if some big piece of equipment failed because of a spare part that cost only a few cents? We certainly don't want to risk our airplanes by fitting them with cheap nuts.

The book also lists a claw hammer sold by Gould Simulation Systems to the Navy for $435. In the picture it looks like the kind you can buy at any hardware store for $10.

Comparatively reasonable is McDonnell Douglas' price of only $37 for a screw. It appears in every respect to be an ordinary screw, but the book points out:

"The fact is, a screw this expensive simply cannot get lost! How many times have you had a screw roll off your worktable and disappear, then just casually reached for another one because the missing fastener was too cheap to hunt for? Lots of times, right? Well, you can bet your bottom dollar . . . that if one of our screws rolls into some dark corner, you're going to conduct a full-scale search!"

Other items offered in the catalogue include a $285 screwdriver, a $7,622 coffee maker, a $387 flat washer, a $469 wrench, a $214 flashlight, a $437 tape measure, a $2,228 monkey wrench, a $748 pair of duckbill pliers, a $74,165 aluminum ladder, a $659 ashtray and a $240- million airplane.

Pentagon Products may be a fictional company, but these prices are not. They are documented.

The authors point out that they were outraged by the cost of military hardware until they understood how military pricing works. A military thumbtack isn't like the ordinary old thumbtack that costs you two cents in the hardware store.

"That's because the good old American competitive spirit that brings us a dime-store item like a thumbtack for just a couple of cents is primarily concerned with keeping its cost down, not with making sure that it can take it out there on the battlefield where there are no shopping malls to get some more thumbtacks from. After all, if a defective thumbtack falls off your kitchen bulletin board, you may lose a recipe, but if a defective thumbtack holding an all-important battle plan falls off the situation display in a command bunker, that's a recipe for disaster, because we may lose a war. . . ."

That should comfort the secretary of defense when he's sitting on a $640 toilet seat.

The success of Pentagon Products is based on simple principles, the authors say: no dog-eat-dog competitive bidding, no endless nit-picking over contracts, no pushy meddling in the bidding process, no penny-pinching bulk purchases, no unfair limits on corporate claims of proprietary rights, no settling for off-the-shelf products just to save a buck.

Cheating the taxpayers is the American way.

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