The persistent appeal of boondoggles

St. Louis Post Dispatch Editorial Cartoon, Oct. 23, 1936 via Historic Missourians.

(1) work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.
(2) a public project of questionable merit that typically involves political patronage or graft.
~ From the Oxford Languages dictionary

When a debate boils down to “doing something useful” vs. “doing nothing,” politicians often reach compromise in “doing something useless.” This represents a perfectly logical outcome within our mystifying system.

In an era defined by political division, bipartisan boondoggles threaten to spread like weeds. If the major parties can’t agree on how to approach education, health care, public safety or transportation, then why not throw money at projects that promise good times for everybody?

Unfortunately, there are no meaningful consequences if those projects only benefit well-connected developers, or if they never happen at all. 

That’s the topic of my latest column for the Minnesota Reformer: “From Mesaba Energy to Foxconn, boondoggles light money on fire.” 

I explore several examples. They range from the most baffling Iron Range economic development project I’ve ever covered to contemporary projects in Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Kansas. 

What’s at stake is more than just tax dollars, but precious time and fleeting public trust in an era of rapid change.

You can read the column at the Minnesota Reformer.



  1. It was called the Iron Range Mafia when I was a kid and it still is. Not John Gotti but more Jimmy Hoffa.

  2. This is an excellent piece. You go right up to saying that the state doesn’t invest in people because the political system is owned by fat cat interests and schemers like Micheletti and Jorgensen. For another example of a big Minnesota scam you could look at the poultry poop burner in Benson, Swift County. (Unlike the “clean coal” burner, the poop burner was actually built and seriously polluted the community before being shut down and demolished.) In my town (Red Wing) there are plenty of municipal-sized boondoggles that raise taxes and dissipate resources that could be used to help people.
    I will close with a rant of my own from several years ago:

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