Debunking the Cost of the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Circle (Again)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 31, 2012 — 22 Comments

There’s no rhetorical fruit that hangs lower than government waste, everyone hates it! $16 dollar muffins$600 dollar toilet seats, $131,000 dollar dragon robots for preschoolers (actually, that sounds pretty cool), all seeming evidence of a spend-happy government run amok, and an easy target for curmudgeonly columnists of all political stripes. This past year, we saw modern Pagans get sucked into this Andy Rooney-esque vortex from which no nuance or joy escapes when a LA Times report wrote about the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Circle in November, noting the $80,000 dollar price tag for the Pagan and earth-religions-dedicated worship area.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

“Still, the academy this year dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center — a small Stonehenge-like circle of boulders with propane fire pit — high on a hill for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of “Earth-based.” Those include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches and followers of Native American faiths.”

That reported cost spurred a wave of commentary about government waste and rampant political correctness, which prompted the Air Force Academy to defend the cost, and their commitment to religious plurality.

“The LA Times got the $80,000 figure from the Academy’s Cadet Chapel fact sheet. But the numbers on the fact sheet at the time were too high because they mistakenly included $26,500 that was spent to control erosion on the east side of the hill on which Falcon Circle is now situated. [...]  The scope of work in the $51,484 Falcon Circle contract included removing screws and nails from the inside of the circle and installing 1,225 square feet of flagstone. The boulders were moved in 2009 from the east side of the hill, where erosion threatened to send them crashing into the Visitors Center, where more than 500,000 people per year learn about the national treasure that is the Academy. By way of comparison, the Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.”

Defending the cost of Falcon Circle, which was built in response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, was just the latest in a string of challenges faced by the academy and Pagan cadets. This included the site being vandalized shortly after it first received press attention in 2010, and ignorant opinion pieces attacking Pagan religions. Sadly, the debunking of the $80,000 dollar price-tag seemed to not reach retired news anchor and Scripps columnist Truman Taylor, who decided he really needed to weigh in on this important issue.

“If you don’t agree that most government spending is quite that wasteful, a recent Gallup poll says it may be because you’re too well-educated. A conjecture perhaps, but there it is. Those in the survey with some postgraduate education don’t think that the government wastes as much money as do those with less education. You can self-test yourself on this Gallup assertion. First, think about how much education you have, then think about the $80,000 pagan stone circle that the government built at the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo.”

Ho-ho! You over-educated eggheads, Taylor has you in his rhetorical grasp! How can any reasonable person think $80,000 dollars is anything but waste for a “Stonehenge look-alike on the top of a hill with a fire pit right in the middle of it.”

“…the fact that only three of the academy’s 4,300 cadets are actually believed to be pagans, you may think that the money spent to build the stone circle was justified to protect the constitutional right to religious freedom. You may also think that $80,000 for a fire pit for Druids and Wiccans at the Air Force Academy isn’t enough money to get too riled up about, that perhaps the academy is trying to attract more Wiccans to the Air Force — an equal-pagan-opportunity sort of thing. If these thoughts come to your mind, Gallup would probably say you may have spent too many years in grad school … not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Touche! A touch! A veritable sting! Truman Taylor can now sit back in his armchair, crack open his vintage collection of Mike Royko columns next to a roaring fire whilst enjoying a fine glass of port, safe in the knowledge he’s not only lampooned excessive government spending, but political correctness *and* people who went to grad school (suckers!). Who cares if it isn’t exactly true, it feels true, and that’s all that matters, right? I mean, why mention that the real cost was much lower and that the erosion work needed to be done anyway to protect other buildings on the base. Why trouble our thoughts with the notion that the circle isn’t exclusively for Pagans and that any cadet can use the circle for all sorts of activities, why quibble over the fact that it doesn’t actually look like Stonehenge in the slightest? People hate government spending, and so long as you check the boxes on the ready-mix instant-column, you’ll do just fine.

In truth, I don’t mean to excessively pick on Truman Taylor’s column, but misinformation can sometimes overwrite actual reality. The more people spout the $80,000 price-tag and hold it up as an example of waste, the more folks believe it, and the more it sinks in that Pagan cadets aren’t worth the expense, even though the AFA’s cadet chapel would be worth the cost of 500 Falcon Circle’s in today’s dollars. Frankly, I don’t care if there’s only one Pagan cadet, creating a culture of religious respect within our military is a vital project worthy of the cost.

“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

Here’s hoping that it continues to be “very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy, “ and that Pagan cadets can get back to focusing on their lessons instead of being put under a microscope by those looking to score points on “government waste”.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • kenneth

    From one ex-newsman to another, Taylor Truman is a putz. He’s jumping onto a “story” which is now almost a year old, and he’s just parroting the same un-researched tripe put out way back then. Then again, perhaps the real putz is whoever is paying him for work like this. 
      Here’s a couple of other tidbits for anyone pondering the true scale of government waste. That $80,000 buys us about 24 seconds of war in Afghanistan – a war which has no apparent purpose other than to serve as a security detail for the heroin warlord who runs the capital.  And that’s chump change in the big picture. Consider for a moment the F-35 stealth fighter program. 
       This program, now underway, will produce about 2,300 futuristic, almost sci-fi fighter jets which are utterly useless against any enemy we now face or are likely to face in the forseeable future. When all is said and done, this program will cost $1 Trillion! (with a bit of luck). The Atlantic calls it a “weapon that cost more than Australia” because it exceeds that country’s GDP.
        With only a cursory background in physics, I had to stop and think for a minute what a trillion means in exponents before I could even crunch the numbers. The cost of this program equates to…(drum roll)…..12.5 MILLION falcon circles!! That of course assumes full erosion control and ignores the per-unit cost decline that would happen with mass production of standing stones, gas burners etc.
        I’m not sure how to even approach the notion of 12.5 million stone circles. That would be enough to serve all the pagan soldiers in a decent galactic-sized empire. Even Frank Herbert’s Dune universe only had 13,300 centrally governed planets, and our newfound construction budget puts 900 plus Falcon Cirlces on each of them! 
       We could, of course, scale up our worship spaces considerably for a trillion bucks. We could go all out pimp and build our own version of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, which Robert Schuller’s outfit sold to the Catholics for a cool $50 million and change. At that price, we could “only” buy 20,000 of them with F-35 money. I wonder what Truman Taylor would have to say about that. 

    • Thelettuceman

      Actual numbers have become meaningless to the general public.  When you get to a huge number like that, it’s difficult to grasp.  Like you said, and I agree with you, I couldn’t wrap my head around 12.5 million Falcon circles.  Beyond that, I can’t even remotely begin to comprehend something like the amount that the US National Debt represents.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Why the slap at Mike Royko?

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      No offense intended to Mr. Royko. He’s just an example of a curmudgeonly opinion columnist. 

      • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

        He’s exactly that sort of curmudgeon, too. It was quite apt.

      • kenneth

        I’m surprised people still remember him. He’s been gone now for 15 years and 25 years past his prime as a productive columnist. Never knew the guy personally, just sort of in passing by being in the industry and in the Chicago area. I don’t know if Royko would have taken the same swipe at us as these other guys. He was a curmudgeon, yes, but he saved most of his good digs for those who were abusing the power of public office, screwing the little guy etc. I have no doubt he’d have a few cracks about neopagans, but probably no more so than fundamentalist Christians. 

        • Anonymous

           I think you really had to be from Chicagoland back in the day to appreciate Royko.

  • http://sonneillon-v.livejournal.com/ Sonneillon

    Sent him an e-mail decrying his lazy journalism.  Probably worthless effort, but made me feel better.

  • Charles Cosimano

    I think a more serious question would does the Air Force have any business spending any money at all for a religious function?

    • Ursyl

      To serve the needs of the cadets and service personal working there, most certainly, Yes.

      Or do you not think that those committing to serve our nation deserve to have their needs met?

      • PR

        Playing devil’s advocate, they can do what we all have to do to have our religious needs met: pay for it out of pocket.

        • CosmicIrony

          You didn’t read carefully – the Christians, etc., have a $3.5 million facility, not paid for out of their pockets.  So who is the “we all” that you refer to?

          • PR

            I was referring to the $3.5 million facility also being an inappropriate allocation of funds as well.  It could be certainly argued as such.

    • kenneth

      You’re right in the sense that they ought not to be spending money to advance one religion over another, but there’s nothing wrong with them providing access to religious services and facilities as a general matter. We have to remember that people in the armed forces give up a great deal of freedom, especially in training and academy phases of their career. They don’t have the freedom of movement or time or often even the money or transportation options to just go to the private sector for these things in the way most of us do. 

      • Anonymous

        You’re absolutely right, my younger brother, a not-particularly-devout Christian, said the worst thing about his choice of a naval career is the limited opportunities he has to get to church. My parents were /so/ proud, but it is saddening. I think religious facilities are a necessary support for servicemen/servicewomen and perhaps they should have more than they do.

    • Anonymous

       The military spends a great deal of money on religion – mostly on evangelical Christianity. This is a drop in the bucket.

  • Jack Heron

    “Those in the survey with some postgraduate education don’t think
    that the government wastes as much money as do those with less
    education.” Wait, what? Admittedly, a postgraduate degree doesn’t disqualify one from being foolish or ignorant concerning any number of matters, but at what point did it becomes an *anti*-qualification?

  • Mia

    I count more than 3 “presumably pagan” cadets in the photo. But I suppose my college education is making me see things :P

  • Anonymous

    I wonder how much the correlation of graduate school to seeing less waste has to do with being more prone to research than reaction… investing some time to actually look at what’s being spent and why before terming it waste? Not saying, of course, on any level, that high educational levels are required to be that sort of person, but perhaps that they might predominate in the smaller pool of postgraduate educated people? Take with a grain of salt, because I myself have some postgraduate education (though no degree :P) and am fairly reactionary. 

    • kenneth

      Taylor was just basically using a very old trick of rhetoric that appeals to this country’s long-held suspicion of intellectuals. The idea is that anyone with advanced degrees got that way because they didn’t have any common sense or street smarts, or else lost those things during their out-of-touch ivory tower education.
          It’s also a very dated accusation for a news guy to be throwing about. Since the 70s, virtually all reporters have had at least a bachelors degree, and in more recent times, a masters or even higher in some cases. For all that, the ability to put the Falcon Circle into context is hardly a graduate level research project. It’s simple arithmetic and a few Google searches. Within minutes, he could have found and read all of the handful of stories and opinion pieces on the circle, and could have also gotten a sense of how 50-odd thousand dollars really stacks up in the world of defense spending and waste. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/73WYVJX4ZTBEQFVISYU74QIXZ4 Cathryn

    So you’re devoting your life to the service of national security, to defend a way of life that includes religious freedom, but you aren’t provided a space for your own worship?  Ridiculous, and arguably unconstitutional.

    The Falcon Circle needs to be there. 

    Cathryn Meer Bauer

  • Anonymous

    “…it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

    If this is now true, it is the result of years of work by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The Academy has been a hotbed of radical evangelicalism and proselytizing, and outright abuse of those who wouldn’t convert.