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Voices

Rank and files

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / July 24, 2009

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The last time I learned something from a data-slinging website, it was my delightful sojourn with opensecrets.org. That allowed me to spy on my neighbors’ political donations, down to the last penny. In ’07 they were with Hillary. In ’08 they were with Obama. Now they’ve closed their wallets entirely, except for a prof down the street who gave $500 to Al Franken during the recount.

More recently I discovered the website usaspending.gov, which tracks how the government spends its money. Its money, in case you have forgotten, is your money. “If you are a pacifist, steer clear,’’ the New York Times’ Freakonomics bloggers warn, “or at least keep your blood pressure pills at hand.’’ That is because the top five private recipients of government largesse, with over $55 billion in annual business, are military contractors such as Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon.

Yes, making war is our government’s number one business, and its number two priority, per the website, is paying for health care. The California and New York state health plans are the largest public sumps for your tax dollars, raking in about $30 billion from Medicare, Medicaid, and related programs this year.

There’s more. Usaspending.gov allows you to see every federal contract handed out in Massachusetts. Earlier this year, for instance, the Bureau of Prisons bought $46,000 worth of food from a Taunton broker for the BOP’s lockup in Allenwood, Pa. Overall, we mirror the country’s priorities. Our three largest government contractors are the Army, Navy, and Air Force, which commissioned about $5 billion worth of business this year. Draper Labs, MITRE, MIT, Raytheon, and General Dynamics sucked down the most tax dollars, along with healthcare giants Novartis and McKesson, which have facilities here.

We also learn that Representatives Niki Tsongas, Mike Capuano, and John Tierney have landed more federal mazooma for their districts than their colleagues. What up, Barney Frank? Newton needs baksheesh too!

It’s just a few keystrokes from usaspending to the hilarious and revealing statemaster.com, which aggregates data from many websites to tell us more about ourselves than we really wanted to know. Massachusetts ranks second in the nation in the number of casual drinkers, after Wisconsin and before Rhode Island. The website defines a casual drinker as an adult who has had at least one drink of alcohol within the past 30 days.

Other useful/useless information: We have a low incidence of Wal-Mart stores - 0.469 per 1 million residents - but a correspondingly high presence of Starbucks cafes, 0.242 per 10,000 people. That ranks us 15th in the nation. Our per capita rate of steel roller coasters, 1.094 per 1 million people, is quite near the national norm. We don’t divorce much (46th in the nation), and we don’t smoke much (48th), but we are not prudish about drugs. We rank in the top five for marijuana smoking, and we are No. 8 in cocaine users, defined as someone who has ingested the drug once during the past year.

On the bright side, almost 1 in 3 Bay Staters eats five serving of fruits or vegetables every day, placing us No. 6 in the United States. (Do Shark Bites count?) We are not very suicidal (No. 48, per capita) and we have excellent oral hygiene. We place very low on the Centers for Disease Control’s state ratings for “Loss of Natural Teeth,’’ where West Virginia comes out on top. Forty-three percent of its over-65 residents no longer have any natural teeth.

Here is another key metric: No reported alligator attacks! Healthy diets, moderate drinking - and all those steel roller coasters! No wonder I love it here.

Bottom of the ninth
Harmonic convergence or something more? In an interview with The New York Times, literary agent Esther Newberg reveals that her father died of a heart attack during a Red Sox-Yankees game and uttered his last words in a Queens hospital: “Did the Red Sox win?’’ The Sox also dominated the final thoughts of Jesse Bancroft Cox, matriarch of the family that once owned The Wall Street Journal. Cox collapsed at a company function at Manhattan’s “21’’ club. “What the hell’s the matter with my Red Sox?’’ were her reported last words. I am told that the actual quote was a bit saltier - but you get the drift.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.