Apparently, if we write in the budget justification of a proposal that we will use the funds to buy a computer, that is not acceptable to some of the budget overlords. Use is an ambiguous and unsatisfactory word to justify purchase of potentially unethical devices like computers because, although a computer could be used for research purposes specific to the grant that would purchase the hypothetical computer, it could also be used to do nefarious things like writing a paper for a different research project, reading e-mail from undergraduate students, writing a new proposal, or blogging about how vexed one is by accountants.
The upshot: If the budget justification somehow slips through and gets to NSF and the proposal turns into a grant, I would not be allowed to purchase the computer requested in the budget because the computer is a "non-special item" and is insufficiently justified.
If we write in our budget justification that we need the funds to buy a computer, we might be allowed to skip on over to the Apple store or website to purchase a shiny new computer. Or so they say. The accountant told me that he can't guarantee that I'd be allowed to buy the computer, but that it would be more likely if I wrote need instead of use.
Perhaps by the time the proposal is funded, if it is ever funded, the accounting rules will have changed and need will no longer be sufficient. Perhaps I will be told that I should have written that I really need the computer or that I have urgent grant-specific needs that can only be satisfied by a particular computer that I know from my 57 hours of ethics training must only be used for the specific research project related to the grant that purchased the computer. And I will have to sign in blood, or at least digital blood.
Recent experience has shown me that it is not possible to be too paranoid or cynical when it comes to dealing with the university accounting system.
9 months ago