Monday, March 26, 2007

Living Large At Taxpayer Expense

I adore the Smithsonian Institution. My husband and I spent four days in Washington D.C. a few years ago, and we've been dying to get back ever since, just so we can spend more time in our glorious national treasure trove. We loved how much history and education it holds, and we loved that because it's taxpayer funded we got to go into every museum for free. Of course, it costs an arm and a leg for the trip out there, but that's beside the point. The Smithsonian alone is worth the trip. It's incredible, and wonderful, and breath-taking, and every other positive superlative you can pry out of your brain. Because I loved it so much, and actually think that preserving our history and knowledge is not a horrible use of government resources (this is not the norm for me, as I'm definitely the "small government" type), I was really saddened by a story I read today, demonstrating the way corruption can creep into even the most admirable of human endeavors. It would be impossible not to be aware of how much corruption there is in the world, but I don't usually want to dwell on it (except where I have a vote, like with electing Congress), and I don't like to point fingers (at some point I end up looking in the mirror, and then see that finger pointing back at me), but I found this story disturbing. From the Associated Press via Yahoo! News:

The Smithsonian Institution announced Monday that its top official, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, has resigned amid criticism about his expenses.

Small resigned over the weekend, and the decision was unanimously accepted Sunday by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

Cristian Samper, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, has been appointed acting secretary while the regents conduct a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.

An internal audit in January found that Small had made $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, including private jet travel and expensive gifts.

The audit also found that Small charged the Smithsonian more than $1.1 million for use of his home since 2000. The housing expenses included $273,000 for housekeeping, $2,535 to clean a chandelier and $12,000 for service on his backyard swimming pool.

Normally, I wouldn't care if someone paid more to have a chandelier cleaned than I would ever pay for the chandelier itself, and I wouldn't care if a private company wanted to compensate its employees in any outlandish way it chose, but we're not talking about a private company. As I said before, the Smithsonian is a public institution. According to Wikipedia:
The Smithsonian Institution (pronounced [smɪθ.ˈˌən]) is an educational and research institute and associated museum complex, administered and funded by the government of the United States and by funds from its endowment, contributions, and profits from its shops and its magazine.
So, since as an American taxpayer I'm partly footing the bill, I do feel a bit more entitled to worry about what that bill covers than I do when Microsoft or Starbucks is making spending decisions. After all, I can choose not to buy a double caramel shot of caffeine, or the latest version of Windows. I can't choose only to patronize those government offices of which I approve. When our government gets taken for a ride, we get taken for a ride.

Now, I'm sure that there were legitimate household expenses that Mr. Small had to pay related to his job. Part of his job was fund-raising, and that usually involves entertaining--entertaining rich people, who have way higher standards than the rest of us, to go along with the potential big bucks they can throw at a sufficiently persuasive museum director's budget. You can't feed 'em beans and franks, and you can't have them over to play Frisbee in your driveway. I get the whole "if you don't schmooze, you lose" concept. I think it's fair that if Mr. Small had to hire help to serve and clean for important shindigs "the company" should cover the cost. (I will not get into whether I think that "company" should be in the fundraising business. Believe me, you don't have time to read my whole rant on the subject.) I really don't question the fact that, if your job for the government is to be the schmoozer, you need the resources to do your job--official expenses should be covered, but there are limits to what those "official expenses" should be.

I understand how someone who hangs around with money develops a taste for the lifestyle. Who wouldn't? The trouble is when that someone steps over the line that separates legitimate expenses and jet-setting on the public dime. The bills for private jets, and expensive gifts, and swimming pools shouldn't land in the lap of the taxpayer. Mr. Small was set to earn over $900,000 this year, an obscene sum to the average wage-earner. If he wanted to buy presents and fly on private jets, why couldn't he just do it with his own money? Couldn't he afford it? When the rest of us can't afford something most of us take the radical approach--we don't buy it. Commoners don't get to choose between flying first class or flying in a private jet. Most of us have to choose between flying coach or staying home. Now I don't begrudge anyone who has more money getting to make the higher end choices, but I do resent it when they get to make their choice because they are taking my money to do it. I resent it in public officials of any variety. By all means, fly in your private jet, but pay for it out of your own pocket (and don't lecture me about global warming if that's the route you take, either.) As I said earlier, I don't like to point fingers, but if I were to make the decision to spend massive amounts of taxpayer money to keep myself in the lifestyle to which I made myself accustomed, I would deserve to have my own finger pointing back in that mirror. Sometimes it's got to be done, or such behavior loses its shame factor, and it needs it. Such behavior really is shameful.

Hat tip: IMAO