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Ben Carson’s Dining Room Set Is the Tip of the Iceberg

Ben Carson
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The HUD Secretary’s outrageous spending on tableware is causing an uproar because of how relatable it is — not its cost.

Whatever else it might accomplish, President Donald Trump’s administration has surely earned its place in history for laying to rest the myth of Republican fiscal prudence. Be they the tax dollars of today’s citizens or tomorrow’s, high ranking officials within Mr. Trump’s White House seem to have no qualms about spending them.

The latest in a long series of questionable expenses is, of course, none other than Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s now infamous $31,000 dining set, first reported on by the New York Times. Since the Times broke the story, Mr. Carson has attempted to cancel the order, having come under public scrutiny for what many understandably deem to be an overly lavish expenditure on the public dime.

At first blush, Secretary Mr. Carson’s act is egregious. As the head of HUD, he has a proposed $41 billion of taxpayer money at his disposal. Such frivolous and seemingly self-aggrandizing spending undermines public trust in his ability to use taxpayer funds wisely and invites accusations of corruption. It certainly doesn’t help the narrative that, as liberals have noted with derision, this scandal coincides with the proposal of significant cuts to the department’s budget. But the more I think about it, the more I’m puzzled as to why people are so worked up about this.

“And yet, in the realm of government waste, that amount is practically nothing.”

Let me be clear: this certainly isn’t a good look for the Secretary of an anti-poverty department with a shrinking budget and it’s justifiable that people are irritated. At a little more than half the median annual wage, most of us would consider $31,000 an absurd sum to spend on dining room furniture. The money that pays for it does indeed come from private citizens who would probably have chosen not to buy Mr. Carson a new dining room with it.

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And yet, in the realm of government waste, that amount is practically nothing.
Government has a long, and occasionally humorous, history of inefficient spending. Sometimes, it can fly under the radar simply by virtue of being bizarre. Last year, for example, the federal government spent $30,000 in the form of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to recreate William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”—with a cast of dogs. Other times, it seems too disconnected for the public to wrap its collective head around: in 2016, the federal government spent $1.04 billion expanding trolley service a grand total of 10.92 miles in San Diego. That average cost is $100 million per mile.

“Not many of us feel informed enough to opine on the kind of money one should spend building ten miles of trolley track, but most of us have bought a chair or table.”

Both of those put Mr. Carson’s $31,000 dining set in a bit of perspective. It is neither as ridiculous as the play nor as great in magnitude as the trolley. So why didn’t either of those incidents receive the kind of public ire he is contending with now?

The mundanity of Mr. Carson’s purchase probably hurts him in this regard. Not many of us feel informed enough to opine on the kind of money one should spend building ten miles of trolley track, but most of us have bought a chair or table. That reference point puts things in perspective and triggers an emotional response.

Ironically, the relatively small amount of money spent might also contribute to this effect. When amounts get large enough, like a billion dollars, we tend to lose perspective – what’s a couple million here or there? But $31,000 is an amount we can conceptualize. There’s probably a political element to this as well. It’s likely that this outrage is more than a little tied to the President’s less-than-stellar popularity.

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So it’s possible that we’re blowing this a little out of proportion for forces that are more emotional than logical. But I still think the issue is a legitimate one that deserves more public attention than it usually gets, and it would be interesting if the public were able to apply this kind of pressure to other instances of wasteful spending. (However, I won’t get my hopes up any time soon).

As interest payments on debt continue to grow as a percentage of government revenue, we may one day find ourselves in the unappealing position of having to raise taxes or cut services. To whatever extent we can save money by addressing wasteful spending, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do so.

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at eddiethoughts.com. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardFerrara_.

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at eddiethoughts.com.

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