Thursday, January 15, 2009

Spending like a drunken sailor's commander-in-chief

"President Barack Obama's inauguration next week is set to be the most expensive ever, predicted to reach over $150m (£102m). This dwarfs the $42.3m spent on George Bush's inauguration in 2005 and the $33m spent on Bill Clinton's in 1993." -- Article in The Guardian.

Now if I was a partisan commentator, this would be the appropriate place for me to rail against a press that took Bush to task four years ago for all the loot spent on his inauguration, when the same press is largely silent about the immense sum for Obama's party. That's not my intention here, however.

Instead, I simply am taking the position that yes, Obama's inauguration is too costly. But so was Bush's, and so was Clinton's 33 million dollar bargain basement figure. I don't care if the President is Republican or Democrat. I don't care if when he or she gets inaugurated we're in a recession or a boom. I simply think that the money could be better spent.

And no, I'm not arguing against any sort of pomp celebrating America's milestones. In Book V, Chapter 1 of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith asserts that there is a need for expenditures that "support the dignity of the sovereign." As he put it:

"In an opulent and improved society, where all the different orders of people are growing every day more expensive in their houses, in their furniture, in their tables, in their dress, and in their equipage; it cannot well be expected that the sovereign alone should hold out against the fashion."

Smith, however, had his eighteenth century British royalty in mind. I think in America we should spend money to support the dignity of the sovereign, but I'd define "the sovereign" as not being one person, but rather as our whole democratic nation. Thus, if the terrorists on 9/11 had succeeded in destroying the U.S. Capitol, I'd have been in favor of spending whatever it took to rebuild it as the magnificent building it was, even though I know you could build a warehouse-type structure for a lot less, and Congress could deliberate and vote in such a shack just as well as they can behind a grand neoclassical edifice.

But it's just not sound policy in a republic, where the people rule, having such a fuss made over one cog of the government wheel being sworn into office. Obama will put his hand on the Bible at midday; what's with all the evening balls? Can't they just have a buffet luncheon?

Speaking of those formal galas, I got a real kick out of reading Lyric Winik's article about what a drag all those balls are; especially her advice, "Don’t wear a coat that you wouldn’t happily donate to charity. They don’t always come back." Winik's husband, Jay Winik, wrote April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Perhaps he should author another book entitled January 2009: The Month I Couldn't Save My Wife's Overcoat."

Pricey inaugurations just seem totally out of line with the qualities I choose to most admire in a president: simplicity and being down to earth. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, requested that no memorial be built to him larger than his desk. He probably wouldn't like the one that eventually got built.

But the best example I've ever seen of presidential modesty was something Thomas Jefferson did. Before he died, he helped design his own tomb. The nation's third president requested that the inscription on the stone read:

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & father of the University of Virginia; because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Asked why he didn't want the inscription to include his service as Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, ambassador to France, or President of the United States, Jefferson replied that those were thing the people did for him; he wanted to be remembered for what he did for the people (Nichols & Griswold, Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect,1978, p. 178).

The people did something for Barack Obama by electing him. It's not necessary to do something else for him by turning Washington, D.C. into one huge black tie affair next Tuesday. This is America; we have inaugurations, not coronations.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

To be fair, most of the money spent on inaugurations is private money (including all those evening balls), and the public money spent is mostly to deal with the crowd control and congestion resulting from having so many Americans show up in Washington that day.