The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


4 Examples of White House Excess

A few days ago, President Obama released a Presidential Proclamation declaring April National Financial Capability Month. During this month, the federal government is going to offer tools for young people and adults so that they can learn how to properly handle their own finances, balance their checkbook, and take advantage of all the benefits the government has to offer to help them achieve fiscal responsibility. No, this is not an April Fool's joke.

One Natuon under Cthulhu
This is how the president would like us to think of sequestration

This comes on the heels of the sequestration drama that has been enveloping Capitol Hill and the political press for the last several weeks. Sequestration, in case you are not aware, is the name given to automatic spending "cuts" enacted by Congress that were supposed to motivate a gridlocked legislative branch to come to a budget deal before March 1 of this year. While some have decried these cuts as draconian, irresponsible, and cause for serious panic, the fact is that these "cuts" are actually a 2% decrease in the rate of increase in federal spending for the next fiscal year, and even when you plug it into the budget, our government will still be spending more in 2013 than it did in 2012.

Now, in reaction to these cuts, the White House has shut down its self-guided tours for the foreseeable future, claiming that it is necessary to prevent secret service furloughs and other pains that are all but inevitable because of these awful spending cuts. According to ABC News, these tours cost the White House approximately $18,000 a week. While we all can't possibly agree on the order of priorities in the White House budget, surely there are better places where spending can be trimmed. While I would hardly call White House tours necessary to the function of our federal government, $18,000 a week pales in comparison to the following White House expenses.


White House Invitation
Totally can't be done in ten minutes with Photoshop

cost: over $277,000 in 2012

The White House has an enormous support staff of groundskeepers, chefs, cleaners, and more (though reports of a $102,000 a year dog handler are quite false), and the idea that each and every one of them is absolutely essential is worthy of some scrutiny. Though I can't claim to have examined the entire White House payroll, I can say that paying over $277,000 a year on three special calligraphers is at least a tad excessive. Are lovingly baroque, handwritten invitations to dinner at the White House really a necessary federal expense? We can't just hire a single qualified graphical designer with a good printer at fifteen bucks an hour? The presidency is certainly an important job that requires a certain amount of pomp, but we shouldn't forget that it's a public service job, not a divinely given position.


Behind the Scenes of the Obama Administration's First Black-Tie Dinner
"I call it my three hundred thousand dollar hors d'oeuvres, but don't let the name fool you; it actually cost four hundred thousand dollars."

cost: est. $1,000,000 each

It's important to impress foreign dignitaries when they come to the United States. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Blair House, where most of these dignitaries are housed, and even more on things like security and transportation. However, nothing expresses just how much money the White House is willing to spend on impressing diplomats like the lavish state dinners under the current administration. According to the House Oversight Committee, the White House held a dinner celebration for Mexican President Felipe Calderon that cost more than $1 million. This money went into not only the decadent menu (prepared by celebrity chef Rick Bayless), but the entertainment as well, with none other than Beyonce as the headliner. The White House has even hired Boston-based celebrity event planner Bryan Rafanelli to help organize many of these extravagant events. Yes, it's important to impress official visitors to the United States, but do we have to bust out the $10,000 filet mignon prepared by a famous chef and have the likes of Beyonce singing every time?

This just in: in two weeks, the White House will be hosting a "Memphis Soul" concert that includes Justin Timberlake, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, and more, streaming live on the White House's own website. It's a good thing sequestration didn't cut into that necessary taxpayer expense.


Jimmy Carter
We're still paying security guards to protect against all of Carter's assassination attempts

cost: $2,934,000 per year

I really don't begrudge the president his $400,000 a year salary, because let's face it: it's an insanely difficult job that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. However, what I don't understand is why we continue giving large sums of money to our presidents once they are out of office. As of 2011, they make $191,300 per year just for being alive (as there are currently four living ex-presidents, that comes to 765,200 taxpayer dollars annually), but that doesn't even take into account the paid security force that follows them around for ten years (though the first President Bush, President Carter, and President Clinton maintain that security for the rest of their lives since the ten year rule wasn't enacted until 1997), the special travel expenses that are billed to the taxpayer, free medical care, and of course the inevitably lavish funeral. I know quite a lot of this is justified as befitting the legacy of the office--even though it goes against my anti-monarchical streak to admit that--but do ex-presidents really need nearly two hundred thousand dollars a year plus extravagent benefits (which, all told, cost over an additional $2 million, according to Congressional accounting)? Surely they can make that money on their own, using the existential benefits that come with being an ex-president, like selling your memoirs, going on a speaking circuit, or doing whatever the Hell you want because nobody's going to say no to you. At what point are we allowed to say enough's enough?


Air Force One
If you filled the cabin with one dollar bills, it still wouldn't be enough money to pay for an hour of flight

cost: est. $179,750 per hour

If $191,300 a year for a presidential pension is bad, how about $179,750 per hour just to fly the man around? I understand the need to transport his enormous staff wherever he goes and to make sure he is safe and secure at all times, but if there is one presidential expense that seems wildly out of proportion with necessity, it is Air Force One. Look at it this way: according to some estimates (alas, exact numbers haven't been forthcoming from the White House), the recent sequester cuts that "forced" the White House to indefinitely cancel its self-guided tours were somewhere around $350,000, which wouldn't fund Air Force One for two whole hours of flight. If the president really wanted to save the tours, then, why not just sacrifice a measly two hours of air travel at some point this year and funnel the savings back into the White House? Has he never had a single superfluous campaign stop or public support rally? Has his every trip been calculated to be as cost-effective as possible? Somehow, I doubt it. To reiterate, it costs $18,000 a week to run self-guided tours of the White House and $179,750 an hour to run Air Force One, or in other words, one hour of Air Force One flight time is equivalent to just shy of ten weeks of self-guided White House tours. Better yet, look at it this way: the average adult household struggles to make more than $60,000 a year, which is enough to fund Air Force One for just twenty minutes.

Our federal budget is a Gordian Knot of waste, and never in the history of these United States has it ever been demonstrated that the government is a more responsible spender of money than the free market. The scary thing about the excesses listed above is that they are but a drop in the bucket for the entire budget, which currently runs at a deficit of roughly $1,000,000,000,000 a year for a total national debt of nearly $17,000,000,000,000, which is more money than has ever been owed by a single body in the history of the world.

Independence Day screenshot
In the words of Julius Levinson, "You don't actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?"

Even if you wiped the White House support staff, the cost of lavish state dinners, the presidential retirement fund, and the running of Air Force One out of the federal budget, we'd still be running enormous deficits with no end in sight. Here's just one nugget of non-White House budgetary information that should outrage you: the NFL, NHL, and PGA are considered tax-exempt non-profit organizations by the IRS, which deprives the federal government of something along the lines of $90 million a year, assuming taxation wouldn't affect the behavior of these benevolent public service organizations.

This is why we shouldn't trust the federal government to teach us "Financial Capability." There is nothing on this planet that is more financially incapable than the United States budget. Until it is demonstrated that the White House is able to restrain its own spending, we cannot even begin to turn this ship around and build a better economic future for this nation. With most of America desperately trying to hang on during the slowest economic recovery in modern memory, maybe the government should set a good example instead of offering us financial advice. But hey, don't worry, they cut $18,000 a week by ending White House tours, so surely they must be taking the problem seriously.

-e. magill 4/2/2013

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