Corruption

The Sacrifice of Public Service

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A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an expose on W. Richard West, Jr., the founding director of the taxpayer-subsidized Smithsonian, the National Museum of the American Indian. Over the last four years, West racked up some $250,000 in globe-trotting travel expenses, hitting such obviously American Indian-relevant destinations as Athens, Bali, London, Hong Kong, Venice (four times), and Paris (12 times!).

West's defenders say his job requires outreach, and overseas travel comes with a museum director's fundraising, networking, and promotion duties. Fair enough, though that doesn't explain why when traveling on the dime of taxpayers and museum patrons, West always opted for business class airfare, first class seats on the train, and the plushest of hotel accommodations.

Now the Post reports that before West left, he commissioned a 48 x 34 portrait of himself to hang in the museum, forever reminding visitors of his legacy. The cost: $48,000. Under West's direction, the museum also spent $133,000 on a lavish going-away party for him, including $30,000 on a specially-produced DVD telling West's life story (which—and I'm just guessing, here—likely touted the splendid sacrifices West has made for a career in public service).

This is all particularly galling because by most accounts, West did a spectacularly crappy job with the museum.

Relevant factoid: Average annual income for Native Americans is about $12,900 per year.

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  1. I had to keep the snow out of my office with duct tape when I was in public service.

    WTF?

  2. If the US Navy is public service, here are your travel perks* –

    Coach air travel
    Compact rental car
    Holiday Inn (or worse) Only if no barracks are available
    Enough meal money to eat at average resteraunts e.g. Applebees. Independents are a better deal.

    Darn, I got hosed!

    * Full disclosure – Because of a scheduling SNAFU, I once holed up at the Kuaui Hilton for 5 sweet days.

  3. How can anyone call what Mr. West does public service? Sounds like he is the one getting serviced.

  4. To me, the scariest thing about the story is that West is probably not intentionally, consciously hoaxing us. He probably believes his own self-flattery about his “public service.”

  5. Honestly, I don’t see much wrong with this. These “perks” seem pretty consistent with what one would expect in the private sector for a job with similar status.

  6. Ok Chad, so tell me how I sell my Smithsonian stock or how I boycott their government subsidy.

  7. Taxpayers get scalped again.

  8. Let’s not forget the diplomat who got plugged in Sudan last week.

  9. What’s the last company whose stock you sold or store you boycotted because of the executives’ perks, BakedPenguin?

    Or even complained about? Or considered worthy of noticing?

  10. Umm, I really can’t get myself too upset about this. I’m guessing the world travel was all conferences, and the first class/business class could be important for keeping up a professional image for the Smithsonian.
    I wager that the Smithsonian could survive by itself without public funding, but that’s just a guess. As it currently stands they don’t charge admission. Even a suggested admission (ala the Met) would pull in some decent revenue. This would work particularly well because someone could pay only once for admission to all of the Smithsonian museums. They also technically have “members,” but I don’t know how much money that actually bring in.

    All this being said, there are far far FAR more heinous abuses of public funds out there.. this just isn’t much of a concern for me.
    I recognize the ridiculousness of calling his job “public service,” really, but meh.

  11. joe, what’s your point here? That wretched excess by public servants is OK if you can find even one private executive whose excesses haven’t yet caught up with them? The stock of companies whose executives are grossly overpaid goes down, on average, compared to more efficient competitors — all those people trying to get an edge on the rest of the stock market makes for lots of eyes on the ball. There’s accountability there, since nobody is forced to invest their private savings in private companies. We are, OTOH, forced to pay taxes for shite like this, and can’t quit paying the taxes without going to jail.

    See the difference?

  12. Wow, did you blow that, prolefeed.

    Let’s walk through this: stock of companies whose executives are grossly overpaid goes down, on average, compared to more efficient competitors…There’s accountability there, since nobody is forced to invest their private savings in private companies.

    Accountability for whom? So the CEO lives like Ceaser, the stockholders lose value, and then what? Big exposes in the media because they fly in converted 747s instead of coach? Lots of scrutinty of their expense accounts? Ever see a story like that? Ever read about the CEO who has to pay back part of his salary because he spent too much?

    No, the stock value of the company performs a little worse. Sounds like there is “accountability” for stockholders whose mutual funds own companies with CEOs prone to “wretched excesses,” but not so much for the CEOs themselves.

    See the difference?

    There’s accountability there, since nobody is forced to invest their private savings in private companies

    Nice non-sequitor: because investing in a company is voluntary, there is accountability for CEOs who indulge in wretched excess on the company dime. Sure, that makes sense.

    Your feelings on this are clearly very strong, and that’s probably why your logic isn’t.

  13. Oh, and since my point is, apparently, so obscure: the only reason there is any accountability whatsoever for this well-paid executive’s oveindulgence in “wretched excess” is BECAUSE he is in the public sector. There is nothing unusual about such an executive living like that on the store’s money in the private sector. It never even warrants comment or censure.

    People trusted with other people’s tax dollars shouldn’t spend them like this. It’s not their money. We all agree on that. People trusted with other people’s retirements shouldn’t, either. That’s not their money, either.

  14. Joe, for all that I get annoyed by certain corporations that (in my opinion) pay their CEOs far too much, at least I personally am not forced to take money out of my pocket and put it into theirs to subsidize these big salaries. With the government, I am. That’s the difference.

  15. So to single his spending out as “the sacrifices of public service,” as if identifying a problem that demonstrates the inferiority of public service or public servants, is laughable. The fact that this is even being called out as wrong, as contrary to how he should have been spending the “company’s” money, puts the lie to that thesis.

  16. Without a system to curtail “wretched excess” on the part of private-sector executives, such as the sunshine and shaming behind he Post column, you are no more free to avoid paying for corporate excess than this guy’s excess.

    Flying business, or a hell of a lot better, is standard practice for CEOs. If you want to have a retirement fund or even just buy goods, you have no choice but to subsidize that behavior.

  17. So to single his spending out as “the sacrifices of public service,” as if identifying a problem that demonstrates the inferiority of public service or public servants, is laughable. The fact that this is even being called out as wrong, as contrary to how he should have been spending the “company’s” money, puts the lie to that thesis.

    Media reports of waste in the name of public service prove that public service is not inferior? How do you figure?

  18. Without a system to curtail “wretched excess” on the part of private-sector executives, such as the sunshine and shaming behind he Post column, you are no more free to avoid paying for corporate excess than this guy’s excess.

    Sure I am. When I got fed up with Wal-Mart’s business practices, I stopped giving money to Wal-Mart and I’ve not spent a second in jail over it. How can I similarly safely refuse to send money to the Indian museum, do you think?

  19. I haven’t shopped at costco for years due to their eminent domain abuses and have encouraged everyone I know to stop shopping there as well. What if I boycotted my local property taxes due to my city’s eminent domain abuses?

  20. Jennifer,

    Media reports of waste in the name of public service prove that public service is not inferior? How do you figure?

    Because the behavior is identified as waste, and wrong, on the part of the public servants doesn’t even warrant shrug on the part of the private CEOs.

    If it’s wrong to live like that on other people’s money, than the public sector is vastly superior, because there are consequences for living like that on other people’s money in the publis sector, if only bad press. But I bet there will be even more.

    When I got fed up with Wal-Mart’s business practices, I stopped giving money to Wal-Mart… So, is the CEO of Wal-Mart, or any other corporation, facing and consequences, like West is?

  21. What if I boycotted my local property taxes due to my city’s eminent domain abuses?

    It would have a far greater impact on the people whose behavior you object to, and curtail their ability to act, far more than your boycotting of Costco.

  22. Funny, once upon a time this was a thread about whether a corporate officer – public or private – living high off of other people’s money was inappropriate.

    Not anymore, though. The double standard just isn’t defensible.

  23. Considering how much easier it is to “punish” a private-sector executive for his “wreteched excess” with other people’s money, it becomes even more striking how much more rare it is for such an executive to ever actually be punished for it. Or exposed. Or criticized. Or for the people who claim to believe that “stockholder power” is the solution to express the thought that there is anything wrong with such behavior.

  24. So, is the CEO of Wal-Mart, or any other corporation, facing and consequences, like West is?

    Wal-Mart stock’s been going down. Even if it isn’t, what matters is that my money is not being added to their profits.

    Do you really find it so hard to understand the difference between wasting private money versus wasting money that was taken from taxpayers by force?

    The double standard just isn’t defensible.

    Yes it is. The standard is as follows: you do whatever the hell you want with your money, but not with mine.

  25. It would have a far greater impact on the people whose behavior you object to, and curtail their ability to act…

    What? You would be arrested, and your property seized and sold. End of story.

    …living high off of other people’s money was inappropriate.

    If he’s living off other people’s money without their consent, then hell yes, it’s inappropriate.

    Jennifer and bob made my other points for me already…

  26. Wal-Mart stock’s been going down.

    The question was, “So, is the CEO of Wal Mart facing and consequences?” The people he is ripping off – his shareholders – certainly are. Yippee.

    And that’s making two assumptions – such wretched excess is considered wrong, which no one seems willing to agree it is, when the money you’re blowing comes out of corporate funds – and that opposition to such excess has ever actually caused a stock to do down. So, it two things that don’t actually happen actually happened, the wrong people would suffer. Hooray!

    Do you really find it so hard to understand the difference between wasting private money versus wasting money that was taken from taxpayers by force? No, I’m just talking about something else. You – especially you, Jennifer – don’t ever have to worry about my not being able to follow you’re thought process, and don’t ever have to ask me if I’m having trouble understanding something. Mmm-kay.

    The standard is as follows: you do whatever the hell you want with your money, but not with mine. Clearly not, since you have absolutely no problem with corporate CEOs of companies you partly own spending money that is rightfully yours on themselves, rather than doing it on their own dime.

  27. since you have absolutely no problem with corporate CEOs of companies you partly own spending money that is rightfully yours on themselves, rather than doing it on their own dime.

    Which company would this be? If I own stock in a company and don’t like its behavior, I can sell my stock without going to jail. How, by contrast, can I stop funding this Smithsonian nonsense without going to prison?

    And that’s making two assumptions – such wretched excess is considered wrong, which no one seems willing to agree it is, when the money you’re blowing comes out of corporate funds – and that opposition to such excess has ever actually caused a stock to do down.

    Still doesn’t matter, unless you can identify a private company that I am required by law to support with my own money, the way I’m required to support the government with my own money.

  28. BakedPenguin,

    It would take years to actually have your property taken for taxes, and cost the city a great deal of time and money to do so. In the meantime, the politicians you are targetting get to enjoy all the wonderful press your protest brings to their eminent domain takings. As this article’s appearance in the Post demonstrates, exposure, shaming, and political hits can be brought to bear on, and be much more damaging to, public officers than private ones.

    It’s not something that readily occurs to deeply materialist people who don’t value the public realm, but democratic accountability can be a bitch, too.

  29. Jennifer,

    Which company would this be? Most of the companies you own stock in allow their top executives to pamper themselves on the company’s dime to the extent, or moreso, that West is accused of doing.

    If I own stock in a company and don’t like its behavior, I can sell my stock without going to jail. Yes, and you don’t. Nobody does. You don’t even wrinkle an eyebrow at exactly the same behavior by corporate executives. That’s the point here – not that public officials aren’t accountable for their misdeeds(they are, just in a different and probably greater manner), but that you only consider such behavior to be a misdeed when carried out by people in the public sector.

  30. Anyone ever see a CEO lose his job for spending too much money on personal perks?

    Anyone ever see a public employee lose his job for spending too much money on personal perks?

  31. I get the point that you can stop sending your money to private-sector officers who misbehave.

    Given that, it is still wrong for people to spend other people’s money on cushy perks, regardless of how that money was obtained. That’s my Point #1.

    When public sector officials spend other people’s money on themselves, they are much more likely to actually face consequences for it, as the practice of using O.P.M. to pamper yourself is much more likely to be questioned for public officials, and because there is a more-direct method for the people whose money is being wasted to impose consequences (bad press, lost jobs, lost elections). That’s Point #2.

  32. It’s not something that readily occurs to deeply materialist people…

    WTF? Yeah, I’m going to go have a money fight with Smithers, then I’ll get back to you.

    Point #1 & Point #2.

    Okay, fine. You’re right. Here’s how I view the difference: A kindly grandma gives her grandson $100 on condition that he save it. He goes out, and buys 3/4 of an ounce of pot, and gets really high with his friends. Well, that’s not nice.

    However, if he stole the money from her to buy buds, it’s worse than just being not nice, and the consequences should be different.

  33. I think we are just going to have to accept that joe just doesn’t get it, never will, and let that be the end of.

    In any case, joe has already conceded the point that the post made (i.e. that living large on the taxpayer’s dime is unacceptable), which is admirable. What hay he tries to make with it from there is his own business. It is pretty clear that the point he thinks he is making is wholly unconvincing to everyone here, because we do get it, and do understand the difference between subsidizing the lifestyle of a public “servant” with money taken by force and subsidizing the lifestyle of a fatcat CEO with money given voluntarily, money which can be withdrawn if the CEO’s salary and perks become too unpalatable.

  34. asterisk – yeah, I was about to add a line saying we should “agree to disagree”. FWIW, I don’t think he’s wrong that some people in the private sector are paid far more than the value they add, but if someone values them that much…

  35. Whether West’s job is a legimate taxpayer function is a different debate.

    The question is whether these perks represent something inappropriate for someone in his position. It is not obvious that they do. Upper-middle and senior management normally travel business class, both for public and private organizations. Even mid-level managers often travel overseas if necessary for the job. $60k per year is not unbelievable by any stretch.

  36. Dang it! Looking for raw material for snide remarks, I read a couple of bios of West online, and ended up with a more sympathetic opinion of him.

    I hate that!

    I found out that: (a) he has dedicated his legal career to providing representation for Indian tribes across the country; (b) he is half Cheyenne Indian, which means, of course, that both sides have been against him since the day he was born.

  37. Also, the National Museum of the American Indian pretty much sucks.

    Am I the only person here who has actually been to that place? It’s mostly empty space.
    I guess you should drop by if you are in town though. It’s free to get in (because you already paid for it).

  38. If the problem actually was that “taxation in theft,” then what the “thief” does with the money is completely irrelevant.

  39. a couple of pointless observations

    Anyone ever see a CEO lose his job for spending too much money on personal perks?

    Does the name “Conrad Black” ring a bell?

    Private companies create value, and executives and officers are paid out of profits. Government agencies are funded by taxes imposed on the wealth-creating segments of the economy.

    And, if the museum didn’t suck, there would most likely be not one peep out of anybody regarding Mr West’s expenses.

  40. joe, nobody here brought up the “taxation is theft” meme. Why did you bring it up? Arguing with the libertarians in your head?

  41. Also, the National Museum of the American Indian pretty much sucks.

    Yup, this is 100% true. I was down in Battery Park one day and decided to check it out. As someone with a degree in anthropology (and some specific study of American Indians) I thought it would be interesting.

    It sucked. Let’s put it this way: it was 45% “Indian arts and crafts” (seriously!), 45% “the white man exploited us”, and 10% actual information about how the Indians lived, their culture, and their religion.

    This guy deserves to be shitcanned solely for creating one of the worst museums I’ve ever been in. But the architecture was beautiful! So much open space–and money spent.

  42. The museum is political rather than ethnographic, historical or archaeological.

    The director was selected based on his race and connections.

  43. I personally am not forced to take money out of my pocket and put it into theirs [CEOs] to subsidize these big salaries.

    Unless they are taking juicy government contracts. Then you are indeed forced, Jennifer. It’s not quite as simple as boycotting the local Korean market for discriminating against black kids. But the point is taken. There is, of course, much less accountability on the public side than the private.

  44. Chad writes:

    The question is whether these perks represent something inappropriate for someone in his position. It is not obvious that they do. Upper-middle and senior management normally travel business class, both for public and private organizations. Even mid-level managers often travel overseas if necessary for the job. $60k per year is not unbelievable by any stretch.

    I would add that during the times I have traveled extensively for work, spending additional money for first-class travel was money well spent. If there is enough money at stake that it’s worth flying a senior exec across the country or to Europe — e.g., a deal meeting, a fundraising pitch, or attending an court hearing or other important offical proceeding — then the exec and his/her staff have probably expended the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars preparing for the trip. After all that expenditure, it makes no sense to have the exec half-awake at the meeting because he/she had to fly in a coach middle seat for 7 hours and stay in a hotel room next to 15 kids who just left their junior prom. The fact that you might tolerate those kind of irritations if you were spending your own money on a vacation or personal trip is really beside the point.

    The travel dollars at stake here are really minimal by comparison to the museum’s overall budget. If the museum benefitted, they were well spent. If the museum is “spectacularly crappy,” then the problem is not the travel budget.

  45. This story was picked up by deceiver. Who knew Reason and celebrity gossip had so much in common?

    http://deceiver.com/2008/01/08/indian-taker/

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