For the past several months—at least since the big fake debt-ceiling deal went even further south, thereby possibly maybe precipitating even the tiniest reduction in the size of defense spending increases—Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his allies in both parties have been screaming bloody murder about the need to keep bumping up defense spending. Increasing real spending since 2001 by over 70 percent? That's called austerity by both Dems and Reps.
Now the Washington Post and the Associated Press adds some context to Panetta's fear factor.
Get this: Since becoming Pentagon chief last July, Panetta has flown back to his home in California 27 times at an estimated cost to taxpayers of over $800,000. But Panetta, who in a previous life "built a reputation as a deficit hawk" and "regrets" the cost. That's nice to hear. Still:
He gave no indication, however, that he would end the weekend commutes.
"For 40 years that I've been in this town, I've gone home because my wife and family are there and because, frankly, I think it's healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight," said Panetta, who maintains a residence with his wife, Sylvia, on their walnut farm in Monterey, Calif.
Your secretary of defense, ladies and gentleman, a man so single-minded and focused on the tasks at hand that he needs to get away from his colleagues "periodically." By which he means: every weekend.
For security and communications reasons, Panetta has to fly military style, which costs upwards of $3,200 an hour, but he's buying peanuts all around:
The Associated Press reported this month that Panetta had reimbursed the government about $17,000 for 27 personal trips since becoming Pentagon chief. The AP calculated that the expense of operating Panetta's military aircraft — usually an Air Force C-37A — totaled about $860,000 for those trips.
Over at The Corner, Reason columnist and Mercatus Center economist Veronique de Rugy (who tipped me to this story), noted that the Wash Post's Panetta piece ran adjacent to an article about the ongoing General Services Administration (GSA) Vegas party scandal. That's a revealing juxtaposition, she argues, that tells us something about government spending.
No offense to Mr. Panetta, who for all I know may be a great secretary of defense (in spite of his hysteria over the defense cuts), but I can't imagine that we couldn't have found someone locally to do the job. Maybe we could have found someone who was willing to move his family to D.C. even. Or someone who was willing to pay the crazy price of $800,000 for 27 trips to California.
It is important to realize, however, that these examples (GSA and Panetta's trips home) are the extreme versions of something that happens in government all the time. Government officials, every day, make decisions about how to spend our money on themselves or on others. As Milton Friedman explained, this is a recipe for bad spending — even with the best people with the best intentions working for the government. There is no way around it.
In a real sense, the scandal is not Panetta's, who also flew home every weekend apparently as the head of the CIA (we didn't know that because his itinerary was secret back then). He's simply bargaining for the deal he wants and plenty of employers make all sorts of deals to get and keep the best employees they can find. More power to employers who tailor work situations and compensation packages to the unique needs of indispensable staffers.
But should the government be shelling out over $800,000 a year for a staffer making $200,000 a year? Is there nobody more qualified than Panetta within, say, an hour's drive of Washington? Is Panetta really at top form while shlepping to and from the coasts every weekend? If the Obama admin couldn't have cut a better deal with freaking Leon Panetta—an American public servant with a reputation for being a fiscal hawk!—does anyone think its gonna be any good at cutting deals with antagonist nations?
I recently saw The Hunger Games, which is set in a future in which vassal states ("districts") give all their resources and money to a centralized government whose leaders and favorites whoop it up on the taxpayers' dime. Does anyone wonder why the movie and the trilogy of books on which it's based are so popular? Maybe Secretary Panetta can read the books tonight on the long flight back to the Golden State.
Back in January, Meredith Bragg and I cobbled together "3 Reasons Conservatives Should Cut Defense Spending Now!" Alas, it seems that the only time that cons or Republicans want to cut spending is it can momentarily discomfit liberals. Well, here you go, fellers.