A Small but Telling Example of Government Waste

One of the most iconic scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark is the one at the end where the Ark of the Covenant is put in a large crate and filed away in a gargantuan government storehouse filled with thousands of other boxes, never to be seen again. When I was an undergrad, one of my more left-wing professors criticized this scene as right-wing propaganda that unfairly portrays government as wasteful. It turns out that the scene was more accurate than either Steven Spielberg or my professor knew:

Al Kamen of the Washington Post details some of the ridiculous ceremonial gifts George W. Bush received as president: a riding coat, a samovar, Moser crystal champagne flutes, a silver sword “with elaborate detailing and carnelian stones.” Why the taxpayers of Australia had to pay for an $852 fishing rod given to a man who’s already quite rich is not clear — especially since other nations should know U.S. law forbids the president and cabinet officials from keeping state gifts worth more than a token amount…..

At White House gift-giving ceremonies, there is always an official present who catalogs the gifts and confiscates them once the foreign dignitary departs. The ceremony at which Italian diplomats presented Bush with 18 Marinella and Ferragamo silk ties, paid for with money forcibly extracted from the pockets of Italian taxpayers, must have been a hoot…. Kamen reported former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received a $230,000 diamond-and-sapphire necklace from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Is the Saudi embassy in Washington so dim it doesn’t know U.S. law prevented Rice from keeping the jewelry? Plus that $230,000 didn’t come out of the king’s pocket, it was presumably stolen from the Saudi people…..

There is now a huge swag pile accumulated during Bush’s terms, and the stuff will go to … a government archive. That is, it will be put away in an enormous storage room like the one at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” never to be seen again. Why aren’t the gifts auctioned off to reduce the federal debt? The $495 Montblanc fountain pen given to Bush will be wasted if it’s locked up somewhere. Future historians are not going to study the pen, but somebody might pay money to possess the thing. Same for all gifts to presidents and secretaries of state. Auction them off! The fact that the existence of the gifts is fundamentally stupid is no reason their economic value should be thrown away.

Perhaps a few of these diplomatic gifts are valuable historical artifacts that belong in a museum, as Indiana Jones would say. If so, they should be put in one. The rest are just expensive items that should indeed be auctioned off. Even giving them away in a raffle is better than letting them waste away in some storage facility.

UPDATE: Some commenters claim that auctioning off the gifts would offend foreign governments by making it seem that their gifts weren’t valued. Of course, storing them in some warehouse never to be seen again doesn’t exactly indicate that the US government places any real value on the gifts either. Still, it’s possible that the gifts should only be auctioned off some years after they are given, by which time foreign officials are less likely to keep track of them. Alternatively, the gifts can be donated to charities that can then use the proceeds to help the poor; it would be difficult for foreign opinion to take offense at that.