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Ben Carson, left, and Donald Trump speak during a round table with the Republican Leadership Initiative at Trump Tower in Manhattan, August 25, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Poverty, Poor Ben Carson, and a $31,000 Table

What a little bit of office furniture exposes about the profligates now running things

Christopher Brauchli

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.
                                            —William Wordsworth, Guilt and Sorrow          

It doesn’t seem fair.  And the unfairness is especially apparent when it’s put in context. It is not as though he wanted to spend thousands of dollars on a personal phone booth, or use government funds to pay for charter or first class air travel around the world. And the criticism is not directed at him because he supports cuts to HUD programs contained in the Trump budget.  Nor is it because he eliminated language in the HUD Mission Statement that promised inclusive and discrimination-free communities.  Nor is it because he is opposed to equal rights for the LGBTQ community.  It’s just because his wife was trying to do him a favor and all she wanted was a simple dining room table befitting the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when entertaining guests in his office.  Everyone would agree that food tastes better when nicely served. 

The reports about Ben Carson and his presumed profligacy, infuriated people who work in the White House.  As a result, they intend to assert more control over expenses incurred by HUD when it comes to spending taxpayer money on office improvements and the like.  They may, of course, have been especially sensitive about a $31,000 dining room table because they were thinking about the fact that Mr. Trump’s Fiscal Year Budget proposal, among other things, cuts the Department of Housing’s funding by $8.8 billion, or 18% of what it had been the preceding year, and cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, by $17.2 billion. In light of the size of these cuts, Ben’s dining room table seems fairly insignificant. And when it comes to other cabinet secretaries and their profligacies, Ben seems like a bit of a piker.  Mr. Trump has filled his administration with people who REALLY know how to spend money.  Dining room tables would be beneath them. 

The most profligate is Scott Pruitt. Scott, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has to get credit for being among the most creative when it comes to extravagant spending. Scott, like all people in his position, has a private office.  According to reports, in addition to a private office, he has had biometric locks installed on his office doors that only permit someone to enter his office if the would-be entrant’s fingerprints are recognized by the lock.  This is to prevent the person who has casually entered the secure building in which Scott’s office is located and has passed by armed guards, a metal detector, and an X-Ray machine, from casually wandering into Scott’s office by mistake.  In addition to the security protections and the presence of armed guards patrolling the halls of the EPA, Scott has had a phone booth installed in his private office.  The phone booth cost $24,750, almost as much as Ben’s dining room table.  Whereas the dining room table was needed for gracious dining, the phone booth was installed so Scott could have privacy when talking on the phone in his private office.  Scott’s greatest extravagance, however, is not wanting to talk in a phone booth in his office.  It’s his flying habits. 

Scott almost always charters a plane or flies first class when he flies commercially, because people in the cheap seats have on occasion been rude to him.  He also takes advantage of his position to commandeer army transports. On one occasion, he and his staff took a military plane from Cincinnati to New York City so they could catch a commercial flight to Europe.  The cost of the military plane was $36,068.50, $5,000 more than Ben’s dining room table.  On March 1, 2018, Scott let it be known that on a podcast set to air on March 5 he would announce that “there’s a change coming” which probably means he’ll be sitting in the back of the plane with the people who have on occasion spoken rudely to him.  I assume one of his many armed guards can admonish anyone who addresses him rudely. And Scott is not, of course, alone in his profligate ways. Cabinet secretaries also enjoy the perks of air travel that they plucked from the government for themselves or their spouses. Indeed, a fondness for luxurious air travel has been the hallmark of, if not a requirement of, the appointment to a position as secretary of most anything in the Trump administration.

Tom Price, Health and Human Services Secretary, spent more than a million dollars during his 7 ½ month tenure, for private charter and military flights, or $133,333 per month. Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary, on one occasion spent $12,000 flying from Las Vegas to Montana.  Steve Mnuchin, treasury Secretary of Wizard of Oz fame, spent $811,800 on air travel in the first 12 months he was in office or $67,650 a month.

A review of the amounts the peripatetic cabinet secretaries have spent on airfare, makes a dining room table seem like chicken feed. Poor Ben is the one taking the rap.  And it wasn’t even his fault-it was Candy’s doing.  She is Ben’s wife and it was she who assumed responsibility for making sure that his office was up to her standards. We should all be blessed with such a thoughtful wife.


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Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli is a Common Dreams columnist and lawyer known nationally for his work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain Law Review. For political commentary see his web page at humanraceandothersports.com.

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