Thursday, January 15, 2009

Paying a Whole Orchestra of Pipers

I am glad to see (finally) that I am not the only one grousing over the amount of money going into the whole Inaugural celebration. In better economic times I might have been more sympathetic to pulling out all the celebratory stops for what is clearly one of the most significant historic occasions I am likely to witness in my lifetime. However, the economy is in bad shape, we are being braced for the likelihood that things will not be much better in 2009, and at least one of the commentators on NPR's Marketplace finally came out and said point-blank that all of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's bailout money spent thus far has had absolutely no effect one way or the other (whether or not we have a clear idea of what the recipients actually did with that money). If we then take into account that things are still a mess in Iraq (where our adventures have played a major role in running up our debt), then is it not worth asking why the outgoing "Surge Administration" is being replaced by an incoming "Splurge Administration?"

So, as I say, I am glad I am not alone in my kvetching. Marie Cocco's latest column for the Washington Post, which has now been posted on Truthdig, has taken this bull (double entendre intended) by the horns:

Sorry to rain on the inaugural parade, but we need to find a better way. The financing of President-elect Barack Obama’s big day is just as much of an embarrassment to the country as the financing of inaugurations past.

First we force financially strapped municipal and state governments—particularly the District of Columbia—to pay enormous costs for security, transportation and emergency preparedness that simply shouldn’t be their responsibility. Then, because we want to stage an extravaganza that is as big and as bountiful as the day seems to require, we have the president-elect tap the same deep-pocketed donors who finance political campaigns.

Most of her column deals with those "deep-pockets donors," which is as it should be since it is hard to believe that influence will not continue to oil the machinery that turns the wheels of the Federal Government. The real problem, however, is that I have yet to see what the total bill for all of these festivities is likely to be. Cocco only addressed the first sentence in the second paragraph:

A part of inaugural financing that almost certainly will be worse this year is the portion that comes from the District of Columbia government and, because next week’s swearing-in is expected to draw a record crowd of about 2 million, is set to be the costliest in history. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose city already faces a budget shortfall due to the weak economy (and which already cut funds for housing, health care and transportation to close last year’s budget gap), has told Congress that municipal inaugural costs are expected to balloon to $47 million. That’s about triple Washington’s cost four years ago.

Because of the enormous crowds and the strain on regional transportation and emergency systems, the governors of Maryland and Virginia also have complained. The three jurisdictions estimate a total expenditure of about $75 million—yet Congress has so far allocated just $15 million to the District of Columbia government to defray its expense. At Fenty’s request, Bush has declared the inauguration to be a federal “emergency” so that additional federal funds can be made available, but it is unclear how much extra money will result.

Those are pretty serious numbers, possibly even serious enough to reduce budget items such as the Inaugural Ball to statistical noise. (Are Beyoncé, The Boss, and Bono appearing pro bono? Sorry, that one was hard to resist!) No matter how you look at, we are going to see a lot of money going in for one big circus at a time when there are too many voices (particularly those living under those "financially strapped municipal and state governments") crying for bread (not to mention clothing and shelter). Perhaps, in light of the budgets currently being considered for economic recovery, the bottom-line cost of the Inaugural shindig could also be called "statistical noise;" but, even if reallocating that amount was more symbolic than substantive, would it not still be the case that it would be a powerful symbol that the "change we can believe in" was actually in the works?

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