Thursday, March 7, 2013

Shirt off our backs

Clothes make the man said Mark Twain in a statement that applies to mankind – not just the male gender.  Fashion has become so prevalent in today’s world that it is synonymous with the entertainment industry.  Just a few weeks ago nearly a billion people watched a lot of wealthy people walk down a red carpet to a theatre in Hollywood and there are nearly that many photos of the event.  There are lots of ‘reality’ television shows about sewing.  With such a focus on fashion, it’s no surprise that the U.S. Government has joined the fray.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, on the eve of Sequestration, finalized a $50 million contract for one year to get uniforms for 50,000 TSA employees.  The contract is essentially a continuation of the prior one – where 2 years ago the company was awarded $98 million over two years – so this isn’t a one time only cost.    It’s a pretty standard uniform, the $1,000 cost per employee includes 3 shirts, 2 pants and socks. 

A dress uniform for the Navy tops out at $500.  SEALS duds are $400.  (There’s probably a discount on those since the Pentagon would buy in bulk.)

I never thought of myself as a natty dresser, but in my earlier career in Hollywood I was profiled in the Los Angeles Times in their Friday Fashion column.  I explained how I balanced the dress needs of being an executive in the film industry with one foot in the finance world and one in the entertainment world.  Even then I never came close to spending $1,000 per outfit.

Pointing out wasteful government spending is easy.  The amount spent to clothe one of the most unpopular group of Federal Employees (perhaps second to IRS Auditors) is an important issue, but the actual money is negligible in a $3.796 trillion budget and could be a total distraction.

The issue it raises is that nobody is managing the government. Yes, there’s political theatre and absurdities that have resulted in essential gridlock.  But the government has continued on – literally through a series of continuingresolutions that fund the government.

Elected leaders aren’t – and shouldn’t be – managers.  Bureaucrats make terrible managers.  CEO’s, executives who run large institutions like hospitals, universities, etc. have the particular skill to manage.  That ability doesn’t justify the 343 times in salary what their employees make but it’s an expertise that is lacking in the public sector.
Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree that taxpayer funds are to be expended and managed responsibly.  In 1996 the Federal government passed a requirement that all agencies pass an audit.  Seventeen years later – 3 administrations later – most of the major agencies still have failed.  There’s no amount of dressing up, even at $1,000 per outfit, that justifies the mess that is the U.S. Federal Government.

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