Back before the Great Recession began, one of my neighbors would get a new car or a new boat or build a new house, and the Secretary of the Treasury at our house would invariably ask me, “Now how can they afford that?”
Well, as the recession revealed, not all of them could.
When the downturn hit four years ago, I recall talking to a banker who said the problem was with all the people who didn’t want to save before they bought a digital TV. They lacked self-discipline, he said. That banker is now out of business.
Next came the news that some of the people living beyond their means were not merely folks stretching to appear middle class. It was revealed that walking among us were the likes of Bernie Madoff, Tom Petters and Denny Hecker, maintaining lavish lifestyles on money that didn’t belong to them.
It wasn’t just the little guys who weren’t paying their bills; some of the offenders were really big-time crooks.
So then we turned to the government to straighten out the mess. New regulations were passed, some of the lawbreakers went to jail, and some are still waiting their turn.
And now we have had a spate of stories that suggest that some of the sheep watching over the flock were actually wolves, too.
Some bureaucrats in the General Services Administration spent $823,000 on a conference for other bureaucrats in Las Vegas. Of the total, $130,000 went toward pre-conference planning sessions in which a few of the bureaucrats got together to decide upon the arrangements for the meeting — including a $75,000 bicycle building team exercise, 2,000 sq. ft. hotel suites and $6,000 in commemorative coins for attendees.
Is that scandal an isolated incident? Well, after she learned about the 2010 conference, the since resigned GSA top administrator Martha Johnson, gave the conference’s chief organizer, Jeffrey Neeley, a $9,000 bonus.
Then we learned that the University of Minnesota routinely gives out bonuses totalling in the millions to top administrators who are retiring. The excuse? The university needs to be competitive in its compensation practices, or, in other words, everybody does it.
I don’t know how one reconciles that mentality with all the reports of mushrooming student debt levels.
And now we have the revelation that a group of Secret Service agents and military personnel assigned to providing the president’s security on a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, deciding that mixing a little pleasure with prostitutes with business was no problemo.
The Secret Service has long had a mystique about it. Anyone who has seen footage of the assassination attempts on Presidents Kennedy and Reagan will recall the indelible images of agents who tried to provide a human shield for them. How selfless.
It takes a special personality to want to be in the Secret Service, we thought. It took someone who wanted to protect the president and other politicians at all costs, including their own lives. No other government employees, not even the people they were protecting, were held in such universal high regard.
And now? From this vantage point it looks like from top to bottom we have a crisis of character.
Our ancestors told us to live frugally, save, take on minimal debt, be God-fearing and law-abiding, etc.
Today, the government exhorts us to spend to create jobs, encourages us to gamble to provide government revenue, tries to force us to abandon our religious principles in the name of health care, enforces laws selectively to the point that some states are trying to enforce federal law because the feds won’t — and the feds take them to court for trying.
In the Land of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back to reveal that even the Secret Service has its pants down, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Has our ‘pursuit of happiness’ become so self-obsessed, that we are putting our ‘lives’ and ‘liberty’ in jeopardy?”
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He can be reached at (320) 632-2345 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.