Buying The President’s Books

Sometimes it is the little stories that are the most instructive.  I think that may be the case with the story about the State Department, through various U.S. embassies, spending more than $60,000 on books authored by  President Obama.

According to a federal database, the American embassy in Paris spent more than $8,300 on Dreams From My Father in French.  Embassies in Indonesia, Turkey, and South Korea made similar purchases.  The embassy in Egypt led the way, spending a whopping $37,000 on copies of Dreams From My Father.  According to a State Department spokesman, diplomats “often use books to engage key audiences in discussions of foreign policy” and he notes that “[t]he structure and the presidency of the United States is an integral component of representing the United States overseas.”  He says the books stock “information resource centers” that are located around the world and include books about U.S. culture, history and values, and that the State Department also provides “key library collections with books about the United States.”

Sorry, I don’t buy it.  I’m not suggesting the President had anything to do with this — I think it’s an example of bureaucrats using discretionary spending to curry favor with their political appointee bosses.  Could it really be true that Americans conduct diplomacy by handing foreign counterparts The Audacity Of Hope and asking them to read through chapter 12 before tomorrow’s meeting?  If so, that may explain some of our recent foreign policy problems.  And has anyone looked lately at the value of maintaining a worldwide network of “information resource centers” stocked with hard copy books?  If we’re spending so much on President Obama’s biographies, the “information resource centers” must be enormous — unless those books are the only ones that have been found to reflect the American viewpoint on culture, history, and values.  How often are the “resource centers” used?  Wouldn’t a more diverse, more cost-effective “information resource” be a computer terminal with internet access?

I recognize that $60,000 is just a tiny molecule of water in the great, slopping, steaming ocean that is the federal budget — but every journey begins with a single step.  Programs that permit the purchase of thousands of dollars of the President’s books are programs that can be cut.

Those Greedy, Evil Bankers

I see that President Obama has joined Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and others in slamming bankers.  Some of the outcry is the result of frustration, because banks have reacted to the Dodd-Frank legislation passed recently by imposing fees on people who use their debit cards to make purchases, some is due to the fact that banks were part of the 2008 financial meltdown, and some is caused by the belief that banks are not lending as much as they should.

We should all be on guard, however, when politicians try to blame one industry for our woes.  It’s like the sleight of hand used by magicians who want to distract our attention so we don’t see how the trick works.  Politicians want us to blame banks so we don’t blame politicians or hold them accountable for the dreadful job they’ve done.  And banks are a convenient, time-honored scapegoat.  In fact, America has a long history of bank-hating, from the battle between Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States to the campaigns against J.P. Morgan and Wall Street “gamblers” during the 20th century.

Should we really castigate banks for charging for their services?  Debit cards clearly involve costs for administration, data security, accounting for charges, and sending out bills, and someone has to pay them.  When Congress enacted legislation that made it tough for banks to have retailers pay the costs, the banks inevitably turned to another source — the consumer who uses the card to by something in the first place.  In a capitalist society, are banks simply supposed to eat the costs and thereby become less solvent?  Is it really so unfair to make those who use the debit card service to pay for it?

No one has figured out how to practice capitalism without banks and without allowing businesses to charge what the market will bear for their products and services.  Ask President Obama — according to the Amazon website, his two books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, carry retail price tags of $25.95 and $25.00, respectively.  The President isn’t giving away his work product for free and banks shouldn’t have to, either.