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Beware the $31,000 Dining-Room Set

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Ben Carson's office charged the American taxpayers a handsome amount for something completely unnecessary.

Making the click-through worthwhile: some unwise expenditures at the top levels of our government, the challenge facing Larry Kudlow, and another beloved institution of the childhood of Generation X closes its doors.

Beware the Ides of March!

Spend Too Much on a Table and You May Not Be Sitting at It for Much Longer

Your tax dollars at work:

Housing and Urban Development officials repeatedly consulted with Secretary Ben Carson’s wife about the prospect of redecorating his office last year, according to new documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The push to redecorate Carson’s office in the weeks following President Donald Trump’s inauguration – even before the former pediatric neurosurgeon had taken office – has come under congressional scrutiny in recent weeks. HUD’s former chief administrative officer, Helen Foster, filed a complaint with the department’s special counsel last fall charging that she was demoted in part because she warned other officials that the planned refurbishment would require congressional notification because it would exceed $5,000.

The 163-page release, obtained by the left-leaning group American Oversight, includes a series of email exchanges over the course of last year in which top HUD staffers vet different furniture options and solicit input from Carson’s wife Candy, as well as the secretary…

The furniture hunt did not end in February, however: an aging conference table and its accompanying chairs used for Carson’s private lunches with guests proved so problematic that his deputies decided to order a replacement at the cost of $31,561. The set included a Newport dining table with a mahogany finish along with upholstered chairs.

Carson’s wife weighed in on that purchase as well, according to emails between Rodriguez and colleagues including Greenwood, who now serves as the secretary’s chief of staff.

“I believe Allison has print outs of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out,” Rodriguez wrote, referring to Allison Mills, Carson’s executive assistant.

In a March 5 Facebook post, Carson countered, “The secretary’s dining room is used for business luncheons with a wide variety of people and groups. The furniture is 30 to 50 years old and is very worn. It has also been characterized as unsafe.” (Be careful around those unsafe tables and chairs.)

He added, “I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered.” It is hard to square Carson’s claim that he was unaware of the purchase with the email at the time referring to the Carsons picking out the furniture.

A HUD secretary in a Republican administration is not supposed to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a new conference table. (If you look online, you’ll notice it’s hard to even find a table listed for more than $19,000. You can get a ten-foot conference table with eight leather chairs thrown in for less than $2,000.)

Nor is the Health and Human Services secretary supposed to charter airplanes for routine flights, nor is the secretary of Veterans Affairs supposed to spend more than $4,000 in taxpayer dollars to fly his wife with him on a trip to Europe. It’s fair to ask whether the office of the director of the Environmental Protection Agency needed a new soundproof booth for phone calls, and if so, whether the whole project needed to cost $43,000.

The revolving-door presidential cabinet hasn’t helped the Trump administration, but if the next round of changes brings in some secretaries who reject these sorts of expensive ideas, or at least keep an eye on these kinds of expenditures, since the secretaries keep claiming they didn’t know the costs — or just have some staffer keep an eye on it! — it will be an improvement. Life as a cabinet secretary is not supposed to feel like that of a member of a royal family.

It’s just a shame that no one ever offered any indication that the man who became HUD secretary could be arrogant, entitled, and dismissive.

The Challenge of Advising Trump

I echo everything Rich says about Larry Kudlow . . . with a faint note of trepidation, as Kudlow isn’t stepping into an easy situation. He’ll be the free-market free-trade voice at the table with an instinctively protectionist president. Kudlow is impassioned, knowledgeable, persuasive . . . but Trump has had protectionist views his entire adult life. Over the past few months, Trump has grown more instinctive, impulsive, and erratic. It’s not easy to persuade a man who trusts his gut instincts so completely.

For example, what is Kudlow supposed to do when the president just . . . makes up points in negotiations with foreign leaders?

“Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please,’ ” Trump said, mimicking Trudeau, according to audio of the private event in Missouri obtained by The Washington Post. “Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit.’ He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed.

“. . . So, he’s proud. I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know . . . . I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid . . . . And I thought they were smart. I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.’ He said, ‘Nope, we have no trade deficit.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I feel differently,’ I said, ‘but I don’t believe it.’ I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, ‘Check, because I can’t believe it.’

“‘Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber . . . . And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”

The Office of the United States Trade Representative says the United States has a trade surplus with Canada.

Put more specifically, we sent $266 billion in goods to Canada in 2016, and they sent us $278 billion, which comes a $12 billion deficit in goods. But once you throw in services – travel, transportation, intellectual property — we sent them $54.2 billion in services; they sent us $26.9 billion in services. That comes out to a $24.6 billion service surplus in 2016, more than the goods deficit, coming out to a $12.5 billion surplus.

The Days of Toys “R” Us Come to an End

For those of us whose childhoods were filled with dreams of running through the aisles of Toys “R” Us, the news that the chain will close or sell its stores is sad — the end of a 70-year-era.

Of course, it’s a fair question for us misty-eyed with nostalgia: When’s the last time we actually stepped inside a Toys “R” Us? In my case, it must be at least two years. I did almost all of my Christmas shopping online last year; it’s easier to scroll through screens on Amazon than deal with crowds and wait in line at the stores.

As the Motley Fool observed, as recently as the mid-2000s, Toys “R” Us was one of the few places that parents and kids could see a huge variety of toys. That made it a destination store. But now if you walk into Walmart or Target for some other product, you’re likely to pass a fairly well-stocked toy section. Most Barnes & Noble stores now have a considerable toy section. The local mall has a Lego Store.

And it’s fair to ask how the shopping experience at Toys “R” Us compared to other places:

“If you’re going to have that breadth of inventory, you need someone in the store to help you find it, help you experience it,” said Greg Portell, lead partner at retail consultant A.T. Kearney. “It’s hard to sell toys in a cold, warehouse environment.”

Even Toys “R” Us CEO David Brandon conceded in an SEC filing last fall that the company had fallen behind competitors “on various fronts, including with regard to general upkeep and the condition of our stores.”

This is bad news for Toys “R” Us employees. Perhaps 30,000 jobs could be lost.

ADDENDA: More fun facts from the OpenTheBooks “Mapping The Swamp” report: The federal government employs 2,573 dieticians and nutritionists, spending $190 million on them, with an average compensation of $73,884. The Department of Veterans Affairs employs 2,338 of them; another 130 work for the Department of Agriculture and 93 work for the Department of Health and Human Services. Across the government, 251 “diet and nutrition” employees make more than $100,000 per year.

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