To Ikea, then, for Ben Carson, whose ongoing refurbishment of the dining room at the Department of Housing and Urban Development – apparently with the guidance of his wife, Candy Carson – has hit the skids after growing complaints that it is gross, profligate and an egregious waste of public money.
Carson, startled as Bambi and twice as wobbly on his political feet, claims to have known nothing of the purchase. “I was as surprised as anyone,” the HUD secretary said, failing to note that the main public reaction to details of his office’s excesses was not surprise but a mixture of contempt and amusement that anyone could be so tin-eared toward the current political climate.
Now, there is a surface-level irony in a department responsible for developing housing being hauled up for developing its own housing rather too well. And the American people could be chuckling at it all the way to the statistics books, whereupon the laughing stops.
According to a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress, a quarter of Americans spend more than half their incomes on housing, yet 30 million housing units in the United States are deemed to be substandard. Substandard here does not mean that the dream of an antique Chesterfield set for the drawing room has yet to be achieved, or that the Persian rug could do with a shampoo since the purebred spaniel peed on it.
It means that millions of Americans live in cold, dilapidated or unsafe conditions without safe or adequate heating. You do not have to advocate a dictatorship of the proletariat to hope that public officials spending public money would have more sensitivity than the Carsons have shown in this instance, particularly when housing is his actual portfolio.
The Republican Party holds the presidency and Carson his job because a lot of people went to the polls imagining the swamp was going to be drained, not fitted with handcrafted bronze faucets and a bidet. And now look.
In Britain, where I live (and where we have a housing crisis of our own, thanks for asking), we had a version of #Carsonsideboardgate back in 2009, when a whistleblower leaked to the Daily Telegraph a comprehensive list of claims being made on the public purse by members of Parliament.
The list was alternately depressing and comical: a combination of cheapjack scams to boost politicians’ pay and hilariously eccentric bills to the public for things that were, frankly, weird. The most famous was the Conservative MP Peter Viggers’ claim for £30,000 of gardening expenses, including £1,645 for a “floating duck island” in his pond.
The expenses scandal was something of a watershed moment for public scrutiny of British politicians’ pay and perks, which is now a toxic matter about which no one in office can say anything good. It did nothing of any major significance to improve the public finances: The UK currently runs a budget deficit of £8.7 billion a month, which no amount of furniture-skimping or duck-house canceling can hope to touch.
But the expenses scandal did provide a handy stick with which to beat politicians at a time when, in the aftermath of the financial calamity of 2009, it was felt that beating politicians would be a cathartic thing to do.
That feeling is still with us on both sides of the Atlantic: hence, the opprobrium in which Carson is presently held. Whether the rage over this dining set will metastasize into a full-fledged scrutiny of all US government officials’ spending I doubt. After all, the 45th President is hardly a scrimper himself, on the public’s dime.
And he was the one who was supposed to be pulling the plug on the swamp. Go figure.