52 Entitlement: On the Frugality of the Ancients

I think many people have the impression that elected officials – or politicians, as we like to refer to them – are extremely pampered, entitled people. In my experience, I’ve actually found most politicians to be very frugal people, far more so that those who live on a corporate dime.

How often do you see people with corporate expense accounts keep eating their usual cereal and cup of coffee breakfast when the corporate travel policy allows for a $25 reimbursement for the meal? Or, even worse, how many of those expense account hotel breakfast buffet dinners end up paying more than $20 when all that they end up grabbing from the breakfast bar is a muffin and coffee?

Go on enough business trips and you start to think that we actually have a centrally-controlled economy … outrageous prices for hotel rooms, taxis and in-hotel dining seems to be driven by what businesses are willing to pay. That’s fine as long as long as corporations are willing to pay and employees receive decent pay as a result … but it must make the cost of business travel prohibitively high for the self employed, who have to be responsible for every dollar.

One of the strangest phenomena when I worked for IBM revolved around the corporate jets. These were extremely plush Gulfstream planes that cut travel time substantially. But after going on a couple of these trips – and being forced to work the entire flight by workaholic bosses – I discovered that most of my speechwriting colleagues concocted excuses to fly commercial to events. The most important reason (other than to avoid their bosses): to rack up more frequent flier miles.

Let me contrast this with elected officials and public employees. I’ve worked for several politicians and have been in contact with many more. They have their quirks and odd perks … most of them have a driver, for good reason, because the last thing you want is a type-A individual racing around a city in his or her own car trying to get to an event. It would be a liability nightmare.

Once they arrive at the event, most politicians don’t carry a single dime with them. So if, for example, a mayor or governor takes his family to some park event and the kids want ice cream, suddenly the press aide has to dig into his or her pocket to buy the cones. Do you think they get reimbursed for that? Not usually. Public employees, despite the current fad of calling them overpaid and underworked, are exactly the opposite, which is why many of the top performers you run into in the private sector had at least some experience in the public sector at an age when they could afford the pay and the hours.

Politicians too sometimes shake off the trappings of their offices and titles. When I worked in Washington in the late 80s, then New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley was scheduled to speak at our trade association’s annual meeting. He was a few minutes late, so I went up to the Four Seasons entrance to see if he was there. I saw Sen. Bradley (all 6 foot 7 of him) extricate himself from a tiny Chevy Citation car that he apparently drove himself … and when told by a bellhop that he couldn’t park where he was, Bradley frowned, but seemed fully prepared to get back into the car and find his own spot. Fortunately, I arrived just in time to flag down the valet attendant for him and let Sen. Bradley know that the association would pick up the cost.

For an Olympic gold medal winner, member of the NBA Hall of Fame and two-term U.S. Senator, Bill Bradley is incredibly down to earth, and he’s actually closer to the rule than the exception. It’s too bad that the rare bad apple with the $300 haircut or lifetime tanning salon membership gives everyone else a bad name.

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