Pruitt and Car­son trapped by the trap­pings of power

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - INSIGHT | NATION - © 2018 Tri­bune Con­tent Agency LLC Jonah Goldberg is a se­nior edi­tor at the Na­tional Re­view and a fel­low of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. Email: gold­bergcol­umn@gmail.com Twit­ter: @Jon­ahNRO To com­ment, sub­mit your let­ter to the edi­tor at SFChron­i­cle.co

It’s not an iron law that power cor­rupts. But it’s of­ten a good way to bet. The in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is: Why does power cor­rupt so many peo­ple? The way I see it, power — money, fame, celebrity, author­ity or some mix of them all — low­ers the cost of in­dulging hu­man na­ture.

This is one of the cen­tral rea­sons elites wreak such havoc by preach­ing “If it feels good, do it” lib­er­tin­ism. Rich peo­ple can af­ford their vices and in­dul­gences in ways poor peo­ple can­not. An out-of-wed­lock baby is just an­other cost cen­ter for a li­bidi­nous bil­lion­aire. Recre­ational drug use can cer­tainly lead to ru­inous ad­dic­tion for a movie star, but the path to ruin for a su­per­mar­ket cashier is much shorter.

But hu­man na­ture is about more than car­nal de­sires and other personal in­dul­gences. Hu­mans also de­sire sta­tus. And the more sta­tus some peo­ple have, the more sta­tus they crave, along with the trap­pings that go with it.

Tel­e­van­ge­list Jesse Du­plan­tis re­cently asked his con­gre­ga­tion to do­nate $54 mil­lion so he could get a Das­sault Fal­con 7X pri­vate jet. The three pri­vate jets cur­rently owned by his min­istry don’t have the range he de­sires.

Sta­tus isn’t just about lux­u­ri­ous toys. It’s also about the some­times sub­tle, some­times not so sub­tle art of bend­ing peo­ple to your will and making them ac­knowl­edge your author­ity. That’s why some celebri­ties or­der the staff not to look them in the eye. It’s why Sean Penn thought noth­ing of making an as­sis­tant swim through the filthy and dan­ger­ous chop of the East River to fetch him a cig­a­rette.

A friend of mine worked for a fa­mous TV per­son­al­ity years ago. Let’s call him JM. This per­son­al­ity liked to bark de­mands for hot choco­late into the of­fice in­ter­com (“JM need co­coa!”), but he de­lib­er­ately re­fused to name the per­son he wanted to bring it to him be­cause he en­joyed how his em­ploy­ees pan­icked about who would be the first to vol­un­teer to ful­fill the me­nial task. Just be­cause he could.

This sort of thing is grotesque and un­seemly in all walks of life, but it is par­tic­u­larly egre­gious from gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. A rich per­son in the pri­vate sec­tor can be an of­fi­cious, over­bear­ing ass and all he or she risks is his or her own money and own rep­u­ta­tion. But a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who abuses his or her author­ity in or­der to in­dulge his or her van­ity and de­sire for sta­tus is a very dif­fer­ent thing.

The Trump White House has a lot of very rich peo­ple in it. For in­stance, Betsy DeVos, the sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion, flies on her own pri­vate jet — and that’s fine. She’s ac­tu­ally sav­ing tax­pay­ers money. More­over, DeVos is secure in her sta­tus and doesn’t need a gov­ern­ment job to bol­ster it.

But DeVos and other wealthy mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion seem to be arous­ing envy in their col­leagues, most in­fa­mously Scott Pruitt, head of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Pruitt has done some good work on re­duc­ing reg­u­la­tions and ful­fill­ing other con­ser­va­tive goals. He’s also taken credit for some good work done by oth­ers and for work that hasn’t been done at all, as Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast has noted.

But Pruitt has also be­haved like a jack­ass, abus­ing his author­ity in petty and silly ways, as if to prove that he’s a re­ally big deal. He’s sent his grandiosely prae­to­rian se­cu­rity detail to fetch him some spe­cial hand lo­tion and al­legedly used his aides to get him a dis­count on a used (!) mat­tress. He tried to fi­na­gle a job or two for his wife. And that’s just the news of the past cou­ple of weeks.

Like Pruitt, Ben Car­son, the Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment sec­re­tary, has long talked a great game about the per­ils of big gov­ern­ment, but that hasn’t stopped him from treat­ing his Cab­i­net ap­point­ment as a kind of ducal fief­dom, re­ward­ing his fam­ily with busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties but also blam­ing his wife when he got caught ex­ceed­ing the bud­get for in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing.

There are perks to work­ing in gov­ern­ment. But, as with the par­don power, those perks are in­her­ent to the job, not to the per­son hold­ing it. Un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, it was a sta­ple of con­ser­va­tive rhetoric to note that Amer­ica isn’t a monar­chy. They still say it, they just don’t act like it.

Mark Wilson / Getty Im­ages

EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, above, and Hous­ing Sec­re­tary Ben Car­son both face ethics scan­dals.

Ja­son Focht­man / Hearst News­pa­pers

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