In Biblical times, the Pharisees were a class of people who claimed superior religious and sacred status by virtue of their modest living and supposed lack of ostentation. Jesus railed against them as hypocrites because while they claimed to be humble, they really engaged in the worst possible sin: spiritual pride.
This subject comes to mind because of the New Phariseeism taking place in Washington under President Obama (and during the waning days of George W. Bush). Please understand that I like Obama and wish him success in his endeavors, especially in keeping this nation safe and prosperous. And I do not share the contempt that many in this country have for Congress.
But in the recent behavior of some of Obama's colleagues -- especially those in the Treasury and Congress -- we are seeing some extremely naive Pharisaical acts and attitudes that could cause real harm.
Fury in Washington
Let's start with the fury in Washington over the fact that executives of the (formerly) Big Three automakers flew to D.C. in private planes to plead for government aid. Much was made of this, as if it were a great and unforgivable extravagance.
This is not true. A private plane is really a flying office. It is a way for a busy executive to get from one place to another as efficiently as possible, to get as much work done as possible on the way, and to avoid down time.
The executive of an important company has immense responsibilities. His or her time is precious. To waste that time in an airport security line or dealing with flight delays is, quite frankly, a sin against the stockholders. Flying on a private plane is not a decadent act -- it is just a way to move a very valuable asset around to maximize its productivity. To keep executives from using these planes is as foolish as not allowing them to use cell phones or computers.
And I certainly never see the president, his cabinet members, or key members of Congress flying commercial jets.
Leaving Las Vegas
In another example of Pharisaism, Treasury is now requiring the businesses that receive taxpayer money to have fewer and more modest meetings in more dreary locales -- certainly not near the beach or in Las Vegas.
This is an extremely unsophisticated attitude. I attend many of these meetings each year. The attendees have to work very hard to earn a slot at these meetings. This process actually raises productivity.
Then, once the attendees get to the meetings, they have to get up very early each day, hear speeches from experts in their fields, take notes, have seminars about their notes, hear more speeches, and meet new people to do more business. Then, exhausted from a very long day, they are offered the chance to play golf -- and my experience is that most of them are far too tired to do so.
It's Not About the Showgirls
These meetings are not play. They are serious, extremely fatiguing toil. The men and women at the meetings in Vegas do not often gamble, and they don't hang out with strippers. The reason meetings take place in Vegas is because there are a lot of inexpensive, conveniently located hotel rooms and exhibition spaces there. It has zero to do with glitz, glamour, and showgirls.
Las Vegas and the other destinations for resorts are hard-working towns full of hard-working people. To see a bureaucrat at Treasury writing a letter that keeps meetings out of Las Vegas or Miami or Palm Beach is infuriating. Nothing useful is accomplished by this at all, and many of the people who help keep these towns afloat could lose their jobs.
We all want efficiency and frugality. But banning highly productive means of travel such as private planes is simply misguided. We all want people to work. But keeping them from having face time at large gatherings with their colleagues -- in essence, keeping them from being well-informed -- is a step away from productivity. And kicking the towns that accommodate these meetings is just plain cruel.