Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price is under fire after Politico reported that he took a roughly $25,000 charter flight from Washington, DC to Philadelphia earlier this month, in addition to other charter flights costing taxpayers over $300,000 since May. Price’s spokespersons have defended his choice of transportation—in contrast to a train, commercial plane, or car ride costing significantly less money—claiming that his very busy schedule requires the flexibility and efficiency that charter flights offer.
But Price’s excuses don’t hold up to scrutiny. First, his predecessors as HHS secretary in the Obama administration restricted themselves to commercial flights in the continental U.S. Second, the events that allegedly so urgently required his attendance included a health care information management company’s conference at which he offered informal remarks, as well as visits to a community health center and addiction treatment facility. Third, a United Airlines flight was recorded to have left for Philadelphia five minutes earlier than Price’s $25,000 charter flight.
Price’s mindset, however, reflects more than just his own entitled arrogance. Like many corporate CEOs, his behavior reflects the notion that his time is not 10 or 20 times more valuable than that of most people, but hundreds of times more important. This mindset explains why the 20-to-1 ratio of chief executive pay to average employee pay of 1950 has been replaced by today’s over 200-to-1 ratio. While Price does not come from private industry, he appears to feel that he deserves the same special treatment as his wealthy political donors and supporters, or some of his government colleagues who themselves come from well-compensated corporate perches.
This has not been—and thankfully, is not yet—the dominant ethos of government employees. Service to their fellow citizens and their nation, not self-aggrandizement, leads most to public service. Of course, corruption in government is probably as old as government. But we now see something new: Rather than react with embarrassment when their behavior is exposed, Price and his ilk seem to feel that they are entitled to any special treatment they grab.
No doubt some of the exaggerated compensation, perquisites, and self-image of those at the top is attributable to globalized commerce and communication, which has brought vastly increased prominence to a small number, in contrast with the much larger number of regional businesses who formerly enjoyed more modest publicity and compensation. But as common purpose has faded among Americans, selfishness and greed have risen in its wake. This is the real ethical issue: not simply the insistence on privilege, but the arrogance that justifies unlimited taking.
Federal travel regulations require selection of “the method [of transportation] most advantageous to the Government, when cost and other factors are considered,” and “If you do not travel by the method of transportation required by regulation or selected by your agency, any additional expenses you incur will be borne by you.” At the very least, Price should be required to reimburse the excess cost of his travels. One might hope that the current exposure of Price’s travel choices, and of similar ones by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, will have some salutary effect. But surely this is not enough.
If the Price affair, and similar behavior among other top executives, is to produce any consequence beyond some headlines and minor setbacks in the careers of the more notorious public perpetrators, we must confront the ethical deterioration that underlies such behavior—and that too often allows too many of us to excuse or condone it.
Daniel L. Feldman is a professor of public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.