Spending on office furniture becomes a US political football

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Uncle Sam MoneyWe’ve mentioned this before but when it comes to riling those who see public sector spending as inherently wasteful, nothing gets their backs up quite so much as the buying of lightbulbs and office furniture. You can come up with your own theories on why that might be (and I hope you do), but it’s been proved yet again as Fox News and other right wing commentators and media in the US have risen up in moral indignation at the news that the Internal Revenue Service has spent $96.5 million on office furniture and refurbishment during the last five years of the Obama administration. Now of course, this is just the touchstone for griping about government spending in general and Barack Obama in particular, but the US is clearly not alone in having an issue with office furniture purchases and you have to wonder exactly why this is.

The complaints don’t even take into account the context in which this spending is taking place. I don’t know that either except to say that the IRS has some 100,000 employees so maybe it’s not a huge amount if they are doing up a lot of offices. As ever there is also a degree of manipulation in the media’s reporting of the spending, or at least an inability to check facts. This report, for example, claims that chairs on the websites of manufacturers such as US office furniture giants Herman Miller, Knoll and Haworth are listed at up to $1,200 which is probably true but even if such top of the range chairs are being bought, there is no way that tens of thousands of them are being paid for at that price.

Nor do the media ever suggest realistic alternatives. Should people bring their own chairs? Sit on the floor? Or just buy cheap chairs that aren’t fit for purpose and break after a few weeks of use?

And still we are left with this question; why is office furniture always such a particular issue when it comes to public sector purchasing? Why does it incite such moral indignation and was Erich Fromm right when he said that: “There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feelings as moral indignation, which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue. The ‘indignant’ person has for once the satisfaction of despising and treating a creature as ‘inferior’, coupled with the feeling of his own superiority and rightness.”