Rationality vs. Optics- Why David Cameron Avoided the Chartered Jet and Flew Commercial
British PM David Cameron just did something very interesting– aside from promising to slash the UK budget by 25% that is. That was expected, so no, that’s not it. The surprise for me has been his decision to include his own budget in the cuts. You see, I’m more used to politicians cutting everyone else’s budgets except for their own. I’m sure you’ve noticed this too: politicians have a tendency to protect, say, their own staffing levels and their personal travel budgets from any austerity measures. Well, I’m happy to report that PM David Cameron has chosen to be the exception to this rule.
Andrew Grice from The Independent reported that David Cameron and his accompanying staff took a commercial flight to Washington on British Airways instead of chartering a jet like British PMs normally do. To the further amazement of the Americans, he took an Amtrak train from Washington to New York. As far as head-of-state travel standards go, this is the equivalent of doing your laundry by hand. The last time I read a story like this, it was about how the then-Governor of the Bank of Canada (I think it was David Dodge) chose to regularly fly in economy instead of in first class. And he regularly stayed with friends instead of in fancy hotels.
But I guess things are different when it comes to presidents and prime ministers. Apparently, the US media was “bemused” and “perplexed” at the idea that the David Cameron’s visit would need to be scheduled around the departure of his Amtrak train.
I have to admit that I really like the fact that the PM is trying to set an example by starting with changes in how he himself does business. It drives home to people how serious the situation is. When the British PM is not only flying commercial, but not even first class at that, well, then things must be really bad. Contrast this trip with the fact that last year at this time, the Foreign Office (under David Miliband) had put out a tender for a chartered luxury jet service. That story is right up there with the US $440,000 corporate retreat taken by AIG executives days after the government bailed out the firm with $85 billion of taxpayers’ money.
A few years ago, nobody would have batted an eyelash at either of these stories, but the economic crisis has taken its toll. In both cases, it wasn’t just about the money– $440,000 is a drop in the ocean for a firm like AIG, and similarly, the Foreign Office contract would not have been worth more than a few million quid. These are not big amounts in the bigger scheme of things. At the same time, it’s enough money to matter when benefits are being cut, the unemployment rate is high, and houses are being foreclosed left, right, and centre. What these two stories were really about was how politicians and rich executives were completely out-of-touch with normal people. They were so insulated from their own citizens (in the case of David Miliband) and from their employees and their financial saviours (in the case of the AIG executives) that they could no longer see how their actions might be perceived from outside their bubble. It seems like David Cameron has learned from those mistakes.
It’s true that spending £ 200,000 on a private jet for the PM and his entourage might have been a very good use of taxpayer money. After all, there is only one British PM and the whole point of the chartered jet is to maximize his productivity by making sure that his time (and his staff’s) is not wasted– for example, this time around, he was delayed for 48 minutes at Heathrow while his BA flight was stuck on the runway. This is not to mention that any savings would have seemed pretty hollow if the PM had shown-up for his meetings with President Obama jetlagged and poorly-rested because he didn’t sleep properly on the plane the night before.
As a rational taxpayer, it probably would have made more sense for him to have chartered the jet, but then spent the time that had been saved in meetings with American business leaders who could have boosted the UK economy– thus making back the £200,000 and more. That is probably what Tim Ferriss (of 4-hour work week fame) would have told him to do.
But this is The Age of Austerity, and as a politician, optics matter.
Did Cameron do more with less vis à vis his US tour? Probably not. But the deeply ingrained cheapskate in me still admires the symbolism of this (admittedly superficial) change. I think (and hope) what he was really trying to say was: Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that you can’t try a new way.
The big experiment continues.