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Economy

Let’s make a deal!

Perhaps it’s time for the government to sell all that memorabilia it doesn’t really need

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Illustration by J. Alex Stamos

Real people who have bills and not enough money might put their useless stuff up for sale on eBay, the contemporary take on a garage sale. If desperate, they might sell stuff they care about—but which is still just stuff when compared to food and shelter. You have to prioritize, after all.

Companies, too. I am sure MGM Mirage would have liked to keep TI, as it has a Cirque show, as well as a special monorail connecting it to the Mirage; until the sale, MGM Mirage had a monopoly on Cirque shows. But the company is building its future with CityCenter, and in this economy, reaching that goal clearly overrides its reluctance to sell a significant asset.

Of course, for government the math does not work that way. In government you either raise taxes or cut programs. But imagine if that were not so.

On December 22, the National Archives Record Administration published a list of recent gifts from other countries to President Bush and his wife. It is 19 pages long. And, except for the food, we are paying to store all of it forevermore. Technically, the president and first lady are not allowed to receive gifts (but there is a giant loophole when “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government”).

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Some of the items in the archive report are “abstract paintings of nature” (a gift from the prime minister of Israel); a sword and jewelry (from the president of Yemen); a book of Russian translations of English sonnets written between the 16th and 19th centuries (from Vladimir Putin).

What if we simply sold them instead of storing them?

The paintings were valued at $3,000, the Russian book of verse at $40—but surely a few weeks of eBay bidding could push those prices higher. That money could go straight to the nation’s bottom line, and it’s just a start. The government has plenty of good stuff it could sell.

Take the Smithsonian, which, even with 19 museums, mostly warehouses, at great expense, the 136 million specimens that make up its total collection. Does the nation really need Archie Bunker’s chair right now, or should we sell it to help pay for the bailout or stimulus package? What would Archie Bunker think?

Among the other items in the Treasures of American Television collection are the stopwatch used in the opening sequence of 60 Minutes, a shirt from Seinfeld, a laptop from Sex and the City and Mr. Rogers’ sweater. Imagine the millions they’re worth.

Then head over to the National Gallery of Art, where this country can raise some real money. How much is a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington really worth? Let’s find out. Each year the government appropriates money to the National Gallery to perform upkeep on an amazing collection that includes paintings by Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, da Vinci. Picasso, Warhol and Lichtenstein. Wouldn’t you agree the nation needs an economy and jobs more than our national pride requires owning Lichtensteins?

Like the American consumer, the American government owns more stuff than it knows what to do with. Only a fraction of the most valuable and precious items can be on public display at any moment. The rest must be carefully stored in temperature-controlled vaults at great expense. Surely the private sector can do a better job getting value from this stuff.

Of course, while the art, foreign gifts and pop culture bric-a-brac could raise billions, they will not get us close to the trillions we need. But fortunately the government owns so much more. How many federal buildings do we need? Wouldn’t Guantanamo make a great vacation resort? How much would a prime location like Ellis Island be worth? You begin to see how much can be raised while getting rid of nothing essential to national health or security.

States could do this as well. Imagine how much valuable California coastline the state owns. I am sure David Geffen would love to own the beach in front of his house. California just needs to make him an offer.

But selling the past to finance the future wouldn’t work so well in Nevada. For starters, the feds get to sell most of Nevada, since the federal government owns much of it. Guy Rocha, who recently retired as Nevada state archivist, points out a further sad truth: “Other than minerals, Nevada has the least natural resources of probably any state.”

Still, like the federal government, Nevada does have valuable and not-so-valuable stuff in large quantities, according to Rocha, much of it stored in a warehouse south of Carson City. Though the list does not seem impressive, Rocha is convinced Nevada’s collectibles add up to “millions and millions” of dollars. Indian baskets, old dental and farm equipment, precious coins and rare examples of early locomotives. On the casino side, Nevada has an impressive collection of vintage chips, dice, cards and showgirl memorabilia.

There’s a hitch. “The state can’t have a fire sale, because most of what Nevada owns was donated by people with stipulations preventing us from selling. It was given to the state for the generations yet born.” Well, now those generations are born, and someone needs to pay to educate them.

Of course, none of this selling is ever going to happen. The United States will borrow a trillion dollars before it sells Archie Bunker’s chair, even as sewage systems, levees and bridges across the country are in desperate need of upgrades.

Selling the taxpayers’ stuff will likely forever remain outside the dialogue about whether government should raise taxes or cut spending. Why? I don’t know, but Bob Dylan, as always, nailed the sentiment on “Lonesome Days Blues”: “Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with/Are the things you need the least.”

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Richard Abowitz

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