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The Simple Joy of Spending Someone Else’s Money

200px-UN_building.jpgDonald Trump developed the lot just across from the United Nations complex into a residential skyscraper called Trump World Tower. It is, or was, the tallest residential building in the world. 871,000 square feet. And each one cost Trump $258.32. He gave these statistics to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security on July 21, 2005. [PDF, HTML] He said that, the last few years of United Nations activity notwithstanding, he supports the organization in concept and loves that it is in New York. “So, I am a big fan. Such a fan, in fact, that at great expense, I built a building across the street… and I’m very proud of it. And if the United Nations weren’t there, perhaps I wouldn’t have built it in that location.”

And then, of course, came a long, long but. In one of the grander moments in senate testimonial history, Donald Trump at length introduced Kofi Annan to his petard. Trump was talking about the United Nations’ billion-plump plan to renovate its sprawling complex on the East Side of Manhattan—land that, vacated by the feckless bureaucrats there, could be very profitable for a private developer. The UN planned to fix up its buildings—not destroy and rebuild, but just fix—for $1.5 billion. That was in the year 2000, when the blueprints first percolated through a city which, while somewhat liberal and loosely on-board with the warp and woof of the UN’s mission and disposition, still ain’t gonna let itself get screwed. The figure was revised downward to $1.2 billion, seemingly for the express purposes of that committee meeting. Still ridiculous, says Trump, whose public accounting proves it.

Folks stopped paying attention after The Donald angle evaporated. Here’s how he described his meeting with the Secretary General:

Unfortunately, as our great Senator to my right said, there was just no response. They didn’t really care. It got a lot of press. I walked into the room, and I sat down. I felt like a head of state. I was sitting with Kofi Annan, and a door opened, and there were literally hundreds of reporters taking my picture. I said, “What are we doing? I just want to tell you, I can build a building a lot cheaper.” And that was the end of it.
Folks stopped paying attention. So the United Nations slyly increased the price tag to $1.6 billion. You’d laugh, if it weren’t so thoroughly evil. The United States, despite Congress’ attempts to pin our funding of the UN to, well, non-evilosity, basically underwrites 25% of whatever that organization does. (That 25% is more than our share of the world’s wealth, by the by.) And the local target in this renovation circus is Manhattan, which means that the City stands to bear some significant costs as well: That land, after all, isn’t owned by any corporation, person, or nation who can easily be audited for tax purposes. It is owned by that unholy ghost called NGO, and its finances are granite-writ and closed to public review.

That the United Nations is being wasteful is self-evident, for it is in all things. But Donald Trump has additional pearls of wisdom. While he spent $225 million dollars to build Trump World Tower in virtually the same spot as the United Nations, the UN is asking for $1.6 billion to renovate its existing structures. Quoth the pennywise capitalist: “Now, anybody that says a building of renovation is more expensive than building a new building, doesn’t know the business… it only costs a fool more money.”

Who’s the more foolish: the fool or the fool who follows him? This morning the New York Times goes along with the ancient UN refrain: “Renovation of U.N. Complex Stalled by U.S., an Official Says”. Reporter Warren Hoge tells us that John Bolton and his frowny-face team of reformers at the United States mission to the United Nations are actually “resulting in rising costs and disillusioning the team of experts” put together by Louis Frederick Reuter IV, the project’s sultan who most recently oversaw the rebuilding of the Cornell University Hospital.

“It’s one of those moments in time that I don’t think will be recreated if not acted on in a very short period of time,” he said.

And the United States would probably be feeling exactly the exigency Reuter describes, if only, right now, it wasn’t as expensive as it ever has been to develop in the United States, or if the United Nations over the past twelvemonth had proved itself amenable to fiscal reform, or if the plan hadn’t been stalled in the UN bureaucracy for the better part of a decade, or if those plans amounted to the $700 million that Trump testified it could cost rather than $1.6 billion, or if the proposed budget for the project did not wax and wane in direct correlation to the amount of domestic scrutiny it receives. Perhaps John Bolton and crew would be more than willing to ease up if New Yorkers didn’t so thoroughly feel and know that they’re getting the old screwgie here.

At issue is a $100 million expenditure that Bolton feels isn’t fully justified. (Yea, let us pause, and look on John Bolton, and know him. And let us pray that his fruit may one day fill Washington, DC with the divine love of a veto pen.) The United Nations says that chunk of change is necessary “to move forward on its schedule for obtaining critical lease obligations and commitments to pre-construction work on the temporary building,” which is too much like the United Nations. For the benefit of the untrained eye, “move forward”, “schedule”, “commitments”, the prefix “pre-” and the word “temporary” are code words for “not actually renovating the damn thing”.

Bolton has offered a compromise of $23.5 million.

Under the current master plan, the overall construction cost for the United Nations complex would be $405 per square foot. Reuter says that is “a great number,” but it still doesn’t gel with what Trump has been spending for more advanced buildings. The most salient point may be the difference between office space and residential space. As Trump mentioned in his testimony, while office skyscrapers and residential skyscrapers are built to the same exacting standards, the latter is far denser internally, with more utility work, more interior construction, more internal infrastructure. Office buildings consist of open floors. So even if the United Nations required the sort of extreme security and technology resources that a high-level government building requires—which it does not—its price still shouldn’t exceed what it costs for a soaring modern glass skyscraper packed with luxury apartments. For now, though, the status quo reigns. Here is an appropriate bit from the Times report, though, to put a cap on this debacle:

Mr. Reuter said plaster from the ceiling of the General Assembly fell to the floor last fall just days before 150 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs gathered there to commemorate the organization’s 60th anniversary.

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