$500k worth of ugly china for the White House

Obama should get rid of it and buy artisan stoneware instead.

The Financial Times reports that the Bushes dropped half a million dollars of taxpayers’ money on new formal china for the White House.

Your mileage may vary, but to my eye it’s prissy and ugly; the death’s-pallor-green inner bands clash hideously with the ostentatious gold outer bands, and the white centers don’t improve matters any.


Remember when Sarah Palin established her “populist” credentials but putting the former governor’s executive jet up for sale on E-bay? I’m sure Donald Trump or the Bush Library or the DAR or someone would happily take this junk off our hands; the government might even turn a profit on it. Or maybe Neiman Marcus could sell it off piecemeal.

I have no idea how many people sit down to dinner at the White House, but even if this is service for 250, that’s $2k a place setting. For a quarter of that price, we could get some genuine American artisan potters to make gorgeous table settings in New England stoneware.


[Edgecomb Potters, ca. 1975]

For the White House to switch from mass-produced kitsch to artisan pottery would promote the craft and improve the nation’s taste. That fancy porcelain isn’t even supposed to look good; all it does is proclaim the owner’s wealth. The White House doesn’t need that. The new First Family could set an example for the rest of us by choosing beauty and function over conspicuous waste.


This post drew lots of mail. First, the facts:

1. “Taxpayer funds” was wrong; the money came out of the White House Preservation Trust Fund. My view is that allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to curry official favor by donating to such causes always winds up costing the taxpayers more money than if we’d just appropriated it, but that’s a larger question.

2. This was service for $350, which works out to $1400+ per place setting.

3. The china was produced domestically, decorated somewhere in the Balkans.

Now, the arguments:

1. Do I expect White House guests to eat off paper places, or Corelle? No. But the pottery I linked to has beautiful (to my eye) table settings starting at $200. One of Obama’s themes is the need to redirect American culture away from the obsession with piling up fancy stuff, for both long-term economic reasons and for aesthetic/spiritual ones. Sometimes less is more. Ask the Japanese, or the Shakers. So here.

2. Wouldn’t it be a faux pas to serve guests at a state dinner off stoneware? My answer: Not if the White House does it. As Shakespeare’s Henry V says to Princess Katherine, “We are the makers of manners, Kate.” If a private hostess used stoneware at a fancy dinner-party, that would be a solecism. If the First Family does it at a state dinner, that’s an innovation, like JFK going hatless to his inauguration [not!]. That’s part of what we pay them the big bucks for.

Update I had swallowed the JFK legend whole, but a helpful reader points out Snopes.com’s debunking.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com