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Petri: Secret Service and the bottom dollar

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Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog for The Washington Post, where this first appeared.

If there's one lesson to be learned from the Secret Service Colombian escort scandal, it is that there are some things you should not try to save money on.

Sure, get a Groupon for a massage. Hire the cheap roof repairman. Send your kids to robot day care. Switch to Geico! Cut corners everywhere you like. Buy a mere $14 worth of artisanal cheese, rather than the full $19 arrangement, when you head west for the General Services Administration convention.

But when it comes to ladies of the night, don't try to haggle. Especially not if you are an employee of the U.S. Secret Service visiting Colombia.

Everything I know about prostitution, I learned from "Pretty Woman" and the James O'Keefe ACORN sting. I know it is the world's oldest profession, with the possible exception of hunter-gatherer.

So it was with rapt attention that I read The New York Times interview of one of the Colombian prostitutes who sparked the Secret Service scandal.

First of all, she is not a prostitute. She is an escort. This is a subtle but meaningful distinction.

"It's the same, but it's different," the escort told The Times. "It's like when you buy a fine rum or a BlackBerry or an iPhone. They have a different price." Does the iPhone offer services that I am not aware of? Clearly, I'm asking Siri the wrong things.

Many people have been lumping this story together with the party in the General Services Administration, treating both as an example of similarly wasteful, disgraceful behavior by government employees. But I think this is misguided.

The crucial line comes in the second paragraph of the story.

"The disagreement over her price -- he offered $30 for services she thought they had agreed were worth more than 25 times that -- set off a tense early morning quarrel in the hallway of the luxury hotel involving the woman, another prostitute, Colombian police officers arguing on the women's behalf and American federal agents who tried but failed to keep the matter from escalating," The Times reported.

We should have sent these guys to the GSA convention. Clearly, they drive a hard bargain.

See, this is the difference between spending other people's money and spending your own.

The GSA could afford $75,000 to construct a bicycle as a team-building exercise. Why not? The employees weren't paying for it.

Nineteen dollars' worth of artisanal cheeses? Don't mind if I do! But the Secret Service wouldn't even shell out $800 for a full-service evening with an escort. That's about as penny-pinching as they come. The agents spent money on two bottles of Absolut for the table earlier, but evidently only under duress.

Just think: If the agents hadn't been trying to save money, we might never have known about all this. And that is a fact they should publicize. What is more American than trying to save money on occasions when you really should just pay full freight? The offer of $30 is almost impressively cheap. You can't expect a full evening of service for less than the cost of an iPhone. If you could, no one would buy iPhones! OK, we'd still buy iPhones.

But instead of praising the only government employees who have publicly displayed insane levels of frugality, we're condemning them.

I am not commending these Secret Service officers, obviously. But I do admire their parsimony.

Why fire them? Everyone has been complaining about government waste. Yet here are several men who have received evenings of quality service and managed to drive the cost down from $800 to $225 (the eventual price paid in a mixture of dollars and pesos). Get these guys on the budget committee. Send them to the GSA. There's no danger of their wasting this kind of dough on commemorative coins.

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