Friday, June 08, 2007

Why we spend so much and get so little

The defense contracting cycle in a nutshell:
But the NMD pork-in-space project is far from exceptional. Seeking fat contracts, the big defense companies give donations to those politicians who will pay them back by commissioning expensive defense projects; the contractors then reward the politicians by locating their firms in their districts; finally the voters, glad of the jobs, reward the politicians by reelecting them. Johnson offers dozens of examples, including Florida's Democratic senator Bill Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who in the 2006 federal budget "obtained $916 million for defense projects, about two-thirds of which went to the Florida-based plants of Boeing, Honeywell, General Dynamics, Armor Holdings, and other munitions makers." Since 2003, Nelson has received $108,750 in campaign contributions from thirteen companies for which he arranged contracts. It's a cycle perpetuated by everyone involved: contractors, politicians, voters. Everyone benefits from this untamed form of military Keynesianism—except the next generations of Americans who can be expected to drown in a debt that now measures $9 trillion and grows daily.
From a long essay in the New York Review of Books, discussing three works about how badly Bush has fucked up America (HT: uggabugga).

Now this defense procurement issue pre-dates the Bush administration by quite a bit. I suspect every political entity with a defense industry that has ever existed has had to deal with this problem on some level. One of the main reasons we need a genuinely people-powered takeover of government is to combat this sort of cronyism and waste. What politician can really stand up to an industry involving hundreds of billions of dollars without an army of active, engaged citizens backing them up from the other side?

Notice how in the cycle depicted above, there is no point at which the effectiveness of the weapons system is evaluated, and no point where we ask whether we need the weapons at all. It galls me that we spend billions on pie-in-the-sky things like ballistic missile defense when our troops in Iraq could use more armored humvees and better body armor. Not that we should be there in the first place, but if we are going to be there, it seems pretty insulting to our military not to divert some funds away from long-term research to help them not get killed. But governments have often treated their troops as expendable, and Bush seems particularly callous in this regard.

If we must have ridiculous pork cycles in this country, could we please make them about schools, hospitals, infrastructure improvements, universities, parks, i.e. about things that are actually useful? If it's all about bringing jobs to districts, why not have those jobs be useful ones?

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