Logically, it is a bad investment for a nation to spend enormous sums on an inefficient, non-versatile, rapidly-aging, fragile or defective technology or system that is intended to fill a military need, or operate as an economic aid, or serve as a reliable part of the public works infrastructure. Experts, concerned that their government may be making such a bad investment in the field of their interest, will sometimes publish editorials as a patriotic effort to both save the public purse and to move their government’s policy toward more effective alternatives.
One such editorial appeared on the 10th, in Counter Punch, “The Self-Dismembering F-35,” by Winslow Wheeler. Wheeler’s concern is that a new fighter-bomber airplane, the F-35 being developed by the Lockheed Martin Corporation, will not equal the performance of either the fighter airplanes (F-16, F-18) or the ground-attack airplanes (A-10) it is intended to replace, and that the F-35 airplanes will be so expensive that only a limited number will ever be fielded by the US Air Force. A smaller fleet of less robust and agile airplanes would put any future military campaign at greater risk: it is harder to win a chess game with fewer pieces.
In the U.S. today, there are many other examples of similarly “illogical” government policies. We have the insanity of trillions of dollars flushed from the US Treasury to wipe up the speculative losses of the Wall Street banks in the stock market crash of October 2008, and to maintain the odious bonuses of the officers of those banks, who engineered the current economic collapse, and would hardly seem to deserve any reward for their performance in the blowing-up and popping of the economic bubble, and the hoodwinking of many thousands of their customers now facing business failures, retirement fund and job losses, and home foreclosures. This policy of post-facto over-insuring of rich speculators is supposedly to infuse fresh capital into the lending-and-spending cycle that is the present form of the U.S. economy, and by that means to trickle down to the lower economic strata an uplift — eventually — to each and every wage-earner and tax-payer in the land. An alternative would have been to directly subsidize the lower economic classes with capital infusions from the Treasury (a negative federal tax of about $8500 for many US households), and then allow the inevitable spending for: food, clothing, energy, housing, durable goods, health, child and personal services, and education, to pump up the many businesses that interlace as the U.S. economy.
Another example of “misguided” (the quotes will be explained) US policy is the spending on nuclear weapons experimentation and manufacture. These bombs are totally useless in any actual combat because they are so outrageously destructive and dirty (radioactive debris). Can you actually believe that the economic and power elites of the nuclear-armed nations would allow any dispute among them to escalate into a nuclear exchange? Of course not: big capital is invested transnationally, and it will not allow the managers of its national units to diminish the totality of transnational assets because of a turf war between rival nation-state administrators. National boundaries and sovereignty are seen as defining by the lower economic classes, who retain the sentimental illusion of some degree of ethnic and cultural solidarity that continues historical threads of national identity. The economic elite is transnational and their primary allegiance is to class, not nation. Even supposedly major rivalries like that of the U.S. and Russia, and the U.S. and China, are much less than they seem, because the respective power elites have much more in common with each other than with their national populations: keeping the proletarians disorganized, productive, and undemanding. This is what “globalization” is all about (from the US perspective, it is outsourced management of offshore slaves). Even against smaller weaker nations like Iran, the U.S. and its Security Council associates would find nuclear weapons to be a liability rather than an asset as tools of intimidation or instruments of invasion. Who imagines occupation troops could be sent into a territory subjugated by nuclear bombardment? What about as deterrents, don’t US nuclear arms make foreign enemy groups fearful to attack “the homeland?” Nuclear weapons are as useless at defending the US population from attack by sub-national enemies as cannons are at controlling mosquitos, as was so evidently demonstrated by Al Qaeda on 11 September 2001.
However, all these government policies may not actually be “illogical” or “misguided,” but instead only appear so to people with mistaken assumptions about the actual goals. If instead of producing a better combat airplane, reviving the economy, and engineering an effective national defense, the actual goals of these policies are to subsidize the Pentagon and the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the Wall Street banks, and the nuclear weapons facilities and contractors, then these policies are honed to perfection.
“Pork barrel” is the label for government spending intended to benefit a local or special interest in return for its political support of the sponsoring politicians. The phrase originated in the U.S. as a description of mid 19th century household larders, which in simple circumstances could be a barrel of salt pork. The derogatory use of the phrase, to label politically motivated government spending, dates from 1873. The practice itself is ancient. The difficulty facing the people of the U.S. today is that pork barrel is the dominant motivation behind their government’s policies. Our politics is like a rugby scrum by sumo wrestlers: those with the most, push out the rest and get what they want of the national treasure. Our elections are nearly meaningless because our politicians are bought (“campaign contributions” is the US euphemism, “corruption” is the term generally used elsewhere). Since they are largely the representatives of special (a.k.a., monied) interests, the activity in the U.S. Congress is one of: (a) unity in protecting capital from popular democracy (witness the hyperventilated resistance to the overwhelming popular desire for a universal-access public single-payer heath-care plan), and (b) contention in carving out subsidies for their respective sponsors, from the federal economic pie.
The rivalry between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is entirely about controlling the pork barrel dispensing apparatus of government. Since both are tools of corporate capital, government policy is nearly seamless between administrations, and the aspirations of the working (wage-earning, tax-paying and ‘dis-employed’) classes are consistently excluded from serious consideration.
Pork barrel spending can occur as a nibble, like the $398M Gravina Island Bridge proposal pushed in 2008 by Ted Stevens, then a Republican senator from Alaska (to replace the ferry connecting the island’s 50 residents and the Ketchikan International Airport to Revillagigedo Island and Ketchikan). It can occur as a massive bite, like the $14.6B Big Dig in Boston, Massachusetts, which was pushed by Democratic senator Tip O’Neill in the 1980s (rerouting Interstate 93 into a 5.6 km [3.5 mile] tunnel under the city). The biggest bites of pork are ripped out as the subsidies to the military-industrial complex, the financial industry, agro-business, fossil energy business, and Israel, which is just pork barrel for AIPAC ($3T total up to 2003).
But wait, doesn’t the failure to produce the better combat airplane, or fix the economy for the general population, or devise credible defense systems diminish the power of the government and the prosperity of the people? Yes, but so what; the targeted pockets were lined, and that’s all that counts in the psychology of me-first immediate satisfaction of pure individualized greed, which is championed as “the free enterprise system.” Consideration for others is necessarily a limiting factor to any personal agenda, and the economic friction it introduces is resented as “socialism” or “communism” by those intent on economic exploitation. The root cause of our difficulties is that this attitude is quite popular. So, we dismiss many technical inefficiencies, like a costly yet ill-suited military establishment, defective economic, health-care and educational systems, and wasteful and polluting energy systems, because the services they are intended to provided are not actually their primary purpose — since those services are “socialist” — but instead they are designed, jury-rigged and gerrymandered into a division of spoils, a consensus of pork barrel, and a careerist network of cronyism.
Technical failures occur because our social systems are twisted to the needs of insider personal aggrandizement instead of societal value: U.S. soldiers are killed in Iraq or Afghanistan for Israel and oil; disadvantaged and ill-educated people die prematurely to beef up insurance industry profits; civilians, workers and soldiers are harmed by poisoned environments or defective products or terrorist attacks or a woeful decay of educational access and quality, because of an over-riding concern for select special interests. Such technical failures are always seen by pork barrel apologists as isolated “accidents” that are regrettable but cast no guilt on the systems in play; or they are consequences that happen to “losers” who somehow deserve less consideration because they “failed” to develop the attitudes and personal fortunes that would have enabled them to be “players,” “investors” and even “winners.” The systems described are long-lived because they work very well for the people who run them, and their inconveniences are socialized, outsourced, ‘offshored,’ and trickled down to a population with no say in the matter.
Returning to the case of the F-35, Winslow Wheeler was very concerned about the diminished capability of a future US Air Force with a smaller number of less effective F-35 fighter-bomber airplanes instead of today’s array of F-16, F-18 and A-10 fighter-bomber and attack aircraft (a smaller number of more expensive and less versatile F-35s replacing a larger number of more agile single-purpose airplanes). One can generalize this concern to all the systems of the US government and economy, and worry about an overall degradation of US power and prosperity brought about by the parasitic effects of chronic pork barrel distortions of national purpose. The situation begs the question: given the nature of US foreign and domestic policy (a.k.a., the American Empire and the free enterprise system) would a diminution of US power and prosperity be a bad thing? Obviously, the “good” or “bad” here depends on “for whom?” If a degradation of American power is seen as a bad thing, then the beneficiaries of US pork barrel are being unpatriotic (to the U.S., as opposed to, say, Israel) by sapping the nation’s strength. One can imagine this being a logical and popular domestic view. If, on the other hand, a degradation of American power is seen as a good thing — for example in Latin America — then the beneficiaries of US pork barrel are still unpatriotic, but the weakening they cause is felt as a welcome relief in those parts of the world where oppressive US involvement decreases.
Our preference is for is for no pork barrel and no empire, which puts us in the “communist” red zone of political indicators from a Wall Street Journal “free enterprise system” perspective: a regulated economy with essential systems like currency and banking, health, energy, mass transit, communications, education and defense, all socialized. Also, legislation would ban private money from politics, and strip corporations of “personhood,” so they would have no First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights (and no right to lobby Congress).
US pork barrel is the domestic face of US imperialism. So long as the working classes of the U.S. and the wider world have to endure these linked forms of exploitation, they can enjoy some degree of poetic justice in the fact that pork barrel behavior is intrinsically corrosive to the imperial structure. They can only disappear together.
MANUEL GARCÍA, JR. is a retired physicist, and can be reached at email@example.com.