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The Best Government Money Can Buy

Those of you who think it is incorrect to attach “Congressional” onto the the end of Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) would be well advised to read “Lawmaker holds stock in defense contractor he champions” (by Donovan Slack, USA Today, 8 Feb 2014) to see one reason why I always include the reference to Congress.

Slack describes the ethically-challenged influence peddling capers of Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin), a Harvard educated lawyer and one of longest serving and wealthiest members of Congress.  Petri used his position in Congress to enhance his political career (and power) as well as his personal wealth by promoting a controversial $3 billion dollar armored truck procurement contract to Oshkosh corporation that pushed dollars, jobs, and profits into his home district as well as wealth into his own stock portfolio.  Slack describes how Petri intervened to (1) fend off Oshkosh’s competitors, especially Texas based BAE corp, who had protested the contract award, accusing Oshkosh of low-balling its cost estimates and (2) how he worked to neutralize the rescue efforts by BAE’s friendly congressmen.  The story is complex, and I urge you to read Slack’s report at the link above.

Petri’s hijinks are old as our democracy (see this hilarious example of how the Navy’s Ship of the Line program was funded in the years after the War of 1812), but the intricacies of his maneuvers illustrate the subtle and deep-seated general nature of corruption and influence peddling now pervading our nation’s defense policy making machinery.  The threads of this influence peddling network are now woven deeply, almost invisibly, throughout the entire fabric of the contemporary American political economy.

Some political scientists use the metaphor Iron Triangle as a short hand for describing the structural aspects of this web of influence relationships.  The attached diagram depicts the triangle’s basic features for the MICC.  Note its principle idea: the two mutually-reinforcing circulations: (1) a counter-clockwise circulation of influence peddling fueling (2) a concomitant clockwise circulation of money.

Nat'l Security Iron Triangle

Moreover, as the triangle illustrates, the influence peddling and associated money flows to and from the Congressional wing of the MICC, including Petri’s operations, are but two threads in a highly evolved pattern in America’s contemporary political-economic culture. The triangle is useful in that it draws our attention to an oversight in Donovan Slack’s otherwise excellent report: Slack has no discussion of what role any links between the long-serving Congressman Petri and Oshkosh Corp. might have played in the story.  He only notes a vague reference to Oshkosh by Petri’s spokesman as one of the biggest employers in Petri’s district and “we do work with them a lot.”  But there is no development of what “working” with Oshkosh entails.  Nor does Slack inquire into any political contributions possibly made by Oshkosh to Petri’s election campaign, or PACs, or even a possibility that some kind of quid pro quo passed between Petri and Oshkosh.  At the very least, he could have written that no evidence of any influence of this kind was found.

Bear in mind,  the MICC is by no means unique: the same kind of iron triangle is a useful shorthand for thinking about the political economy of Big Pharma, Big Oil, the Banksters, environmental protection businesses, and other large financial or industrial networks.  Our concern today, however, is the MICC.

Referring back to the diagram, note how inside the triangular circulation/counter-circulation of influence and money is a reference to the revolving door.  This reminds us of (1) the incestuous flow of people moving from job to job throughout the triangle; and (2) that the microscopic incentive structure of individual self-aggrandizement accompanying the revolving door is one of, if not the, major engine(s) powering the larger pattern of influence and money flows.

Thirty-three years experience in the DoD convinced me that the incentive structure of the revolving door is the most poisonous influence operating within the poles of these triangles.   The incentive structure produces a behavioral pattern of cynical bureaucratic gaming strategies accompanied by a mix of situational ethics that have evolved over time to lubricate and rationalize the flow of money throughout the triangle (see my pamphlet Defense Power games for some examples of these behaviors).  The result has been an insensible but profound cultural evolution over time: Today, there exists an ubiquitous incentive structure in a culturally mature form, wherein it is both common knowledge and a normative moral value that people who contribute to the money flow should be rewarded, and people who pose a threat to that flow by, for example, (1) exposing problems like cost overruns, testing failures, or management incompetence, and (2) by recommending lower-cost or more efficient solutions should be punished or otherwise neutralized.

Readers might think my characterization of the revolving door is too harsh.  I would ask them to consider the incentive structure and moral implications implicit in Brian Bender’s blockbuster report on just the military-industrial dimension of the revolving door, “From the Pentagon to the Private Sector”. This report appeared on 26 December 2010 in the Boston Globe.  Bender’s report may be the best of its kind, but it is hardly alone.  Other reports illustrating the ubiquity of the revolving door can be found here and here.

No doubt, President Eisenhower would have recognized most of the preceding points, including the revolving door.  But more subtle aspects of the traditional iron triangle and military-industrial revolving door began to evolve, again almost insensibly, after 1981, when the huge flood of money was unleashed during the Reagan Administration.  Perhaps the most prominent of these subtle changes has been a steady increase in the number of Congressional staffers flowing through the revolving door, moving from jobs in Congress to jobs in industry, often via political appointments in the Pentagon.

Members of the Congressional staff work for individual senators and congressmen. By definition their loyalty is political loyalty to their boss’s wishes. The organizational environment in Congress is more like that of a feudal medieval court where elected officials of the lords and the staffers are the courtiers catering to the lords.  Also, Congress resembles a feudal political organization in the sense that it is composed of multiple political power centers rather than the huge top-down information-processing bureaucracy of the executive branch, which organized along the strict chain-of-command lines of a military or industrial age management system.  While one can argue that political power is being concentrated in leaders’ offices on Capital Hill, there is nothing in the Hill’s bureaucratic structure that remotely resembles the huge, highly centralized, rigid hierarchies of  bureaucracies in the Pentagon.

That is to say, there is nothing in a hill staffer’s work experience that prepares him/her for the Pentagon’s bureaucratic battlefield.  Consequently former Hill staffers are particularly easy targets for the gamesters in the Pentagon and the defense industry to overload with “information” and back-to-back meetings, all the while seducing them with outward trappings of power (e.g., long titles, big offices, apparent deference, power point briefing etc.).  In short, Congressional staffers who become political appointees in the Pentagon are easy meat for the seasoned civilian and military bureaucratic warriors, who are skilled in the control of information flowing into their offices.  See my 2010 essay Inside the Rat’s Nest for a description of how “subordinates” set their bosses up to do their bidding.

Consider, for example, the background of the new Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James.  Traditionally, her qualifying “executive” experience for going through the revolving door into the Pentagon would have been with an arms manufacturer or perhaps a big commercial industrial firm.  But her experience is that of a long-time Congressional staffer (and not a very prominent one at that), with a short stint in the Clinton Administration as Assist. Sec. of Defense (ASD) for Reserve Affairs.  Although reserve issues should be important in the grand scheme of things, that ASD position is one of the least powerful and least effectual ASD positions in the entire Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon.  After leaving the Pentagon, Ms. James rotated through the revolving door into SAIC, a well known Beltway “consulting” firm, and a notorious revolving-door way station for apparachiks leaving government, who want to (1) cash in on their connections to do business with the government and (2) pad their resumes for a future job in government.

A biting summary of Ms. James background can be found in Debbie Does USAF. To be sure this is a snotty portrayal by a former Bush II official who seems to have an ax to grind.  But can anyone possibly believe that a person with James’ kind of background has built up the requisite  technical knowledge, management savvy, and decision-making expertise needed, for example, to (1) rein in huge, out of control programs like the F-35, or (2) withstand the bureaucratic and political pressure to start a new high cost stealth bomber program (which, by the way, requires starting a new cold war with China for justification).

And while Ms. James is coping with the types of specific management problems mentioned above, she must also cope with an Air Force budget plan that is more out of whack than at any time since I began studying this plans/reality mismatch problem in the early 1970s.

Nothing in her background has prepared her for the bureaucratic battles over the crises between readiness and modernization, not to mention the need to solve the moral and leadership problems that are now sweeping over the Air Force .  Nothing in her background has prepared her for the even more complex bureaucratic battles with Army and Navy in an increasingly stressful budget war over what service gets hosed by the long-term financial pressures posed by the budget sequester.

Or consider the new nominee for the Deputy Secretary of Defense — the more capable Robert Work.  Work is a well educated, retired Marine Colonel with post-retirement stints as an undersecretary of the Navy during the first Obama Administration and in think tanks.  But those think tanks, especially the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), have a history of advocating certain types of high-cost, high-tech defense technologies, especially robotics and stealth technologies (including particularly a new stealth bomber for the Air Force).  Moreover, at least one of these think tanks — CSBA — has a long history of receiving money from the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment to produce studies advocating the need for these stealth and robotic technologies together with the concomitant strategies aimed at “containing” China.

Whereas Ms. James epitomizes the congressional hack rolling through the revolving door, Work’s passage thru the revolving door illustrates the growing influence of more obscure outfits — think tanks with agendas and obscure links between industry and government — that lie outside the traditional poles of the iron triangle.  Advocacy outfits, like CSBA, that pose as dispassionate, independent, quasi-scholarly sources of bipartisan information, may have less visible connections to the players in the Iron Triangles, but their funding patterns and advocacy agendas show they are deeply connected to the larger MICC agendas.

Bear in mind, I have only scratched the surface of the revolving door problem and the big cozy family of courtiers in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.  Anyone who thinks the Obama Administration is going to rein in the MICC now that Afghanistan is winding down, need only compare the interests of the Iron Triangle to its panoply of political appointees to see why the big green spending machine is poised to pass on the costs of the budget sequester onto social programs and perhaps start a new cold war with China to justify the extravagance.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Obama Administration is now signalling that it will cave in to this network’s pressures and exempt the Pentagon budget from the constraints of the budget sequester and begin growing the defense budget in FY 2016 and beyond.

Welcome to the best government money can buy.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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