August 16, 2006

Nationalize the Defense Industry?

Okay, time for a real post. I'm sitting in a café trying to look for housing on Craigslist, reading the news only cursorily, and haven't really been following the Lebanon-Israel ceasefire or the latest ginned-up terror threat closely enough to say anything insightful. But John Stanton had a piece in Counterpunch back in July arguing that we should nationalize the defense industry, and I thought I'd comment.

The case for nationalizing the defense industry appears straightforward. Private enterprise is only "better" than state control of the means of production insofar as it's more efficient at producing whatever goods need to be produced, I think. But the U.S. defense industry is anything but efficient: no-bid contracts, cost overruns and foundering projects are so commonplace that they barely warrant headlines anymore. And private industry hasn't exactly produced a top-notch military: as Stanton points out, the Pentagon has yet to enter the information age.

So I doubt that converting certain departments of Boeing and General Dynamics into "publicly-controlled, nonprofit [entities]" would make them any less effective at creating weapons and the like. But what would be the benefit of doing so? Stanton lists a lot of benefits—and most of them sound convincing—but this one seems a little too pat:
Converting the companies to publicly-controlled, nonprofit status would introduce a key change: it would reduce the entities' impetus for aggressive lobbying and campaign contributions. Chartering the defense contractors at the federal level would in effect allow Congress to ban such activities outright, thereby controlling an industry that is now a driving force rather than a servant of foreign policy objectives.
Now, having spent the past few months researching various aspects of the defense budget process for a project that will hopefully see the light of day soon, I'll fully agree, the means by which a defense bill becomes law in Congress is utterly grotesque. The United States spends way, way too much on defense, and much of that money goes to worthless projects even by hawkish standards. (That is, even if you do believe that the United States should continue running a global empire—I don't, but some do—there's no sound justification for, say, spending billions on new stealth fighters.) And contractors play a role in perpetuating this bloat. But, I tend to think, it's only a supporting role.

At a very basic level, members of Congress like spending money. They especially like spending money in their own districts, which is far more valuable to their re-election chances than corporate contributions. And the defense appropriations process gives them a perfect chance to spend that sort of money. Bureaucrats in the Pentagon, meanwhile, enjoy expanding their own budgets for parochial reasons. Often, mid-level military officials who push various pet projects on a compliant Congress are responsible for some of the worst bloat in the defense budget.

Corporations obviously aren't innocent bystanders here. The Boeing tanker-lease deal, in which Congress nearly wasted $30 billion on an entirely useless rental scheme was conceived and pushed by the aircraft manufacturer itself (Air Force officials never asked for the lease until they were coaxed by members of Congress who were in turn coaxed by Boeing). But that's something of an egregious case. Even if you could wave a magic wand and banish all contributions and lobbying by defense contractors, "foreign policy objectives" still wouldn't be a guiding force in the defense budget process. But other than that, I think Stanton's onto something.
-- Brad Plumer 9:38 PM || ||