November 03, 2007

The Gunbelt

In the middle of an interview with Truthdig, former assistant secretary of defense Philip Coyle had a few words to say about how the military-industrial complex feeds and sustains itself:
Harris: What are you doing to either defeat this spending mentality or work within the system to change some of these things?

Coyle: Well, it’s very difficult, of course. Some defense programs, some defense procurements, spend money in every single state of the union. One of the displays that the U.S. Congress can get from the Pentagon is where exactly all the money is being spent on each particular program. And so sometimes this means jobs all across the country that makes it very difficult to attack.

Scheer: And the companies do that on purpose. I’ve talked to a lot of people on this whole subject and companies will make, as they say, the F-22 or the B-2 or one of those planes, wingtips, will be made in a state to guarantee jobs and to guarantee votes, right?

Coyle: Yes, they will, and of course once a factory or a plant is established in some city or town or state, the people there don’t want to lose it.
That isn't terribly jaw-dropping, but it's remarkable that a former top Pentagon official laid it all out like that. I guess I never realized that contractors themselves—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the like—consciously tried to spread out projects in as many districts as possible to insure congressional support, but it makes all the sense in the world.

On an only slightly unrelated note, I've been skimming through The Rise of the Gunbelt, a 1991 book by Ann Markusen et. al., and it's pretty fascinating. The basic storyline here is that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, military production was, of course, concentrated in the old industrial heartland—the airline industry, for instance, grew up near the Great Lakes, around Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Dayton.

But after World War II, a brand new "gunbelt" arose along the continental rim of the United States. The big winners, sprouting up at different periods, were Seattle, the Los Angeles basin, Colorado springs, the greater D.C. area, and New England, along with the Sunbelt, Texas, Silicon Valley, and so forth. This change came gradually, as the cold war boosted Pentagon budgets and put a greater emphasis on air power, missiles, electronic warfare, SDI, and so on. There was also the fact that the Air Force adopted a contractor-based production system, as opposed to the Army's old in-house arsenal system.

The question is why certain areas became part of the "gunbelt" and not others. Aerospace entrepreneurs like William Boeing in Seattle, or the military boosterism of The Los Angeles Times were important, but so was the fact that some regions had lots of military retirees (Colorado Springs) or engineers (New England). The military tried to steer dollars away from areas where there was a competing civilian economy—which, it seems, is why the Midwest lost out—and to areas politically favorable to military activities. Surprisingly, the authors conclude that Congress had relatively little to do with where Pentagon money was steered. Watching John Murtha create a defense-contracting metropolis in his hometown of Johnstown, I doubt that's still true today.

Sadly, when it comes time to ask what secondary effects all this central planning had on the country—besides totally remapping industrial America—the book gets disappointingly brief. Income inequality, wasteful duplication of infrastructure, a boost in pro-military politics and militarism are the main negative consequences mentioned. I'd add that there's evidence that government spending could create more jobs if it went toward non-military purposes. Obviously there's some R&D spillover, but relatively little, given the sums involved. James Galbraith recently showed that the rise in inequality in the Bush years has been mainly concentrated in areas getting rich from military contracts. No doubt there's more.
-- Brad Plumer 10:28 PM || ||