UNIVERSALISM

Most of what passes for "conflict" in modern American politics is seriously corny at its best and perfunctory at its worst. Partisan squabbles in Congress are not like a boxing match – the days of Brooks caning Sumner have long passed – but rather like pro wrestling: scripted, full of loud bluster and theatrical gestures, fake, and stupid. Supreme Court nominations are my favorite example. Everyone gets confirmed, but not before the minority party stages a few weeks of hearings to show the party base that, gosh, we tried to stop it.

In other words, despite all the complaints about rancor, partisan clashes, and incivility in Washington it's very rare that we actually see any of these people get angry. They act angry (or offended, or insulted, or whatever) at key moments because they know they are supposed to. "Obama nominated who? Without even consulting Mitch McConnell? Why I never!" We get lots of these, for lack of a better term, hissy fits. But it's so very rare to see these people pull out the knives and attack like a cornered animal. In my view there's only one thing that can reliably send Congress into a real, legitimate, out-for-blood frenzy, and that's any threat, real or perceived, to the Department of Defense budget.

Seriously, I think that partisan conflict is little more than going through the motions for most political issues. Most members who have any legislative experience know exactly what is and is not possible to get passed in any given session. Just the hint of any cuts to – or anything but continued growth of, for that matter – the Pentagon budget tells you everything you need to know about who runs that town. Think the NRA is a powerful lobby? There are dozens members of Congress who will tell Wayne LaPierre to his face to go fuck himself. None but a handful will even mention reduced defense spending…despite the fact that polling shows many Americans believing that we spend too much. You know the statistics and I will not recount them here.

This is why you see the GOP crapping itself to oppose former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defense Secretary. On the surface it seems ludicrous – "They hate Obama so much, they even complain when he nominates one of them!" – and the rhetoric surrounding it is the usual nonsense; something about how he wants to appease Iran. Yeah. OK. In reality the only problem is that Chuck Hagel, a man who voted for every increase in defense spending he ever saw as a Senator, is perceived to be less than 1000% in favor of an eternally expanding Pentagon budget. Why, he might even support some totally insignificant cuts to bloated, expensive, ridiculous weapon systems and programs!

In the real world, that makes some sense. Yes, 20% of the population is stupid enough to equate money with security ("If we spend less, we're less safe!") but in Washington that idea is goddamn heretical. That is why you see people like McCain and particularly the two Texans, Cruz and Cornyn, attacking Hagel with the kind of pure hatred usually reserved for members of al-Qaeda. The beast must be fed at all costs. It must continue to grow, and no one who has not sworn complete loyalty to it is acceptable.

If there is a They in this country, a single malevolent force that Really Runs Things and manipulates the entirety of the government and the public, it's the defense industry. They own the media (in NBC's case, literally), the think tanks, the Beltway pundit class, the state/local governments, and Congress. Their reach is even deeper and broader than that of Wall Street, if that's conceivable. They live entirely off of the government and Congress has to appropriate money for them every year. Defense spending is a discretionary item. The industry can never afford to take its foot off the lobbying pedal, not even for a second. Eisenhower was right; they own the government to an extent disproportionate even to their considerable role in our economy.

How do they do it? The easiest answer is that they figured out many decades ago – early in the Cold War – how Congress works. Namely, the industry understands and employs the strategy of Universalism better than any other. It's a simple idea: one of the most effective ways to build a winning coalition to pass legislation in Congress is to distribute the benefits as broadly as possible. If you want Congress to vote on a ludicrously expensive fighter jet program, one way to get a ton of Congressmen on board is to build the engines in one district, the wings in another, the electronics in a third, the radar in a fourth…and so on. The defense industry is not bound by any geography, as the oil industry is to some extent. No, they have made goddamn sure that they have economic interests in as many different states and Congressional districts as possible. They're everywhere. And that's why they get what they want all the time. The south is lousy with the footprints of the military-industrial complex, but so is California. So's Virginia. Maryland. New York. Missouri. Washington state. Hawaii. Arizona and New Mexico. Colorado. North Dakota. The Carolinas. Tennessee. Pick any spot on the map and the military bases and defense contractors won't be far away.

That's why the claws are coming out over Hagel. And Hagel isn't even a real threat; he's a 66 year old company-man Republican from Nebraska. But unless one's loyalty to shoveling more and more money into the arms industry is beyond any conceivable doubt, neither they nor the Congressmen they have bought can risk letting you near the levers of power. For decades people have called Social Security the third rail of American politics. Well, Social Security's under the knife while the Pentagon keeps growing. Which one is untouchable?

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38 Responses to “UNIVERSALISM”

  1. J. Dryden Says:

    Psst! Brooks caned Sumner. And that's Sumner with an "n".

  2. eau Says:

    While I am sure you are better informed on the subject than I, is this not just more sound and fury? Is there anyone – anyone – Obama could have nom'd, that would not have resulted in the exact same pant-shitting?

    McCain? Zombie Reagan? Mars, Roman god of war?

  3. J. Dryden Says:

    I suppose the only thing preventing me from acceding to the idea of a monolithic "They" is the fact that the corporate nature of any American industry will, I'd argue, preclude collusion between rival factions. That is, for example, RJR and Liggett may both want cigarettes to be added to the Surgeon General's RDA of Awesomeness, but they want *Camels* or *Chesterfields* to be the cigarettes in question. Same goes for GE versus GD.

    If the no-longer-good-soldiers of the GOP can turn on each other in these, the Latter Days of our civilization, surely we can count on the greedy ironmongers to do the same–which is to say, I suspect you're quite right about an overall distaste for Hagel, but once he gets in (and he will), won't we see the fight between the D-Contractors over who gets cut and who doesn't? (Note to self: Be elected to Congress and serve on the Armed Services Committee. Leave plenty of room in off-shore accounts for "unsolicited expressions of appreciation.")

  4. Xynzee Says:

    And that Ed, is why I tune in.

    What JD said. Someone I know has spent the last few years overseeing the installation and implementation of military hardware/software systems.

    Because of what you addressed, companies A, B & C will tender for a whole system. To spread the wealth, each company will get a portion of the project. Thus causing disention amongst the competing companies. Each one will structure their code their own way, and because this is Company IP none of them will share information.

    Long story short, when it comes time to bring the whole project together nothing worked because none of the systems talked to each other. Leaving him to sort everything out and patched together w sealing wax and brown paper.

  5. Major Kong Says:

    Note –

    When they accuse Hagel of wanting to "appease" Iran that means he doesn't want to bomb them back to the stone age, preferably starting this afternoon.

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    Ed's history lesson about the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) spreading it's jobs into every Congressional District possible, is 100% true.

    In the early 70's, my Father was a Foreman at a small machine shop in Upstate NY, and I worked there in the summers, and on other breaks in High School.
    We tooled parts, sent to us from where they were cast in Michigan, for the wings of F-16 Fighter's, and then, if I'm not mistaken, we then sent along the finished product to San Diego.

    In this way, if any specific defense budget cuts are talked about, the MIC companies could go to Congressperson's A – Z, and say to them, "Gee, it's really too bad about all of those jobs you'll be losing in your district if those cuts come through…"
    And, even if the nothing was being made in their district, something else was, and the MIC companies could say, "Well, if the cuts are made, we'll have to consolidate our business practices, and wouldn't it be too bad if we had to choose YOUR district to make those cuts in…"

    I just started reading Rachel Maddow's great book on the MIC, "Drift." I'm about half way through it, and so far, I highly, highly, recommend it.
    And, I'm pretty sure that by the time I'm finished, I'll be telling everyone that it should be considered required reading for everyone who wants to see what's happened regarding the military in this country since WWII.

  7. Bernard Says:

    30 to 40 years of the MIC won't change anytime soon. the blackmail /extortion over the congress by the MIC/Defense Dept is way too deep, aka the "American Way."

    and threats of being soft on defense and being easy/allowing the enemy/terrorist coming "home" is a gimme for the Powers that Be.

    But i guess bankrupting America is the only way to change the system. like Russia, imploding. and of course, the Republicans are teh only ones with the moral "high" ground when it comes to "defending" America.

    we are so screwed, reminds me of the history books about Rome, Hitler and other empires. Lest i say too much "negative", lol. the Right is so completely in charge. 3 rd world banana Republic. as i have heard and seen, "Fear is the mind/America/ killer.

  8. Number Three Says:

    And don't forget that the military-industrial-congressional complex (which I believe was Ike's original formulation) is largely invisible to folks from the Center to the far Right. Douthat wrote that column a couple months back about the D.C. area's affluence and suggested that all the money in the suburbs and exurbs was tied in some way to entitlements!!! When I drive through northern Virginia, I see it–Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, CACI . . . they're not making Medicare scooters, son.

    The Hagel pick is a two-fer for Obama. One, the GOPpers can't stop themselves from attacking a former GOP senator. They will look ridiculous in the process. Two, when Hagel gets through, Obama gets to put a conservative GOP face on defense cuts, making the "bipartisan" argument more compelling to the Chuck Todds of the world.

  9. anotherbozo Says:

    Thank you, Ed. For some reason the defense lobby has been mentioned in passing on several venues but hasn't been anyone's focus for awhile. Which is interesting because the other major lobbies have been pretty thoroughly discussed in my favorite liberal news outlets. I guess it's the clich├ęd elephant in the room, or the animal so large that when it lies around the house, it lies a r o u n d the house. But now I need pie charts, maps. (I'd like to see the factories in dots of blood red on a blue field, please)

    I can't wait for the argument that merely maintaining, rather than expanding, our defense expenditures will cost American jobs.

  10. Lecturer Says:

    Going to dissent a little bit. MIC isn't completely untouchable. Both Bush the Elder and WJC were able to make some fairly substantial cuts to DoD–which enabled the balanced budget of the late 90s (along with the 1990 and 93 tax increases).

  11. Tim H. Says:

    There is a pro-defense argument against spending too much, consider how useful much of NAZI Germany's war machine wasn't by 1944, in a war, hardware can hit it's sell by date fast. Turn of the century avionics and stealth will someday be considered quaint, why over-invest in them?
    A, possibly, better argument is with automation of production, a defense contractor in your district no longer needs to hire a lot of labor, so the economic stimulus is not what it used to be.

  12. acer Says:

    This is the ONLY intelligent thing I've read yet about the Hagel controversy.

    And you let Petraeus's public humiliation pass without comment.

    Class all the way.

  13. J. Dryden Says:

    Psst! OK, glad you fixed the swticheroo, but, see, now you have to go back and edit out my comment correcting you, so that future generations poring over the records of this page won't think I'm some kind of delusional/drunken asshole.

    I mean, I *am*, but I don't want them to think that.

    Although the history of my comments will probably seal that deal.

    Still.

  14. mothra Says:

    Defense = jobs. At least that's how the congressmen who are paid to never cut defense but have zero problem cutting Meals on Wheels sell it.

  15. Mo Says:

    Defense also = fear.

    Channeling Corey Robin, fear of loss of power and control feeds the reactionary mind's gibbering hate of anyone perceived to be even the slightest threat. Thus we have aging white males shitting their pants about women, younger people, browner people, people determined to control their guns… and equally cancerous social segments in other cultures and countries.

    So they love them some guns and rockets.

    And when are the rest of us gonna give them something to really cry about, instead of wringing our hands on the sidelines?

  16. My Says:

    Favorite. Post. Ever. More later…maybe.

  17. acer Says:

    It says a lot about the state of our discourse that, compared to Obama, Ike fucking Eisenhower sounds like a no-bullshit, balls-out prophet of rage.

  18. Dick Nixon Says:

    I work amid, with and for Defense Department personnel and suppliers.

    I hereby swear and promise, that the Defense budget could be cut by 30% without an appreciable degradation of our national readiness. Our warfighting capabilities exceed current perceived threats by an algebraic number. Our force readiness is X factored beyond our nearest rival.

    It is not the $300 toilet seats you read about that wastes money; it is the vast array of non-value added contractors and the cost-plus contracting mentality drains the treasury.

    During a briefing at a well-known contractor, my group (ironically secondarily profiting from this great national drain) proposed certain changes in operations that would streamline the contractors' interface with the Department of (service branch withheld) to the tune of $30M.

    We were laughed out of the room on two fronts. One group contended that $30M wasn't enough to make "real" savings, while the other faction said that they had a cost-plus contract–and why would they want to ask for less?

  19. Bernard Says:

    the replacement Jet fighter, i forget the number, cost as much as 10 years of China's defense budget. so got to keep the MIC rich and the congressmen et al happy.

    and there is no liberal media. i always laugh when i see or hear that "fiction." amuses me how easily Americans have been "sold" the Right wing lies.

    we are so easy. it is so sad, our children will pay big time. but obviously the Right doesn't care as long as they "win." the short term win over a long term loss for all the rest of us.

    got to give the Right their due for getting over the rest of the American public. of course, without the stupid white Southerners, the Republicans would only be a minority party, just like the Democrats/Blue Dogs who have sold us out for their share.

    gotta respect it, though, to see such stupidity and fear win over intelligence and thought. power of an organized Party, just like the Soviet Union's Communist party. now that is a real irony. the Republicans worship party over America, just like the Communist party did in Russia.

  20. My Says:

    In a nutshell, the culture within the Depts. of Defense, Air Force, etc. is one of shocking complacency, waste, and other nasty things. There is no (as in almost zero) cognitive awareness that the billions upon billions of dollars wasted are tax dollars. There is an omnipresent disincentive to be responsible stewards of the public trust in any way beyond lip service and avoidance of public acknowledgement of the figurative shoveling of our nation's wealth down the gullet of an insatiable beast. That is all. I am aware of no public servant/official with any combination of power and will to remedy the atrocious situation. Not one.

  21. Anonymouse Says:

    @Dick Nixon: don't be so quick to paint contractors with such a broad brush. Why are contractors there? Because their civilian counterparts are not capable of doing the job. While the civilians are off on "official travel" and seminars and conferences and up to 8 weeks of vacation each year, it's the contractors' job to actually get the job done. Random funding cuts often mean the contractors are first to go, despite the fact that they're the only ones who know how something works.

  22. Dick Nixon Says:

    @Anonymouse–fair enough. Contractors can do good work.

    But, the average contract employee is vended to the DOD at an 150% markup. And contractors with cost-plus contracts have no incentive to increase the efficiency of their offerings. It is a shell game, where individual DOD departments can claim low headcounts by transferring billions in tax dollars to private hands, with little oversight.

    An overhaul of this system would result in billions of dollars saved. Contracting would still be done. But, as Ed pointed out, no one has sufficient clout to change this, and the entrenched MIC likes things just the way they are.

  23. My Says:

    @dicknixon & anonymouse: Granting that I failed to note rampant incompetence, when we say "contractor" don't we in many, many cases mean former/retired militAry & bureaucrats? Yes, yes we do.

  24. Major Kong Says:

    Note that full time National Guard and Reservists are often civilians as far as pay and accounting go.

    I spent several years as an Air National Guard "Technician" (full time pilot). Most of the time for purposes of pay, benefits and retirement I was a GS-13 civil servant.

    I still held military rank, and when I was on active duty orders I was paid as an Air Force O-5 (Lt. Colonel).

  25. tim richley Says:

    I seem to recall during the g w bush administration the Sec DOD canx a massive Army self propelled artillary system. And didn't a Sec DOD-can not remember if r or d canx an attack helo that would have replaced the current system.
    Being old, my memory is failing and being a real flat earther when it comes to computers I have no idea how I could find out information on both of these.

  26. Major Kong Says:

    You are correct. The Comanche attack helicopter was cancelled during the W administration as was the Crusader self-propelled howitzer.

    Also note that the largest cuts in defense were made by the George H.W. Bush administration, not Clinton.

    Of course every conservative "just knows" that Clinton gutted the defense budget.

  27. i.boskone Says:

    @ Tim Richley –

    The XM2001 Crusader SP gun was cancelled by Rummy in May 2001.

    The Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack chopper was cancelled by the Army in 2004. Boeing-Sikorsky had been farting around with it since they were picked in 1991, protoypes started flying in 1999. There was talk of shutting it down as early as 1995 – 'peace dividends' don'tcha know – and after Kosovo folks were starting to get leery about sending manned platforms into harm's way just to see if there were bad guys around (UAVs FTW!). Some folks reckon the program was kept alive as long as it was out of concern for the state of the American helicopter industry. Aaaand we're back to Ed's original point.

    I'll second Maddow's DRIFT. Fantastic read.

  28. bb in GA Says:

    So no Rs get no credit cutting anything Def cuz' some conservative butt heads went 'know nothing' on Bubba. Yeah, I get it…

    //bb

  29. Heisenberg Says:

    (First time, long time… love your site, Ed!)

    Sadly, I must agree with Dick Nixon, My, Bernard, and several others. I was an officer in the Navy for six years in the post-9/11 era, and just in my little corner of the military, I witnessed huge sums of money being thrown down the proverbial $300 toilet. It wasn't an problem of corruption, or even poor stewardship of public funds (although the latter certainly does apply in many cases); rather, it was mostly an issue of willful inertia within the military-industrial-Congressional complex.

    If we have a ship, we must maintain it to a certain standard. Even if this ship is an old clunker from the Cold War that serves no real purpose in today's military environment, as long as it's a commissioned Navy ship, we're compelled to maintain it. And the Navy's maintenance standards are actually quite high, particularly in the realms of engineering and weapons systems. But, just as with old cars, the older a ship is, the more is costs to keep running.

    So every time a ship pulls into a port (foreign or domestic), the Navy will fly dozens of highly paid military contractors out to it, in order to fix every little issue that is below standards. And on an old ship, that's LOTS of little issues – many of which aren't actually essential to the ship functioning, but rather are essential to ensuring that the ship meets the Navy's anal-retentive standards. (Ex: I was in charge of an engine room that had a large diesel generator with very tiny amounts of seepage. My engineers [and the manufacturer!] told me that this is normal practice for these massive engines, but logic be damned – the Navy has a "zero liquid leak" policy for all engines. I can't even count how many thousands/millions of dollars we spent to "fix" an engine that WASN'T BROKEN. When we got to Japan, we hired their extremely expensive shipyard workers to "fix" the same leaks. They seemed pretty confused as to why we were doing this, but of course they took the paycheck and did what we said.)

    That was just one example, from one of my tours. I won't bore you with any others. But suffice it to say that the military pours TONS of money into things that aren't worthwhile – either because a) we have antiquated and useless equipment that we can't get rid of because the manufacturer has a stranglehold on Congress, or b) the military's own antiquated and irrational rules about how things must be done.

    So yes, I completely agree with Dick Nixon – we could DEFINITELY lop 30% (and probably more) off the defense budget without degrading our national security or readiness one bit. But this would require an honest evaluation, by DoD and Congress, of what we need and what we don't. And with those entities almost entirely captured by the MIC, I don't see a realistic way to make this happen.

  30. Major Kong Says:

    It's OK bb. It's only "soft on defense" when a Democrat does it.

    Republicans automatically get a pass on the "tough guy" thing.

  31. Bill Says:

    Seriously, bb, go soak your head.

  32. Bernard Says:

    poor BB. can't say bad things about the Republicans, can we? my nephew is in the Army now and tell me about some existing horror stories. of course saying bad things about the Military makes me a communist pinko fag/gay liberal, ad inifinitum. lol i do enjoy the labels, makes me wonder how much "effort" goes into that sort of stuff.

    we could cut half of our military budget and spend in on home improvements, but those "terrorists' would come and get us in our beds at night, the 2nd amendment not withstanding. lol

    that we so desire to commit national suicide is and has been so obvious for so long, it is a sad commentary when i hear someone defend the Defense dept. lol so easy to laugh at the fear which has so destroyed so many minds for so long. not like the Russians have any lessons to teach us about the "other" guy. Americans are proud to have their heads stuck up their derriere. We are # 1 at that for sure.

    of course, i have to quote Baroness Thatcher, "there is no such thing as society." which always explains the mindest of these kind.

    so, enjoy the race to the bottom BB. we will get there thanks to the mindset of people like you and my other scared spitless Southern cohorts.
    the MIC Complex could never be wrong. too much American blood for that to have happened. The South shall rise again, at the cost of America, nonetheless.

  33. JoyfulA Says:

    I am certain the DoD budget can be cut by 50% with no harm done because an idiot I know was recently hired by a defense contractor for more than double what he has ever earned before.

  34. Major Kong Says:

    Now now.

    Everyone knows that defense is only 2% of the budget and the rest goes to foreign aid and for welfare payments to "those people".

  35. Anonymouse Says:

    DickNixon: It is a shell game, where individual DOD departments can claim low headcounts by transferring billions in tax dollars to private hands, with little oversight.

    Granted. But you're not seeing the whole picture. I'm a software developer. I write code. There are times when I've been the only one on the project who knew the coding language. I might get more money than a civilian (that's debatable because I certainly don't have the time off, low insurance rate, or other benefits the civilians get)…but I can also be laid off at a moment's notice. I refer you back to the sentence where I'm the only one who knows the coding language. In my 20-plus-year career, I've had my funding cut abruptly any number of times (not good for the household budget!), and the customer has been left with nobody who knows how to finish the project, which then languishes until funding is restored (if that ever happens). This is one readon why things appear to cost so much.

  36. bb in GA Says:

    @bernard

    With no more knowledge of me than a few opinions in a blog, I must now and for all time bear all the sins, iniquities, and transgressions of the R party.

    ahem…yes Bernard, it is all my fault (even though I am not an R, I guess I'm close enough)

    See everyone at the bottom. I will be in the dunking tank – 3 balls for a buck.

    //bb

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