We often discuss “neoliberalism” in the abstract, because it is a movement with so many different dimensions. Here I want to look at just a few specific points.
For more than two centuries there has been a rich tradition of public complaint about government waste. But it has intensified in the U.S. since the election of Ronald Reagan. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan complained that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For example, stories of $300 screwdrivers or $800 toilet seats bought by the Department of Defense were interpreted as inherent government inefficiency and waste. However, in those stories, the private contractor who charges such absurd rates is left unquestioned. And the part of government which does the wasting is also left unquestioned.
Does the myth of the $300 screwdriver have any basis? If so, what does it look like in detail? One of my students worked as a Navy repair mechanic. When fighters did hard landings, they consistently broke a specific component on their weapons-rack. He wanted to keep a back-stock of those components, so that he could immediately repair the fighters and get them combat-ready. However the U.S. Congress had passed a bill which forbade the Navy from keeping a back-stock of these components. The political rationale was that ‘hoarding would be wasteful,’ and ‘just-in-time delivery’ would be most efficient. So instead he had to re-order the part, and wait for it to be shipped to him, every time he needed to do this same repair. Not only did this cost individual shipping every time, but it lengthened the turnaround-time for repairing jets. And yes, in some cases he was required to use ridiculously expensive screws mandated by the purchase-and-maintenance contract with private military contractors.
Rather than accept Reagan’s blanket statement about one, big, undifferentiated ‘government’ being the problem, it would be much more useful to look carefully at the specific branches and levels of government, and they way they negotiate contracts with private firms. And it would be worthwhile to scrutinize those private firms as well. Americans have forgotten that U.S. corporations are only allowed to exist so long as they are providing a ‘good’ or ‘service’ to the society. That is at the root of corporate law, and at least in California, it is still written into the state regulations. Scrutiny of government contracts sounds about as exciting as proofreading a telephone book. But it would be far more helpful than blanket generalizations about the ‘inherent wastefulness of government.’ Despite our us-and-them myths, government is largely an expression of us. Somewhere in the House, right now, your Congressperson is trying to figure out how to get some portion of federal revenue directed back at your district, to support your local jobs and thereby get you to re-elect them. Is that wrong? If we think that is wrong, we as voters need to change the practice of ‘bringing home the bacon.’ Blaming the Congress is hypocritical, so long as we leave the rules and expectations unchanged. Especially if we love having that sweet ongoing maintenance contract that keeps the cash flowing to our local defense-contractor.
Neo-liberalization is a movement that has a discourse-component. Political leaders get elected based on specific arguments, specific framing of issues such as ‘cutting the fat out of government.’ Then you can lower taxes, and show that you are getting ‘more for your dollar’ out of your government as a service-deliverer. A specific example of this was the way that military expenditures were changed under Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld argued for a small, quick, smart military. That meant contracting out many of the functions that had previously been performed by the military itself: laundry, cooking, and guard-duty. Rumsfeld, who had never fought as a soldier, wanted to pare down the military to the combat-functions only. Old-school generals, from Eisenhower to Colin Powell, were known for managing the comprehensive task of keeping an army in the field. Most of that meant keeping them alive and healthy, with food and water and clean latrines and dry socks to prevent the “trench-foot” of the First World War.
Rumsfeld’s reforms fit exactly into the belief that ‘private firms are always the most efficient at mobilizing and delivering resources.’ And so, a private contractor charged $99 for every bag of laundry that was washed, regardless of how many or few pieces of clothing were in it. Every plate of (delicious!) food in Iraq cost $59. No more potato-peeling duty for soldiers! No more humble mopping the floor, or washing out the cook-pots. And with careful attention to combat-training, it seems that the U.S. military is indeed extremely effective in combat.
However, warfare remains a government function; it is therefore a component of politics. And in this country, we elect the people who choose when and how to wage war. The efficiency or inefficiency of this service-delivery is responsibility of the President, his cabinet, and then the Congressional House (which sets the budget) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who make budget requests). Above all else, George W. Bush choseto invade and occupy Iraq. Afghanistan was a response to the 9/11 attacks; but Iraq was purely optional. And Iraq cost us more than $2 trillion.
What did we buy for all that money, and the deaths of 4,000 soldiers and an uncounted number of private contractors (and Iraqis)? In Iraq’s new democratic government, the most powerful position is Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister is Nouri al-Maliki. He was first elected in 2006. He was re-elected in 2010; and he is also acting as Minister of Interior, Minister of National Security, and Minister of Defense. In other words, he is pretty much the dictator of the country. However he was elected and re-elected; I have heard no evidence that those elections were rigged. Rather, the problem is with democracy itself. As the U.S. was being set up, a series of measures were taken to prevent ‘tyranny of the majority,’ such as an independent press, independent judiciary, two senators for every state (even Rhode Island), and the need for a supermajority to implement changes to the Constitution. So far as I can tell, no such measures were taken in the design of Iraq’s democracy. 60% of Iraqis are Shi’ite, and sectarian difference has become political difference since candidates appealed to members of their own religion for votes. Not only is al-Maliki Shi’ite, but he is a partisan for Shi’ites. While Americans were still there, they found that the Ministry of Interior (remember; he is Interior Minister too) was capturing, torturing, and generally intimidating Sunnis. The civil war in Baghdad–fought between Iraqis since 2004 while the U.S. was bunkered down in various bases and the ‘Green Zone’–has sorted the city into Shi’ite and Sunni areas. That kind of sectarian segregation is new for Baghdad, as sectarianism has taken on a political dimension in the new democratic electoral rhetoric.
So what did we buy for $2 trillion? As a Shi’ite partisan, al-Maliki has one major political ally in the region: Iran. It was a little awkward for Bush when al-Maliki warmly received Iran’s President Ahmedinejad in a formal state visit. But the alliance between the current Iraqi government and the current Islamic Republic government in Iran has only grown deeper over time. What prompted this blog post was a BBC report about the current electoral season in Iraq. Al-Maliki is running for a third term. Other candidates are also running–remember, it is indeed a democracy–but only the other Shi’ite candidates really matter at the national level. And the BBC reporter states it as plain fact that the various Shi’ite candidates are getting funding and cultivating relationships with various Iranian funders.
Does Iraq have a right to align itself with Iran? Yes, I think so; they are a sovereign country, and I like the idea that they should determine their own political fate. But we bought this outcome. I don’t have a problem with the Iraqis, but I do have a problem with U.S. government expenditures which are so wasteful. One might argue, as Rumsfeld still does, that the outcome in Iraq was unexpected. How could we know, in March of 2003, that a 60%-Shi’ite country would align itself with the Shi’ite-led Islamic Republic of Iran after 2006? Well, actually, Colin Powell was already uncertain about what would happen if Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 1991. That is why, as military commander in the first Gulf War, Powell stopped General Schwarzkopf from “finishing the job” of toppling Hussein after the U.S. had routed the Iraqi Army. As someone who had actually experienced combat, he did not like the probable political consequences of removing Hussein. What would happen in the Iraqi Kurdish north, adjacent to our (then) ally Turkey? What would be the new Iraqi political relationship with Syria? And Saudi Arabia? And Iran? Even in 1991 Powell knew these were serious potential problems.
You may notice that I have put very few links in this blog post. But there are plenty of keywords. I invite you to use any of them to check what I have written here, and to gain more perspective on these issues. Also, please pursue something I have not researched: Where did the military spending go? When a defense contractor charges $99 for washing a bag of laundry, he is paying only a small fraction of that to the Filipino laborers he has hired to work in Iraq. Most of the cash goes back to a U.S. company; in other words it mostly circulates in the U.S. as a transfer of tax-revenue to U.S. firms. Who gets rich off this?
And now the urban questions: Where do defense-contractor executives spend all that money? What kind of houses do they have? In what kind of neighborhoods? How expensive is the schooling of their children? How many maids and other servants do they hire?