Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Boys And Their Toys

The US Defense budget is larger than those of the rest of the world combined. It eats up nearly half of the federal spending (depending on whose figures you use) and a lot of what taxpayers get for their buck is nothing more than waste, bloated cost overruns, and military equipment ordered based on the geopolitics of thirty years ago. Some of the projects involve fighter jets, tanks, and battleships that even the military doesn't want because it knows that these costly items simply won't do the job that the military needs to do in the early 21st Century. Yet Congress keeps pushing these appropriations through, something that President Obama would like to stop.

A cogent editorial in yesterday's Boston Globe suggests that President Obama will have a real fight on his hands when it comes to this issue, and from some not-so-surprising quarters.

THE BEST measure of President Obama's commitment to reducing the deficit by cutting defense spending is his appointment of Harvard's Ashton Carter as the Pentagon official in charge of buying weapons. A veteran of the Clinton Defense Department who has never worked for an arms-maker, Carter has been a critic of the Pentagon for buying weapons it doesn't need, and failing to keep track of cost increases in weapons systems.

The selection of Carter, a Kennedy School of Government professor, has set off alarms in the defense industry. But it should win plaudits from taxpayers.

What an interesting concept: appointing someone without military-industrial complex ties to a position which will keep track of spending when it comes to weaponry.

I'm sure that alarms are going off in more than weapon suppliers offices, however. Congressional offices, especially those with major companies like Raytheon and Boeing in their districts must be especially distressed. Republicans and Democrats have both fought to keep that pipeline open and flowing over the years, as the editorial pointed out. These suppliers provide a lot of jobs for constituents and this would appear to be the wrong time to cut back on spending to support those jobs.

Or is it?

...Obama will get a fight on weapons cutbacks not just from the industry but from members of Congress who see even ill-conceived weapons systems as jobs programs for their districts. When it comes to stimulating the economy, however, a costly ship or plane that will rarely if ever fire a shot cannot hold a candle to a high-speed train or a new high-voltage transmission line for renewable energy.

This isn't an inappropriate comparison when you consider the last great industrial shift made during the 1940s. Within a very short time, months, the Detroit auto makers went from building sedans to building tanks. There is no reason why, with a little innovative thinking, the military industrial complex can't do the same thing in reverse and go from building tanks to building state of the art locomotives running on green energy.

In the meantime, while the weapons builders contemplate their next move, keeping them on a short leash is a pretty good idea, and the president's pick to hold that leash looks to be an excellent one.

Nicely done, President Obama.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The military industrial complex will have significant challenges in going from making things where cost is not a limit, the buyer has an incentive to spend more money and an inclination to make sure you get yours (so she or he can come work for you later and get his/hers...). To a world in which buyers have choices and not much money, and profits come from building for less than the cost of selling.

9:22 AM  
Blogger said...

Debate a libertarian about the utility of government, and they'll often end up complaining about regulatory capture ( Exhibit A for this phenomenon is, of course, the military, but it's rarely the example they cite.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...go from building tanks to building state of the art locomotives running on green energy.

I have friends who work for a major military contractor. Their product line has numerous civilian applications but they can't be bothered pursuing that market because selling to the Pentagon is vastly more profitable.

9:59 PM  

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