Thursday, June 26, 2008

Conservatives and Their Carnival of Fraud

The following opinion piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) on June 25, 2008, written by columnist Thomas Frank,”The Tilting Yard” -- and bears taking the time to type out and post here. When I’ve written about the Devaluation of the Commons, that “conservative wet dream,” this is the end game. The question, of course, is simple: Have enough people finally figured this shell game out? As for his calling for another Grace Commission, who would serve? The majority of Congress, both Demos and Repubs, have their fingerprints all over this little scam.

I wonder if, back in the rosy-fingered dawn of our conservative era, all those Adam Smith-tied evangelists of “limited government” had any idea that they were greasing the skids for a character like 22-year-old arms dealer Efraim Diveroli?

Mr. Diveroli, whose tousled slightly confused visage recalls the perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli from the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” was the improbable recipient of a 2007 government contract to supply ammunition to our allies in Afghanistan.

The trouble was the munitions he sold were, like, seriously bogus. Old and partially defective, the stuff apparently originated in China, which is a Pentagon no-no. Mr. Diveroli was indicted by a federal grand jury in Florida on Friday on numerous counts, including allegedly attempting to defraud the government.

How could a kid barely able to buy beer secure a nearly $300 million defense contract? It will be interesting to find out. Maybe Mr. Deveroli’s story will be the one that finally fixes public attention on the carnival of fraud, waste and profiteering that characterizes our system of government-by-contractor. Maybe it will finally persuade us to ask our politicians why it is that they hire Blackwater to do the job of the Marines and pay Kellogg Brown and Root to arrange the logistics for the Army wherever it goes.

And maybe it will finally call into question one of the greatest shibboleths of conservative governance. Although contracting out has been celebrated by the big thinkers from both parties and although it has been practiced in some for or other since the earliest days of the republic, an ideological commitment to outsourcing is one of the signatures of conservative rule.

The ostensible justifications for it, in the early days, were thrift and efficiency. The 1984 “Grace Commission” in which a battalion of corporate executives ransacked the government looking for waste, recommended privatizing federal operations as a way to save money. With the government plunged deep into deficit, government needed to hire out its duties to business in order to save itself.

The ideological assumption was only barely concealed: Whatever “big government” could do, the private sector could do better, cheaper and faster.

There was another unspoken ideological angle: Every federal job privatized was a job pried from the grip of the hated Washington bureaucracy. Every dollar contracted out meant that much less for bureaucrat unions and that much more for friendly companies, well-connected lobbyists and corporate political action committees.

In the Bush era, the idea was pushed to a sort of extreme, with each of our great national initiatives – the Iraq occupation, Katrina reconstruction and the Department of Homeland Security – largely entrusted to private contractors. We now often read abut federal employees quitting to work for private contractors to do the same job as before for twice the pay.

We also read bout efforts to shut down or outsource the agencies charged with scrutinizing outsourcing. Last week, the New York Times reported on the travails endured by one of the Army’s chief contracting officials who says he became suspicious of huge, sketchy expenses being run up by KBR in Iraq. When he threatened to withhold future payments from the company – harsh toke, dude! – he quickly found himself out of the loop; the Army contracted out his job to a company that accepted KBR’s numbers.

One fact about government outsourcing is settled: It sure doesn’t save money. A Washington Post reporter who scrutinized Katrina reconstruction contracts in 2006 found that “the difference between the job’s actual price and the fee charged to taxpayers ranged from 40 percent to as high as 1,700 percent.” To cover damaged roofs with tarps, certain contractors billed the government $1.50 a square foot of roof covered; some of the people who actually did the work got under 10 cents per square foot. Guess who kept the difference.

Privitization also constitutes a fundamental change in the constituency to which government answers. Journalist Tim Weiner estimates that, by 2006, about half of the people working for the CIA in Iraq and the National Counterterrorism Center were contractors, former CIA personnel accountable not to the American public but to their employers. “The spectacle of jumping ship in the middle of a war to make a killing was unremarkable in twenty-first century Washington,” he writes n his book, “Legacy of Ashes.” Among the CIA’s new hires, he reported, the saying is, “Get in, get out, get paid.”

The days when conservatives railed against red tape and shrieked for efficiency in Washington now seem like a lifetime ago. When they finally got the opportunity toput their theory into practice, conservatives contrived instead on of the most wasteful systems ever seen.

It is time for a new Grace Commission, this one examining the sordid history of privatization in all its details. President Barak Obama should launch it on day one.


Mike Green said...

"The ideological assumption was only barely concealed: Whatever “big government” could do, the private sector could do better, cheaper and faster."
Cheaper, better, faster???????

Egads! Where have I heard that one before?

I just hope Obama doesn't start spewing "We have a plan" with the same outcome as you-know-who.

Los Osos, a microcosm study of America, who woulda thunk it?

Churadogs said...

Mike, your observation that Los Osos is a microcosm study of America is amazingly apt. Watching what unfolded here - the old tar-baby, briar patch, train stuck on track, bungles, appalling bungles all leading to disaster with everyone either pushing the train or standing helpless and mute, is exactly right.

Amazing, ain't it. I suspect that's just the way The System is engineered, alas.

Mike Green said...

Thanks for the kind words Ann.
As some of you know, I will be leaving this paradise at the end of the month.
My wife (better half) and I will be moving the home port to Gold Beach, Oregon.
Actually, it will be a faux move as we intend to only be there in address only with minimal stays at our house there, and a caretaker presents of my brother and his wife.
We are going to become vagabonds.
Our goal is a two year meander across America, Canada and Mexico.
Then back here (maybe)
We are keeping our Los Osos home and renting it out, please everyone , take care of this place, we love it.
God bless you all, I'll start a travel blog on blogger for friends and family for your amusement.
Adios. Mike Green.

*PG-13 said...

Bon Voyage mike green. We're gonna miss ya. I'm going to miss your comments and unique perspectives on the world in general and life in Los Osos in particular. You've always been a voice of reason (sometimes delightfully twisted) mixed with good humor. Those are wonderful traits to have on a blog like this.

> I'll start a travel blog on blogger for friends and family for your amusement.
> Adios. Mike Green.

Dang. Do I hafta be a friend or family member in order to be amused by your travel blog? I appreciate there are probably some anonymice you'd just rather not carry along with you. Heavy baggage so-to-speak. But I'd love to hear about your grand adventure. And I promise to pack lightly and not be a burden. I'm not sure I want to be family ;-) Can I be a friend?

Maria M. Kelly said...

Thanks for the smiles and warm regards. I'm amused already!

Ron said...

*PG-13 wrote:

"We're gonna miss ya. I'm going to miss your comments"

Why won't he be able to comment anymore? All he needs is access to an on-line computer. It doesn't matter where he is. I've left comments from all over the place, and I belive that *PG-13 even left some comments from Japan, if I'm not mistaken. Heck, Jon leaves them from Panama.

C'mon Mike, we know you waaaanaaaa... ; - )

Looking forward to the travel blog. You can let us know when it's up and running by posting here.

Sewertoons said...

Take care and have lots of fun Mike!!! I look forward to your travel blog!!!

Churadogs said...

Mike, Woa! Bon Voyage, Off on an ADVENTURE. Tell you what, gimme a call (I'm in the phone book) and I'll give you my email address, you can send an email letting me know when you've posted stuff and I'll post the notice and a link to your blog so "Calhounites" can link over to the "Greenites' Travel Blog," or something. Then we can all stay in touch and keep up with your ramblings. Plus you can still log on a post comments here as well.

*PG-13 said...

Ron said > Why won't he be able to comment anymore? All he needs is access to an on-line computer. It doesn't matter where he is.

Well, yes, of course. There is that. I just kinda presumed once he left town he might not want to even think about the sewer. That's what I try to do. Imagine, two years meandering across America, Canada and Mexico without even one thought about The Los Osos sewer? Mind candy!

> I've left comments from all over the place,... Heck, Jon leaves them from Panama.

Yeah, but look at the two of you. You're both weird ;-) I'm thinking mike green has a life. Especially while off on his big adventure.

> ... and I belive that *PG-13 even left some comments from Japan, if I'm not mistaken.

Yeah, but that wasn't near far enough out-of-town.