August 02, 2008
Losing Institutional Memory

Chalmers Johnson is trying to warn us about the dangers of privatizing the functions of the intelligence community. Most of these are direct or indirect results of the complete lack of accountability. And of course that’s the main reason for privatizing government functions. It’s like a Limited Liability Corporation, or LLC, the goal of which, surprisingly, is to limit liability.

The proponents of privatization are unlikely to admit to a wish to avoid accountability. To some extent they’ve repressed the evidence of their selfishness and papered over the resulting gap with platitudes and ideologies. Instead they’ll claim that the value of efficiency trumps other considerations, then try to convince us that private enterprise, motivated solely by profit, can operate more efficiently than government, that insurance companies can provide better health care for less money than Americans count on from Medicare.

Only the simple-minded, the self-deluded, and the dishonest can employ such an argument. Efficency is not even a value, let alone a value that trumps human wants, far less human needs. At best, efficiency is a tool that helps in certain circumstances. Qualities like compassion and courage are values; they always help. Efficiency is a tactic for improving the accountant’s bottom line. Life, I hope, is more than that. Community certainly is.

In addition, the claim is false. Corporations have the same costs as government, plus they need profit. At best, by paying employees less, a corporation might produce an equal product for an equal price. But where’s the value in pressuring wages to drop? (Answer: in the CEO’s pockets.)

So the argument is both false and dishonest; but what can they do? No honest, intelligent argument can be made on that side. Like Bertrand Russell’s philosophers, they adopt positions they’re drawn to, but they don’t sell them on that basis.

Every philosopher, in addition to the formal system which he offers to the world, has another, much simpler, of which he may be quite unaware. If he is aware of it, he probably realizes that it won’t quite do; he therefore conceals it, and sets forth something more sophisticated, which he believes because it is like his crude system, but which he asks others to accept because he thinks he has made it such as cannot be disproved. The sophistication comes in by way of refutation of refutations, but this alone will never give a positive result; it shows at best that a theory may be true, not that it must be. The positive result, however little the philosopher may realize it, is due to his imaginative preconceptions, or to what Santayana calls “animal faith.”

Animal faith that we’ll find something to justify doing what we planned to do all along.

Finally, and most crucially, in the current undeveloped state of human consciousness, people fall for this argument that efficiency is meaningful. So it continues to be used.

As a libertarian socialist, I argue that government is not the solution. No centrally controlled system can adapt fast enough, or be flexible enough, to handle all localities and customs; people in the community are best equipped to decide what that community should do. The states that united a couple centuries back took it as given that the central, federal, government would deal only with those issues that affected everyone. Unfortunately, in today’s globalized world that includes just about everything.

But government is also not the problem. Anarchists can believe that a perfect world would omit government and coercion, and still advocate for a strong federal role in daily life in the United States of the twenty-first century. We have an aspirational goal of dumping government, but humanity’s not ready for that. Yet.

The problem, instead, is unaccountable entities. Government is so huge that it’s difficult to influence. Indeed, if your home is expropriated under the eminent domain doctrine, government seems completely unaccountable. But if you take the historical view, the population can influence American government over time. We’ll influence the hell out of it this fall, when we hand all the federal levers to the Democrats. (Just what we need, another generation of wimps.)

So what does this lack of accountability effect? Well, for starters, we’re talking about a $55 billion intelligence-community budget — that we know of. There’s a good chance it’s ten billion more than that when all details are in. Most likely, especially given the connection to the Bush family, which has been raiding the public coffers for at least three generations, a huge chunk of each year’s budget is simply stolen. Who’d know?

Johnson quotes David Bromwich, a political critic and Yale professor of literature, from the New York Review of Books:

The separate bookkeeping and accountability devised for Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and similar outfits was part of a careful displacement of oversight from Congress to the vice-president and the stewards of his policies in various departments and agencies. To have much of the work parceled out to private companies who are unaccountable to army rules or military justice, meant, among its other advantages, that the cost of the war could be concealed beyond all detection.

When we move the action to private entities, we not only end up with a lot of corruption. We also make it easier by orders of magnitude to penetrate our national intelligence community. As Johnson says, if you’re a foreign agent wanting to plant a mole, just get someone hired by CACI or SAIC or Blackwater; it’s much easier than being vetted by the CIA.

This, in other words, is not simply outsourcing, as if a help desk had been moved to Bangalore.

It is important that the intrusion of unelected corporate officials with hidden profit motives into what are ostensibly public political activities not be confused with private businesses buying Scotch tape, paper clips, or hubcaps.

The wholesale transfer of military and intelligence functions to private, often anonymous, operatives took off under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and accelerated greatly after 9/11 under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Often not well understood, however, is this: The biggest private expansion into intelligence and other areas of government occurred under the presidency of Bill Clinton. He seems not to have had the same anti-governmental and neoconservative motives as the privatizers of both the Reagan and Bush II eras. His policies typically involved an indifference to — perhaps even an ignorance of — what was actually being done to democratic, accountable government in the name of cost-cutting and allegedly greater efficiency. It is one of the strengths of Shorrock’s study that he goes into detail on Clinton’s contributions to the wholesale privatization of our government, and of the intelligence agencies in particular.

The result, Johnson says, is that war based on a President’s whim or planted information, or a failure to prevent an attack, is much more likely than it would have been with the normal, obvious approach of keeping the professionals working on the job. As Johnson says, if you’re working for a company that needs to get the next contract, your approach is different than if you work for the government, and your job is to keep the government informed. Two different goals.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at August 02, 2008 06:40 AM
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