Saturday, January 01, 2011

Say, whatever DID happen to "Top Secret America"?


Welcome to the post-9/11 American national-security state: "The brick warehouse is not just a warehouse. Drive through the gate and around back, and there, hidden away, is someone's personal security detail: a fleet of black SUVs that have been armored up to withstand explosions and gunfire." (Original caption from Part 3, "The secrets next door," of last week's "Washington Post Investigation," "Top Secret America.")

by Ken

Back in July I wrote a post called "'Top Secret America': (1) Why you absolutely have to read the WaPo series." This post was to have had a sequel, to be called "Top Secret America": (2) Why you'd be totally nuts to read the WaPo series." I never did write that post, and in a very real way that proves my point, or rather the point I was going to make, which was that within a matter of months if not weeks the whole thing would be forgotten.

Oh, there are traces of irony here. Even at the time I was able to point out that attention had been diverted from the series by the "WikiLeaks intelligence-document dump concerning the Afghanistan mess." As little as U.S. officialdom wanted people talking about the Afghanistan mess, it was, I suspected, an utterly welcome change-of-subject from the Post's inconvenient revelations about the national-security-based political, social, and economic entity that had been created within what we like to think of as our country.

Here's a quick memory refresher:
[A]s the Washington Post's Dana Priest and William M. Arkin make clear in the "Top Secret America" series, when it comes to any expenditure that can by any stretch of the imagination be funded under the heading of "national security," by budgetary hook or crook there is essentially a blank check, or rather a whole stack of blank checks, which continue to be cashed at a rate that is leaving us increasingly unable to afford to do any of the things we need to do to genuinely improve our national security, like fixing those damned bridges and dams. Or funding our schools. Or maintain the social safety net expected of any civilized industrial nation.

And the point that Priest and Arkin make about as forcefully as you can ever imagine seeing in a Beltway-centric rag like the Post is that this vast national-security state that we've already built in the wake of 9/11 is mostly making us less, not more, secure. . . .

[T]he three-part "Top Security America" series was prepared over a two-year period by "more than a dozen Washington Post journalists." For convenient access, not just to the series' three parts themselves, but to a whole range of ancillary goodies as well as ongoing contributions and discussion, the Post has created a "Top Secret America" webpage.

The three installments of the series were:
* Monday, "A hidden world, growing beyond control"
* Tuesday, "National Security Inc."
* Wednesday, "The secrets next door"

It occurred to me even back then that my promised sequel post could probably be done in a single sentence:

"Why would you want to make yourself crazy when there isn't a single damn thing you can do about it, and in the blink of an eye -- historically speaking -- this whole two-year investigation is going to disappear and it will be as if it had never happened?"

Believe me, I would love to have been wrong. But I didn't see how I could be. What the Post series suggested to me was a parallel country with its own economy that had been set up inside the U.S., one that seemed beyond the reach of mere mortals. Oh, there were officials quoted who talked about cutting back on the use of consultants, and maybe a contract or two was eliminated or scaled back somewhere along the line, but I think it's safe to say that since July hundreds more contracts have been extended or initiated.

Partly this is because of the "national security" tag -- not because it's really national security at stake, but because it's next to impossible to oppose even individual projects flying the banner of national security. And when it comes to this entire sub-economy, which has surely by now acquired its own constituency and political power base, it seems to me utterly untouchable, above all because of the sheer weight of money involved. When the financial stakes are as high as they clearly are here, who can lay a hand on these people? Or to put it more starkly, who within the cozy confines of the Village would want to? How many of those folks Inside the Beltway do you suppose are in one way or another on this entity's payroll? Or to put it more starkly again, how many of those folks Inside the Beltway do you suppose aren't?


Of course it's not just Inside the Beltway that this shadow national-security entity is a looming presence. As I recall, the Post writers actually attempted, drawing on public sources, a dollar estimate of the annual government contribution to this economy, even while noting that the available public records would surely undercount the amount. I forget what the final estimate was, and I find it way too depressing to try to dig it out. Let's just say it's in the jillions and let it go at that.

Now this money isn't sealed away in mayonnaise jars. It's spent, and by now surely a significant chunk of the U.S. economy is devoted to or dependent on it. It adds up, I venture, to a variant of the phenomenon of "military Keynesianism," which our friend Ian Welsh described for us -- ironically, just a couple of weeks before the Post series broke.
Obama has to stay in Afghanistan because war spending is one of the only reliable forms of stimulus he has. The economy is in bad shape, and it needs that stimulus. Since he can’t get a new large stimulus through Congress that means he MUST keep the Afghan war going if he doesn’t want an economic disaster, which would then lead to an electoral disaster.

This is the sad truth of America: the only acceptable form of Keynesian spending is military Keynesianism. Instead of hiring tens of thousands of teachers, building a high speed rail network across the country, refitting every building to be energy efficient and doing a massive solar and wind build-out to reduce dependence on oil, well, the US would rather turn Afghans and Pakistanis into a fine red mist.

That fine red mist is what’s keeping the American economy from going under entirely. And so, even if it’s the wrong thing to do, even if it’s the graveyard of America’s Empire, the war will continue.

Now the Teabaggers may have different ideas -- it remains to be seen what ideas they actually have -- but the Right, despite its cretinously vehement assault on the very concept of government economic stimulus, in fact regularly supports the most orgiastic binge-style Keynesian spending, with the qualifications that it applies only to certain kinds of spending, notably the military and defense-industry kind. Our most insanely free-spending Keynesian president was the patron saint of modern conservative governance, Ronald Reagan.

Naturally the right-wing Keynesians fix on the worst kind of stimulative spending, which (a) produces hardly anything of lasting value and (b) has the worst "multiplier" effect in terms of sending money rippling through the economy. (On both counts compare the kinds of projects that Ian points out could have been funded with all the money poured down the drain in Afghanistan.) Of course right-wing pols don't worry much about the cash reaching much below the upper economic strata, since it's the people in those strata who pay their way. And there's bound to be enough trickle-down to provide photo ops that pay tribute to the pol's job-supporting prowess.

There aren't many such photo ops available with the national-security stimulus money, since most of its economic activity takes place deliberately out of ordinary sight. But such a significant portion of the economy is now tied up in this activity that it's a serious question whether we would dare dismantle those industries even if we could.

That phrase that came into our vocabulary with the tottering of our major banks, "too big to fail," has perhaps larger significance in other areas of the economy. Think back -- yes, again -- to the debate-that-wasn't over health care "reform." Along with the financial services industry, the health care industry has been, I'm guessing, the new power industry of the U.S. economy. Neither produces much of actual use to real people. Despite protestations to the contrary, the financial services industry contributes hardly anything to real economic activity, and the health care industry produces appallingly little actual health care for the megabucks it swallows. Still, the health care industry in particular provides a lot of employment.

Imagine if there had been a real debate about the insupportable (and still soaring) costs of our health care, recognizing how little of the money we spend actually goes into health care, the obvious target would have been the health insurance companies and all the wildly overbuilt health care "campuses." Of course the political clout their financial clout commands guaranteed that such a discussion never took place. But imagine that the existing delivery system had been magically replaced by a lean, efficient system that focused on the actual delivery of health care. Just think what a cataclysm would have resulted in terms of job losses.

If all that "new" money suddenly became available, there's so much that could be done to restore the country's quality of livability to the competitive level we used to expect. Again, Ian's little list is a handy starting point. But again, think of people like John Boehner and "Miss Mitch" McConnell, and who bankrolls them and the lesser pols who put them in positions of authority. For that matter, throw in the whole of Congress. Do you see any of these people turning their backs on their masters?


At least when we didn't know about it, we didn't need to feel so helpless and futile.

I wonder if anyone's asked Dana Priest and William Arkin and their team at the Post how they're feeling six months later about the job they did. For many of them this must rank as the most stimulating and (seemingly) important work of their careers. And to all intents and purposes it's as if it never happened.


It's a point I expected to make somewhere in the preceding and somehow never got around to. If this were one of those high-paying writing gigs, I'd go back in and find a plausible way of integrating it, but it isn't, so I won't. Let me just point out here that given the nature of the funding of the Top Secret economy -- essentially a blank check backed by the Full Faith and Credit of the National Security Panic-Mongers -- not only is the TSE basically recession-proof, but it has a profoundly distorting, not to mention brain-draining, effect on the "regular" economy and the official (i.e., U.S. government) national-security operation.

Since the most immediate categories of the TSE duplicate functions traditionally performed by government employees (like military servicefolk, for example), except without most of the nasty, oppressive "regulations" to which official employees are semi-subject, and at what we might smilingly call "competitive marketplace" salaries. TSE salaries tend to be generous multiples of the grinchlike ones offered in the official national-security sector.

To some extent this puts upward pressure on those salaries, paid by us taxpayers, but only to a modest extent, since there's a limit to how much those salaries can be growed. To a larger extent those free-for-all salaries encourage a large-scale flight of talent from the public to the private sector, and you can hardly blame those civil servants for making the jump at the earliest opportunity, in consideration of the vastly better pay and working conditions. The net effect is to make it both more expensive and especially more difficult for our government to hold onto its best (or merely better) people, or even just to fill the jobs it says it needs to keep us safe.

Thank you for your patriotic diligence, Top Secret America!

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At 7:03 PM, Blogger Cirze said...

I thank "whoever" that someone is reporting in depth on this deepening, continuing perversion of the used-to-be, bragged-about democratic USA.

Thank you, sir!



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