Spasms of sensible thinking from surprising sources

My stars, what have we here? Two surprisingly sensible comments on defence spending from sources I would not have expected.

First up, Philip Hammond, Minister for Defence in Britain’s coalition government, who has now decided that maybe there are things that the private sector can’t do as well as the public sector. The background is, of course, the failure of private company G4S, which had won a contract to provide security for the Olympics, to fail so miserably at the task that several weeks before the election the Olympic organizers asked security forces—you know, the army—to provide security instead. Even Mitt Romney noticed, apparently. The happy result here was many thousand British men and women in uniform getting two or three weeks of hazardous duty wandering around Olympic Park, instead of spending time in Afghanistan or someplace else, and everyone had a good time talking with them.

So Hammond has finally gotten around to asking the question that, for years, Labour and Tory politicians alike have neglected to ask—how do we know we’re getting our money’s worth in this wholesale rush to privatize everything? And what do we do when it goes wrong? G4S, it should be mentioned, failed miserably in fulfilling the terms of its contract for Olympic security. One wonders whether questions will now be asked about the services G4S is providing in its contracts to provide security for British military bases in Afghanistan. About time. And it’s not just the military.

This started with the Tories, under John Major, but it accelerated like crazy under Blair and Brown, when just about everything became fair game for privatization. The building and operation of schools and hospitals has been a huge beneficiary of the guarantees provided to the PFI (Private Finance Initiative)—an increasing share of overall spending on these areas went into ensuring the success of the privatization efforts, even when they were obviously failing. The British government hasn’t just had to bail out the banks over the past several years—it’s also had to bail out a boatload of PFI projects that went wrong as well, to the tune of billions. Andrew Lansley, the Health secretary who arranged a bailout earlier this year for seven such hospitals, blamed it on the crappy terms negotiated by the Labour government. You know what? He’s probably right. And the NHS list of problem PFI projects continues to grow. And yet, somehow, the mantra of privatization has continued unabated. Well, time for everyone to take a deep breath on the subject. Maybe Hammond will expand his inquiries beyond the Olympics fiasco. The history of privatization efforts in the UK over the past 20 years, sadly, is one of bungling, mismanagement, and significant costs to the taxpayer.

Of course, now there’s some whinging in the military that all this was a diversion, and that it will take two years to “get back to normal.” Pah.

And that’s not all. Who should start mouthing off about defence spending in the US but Grover Norquist, the guy who has Republicans so terrified of him that they have refused to consider raising taxes over the past two years? In fact, he requests that they sign a pledge to that effect, which most have done. Except Norquist doesn’t think defence cuts should be off the table. Not at all. In fact, he has criticized Paul Ryan, the current intellectual guru of the Republicans, for wimping out on the issue. The famous Ryan budget, which practically every single Republican Congressperson voted for—twice—doesn’t cut defence spending—in fact, it increases it. Norquist thinks this is bullshit, and says so. In fact, he said this too: “I wouldn’t ask Ryan to be the reformer of the defense establishment.”

This doesn’t alter the fact that Norquist is still a pretty odious human being. But still, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And it does suggest that, just perhaps, the free ride the defence industry has gotten from Republicans the past couple of decades—well, to be honest, Democrats too—might be getting a little bumpier. We’ll see. But if they’re looking for efficiency targets, how about facing up to the fact that that more than half of manpower spending in the DOD budget currently goes to outside contractors? The DOD has begun addressing this issue, but it’s clearly been a gravy train for some. Or, say the 37% of DOD contracts that still get awarded without any competition?

Interesting times indeed.