Summary: Another blockbuster exposé about the hidden workings of our government. To no avail, just like the thousands before it. But they point to paths for the reform of American politics.
“Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.”
— Anton Chekhov (Russian doctor, playwright, author; 1860-1904), from his notebook.
Winslow T. Wheeler has produced another blockbuster exposé about the hidden workings of our government. The real one, not the version in school textbooks. I recommend reading it: “Those Porky Pentagon Earmarks Never Really Went Away” in the January/February issue of The American Conservative.
“The new pork system is deceptive and complex. It took all of my 31 years of experience on Capitol Hill to fully unravel it, with the help of some excellent research from two outstanding watchdog groups, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. … They deceptively pay for the hidden earmarks by raiding essential accounts for soldiers’ pay and military readiness, and they readily accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from the very contractors who received huge chunks of the billions of dollars that Congress added.”
The gains for politicians and defense contractors are immense. As are the costs paid by the men and women in the armed services. Wheeler gives a poignant example.
“On January 8, 2014, 29-year-old Lieutenant Wes Van Dorn died when his MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, beset with maintenance problems the Navy had deferred, caught fire due to frayed wires and a leaking fuel line. He had been battling for three years to get adequate spare parts and much-needed refurbishment work to bring these old and unreliable helicopters up to minimally safe flying condition. His was only one of several lethal accidents involving the MH-53E resulting from inadequate maintenance, as reported by Mike Hixenbaugh and others in the The Virginian-Pilot and in a new documentary by investigative reporter Zachary Stauffer.
Such accidents resulted from raiding O&M money, such as in 2010 when, for example, Democratic Defense Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha of Pennsylvania cut O&M by a net $2.3 billion to stuff money into earmarks.”
This is great work by Wheeler and the others. Just like the thousand of previous exposés. But is there any point to these projects? How many Americans will change their thinking about anything as a result of the investigations by Wheeler and his peers? How many Americans will do anything?
What can we do? Like most of the key aspects of our politics, defense pork spending is a bipartisan game. Switching party allegiance will not help. The only solution will be to get involved in ground level politics, finding and backing candidates who will change the Washington game.
Why so little political action?
America’s classes explain why we get so little reform.
The bourgeois (the owners) and the inner party (the insiders who run America) are our elites. They have a common interest in preserving the political and social systems that have given them so much, so most are conservative in the literal meaning of the term. They might like to tinker on a small scale, shifting America to the Left or Right – but not radical change.
The outer party is potentially the real power in America. Jefferson (and later Jackson) saw farmers, merchants, and craftsman of America as the foundation of the Republic. Those classes were wiped out during the Gilded Age. The outer party is their successor: America’s managers, small business-people, technicians, and professionals. But they are politically impotent, apathetic and passive.
The outer party wants simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want info-tainment that provides catharsis – plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information (becoming well-informed) and write lots of comments (21st C letters to the editor).
This explains American’s odd disinterest in experts’ record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., Paul Ehrlich on the Left, Larry Kudlow on the Right). Why care if what we read about the world is accurate, since we do not use this information. A collector of maps doesn’t ask if the maps are correct; they want pretty maps with colorful dragons on edges. Only those navigating to a destination demand accurate charts.
The outer party avoids responsibility. It’s no longer in many (most?) Americans’ minds that we have responsibility for the actions of our government. That would mandate our action. We don’t want to read about the years of difficult work needed to reform America, or the technical details of political tactics.
The proles and underclass are uninterested in politics, unless aroused and given leadership. Political machines and unions made them powerful in our past; only shards of these remain today.
This creates a stable system. Reform requires changing the game.
The path to solutions
The news overflows with ugly news about our elites and the institutions they run – both visible (e.g., Congress, the mega-corps) and hidden (the Deep State, the Military-Industrial Complex). These are tinder, like that Samuel Adams used to kindle the Revolution. What might spark political action today? I see two options. First, that we see what we have become. Those who see our decay as citizens.
“Weber …tells us what the single fundamental issue is: the relation between reason, or science, and the human good. When he speaks of happiness and the last man, he does not mean that the last man is unhappy, but that his happiness is nauseating. An experience of profound contempt is necessary in order to grasp our situation, and our capacity for contempt is vanishing.
“Weber’s science presupposes this experience, which we would call subjective. After having encountered it in Nietzsche, he spent the greater part of his scholarly life studying religion in order to understand the non-contemptible, those who esteem or revere and are therefore not self-satisfied, those who have values …”
— From Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, chapter “Values”.
There is another possible spark that might arouse Americans to political action: anger. It has been the go-to tool for political reformers forever.
“Anger is easy. Anger at the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, is difficult.”
— Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, book IV, chapter 5 (lightly paraphrased).
“Telemachus, now is the time to be angry.”
— Odysseus, when the time came to deal with the Suitors. From the film The Odyssey (1997).
We were great once, and can be again. Anger at ourselves and our leaders can motivate us to change. Arousing that anger might be the Republic’s only path to survival. For more about this see …
- Now is the time for America to get angry.
- In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting.
- A simple thing you can do to start the reform of America: get angry.
- How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?
- Should we risk using anger to arouse America?
- Amnesia and anger: one is the problem, the other the cure.
- The best response to Campaign 2016: anger.
For More Information
- Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?
- Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?
- Inspiration. The missing element that can reform America.
- Where we can find the inspiration to fix America?
Two books to make you angry
The American Deep State: Big Money, Big Oil, and the Struggle for U.S. Democracy by Peter Dale Scott.
The Betrayal of the American Dream by Donald L. Barlett.