Government of the people, by the contractors (column)
Special to the Daily
War is the biggest big-government endeavor.
So riddle me this: Why is it that the politicians quickest to salute the power of war tend to be the most anti-government?
That’s right. Those most prone to swear by government in war say our government can’t possibly facilitate, say, health coverage for its own people.
Previous generations — witness Medicare and the Public Health Service Act — did not indulge this bizarro duality. They knew the nation (translated: its government) that beat fascism in World War II could do much at home to combat illness, illiteracy and indigence. And they authorized it.
This changed in the ’80s. Ronald Reagan convinced sufficient numbers that government wasn’t the solution to these matters but instead was the problem.
With Reagan came the sway of free-market guru Milton Friedman. Friedman said the best thing government can do is divest itself of governing. Presto: privatization.
Even to wage war? Oh, yes, to whatever extent politicians could make it happen. This would depend, of course, on whose palms could be greased and by whom.
The other day U.S. District Judge Royce Lambert threw the book at four Blackwater security guards for a 2007 incident in which 14 Iraqi civilians were shot dead and 17 were wounded.
The role of private security firms in armed situations has been one of the dark secrets of our most recent combat engagements overseas.
Whereas the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq touted by George W. Bush was mostly of the bystander variety, the coalition of civilian hired guns — contractors like Blackwater — was, as Robert Greenwald reports in his film “Iraq for Sale,” the second largest fighting force: 20,000 strong.
To be honest, however, Blackwater is but a two-bit player in the privatizing bacchanal that emanated when we last went warring.
With $138 billion going to contractors to build stuff, run stuff and guard stuff, the big dog was Texas construction giant KBR Inc. Until it was spun off in 2007, KBR shared with Dick Cheney the closest thing he’d ever known to a foxhole: Halliburton.
Taxpayers are led to believe that private companies can do the job better and at lower costs. That’s just not true. It certainly wasn’t in Iraq, asserts Greenwald. Much of “Iraq for Sale” is about horrendous overpricing of services and goods as the result of no-bid contracts and lack of oversight.
Look around, however, and see the privatize-at-any-cost mentality at every level of government these days.
Naomi Klein’s book “Shock Doctrine” is a devastating look at the deceit built into privatization. She explains how it becomes a go-to strategy when things go awry — see 9/11 — or when leaders can construct a crisis — see Iraq — to rationalize it.
Klein’s prime example, however, is Hurricane Katrina. It is convenient to blame government for the response that left so many hanging, but Klein cites ineptitude that was the result of free enterprise — contractors hired by the Bush administration whose heads weren’t in the game.
Worse, after the devastation, public institutions that had been so important to the poor of New Orleans — public schools, public housing, public transportation — became easy pickings. Who needs public schools when New Orleans can have for-profit charter schools? Don’t rebuild public housing. Condemn and sell.
“New Orleans’ public sphere was not being rebuilt,” Klein wrote. “It was being erased, with the storm used as the excuse.”
The insidious thing about all of this is when we punt away public functions and when the private alternatives fail, we simply blame government. In too many venues, we have created what Paul Krugman, in Katrina’s wake, called “the can’t-do government.”
But, of course, this nation can do anything it desires. It has the resources, the people, the history. And that doesn’t apply just to war.
John Young lives in Colorado; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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