March 22, 2021

First-Rate Intelligencefalse comfort in U.S. military spending

[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”, Esquire, February 1936

I was listening to the March 21 episode of Fareed Zakariah’s GPS program when one of those strange and often disconcerting waves of objective dissociation washed over me. Listening to the show, for a moment, I forgot what I was listening to, who was saying it, and anything I thought I knew about the subject matter. I heard Fareed make three points on the topic of military strength, spaced apart in mere minutes or seconds:

  1. The United States of America continues to massively outspend other countries, including China, on defense.

  2. The United States has many more of some large, obvious, and easily counted military assets than China, such as aircraft carriers and fighter jets, and better ones to boot.

  3. The Department of Defense is an inscrutable money pit into which we have heaped not only money for defense, but money for massive accounting projects that yielded only declarations that no professional audit opinion could be given.

For this last, Fareed specifically cites Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone piece, “The Pentagon’s Bottomless Money Pit”. That parade of horribles includes such fun facts as the F-35 fighter project costing more than the Iraq War, nuclear weapons equipment shipped across the United States and to the country of Taiwan by mistake, more than a billion dollars spent on Big Four accounting firms that could not render opinions, software systems designed to automatically allocate funds in felonious violation of federal law, and trillions of dollars in “plugs”, or accounting frauds, designed to spend use-or-lose-it money and make numbers fit. Taibbi brands the Pentagon “the world’s largest producer of wrong numbers”. He makes the case.

With all that in mind, Fareed’s last point eats his first. We have every reason to suspect that gobs of money spent on defense do not actually buy any defense. As a result, we shouldn’t take any comfort in direct proportion to the money that we spend. That money isn’t accounted for.

When we’ve dug up fiscal pictures of specific projects, they’ve given every indication of systematic waste, corruption, and fraud. When we’ve sought a broader picture of DoD as a whole, that process itself cost so much money that Congress prohibited spending on audits until they might actually produce something. Audits of accounts that federal law, and arguably the Constitution itself, require DoD to produce.

If there is comfort to be taken in United States military might, it ought to be from counting what the money ostensibly buys. And Fareed begins that project in the easiest way, by counting aircraft and the ships that carry them. And then moves on.

If there’s a takeaway to be had, I think Taibbi found it. Quoting a staffer:

“You can’t get the Pentagon to take an audit seriously unless you threaten to stop funding, and you can’t stop funding without campaign finance reform.”

Audits aren’t good for huge military contractors where the money ends up. Those contractors now include the major accounting firms.

[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”, Esquire, February 1936

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

back to topedit on GitHubrevision history