Battleland

“Rent-Seeking”

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Rent-seeking is a phrase increasingly in vogue by folks without real jobs. Wikipedia defines it as “an attempt to obtain economic rent by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth.” Synonym: the U.S. defense industry and its allies, c. 2012.

Thomas P.M. Barnett’s even-tempered, but white-hot, post here Wednesday on the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle plan suggests this, as does a new report from the libertarian Cato Institute.

The Cato study concludes that the sky-is-falling nature of much of the data churned out by the Aerospace Industries Association and its ilk — of dire outcomes if defense spending is cut further — “have tended to exaggerate the harmful effects of spending cuts and have ignored or understated the beneficial effects associated with redirecting resources to more productive uses.”

The Cato brief suggests that cutting defense spending by $100 billion a year “can be predicted, conservatively, to reduce economic costs by a total of $135 billion per year.” Perhaps. But there’s a reason economics is called the dismal science. As a flinty Yankee, Battleland believes cutting defense spending by $100 billion annually – if justified – would save $100 billion.

Threats are amorphous things. We rarely get them right. Yet we always overload for them, preparing for the next, wrong, war. No one thought we were undefended on Sept, 10, 2001, yet the next day showed how wrong we were. And we spent tens of billions of dollars in the two follow-up wars buying armor for U.S. troops the Pentagon’s vaunted planning machinery (motto: We plan for every contingency except the wars we end up fighting, and sequestration) somehow missed. And increasingly, purported military threats are being replaced by purported economic ones.

Did you notice this Air Force contract the other day? As detailed by the Pentagon, it’s a one-year deal for the U.S. to pay Jordan $370 million – that’s a million dollars a day – to train Iraqi air force technicians how to fix their planes (including their first 18 U.S.-built F-16 fighters, a $3 billion purchase), and speak English.

The political parties are paralyzed by the money stakes involved; the lawmakers doling out the dollars sit on the committees responsible for spending levels. Those who know better are so cowed at the prospect of being branded “soft on defense” they keep their mouths shut and simply act as silent accomplices.

“The world hasn’t gotten any safer,” Ash Carter, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, told the Boston Globe last month. And this guy teaches at Harvard?

“In my 37 years in this job I’ve never seen a time more dangerous than right now,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told lawmakers recently, according to one who was there. He must have missed the Cold War.

Battleland has been covering defense spending since the Carter Administration. Hundreds of hours of its life were spent hanging around 2118 Rayburn, and other military hotspots on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, desperate for news nuggets pertaining to F-16s, Bell helicopters, HARM missiles and other big-buck defense projects built by his Fort Worth Star-Telegram readers. Defense was, and remains, a big and legitimate business.

It’s just distressing to see it curdling into a jobs program despite its pasteurization by hyped threats.

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