Back in the day, people used to worry about the military-industrial complex. About its influence, really: the idea was that politicians would support high levels of military spending in their state or district whether it made any sense or not. There was at least some truth to that: they didn’t call Henry Jackson the Senator from Boeing for nothing. The same, in fact more so, for politicians from states that relied even more heavily on military spending, like New Mexico. Certainly this distorted military contracting: inserting fragments of a big project into nearly every congressional district in the United States is unlikely to be the most efficient approach. And it saved some unworthy projects from the axe, sure.
If you were designing such a project with a view to maximizing its political appeal, you would do better by hiring a lot of workers (= voters) at modest salaries rather than a few at high salaries. And that was often the case, for military bases and weapons production plants. Political contributions mattered as well, but a lot of blue-collar workers were employed in defense plants, back in the Cold War – at least in some areas.
Still, all the political pull this generated didn’t stop Congress from drastically cutting spending when threats decreased, as they surely did with the fall of the Soviet Union.
There has been a big increase in spending related to the War on Terror, but the pattern has been different. “Intelligence” spending is now up to something like $80 billion, largely focused on Moslem terrorism, whose objective military strength is something like 10-100 thousand times less than that of the old Soviet Union. A conservative estimate is that we’re spending a million dollars per year per terrorist, maybe more – that’s not even counting Iraq and Afghanistan.
There hasn’t been much associated blue-collar employment – partly because of factory automation, partly because we’re not fielding mass armies or building lots of of weapons.
Nevertheless, I think that the Washington players have stumbled [and I do mean stumbled, because I’ve never seen these guys do anything else] upon a pattern that is likely to be more effective at gathering and sustaining political support than that seen in Cold War. You see, a really big fraction of that intelligence money (about half) is spent in and around Washington. Little is spent on blue-collar workers, except for construction. A lot is funneled through private contractors and they pay well, much better than civil service. There are loads of extremely cushy jobs that are ideal for high-level double dippers, ex-generals, people from the Congressional staffs, their spouses and kids, etc.. You can work at the State Department and find a good job for your technically illiterate wife at the CIA, fighting nuclear proliferation. I say that advisedly, since I have heard from people who tried to explain those technical matters to Ms. Plame. Not that she was any more of a zero than most of the people submitting those 50,000 intelligence briefings a year to their equally clueless superiors. It’s a matter of public record that the high muckety-mucks don’t know a damn thing about the Middle East. Some of you may think that there are selfless, ultra-intelligent operatives watching over all threats from a secret under ground control room. Let me quote one of them, a Rhodes Scholar and ex-Navy Seal national security official with ten years of experience: “Unfortunately, though, I’m not employed by the U.S. government, I’m not working at all hours to foil terrorist plots, nor am I part of some secret network of sharp, capable agents, because no such network exists.””And again, neither do I”, he added.
Cold War aerospace was especially politically impotent, because its high-paid jobs were (outside management and sometimes even there) taken by engineers, who are not, cannot become, and have never even met anyone with any political juice. Not in this country.
In Washington today, the benefits of intelligence spending are flowing much more directly to people in the same class [and often closely connected, by blood and marriage] as those who actually run the the country. Cuts out the middleman.