Central to the current controversy about Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks is the fact that Snowden was a “private contractor.” In fact, over this past weekend, various commentators have asserted that 30% to 70% of the national security personnel are now “private contractors”: that is, employees of corporations—and typically multinational corporations—and not of the federal government. Whatever the percentage actually is, it is unarguably high and raises security issues that make the Soviet penetration of our nuclear-weapons development and even the current accusations of Chinese hacking of our cybersecurity seem relatively straightforward and containable issues.
That much of the massive spending on Homeland Security in the decade since the September 11 attacks has gone to corporations is not surprising, but what will surprise most Americans is that not just the production of security tools but a great deal of the actual security work has been contracted to corporations.
The situation is even worse on the military side. In 2008, there were 154,000 “private contractors,” or security forces, in Iraq and 152,000 American military personnel there. Likewise, in 20111, at the height of our military involvement in Afghanistan, there were 190,000 “private contractors” and 172,000 military personnel stationed there. And these numbers do not include several substantial categories of “private contractors” that have proven to be much more difficult to track.
Beyond requiring our soldiers, airmen, and sailors to serve multiple tours in these combat zones, these statistics explain how we have been sustaining multiple wars with a streamlined, volunteer military. We are, in effect, hiring mercenaries. And they are not all Americans. In 2012, about a third were Americans, about a third were Afghans, and about a third were from a great variety of other countries.
And these “private contractors” do not come cheap. Almost all of them have prior military experience, and most have considerable specialized training. Many of the Americans are former military personnel who are now earning vastly more as corporate mercenaries than they would have earned, even with advancing rank and seniority, in the military itself. Between 2009 and 2011, as our military focus was shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent at least $134 billion on these “private contractors.”
In America, as elsewhere, national security and war have always been a big business, but we used to be outraged by the idea of war profiteers. Now, because of the relentless promotion of privatization, great profits are being generated directly by corporations in the war zones. And because of the veil of ambiguity surrounding national security efforts, the true cost of all of this privatization can only be estimated. Very clearly, however, the costs have been enormous. To this point, I have not even mentioned the trillion-plus dollars that we have paid to select corporations to build hundreds of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan–almost 500 in Afghanistan alone–and to start to repair the extensive war damage to the infrastructures of both of those countries.
The enormity of the costs is one of the most pointed carryovers to the relentless efforts to privatize our public institutions domestically—from the operation of toll roads and prisons to the provision of social services and education. Privatization has been packaged as a thrifty alternative to public management. In theory, and especially if one embraces stereotypes of public employees as uniformly inefficient and wasteful, common sense would seem to suggest that “competition” would drive costs down. But, in practice, privatization has proven to be anything but such a cost-effective alternative.
State budgets generally have almost never actually decreased as the funding of prisons, school districts, and public colleges and universities has been cut, even to draconian degrees. Instead, that funding has simply been shifted to the corporations providing for-profit alternatives to public institutions. The wages and benefits of the average workers employed in these for-profit alternatives have typically been considerably lower than the wages and benefits of the public employees that they are replacing. But the management costs in the for-profit alternatives are always much higher. To cite just one example, public school administrators are often cited as recipients of exorbitant public salaries, but at least one study has indicated that the administrative costs for corporately operated charter schools are more than 280% of those for public schools. And corporations have to pay dividends to shareholders. So, although the for-profit alternatives are always initially announced as providing a savings to the taxpayer, the wages and benefits of the average workers can only be squeezed so much, and the costs to the taxpayers almost always rise inexorably when the enterprises are no longer the focus of any public attention.
What is missed by many of the supporters of privatization is that the government keeps paying for all of the things that were previously publicly managed.
But the actual costs of privatization are easy to obscure, and people conditioned by the demagoguery of strident individualism can be convinced that they are reducing “big government” by making the providers of “public services” less directly and openly accountable to taxpayers.
The historical record over the last three-plus decades demonstrates very clearly that the proponents of privatization are opposed to “big government” (and, not coincidentally, the largely unionized public employees) but not to high government spending. The largest deficits in U.S. history have occurred under Republican presidents—Reagan and the two Bushes. Obama’s much derided deficits were necessitated by an economic crisis that was a corollary to, if not partly precipitated by, the ridiculous argument that reduced taxes will somehow support higher government spending–especially if taxes are reduced in proportion to the increases in spending. But, under Obama, deficit spending has been declining dramatically, undercutting the argument that he simply wants to blame his predecessor for his own profligacy.
Beyond the issues related to the current and future costs of privatization, I would argue that the dismantling of our domestic public institutions—and especially of public education—may represent a bigger long-term threat to our national security than jihadists in the wilds of central Asia. More than anything else, public education fosters a sense of community—a sense of shared experience, shared public concerns, and shared public commitments. I would argue that the shared sense of these things is all the more needed now, when technology and all sorts of other factors in our lives seem to be reducing our visceral sense of community and replacing it with a more elusive virtual sense of community.
Those who very eagerly point to the failings of our system of public educations never explain how the for-profit alternatives that they are proposing will foster a shared sense of and commitment to those things that are unarguably central to our national identity.