Book Reviews


Emil Bizon: 28 Nov 08

Thomas Frank- The Wrecking Crew, How Conservatives Rule
This young American author's previous work is What Is The Matter With Kansas. He writes in a breezy, at times sarcastic style, and his work is well researched.
His theme is the overall incompetence and corruption of Republican administrations. In his introduction he lays out this as: "Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we have come to expect from Washington." And  "Conservatism in-power is a very different beast from the conservatism we meet in Wichita..."
He starts with a description of Loudon County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, the richest county in the land and assumed by many as the home of fat federal bureaucrats. This is, in fact the home of hundreds of corporate offices but no manufacturing. The housing, since the eighties, is ostentatious, aristocratic and gargantuan. Names like Grand Monet and Grand Rembrandt and vast floor areas are the norm. And the residents are private sector beneficiaries of government largesse- weapons designers, computer servicers, contract winners of every description and, of course, lobbyists.
One of these residents was Jack Abramoff, currently relaxing in the Big House for up to six years. He started a movement called College Republicans during the Reagan years and quickly discovered that significant revenues could be generated by peddling right -wing grievances to the like-minded. A fundraiser remarked that "There was so much money ready for conservative organizations that the problem was finding ways to spend that money." Thus, a series of tax-exempt foundations and charities were incorporated to take on causes such as the return of the Panama Canal, freedom fighters in Nicaragua and Angola, anti-communism, campus organizations for Ralph Nader, liberal professors, environmentalists, arts programs, atheistic scoundrels, legal services to the poor, unions for migrant farm workers and many more. Abramoff and others milked corporations and wealthy conservatives for years and lived very well indeed. One of the more successful projects raised millions for the defence of Ollie North in the Iran-Contra criminalities. Ollie memorabilia were hot sellers for a time. Very profitable enterprises.
Reagan said that the best minds were not in government and set out to make this a reality by suppressing civil service pay and stuffing politically sound people into his government. In 1982, 59% of sub-cabinet appointees had no experience in government and 78% of the appointees in independent agencies and everyone in the independent regulatory agencies. The Wall Street Journal supported this action by stating that the government had no business hiring the nation's most talented people because this was depriving the economy of its driving force. Clinton carried on with similar policies and the younger Bush went much further by using the right wing think-tank, The Heritage Foundation as a conduit for job seekers. Hiring Justice Department lawyers from Falwell's University is another example.
The result was massive incompetence as Katrina uncovered or as seen in Iraq where young ideologues with no experience were managing a budget of $13 billion and looking after pallet loads of one hundred dollar bills. This was no accident. It is a basic principal of conservatism that turning over government operations to private business is the most efficient way of getting things done. The destruction of the quality and morale of the federal workforce is, in the eyes of the right, a triumph. Screwing up the civil service is a good thing. Under Bush, the civilian payroll is the lowest since 1950 but federal expenditures have expanded to their highest level. The difference is accounted for by private contractors who are not accountable and are shielded from oversight.
Outsourcing  is the current ideology but not just to anyone. Contractors must have their conservative bona fides and be willing to donate part of their take to the party. An interesting example is the legislation worked out by Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens which allows Alaska Native Corporations to be set up and  receive unrestricted no-bid federal contracts. Indigenous authenticity is implied but not required and executives rarely are natives. Although these corporations do not have any technical competence, they receive federal contracts which they then sub-contract to anyone, without bids. 
Frank has a chapter on the revolving door which allows people to move between the private sector and government without restriction. In 1995  record keeping of these movements was discontinued by the Republican Congress so the magnitude of this flow is not known. Thus there are activities like a Big Pharma executive hired to set up legislation for Bush's Medicare and then moving back to his old job or the Pentagon buyer who wrote a contract to Boeing for $20 million and then moved to Boeing to administer it. The Homeland Security Department is described as a "networking bootcamp for future private contractors dreaming of big paydays." The door is also used by members of Congress; forty-three percent of those leaving in 1998 became lobbyists. He points out absurdities like John Bolton, a veteran denouncer of the UN being named ambassador to the UN. And an Andrew Biggs who made a career of denouncing Social Security being made the number two man there. And William Bennett being made the secretary of education after earlier working to deny funding for public schools in order to have charter and religious schools replace them. And crusaders against birth-control being appointed to overseeing birth-control assistance to the poor. And lobbyists are now offering their services to cities and municipalities to arrange earmarks with the largest firm employing a staff of ninety to look after a client list of three hundred.
Some of the same things are happening in our country. Harper wants to do to the Liberals what Stalin did with the kulaks- liquidate them as a class. We  see continuing attacks on the career civil servants and their timidity about disclosing anything to the public. A large proportion of the military budget now goes to contractors who work on a cost plus basis with terms not disclosed. And huge military equipment orders awarded without tenders. In our province the government makes private deals with Big Oil and asks the taxpayer to trust them. Of course the massive gifts to the financial sector to ward off a recession they created is the most galling.


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