The DNA of Corruption

by Chuck Spinney
Anchored off Marmaris, Turkey
29 March 2009

Version 2

Over the course of my 33 year career in the Defense Department, first as an Air Force officer, then as a civilian, the central thrust my efforts evolved without design into a focus aimed at understanding why the Pentagon bureaucracy, the American military, the Congress, and the defense industry (i.e. the military-industrial-congressional complex or MICC) could not, and indeed would not, adapt to changing conditions in order to extricate itself from what was clearly an ever more expensive death spiral of shrinking forces, aging weapons, continual pressure to reduce its readiness fight, should a war. I came to appreciate some general qualities are intrinsically associated with this intractable and ultimately self-destructive non-adaptive behavior.

The qualities impeding the decision-making system from making a rational adaptation to a clearly visible system of dysfunctional behavior included:

  • The intimidating effects of increasing complexity (in terms of technological, conceptual, organizational, managerial, and political complexities) Complexity being defined as a quality of the “whole” that relates the number and arrangements of the “parts” to one’s ability to understand the “whole.”  It follows, therefore, that increasing complexity runs up the number of parts and multiplies the variety of arrangements among those parts. This naturally decreases one’s ability to comprehend the whole. The increased difficulty of comprehension makes it more difficult to understand and identify what corrective measures are really needed and more difficult to reorient the whole by changing the larger number and rearranging the greater variety of connections among the parts in a way that brings about the coherent adaptation to the problem. Viewed this way, a status quo devoted to increasing complexity can use that complexity to protect itself from change.
  • Increasing giantism that leads to an implicit condition of being too big to fail. This also thwarts the impulse to change. It is difficult to terminate humongous weapon systems like the F-22 or missile defense system when the dollars and jobs are flowing to hundreds of congressional districts usually spread throughout 40+ states. On the other hand, it is much easier to terminate production of a simpler system with a much smaller political support network. Increasing giantism is also reflected in increasing concentration in the industrial base into a smaller number of bigger industrial contractors who wield more political power.
  • Increasing politicization — e.g, a hall of mirrors built by deceptive bureaucratic gaming practices, like those explained here. Politicization is also sustained and increased by the ease with which high and mid-level managers and military officer move back and forth through the revolving door between government and the defense contractors in the government-subsidized private sector.
  • Crony capitalism — or the condition where government-industry partnerships put industry interests ahead of public interests. As Eisenhower said in his farewell address, “… the danger of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
  • And perhaps most importantly, the existence of mind-numbing belief systems that have evolved to justify the current course of action, even in the presence of evidence to the contrary — e.g. the ubiquitous ideology that emerging technological advances will remove the fog and friction of war and thereby reduce the conduct of war to the equivalent of an engineering problem.

Now with the Pentagon’s self-destructive qualities in mind, read Simon Johnson’s essay, “The Quiet Coup,” in the current issue of the Atlantic, attached below. He explains why President Obama’s financial rescue plan is unlikely to change the self-destructive behaviour that has wrecked the financial sector of the American economy and possibly the whole American economy, to boot.

Johnson, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is an insider’s insider on the subject of financial rescue packages. He is also one of the founding members of a most informative website, The Baseline Scenario, which is designed to explain the causes of the current financial crisis in terms that are intelligible to the educated layman (i.e., he is trying to reduce the complexity of a deliberately complexified problem to make it easier for the average schmuck to understand it — something the oligarchs on Wall Street would prefer not happen).

While the scale of venality of Wall Street dwarfs that of the Pentagon’s, I submit that many of the central qualities shaping America’s Defense Meltdown (an important new book with this title, also written by insiders, can be found here) can be found in Simon Johnson’s exegesis of America’s even more profound Financial Meltdown. Both are products of an elite that leaches off the masses without feeling any reciprocal obligation to protect their welfare. And that is why Versailles on the Potomac and Versailles on Hudson are reflections of a deeper moral decadence that would be perfectly at home in the court of Louis XVI.

I strongly recommend you carefully read Johnson’s article.

[CR Note:  Fabius Maximus has also commented on on Johnson’s piece.]

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