Krugman: Privatization partly to blame for American problems in Iraq?NYT columnist/economist takes on the Pentagon, but his ducks aren't all in a row
Paul Krugman takes the Bush Administration and Pentagon to task in his New York Times column today
. Some of this is certainly justified, but Krugman takes some license with the facts to make the ultimate argument that privatizing certain military functions has led to problems for the military in Iraq. Here's his basic argument:
The U.S. military has always had superb logistics. What happened? The answer is a mix of penny-pinching and privatization ? which makes our soldiers' discomfort a symptom of something more general.Analysis:
* * *
Military corner-cutting is part of a broader picture of penny-wise-pound-foolish government. When it comes to tax cuts or subsidies to powerful interest groups, money is no object. But elsewhere, including homeland security, small-government ideology reigns. The Bush administration has been unwilling to spend enough on any aspect of homeland security, whether it's providing firefighters and police officers with radios or protecting the nation's ports. The decision to pull air marshals off some flights to save on hotel bills ? reversed when the public heard about it ? was simply a sound-bite-worthy example. (Air marshals have told MSNBC.com that a "witch hunt" is now under way at the Transportation Security Administration, and that those who reveal cost-cutting measures to the media are being threatened with the Patriot Act.)
There's also another element in the Iraq logistical snafu: privatization. The U.S. military has shifted many tasks traditionally performed by soldiers into the hands of such private contractors as Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. The Iraq war and its aftermath gave this privatized system its first major test in combat ? and the system failed.
Krugman's first mistake is to rely too heavily on the reporting of Col. David Hackworth
. I respect Col. Hackworth a great deal, both for his military record and his criticisms of Washington. But Col. Hackworth has a particular agenda that includes a lot of stuff that Paul Krugman probably doesn't know about -- or doesn't agree with. Moreover, Hack's criticisms provoke such a visceral reaction in the Pentagon that anything citing him will immediately be rejected by the Pentagon establishment. Even if this was a more accurate piece, its citation to Col. Hackworth would diminish its credibility in the halls of the Pentagon. Citing authority with that effect can be risky.History also matters
. Military history is conspicuously absent from Krugman's column. In the realm of military affairs, history matters a great deal because you rarely want to advocate for things that haven't been done successfully before under fire. In fact, privatization has been used with some success by various nations at various times in the world. "Mercenary" armies are one example, though an unsavory one. Another example could be the way industry was co-opted in the mass mobilization efforts of WWI and WWII. There is a fuzzy line between contracting out for services from industry, and simply enlisting industry in the cause. Krugman fails to account for this gray area.Here are some other points that leaped out at me while reading Krugman's piece:
1. Krugman starts his column with a description of American woe in Iraq -- based on the griping of a soldier about food.
A few days ago I talked to a soldier just back from Iraq. He'd been in a relatively calm area; his main complaint was about food. Four months after the fall of Baghdad, his unit was still eating the dreaded M.R.E.'s: meals ready to eat. When Italian troops moved into the area, their food was "way more realistic" ? and American troops were soon trading whatever they could for some of that Italian food.
This should bring a smile to any veteran's face, because it's a time-honored tradition in the Army to gripe about food. In fact, they taught us as new lieutenants that your soldiers probably had a real
problem if they weren't griping about their food, and that such gripes about Army chow were a sign of good morale. Frankly, I'm not a fan of eating MREs for 4 weeks straight, let alone 4 months. But I'm not too concerned when I see this gripe in the news... in the pantheon of Army b*tching, it's pretty low.
2. Krugman cites to some letters on Hack's website, including one where soldiers complain about water supplies.
One writer reported that in his unit, "each soldier is limited to two 1.5-liter bottles a day," and that inadequate water rations were leading to "heat casualties." An American soldier died of heat stroke on Saturday; are poor supply and living conditions one reason why U.S. troops in Iraq are suffering such a high rate of noncombat deaths?This is a flat-out false statement
. The truth is, according to Sergeant Major of the Army Jack Tilley during a recent press conference in Iraq, that soldiers are being issued two 1.5 liter plastic bottles of water today in addition to
their regular water supply, which is provided in 500-gallon "water buffaloes" and other means. In fact, the planning factor for a soldier in a desert environment is something like 10 gallons of water per day -- plus between 10-50 pounds of ice per day (Note: a lot of this ice goes to food preparation and bulk water cooling, not directly to the soldier). A significant portion of the logistical effort goes to pushing this "Class I" supply forward to soldiers in the field, and distributing it. The physiology of this is obvious. If soldiers in Iraq were being forced to live on 3 liters/day, they would die.
Clearly, there is other water out there. Some soldiers are simply whining because they can't get an unlimited supply of Evian bottles, the way they did in Gulf War I when the Saudis footed the bill and the American supply lines weren't set up yet. I say: "Tough". Get your water in bulk from the water buffalo, fill your CamelBak
, and deal with it.A note on CamelBaks
: I could write a book on this subject, from my active duty experience in the desert, but I won't. Suffice to say, the CamelBak
is the best tool for hydration available, and every soldier should
have one -- but doesn't yet. The Army has not procured these for every soldier in every unit. Many units have taken the initiative to spend their own funds on a commercial purchase, and many more soldiers (like me) have bought their own. Personally, I would buy enough CamelBaks to had one to every soldier in CENTCOM. Krugman could
have written a great column (like this one
) on the private gadgets that soldiers have bought for themselves because the military failed to buy them.
3. Next, Krugman tries to link military cost-cutting to homeland security cost-cutting, to make a more general argument about the Bush Administration. Once again, his argument falls flat:
Military corner-cutting is part of a broader picture of penny-wise-pound-foolish government. When it comes to tax cuts or subsidies to powerful interest groups, money is no object. But elsewhere, including homeland security, small-government ideology reigns. The Bush administration has been unwilling to spend enough on any aspect of homeland security, whether it's providing firefighters and police officers with radios or protecting the nation's ports.Not quite.
The Bush Administration has poured money into the new Department of Homeland Security, and has given quite a bit of money to local fire/police departments for things like chemical-protective gear. But structurally, our domestic anti-terrorism effort is structurally impaired by the fact that it depends on state/local funding, not federal funding, and most state/local governments are strapped right now. (See, e.g., my home state of California) This is an unintended consequence of the 10th Amendment
, which reserves general powers to the states. Nearly all of America's anti-terrorism capacity -- save the FBI and CIA -- resides at the state/local level. Krugman, as an economist, ought to understand these structural issues and be able to explain precisely why domestic security goes underfunded. Instead, he simply blames the Bush Administration's penchant for privatization -- something which I think is inaccurate and unfair.
4. Going back to Iraq, Krugman says the military's contracts in Iraq have been a failure. He writes:
The U.S. military has shifted many tasks traditionally performed by soldiers into the hands of such private contractors as Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. The Iraq war and its aftermath gave this privatized system its first major test in combat ? and the system failed.
Interestingly, he cites to the same article
from Newhouse News Service that I wrote about here
. First, Krugman's wrong that this is the first major performance by contractors in a battle zone. Civilian contractors played an enormous role in the first Gulf War, sparking a great deal of argument in the policy and academic sector over the wisdom of privatization. (Legal scholars also debated the Geneva Convention implications of this trend) Second, contractors like Kellogg Brown & Root have followed the U.S. military for some time, such as to places like Bosnia and Kosovo. They've done a good job in those places, often with similar dangers (e.g. landmines), and they know the operational environment. Krugman fails again to understand the details of the problem here, which largely are a matter of government contracts law. (See this note
) No business is going to take a contract where the costs outweigh the benefits. In government contracts law, there are ways to shift the risk and extra costs (such as insurance) to the government, but those weren't done in Iraq initially because of faulty assumptions by the government about the post-war situation. The contractors in question made a business decision to back away from contracts they thought were too risky. But ultimately, it's the government that bears the responsibility to build a contract (since the clauses are all imputed as a matter of law with little negotiation) that works for both parties. Once again, Krugman ought to know this as an economist, or at least pick up the phone to call a government contracts lawyer who can explain it to him.Bottom Line
: Krugman's column adds little to the debate over America's endeavor in Iraq. I could spend more time picking his column apart, but I won't because I think you get my general point. There are
problems in Iraq, most of which trace back to poor planning before the war
that was predicated on bad assumptions about the post-war situation. But those problems are steadily being fixed, and we are steadily making progress. As an economist, Krugman could provide great insight into the Iraqi economy and its failings, rather than going out on a limb to write about military affairs. This column falls flat because he doesn't provide the detailed analysis necessary to connect each of these issues to the problems in Iraq
: I've been tapped as a member of the "Krugman Truth Squad" by Donald Luskin in his National Review Online column
. I try to avoid taking political sides, as NRO does, but I'm flattered by the quotes nonetheless. Mr. Luskin has an interesting column, summing up some of the other authors (such as Robert Musil
) who criticized Prof. Krugman's column on privatization. It's worth a read.