Prof. Krugman: "Critics, do your homework!"Critic to Prof. Krugman: Quotation does not necessarily equal fact-checking
In response to my criticisms
and those of others
, Princeton economist Paul Krugman has posted a page
on his personal website
citing two letters from Stars & Stripes and a Financial Times article to back up his position on heat casualties in Iraq. As a young law student at UCLA, I'm flattered and surprised that a Princeton professor would take the time to do this. But since he did, I think it's only fair for me to "do my homework" and respond to Prof. Krugman, who doesn't appear to have done his homework.1. The Water Issue
Prof. Krugman starts by quoting two letters -- one from PFC John Bendetti of the 220th MP Company (Colorado National Guard) and one from SPC Jason K. Sapp in Kuwait. PFC Bendetti's letter
contains the part about receiving two 1.5 liter bottles of water per day:
Due to more attacks on convoys, more items are becoming rare. Two examples are mail and bottled water. Our mail has been reduced to two times a week. Due to a lack of bottled water, each soldier has been limited to two 1.5 liter bottles a day. We've had two soldiers drop out due to heat-related injuries. There's a lot in here.
A person with common sense knows that a normal person can't survive on three liters of water a day. One would think that the Army could coordinate with the Air Force and have supplies flown in from Kuwait. All I'm saying is that we've been "climatized" to the heat, but new troops have not. There will continue to be more heat casualties until something is done.
First, I should say that PFC Bendetti's gripes are legitimate, in the sense that mail and food and water are things that a soldier should
care about. (Whether he should write Stars & Stripes with them instead of using his chain-of-command is another matter) That said, mail twice a week in a combat zone is not unreasonable -- it's 1/3 of the delivery rate in the United States. The critical metric for mail is not frequency of delivery, but how long it takes for mail to get to the soldier and get home from the soldier
. In those areas, the military has made great improvements since April, largely by consolidating delivery and shifting resources to other parts of the postal chain. Prof. Krugman, as an economist, could have written a great column on the way the military postal system works, and some of the infrastructural/systems issues therein.
PFC Bendetti mentions that he only gets two 1.5 liter bottles of water a day. Again, I don't dispute this fact -- I've seen it in Pentagon press briefings, and I've talked to Army logisticians who say this is true. But what he doesn't say is that his unit also
has a supply of unbottled water -- "tap" water if you will. I stand by my original contention, because I've fact-checked it, that a soldier will die in a desert environment on 3 liters/water a day. (The same is true in a cold weather environment, actually) I've led soldiers in the frozen hills of Korea
and in the hot Mojave Desert
, and I know how much water it takes to keep them alive under body armor and full battle rattle. 3 liters/day would result in a lot more than 2 heat casualties in one MP company -- it would result in a dead MP company.
Prof. Krugman should have fact-checked this quote by calling someone at Princeton -- say another professor at Princeton
-- to ask if it's even possible to survive on 3 liters/day. Or he could've picked up the phone to call a New York Times staffer who's knowledgeable on such matters, like C.J. Chivers
, a former Marine who now writes for the paper. He could've even called the Princeton Army ROTC department
, and talked to an active duty officer or NCO
there with experience surviving in the desert. (The Princeton Army ROTC cadre includes at least two Desert Storm veterans)
I know, I know... I'm a hard a** because I think soldiers should drink water from their "water buffaloes" instead of from a plastic bottle. Heaven forbid soldiers should drink "tap" water instead of bottled water. But this boils down to a simple matter of military logistics. PFC Bendetti suggests that the Air Force somehow fly in the requisite number of water bottles for the occupation force. A grand idea, to be sure, but one that's unsupportable. America has a finite amount of "strategic lift"
, which includes all the big aircraft
which can move men and materiel around the world. Water, at 8 pounds/gallon, is very heavy; bottled water is very bulky; it's incredibly inefficient to move it by air. That's why the Army has "reverse osmosis water purification units
", or "ROWPUs", and other means for producing water in the field. Granted, the water doesn't taste as good as Evian, but it's still water and it will still keep you alive in the desert.
We'd all love to drink bottled water, but until the French decide to donate Evian by the pallet and
the airlift to get it to Iraq, that's not going to be a viable option. Once again, Prof. Krugman could have checked this fact by calling up a logistics expert -- either in the military or in a company like FedEx. But he failed to do so, because it made his column sound better to include this factoid about bottled water.2. Mobilization of reservists
The second letter
, from SPC Jason Sapp, blasts everyone in his chain of command from lieutenant colonels on up to the National Command Authority. SPC Sapp doesn't identify himself, but it looks like he's a reservist stuck in Kuwait as part of a unit mobilization. He's clearly bitter about the mobilization.
There are thousands of soldiers in Kuwait who were never supposed to be here. My unit was told that we weren't supposed to be here. We were told by a lieutenant colonel on our second day in country that we were supposed to demobilize and return home. We asked if we could return. He laughed and said, "No. We got you here. Now we will find something for you." As with tens of hundreds of other units, we were without a mission. How do readers think our morale was as of day two in country, let alone all the other units that sat here waiting for a job but never got one? Like us, they are still waiting for a way home. Griping about mobilization
is a reservist's pastime, and it's something that is to be expected. (The words "mobilization" and "demobilize" are reservist terms; active duty guys speak of "deployments" and "redeployments") In all fairness to SPC Sapp, I agree that the mobilization plan for reservists has been somewhat disjointed. Initially, as I wrote in The Washington Monthly
, the Pentagon intended to fight this war with a lighter, faster, 21st Century force that had less boots on the ground. Part of this was that the Pentagon did not want to call up large numbers of reservists, for political and practical reasons. After the post-war situation deteriorated, this calculus changed, and the Pentagon changed its planned force structure in Iraq. The new force included a lot more troop units than previously expected, and that affected the number of reservists who could be demobilized, as well as the number of troops who could be redeployed. This is the reason why 3ID was held in country for so long.Mobilization is a stressful experience; it tears reservists away from their families, jobs and communities
. But it's also something which is foreseeable, particularly since the 1990s when reservists have increasingly borne the brunt of missions from Bosnia to Afghanistan -- and now Iraq. I sympathize with SPC Sapp, but I think his complaints are disingenuous. He signed up for the reserves; he received the benefits of reserve service; his nation called him when it needed him. If he's in Kuwait, he doesn't have it that bad compared to my friends who are in Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, and elsewhere in Iraq.3. Military contracting
Finally, Prof. Krugman cites an article from Financial Times, which itself cites an article
by David Wood of the Newhouse News Service. (Give Mr. Wood some credit -- his Pentagon beat reporting has been exceptional over the last several months.) This article is supposed to stand for the proposition that privatization of military functions is bad, and that it's indicative of a larger, more dangerous trend towards privatization in the Bush Administration. Generalization is what great columnists love to do -- to paint large, sweeping themes with small facts. Unfortunately for Prof. Krugman, his foundation lacks adequate support, and thus it falters.
Here's an except from the FT story:
But the growing dependence on such private sector support concerns some military experts. Part of the problem is that contractors are not subject to military discipline and could walk off the job if they felt like it. The only thing the military could do would be to sue the contractor later on - the last thing on the mind of a commander on the battlefield. This is interesting stuff...
* * *
"We thought we could depend on industry to perform these kinds of functions," Lt Gen Charles S. Mahan, the Army's logistics chief, was quoted as saying by Newhouse News Service this month. He said it got "harder and harder to get (them) to go in harm's way".
and that's why I flagged
Mr. Wood's story in early August when it ran. (Maybe Prof. Krugman's reading Intel Dump...) But it still appears that Prof. Krugman is drawing the wrong conclusions from LTG Mahan's statement and the problems we're having with military contractors. Much of this owes to a misunderstanding of the way that government contracts work, and the clauses that these contracts probably had.
As a matter of federal law, most clauses in a government contract are set by the Federal Acquisitions Regulation -- the "FAR
". (Each agency has its own subset of regulations, such as the "DFAR
" for the DoD) These clauses are incorporated into any government contract, and they're non-negotiable. The government usually gets to choose which clauses it puts into a contract ahead of time, and that is the contract which is put out for bids. The contract then becomes a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for the government contractor.
This is informed speculation on my part, based on interviews I've done with several people in the Pentagon, State Department, and USAID. (I try to fact-check, not just quote) But I think these contracts for post-war services were developed in early 2003 during the planning phase of the war, when senior Pentagon officials thought we'd be greeted as liberators. All of their time-phased troop deployment plans and operations plans included the assumption that the post-war situation would rapidly stabilize, and that security would not be a continuing problem. That assumption was probably built into these contracts as well, such that the contractors did not get coverage for things like security costs, added insurance costs, etc.We know now that those assumptions were flawed
; a guerilla war continues in Iraq to this day. This presents government contractors with a choice. They can perform the contract under the new conditions, and subsequently make a claim against the government for a constructive "change" in the contract. Let's assume they try to make the claim before they perform, and the government says no. Then the contractor can decide between losing money in contractual damages, and getting its employees shot up in Iraq and
losing money on insurance costs and security costs. What would any rational corporation do?
Prof. Krugman could have written a brilliant piece on the economic calculus of a government contractor, and how rational choices are made in this situation. But he didn't. He ignored these details of government contract law and corporate decisionmaking to paint the corporations as the villain. That's sloppy reporting, as far as I'm concerned.Bottom Line
: I respect Prof. Krugman; I even have one of his books ("Pop Internationalism
") on my bookshelf. But I think that he should stick to what he knows when he writes, because it's clear that he's too far afield here. Prof. Krugman could have written a brilliant piece analyzing any aspect of this situation from his perspective as an economist -- and I probably would have linked to it with praise. Instead, I think he was forced by the NYT editorial board to stretch himself beyond his expertise, and it shows.Coda
: While running with my dog Peet on the beach this morning, I clarified my thoughts a little. Prof. Krugman and I are actually in agreement about one thing: privatization of military functions can be problematic. LTG Mahan's comments about contractors going to war have a great deal of merit, and I think it's fair to say that the decision to outsource certain military functions carries a great deal of strategic, operational and tactical risk. However, I don't think you can arrive at that conclusion merely from the points that Prof. Krugman cites. I think you really need to dig into the contingency contracts from Iraq, find if/where they broke down, and buid an argument based on the facts.Ultimately, I think most of the problems trace back to poor planning
-- which resulted in poorly drafted contracts based on flawed assumptions. Consequently, I would put the burden on the Pentagon's planners -- not the contractors. These contractors had very little leverage in the negotiations because of the way the FAR works. And to borrow a term from economics, these contractors faced an "information asymmetry" -- the Pentagon simply knew more about the situation on the ground in Iraq than they did.
The Pentagon could have drafted contracts with cost provisions and contingency provisions to cover the eventualities which did occur -- namely the deteriorating security situation after 9 Apr 03 -- but they didn't. The contractors made the only rational business choice they could be expected to make.A larger question looms about the wisdom
of contracting our certain military functions in the first place (a question which Tapped raised
yesterday). Outsourcing certain support functions -- such as mail service, food service, tank repair, etc -- is risky, because contractors aren't soldiers and you can't order them into combat on pain of criminal punishment. On the other hand, it can be more cost-effective to outsource these functions, largely because of the institutional costs inherent in training, equipping, leading and maintaining soldiers and military units. At the end of the day, America has a finite amount of money it can afford to spend on defense, even if that finite amount reaches nearly $400 billion. We can't afford to internalize every defense function -- from mail service to depot-level tank repair. Privatizing certain functions enables the military to focus its resources on the critical functions which must be done by "green suiters". If we can make our trigger-pullers more effective, more efficient, or more lethal by privatizing certain support functions, then the risk of privatization may be justified. (For more on the calculus of defense spending, see this book
by Michael O'Hanlon and Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences
, by Richard Betts.)In theory, that's the way it's supposed to work
. It's possible that the system may have broken down at some points, but I think the general wisdom of privatization has been proven over time in Gulf War I, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Now we just need to make it work better in Iraq.