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Thom Hartmann: Too Important for the Private Sector

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Excerpted from Thom Hartmann's newest book, Screwed; The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- And What We Can Do About It

Some aspects of government are just too important to hand over to the private sector.

Among these are the government's role in protecting life and liberty. Even the cons will say that the government has a role in defending citizens. But they just can't seem to help themselves. Since Ronald Reagan, the cons have been busy privatizing the most basic features of our government, including the military, the prisons, and our electoral system itself.

The cons ascribe to a religion of privatization. "Anything government can do, we can do better," they say. Even though corporations have to skim money off the top to pay dividends to their shareholders, pay their CEOs' huge salaries, and pay for the corporate jets, fancy headquarters, golden bathroom fixtures, and advertising and marketing, somehow the cons think corporations can do things more efficiently than a government that has to pay only civil servants. It defies logic, but they keep repeating this fundamental article of faith-based economics.

Privatizing the Military
The second-largest army in Iraq is not the United Kingdom's but the thirty thousand or so private contractors hired by the Bush administration.

Corporations are now providing services that the army used to do. The cons tell us that private corporations are much more efficient than the army at providing services. Yet these corporations bring people over from the United States and pay them more than $100,000 a year, whereas the army starts privates at $15,282. It doesn't make any sense economically.

Nor is using contractors more efficient in terms of getting the job done better and faster. In the foregoing introduction to part III, we saw that corporations have failed miserably at doing their jobs in Iraq. And it apparently takes more of them to not do those jobs. From 1999 to 2002, the U.S. government eliminated 48,000 civil service jobs while adding 730,000 contract positions.

Privatizing the military is just another way for the cons to transfer hundreds of billions of tax dollars from We the People to the corporatocracy.

Because the army can't actually command private contractors, there's no real accountability. According to Michael Scherer, who wrote on this topic for Mother Jones, "A report the GAO [Government Accounting Office] released said a number of the weapon systems the U.S. has deployed need contractors to maintain them. Generals have no idea which jobs are being done by contractors. If the contractors walk off the job, that would hamper the military effort. There's no accountability."

The Bush administration has even given up trying to make these corporations accountable to the government. Scherer points out that the government has shifted oversight of the work that private contractors do to the private contractors themselves. For example, Sherer reports,
The U.S. government has its own agency that buys oil for the U.S. military called the Defense Energy Appropriation Center. But the Pentagon didn't give the contract to import oil for Iraq to that agency. They gave it to Halliburton. When you ask them why they gave the contract to Halliburton, they say, "Well, Halliburton drew up the energy plans for us." Halliburton designed the contract they awarded to themselves.
This lack of accountability doesn't just affect the financial cost of using private contractors for military work. There's a cost to democracy as well.

As anybody who's been in the military can tell you, the old cliche is true that the job of an army is to "blow things up and kill people." The nature of an army includes licensing people to kill other people. This license to kill is governed by national laws and by international treaties.

Private corporations, however, are under few such constraints when they act as a mercenary army on behalf of a government. While the government pays the corporation, the same laws and treaties do not govern it as they would an army of the government. A private corporation is not answerable to We the People. To the contrary, laws and Supreme Court precedents say that private corporations can hide things behind the secrecy of "corporate personhood," claiming Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment "human rights" in ways that governments never could.

When you combine that lack of oversight with the profit motive, you get situations like the horrendous torture at Abu Ghraib, a process that, according to people who were there, was heavily influenced by the presence of and the orders from "private contractors." At least a thirty-strong team of interrogators at the prison, for example, were employed by CACI International, which is based in Virginia. According to the grunts who were convicted, private contractors told them to come in and do many of the things for which they went to jail: private contractors were in charge of many of the interrogations.

And there's nothing we can do about that. As Human Rights Watch notes, "These contractors operate in Iraq with virtual impunity-- exempt by the terms of their engagement with the U.S. military from prosecution by Iraqi courts, outside the military chain of command and thus ineligible for court-martial, and not subject to prosecution by U.S. courts." They act outside the law.

If you are going to give someone the legal power to kill, you want those people to be under the absolute control of We the People.
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Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning New York Times best-selling author, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk program on the Air America Radio Network, live noon-3 PM ET. His most recent books are "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights," "We The People," "What Would Jefferson Do?," "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle (more...)

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