WHEN THE CHICKENS COME HOME…

There are reasons why I continue to harp on such stories as those I linked to in the previous several posts. One reason brings to mind one of the many half-debates* I’ve had with my colleagues, this one about the expansion and abuses of the executive branch. After I commented that as such a wealthy and powerful nation, the U.S. is always in danger of sinking completely into fascism, naked imperialism, or some other kind of totalitarianism. At fewer times in our history have we been closer to such than now. This colleague responded, with a straight face, that we have checks and balances (supposedly unlike those other ill-fated empires). I said that those checks and balances are only as relevant as our willingness to maintain them, and I cited the current rogue executive as a prime example of that principle.

Anyway, to those who would rather not acknowledge the horrible travesty and criminality of our foreign policy, it bears mentioning that the dirt we do abroad will find its way home if we don’t make the effort to clean it up. I reference the following essay by Paul Krugman (I found it in the Kansas City Star, but since such things have a way of disappearing behind toll booths– and vanishing completely– I’ll reprint it in its entirety here until someone tells me I can’t).

Tax collection, military mercenaries replace professionals

The Internal Revenue Service is contracting with private debt collectors to go after unpaid back taxes, with the collectors receiving a share of the proceeds.

It’s an awful idea. Private tax collection will cost far more than hiring additional IRS agents, raise less revenue and pose obvious risks of abuse. But what’s really amazing is the extent to which this plan is a retreat from modern principles of government. I used to say that conservatives want to take us back to the 1920s, but the Bush administration seemingly wants to go back to the 16th century.

In the bad old days, government was a haphazard affair. There was no bureaucracy to collect taxes, so the king subcontracted the job to private “tax farmers,” who often engaged in extortion. There was no regular army, so the king hired mercenaries, who tended to wander off and pillage the nearest village. There was no regular system of administration, so the king assigned the task to favored courtiers, who tended to be corrupt, incompetent or both.

Modern governments solved these problems by creating a professional revenue department to collect taxes, a professional officer corps to enforce military discipline and a professional civil service. But President Bush apparently doesn’t like these innovations, preferring to govern as if he were King Louis XII.

So the tax farmers are coming back, and the mercenaries already have. There are about 20,000 armed “security contractors” in Iraq, and they have been assigned critical tasks, from guarding top officials to training the Iraqi army.

Like the mercenaries of old, today’s corporate mercenaries have discipline problems. “They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath,” declared a U.S. officer last year.

Armed men operating outside the military chain of command have caused at least one catastrophe. Remember the four Americans hanged from a bridge? They were security contractors from Blackwater USA who blundered into Fallujah — bypassing a Marine checkpoint — while the Marines were trying to pursue a methodical strategy of pacifying the city. The killing of the four, and the knee-jerk reaction of the White House — which ordered an all-out assault and then called it off as casualties mounted — may have ended the last chance of containing the insurgency.

Yet Blackwater, whose chief executive is a big contributor to the Republican Party, continues to thrive. The Department of Homeland Security sent heavily armed Blackwater employees into New Orleans immediately after Katrina.

To whom are such contractors accountable? Last week, a judge threw out a jury’s $10 million verdict against Custer Battles, a private contractor that was hired, among other things, to provide security at Baghdad’s airport. Battles has become a symbol of the mix of cronyism, corruption and sheer amateurishness that doomed the Iraq adventure — and the judge didn’t challenge the jury’s finding that the company engaged in flagrant fraud.

But he ruled that the civil fraud suit against the company lacked a legal basis, because as far as he could tell, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq’s government from April 2003 to June 2004, wasn’t “an instrumentality of the U.S. government.” It wasn’t created by an act of Congress; it wasn’t a branch of the State Department or any other established agency.

Tax farmers, mercenaries and viceroys: Why does the Bush administration want to run a modern superpower as if it were a 16th-century monarchy? Maybe people who’ve spent their political careers denouncing government as the root of all evil can’t grasp the idea of governing well. Or maybe it’s cynical politics: Fiefdoms provide both an opportunity to evade accountability and to create a vast source of patronage.


The Bush administration continues the recent ‘conservative’ trend of trying to sell off government to the highest bidder. If you followed my recommendation to read Antonia Juhasz’s The Bush Agenda, then you know that the Bushies’ attempted feudalization of Iraq has resulted in economic, political, and human disaster. The deployment of armed mercenaries into post-Katrina New Orleans, after FEMA totally neglected its duties to help the region during and immediately after the disaster, was more than just a slap in the face to NOLA residents; it was a sign of things to come. More accurately, it was a sign of things as they are, and as they are destined to get worse. What the Bushies foisted on Iraq, they wish to bring home. Don’t expect this trend to be halted solely by the end of the Bush administration’s constitutionally limited reign.

*When you find yourself ‘debating’ against facile talking points that were recycled from right-wing talk radio or Fox News, you’re really only having half a debate.

One comment on “

  1. teh l4m3 says:

    Slightly OT: I’m so going to watch that Spike Lee Katrina movie. And yes, I already have a box of tissue handy…

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