Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, November 03, 2003  

[Apropos of the irresponsibility meme I'm trying to start, here's a piece I wrote for Open Source Politics last week. It seems to have struck a bit of a chord. Apologies to all who have read it, if any such rare beings exist.]

War Profiteering: Irresponsible

We learned on Wednesday that Halliburton's contract to rebuild Iraq will be extended. Pretty sweet deal if you're Halliburton:

While Halliburton has had to counter many accusations since the Pentagon first announced the contract, the company has certainly benefited from the dangerous assignment in Iraq. Revenues neared $4.15 billion in the period, up from $2.98 billion last year, largely because of the work in Iraq.

Operating income in the company's engineering and construction group jumped fourfold to $49 million, from $12 million the previous year. The company's energy services business, however, saw operating income drop to $170 million, down from $200 million a year ago.

If you're not Halliburton -- if you're, say, a taxpayer -- well, maybe not so good. But then, what are you going to do, right? In times of war, companies prosper. It's the American way.

Or maybe not.

A little over a month ago, Robert Landauer, writing in the Oregonian, suggested that Congress should put a limit on excess profits. It's an idea that, according to Landauer, Congress has regularly acted upon.

In other U.S. wars, though, a national consensus developed that it is obscene to profiteer -- to prosper outrageously, scandalously -- on the patriotic sacrifice of others. Cartoonists' caricatures of this type of corporate Croesus changed remarkably little in the century between the Civil War and the Korean War. He was portrayed as a homburg-hatted, boutonniere-vested, gold-pocket-watch-flaunting, cane-waving, cigar-chomping, porcine plutocrat -- a self-dealing gouger.

His profits, it was realized, come out of taxpayers' pockets. In three of our nation's 20th-century wars, Congress and presidents agreed that the national emergency did not justify allowing the gougers to pick and strip the public pocket. (We also had a windfall profits tax on oil companies during the early 1980s' gasoline shortage.)

This is an issue the Democrats should pick up. It hits at exactly the pressure point of controversy in this war. Democrats believe it was an unnecessary war waged to profit the administration politically and economically. The necessity of the war will remain an open question, but if the Republicans want to remain credible on the profiteering argument, they'd be compelled to support an excess profit cap. In either case, it's a winning position for the Dems.

Furthermore, it highlights a theme the Democrats are going to need to make if they want the nation to trust their foreign policy more than the Chickenhawks': responsibility. Going into the war on faulty intelligence was irresponsible. Going in without UN support was irresponsible. And most obviously, going in without a plan for reconstruction was irresponsible. The Chickenhawks love the drama and grandeur of war (as long as they're viewing it on CNN) -- it aggrandizes their vanity. But their plans for fighting terror have always been misguided and irresponsible. If the Dems fashion a platform that includes issues like war profiteering, they'll drive home that point of irresponsibility. It's a winning hand.

posted by Jeff | 10:49 AM |
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