Missile Defense and the Banks

Many argue that the demand for public goods justifies government spending and taxing.  Defense spending is a classic public good. The New Times offers an interesting case study of how the federal government actually spends money on defense.

The story recounts the activities of Michael Cantrell, a Defense Department employee who turned into a lobbyist for various projects connected to the missile defense program. According to the story, Cantrell “extracted nearly $350 million for projects the Pentagon did not want, wasting taxpayer money on what would become dead-end ventures.”

Cantrell is awaiting sentencing on corruption charges related to taking kickbacks for defense contractors. But his violations of the law did not start until 2000. Much of the $350 million wasted on defense projects happened before he started taking a cut of the action.

Read the whole story. Here is my summary: Pentagon officials did not want the projects Cantrell pushed, but powerful members of Congress did support such outlays. DOD had missile ranges around the world, but Ted Stevens thought another one was needed in Alaska. Acoustics research might have been conducted many places, but Trent Lott preferred the work done by the University of Mississippi in Oxford and a Huntsville defense contractor that had a branch office in Oxford. And so on.

In other words, members were directing the DOD budget to benefit their constituents in exchange for votes on election day. “Vote for me and I will give you $1,000” is not limited to presidential elections.

Gordon Tullock once wrote of campaign finance:

It should of course be kept in mind that [campaign contributions] are not actually for the purpose of buying votes. The votes are bought by the bills passed by Congress, or the Legislature, which benefit voters. But the campaign money is used to inform the voters about what their congressman has done. Since the voters pay little attention, concentrating the message on a narrow scope and repeating it again and again is necessary even though it annoys intellectuals. On the whole it is the actual things done for the voters by the votes of their and other congressmen, which attract voters to elect those congressmen.

The Cantrell story confirms Tullock’s insight. The reporter mentions campaign finance contributions by defense contractors, but by and large, the story is one of constituent service (that is, the creation and maintenance of vote purchase schemes).

There are several interesting questions here. Can Congress actually provide public goods efficiently? Isn’t Cantrell’s story one of earmarking without the earmarks? If so, won’t the practice of earmarking continue even if Congress gets rid of earmarks? The story shows Congress in a poor light, but don’t we want the legislature to control its agents (like the Pentagon) instead of simply delegating authority to spend to them?

One final lesson. The Cantrell story shows what happens when Congress has money to spend on national defense. In coming days, the federal government may come into ownership of many banks. How do you think Congress will spend the capital of those banks?