Tag: contractors

Your Tax Dollars at Work

President Obama says that we are a  ”generous and compassionate” country and that “through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” And to fulfill that “progressive vision,” he’s going to work on “making government smarter, and leaner and more effective. “

Today, under the rubric “Breakaway Wealth/Reaping Riches from Federal Spending,” the Washington Post gives us a front-page picture of where a lot of those generous and compassionate federal dollars actually go:

Millions of dollars worth of federal contracts transformed Anita Talwar from a government accounting clerk into a wealthy woman—one who can afford a $2.8 million home in the Washington suburbs with its own elevator, wine cellar and Swarovski crystal chandeliers.

Talwar, a 59-year-old immigrant from India, had no idea that she and her husband would amass a small fortune when she launched a company providing tech support to the federal government in 1987. But she shrewdly took advantage of programs for minority-owned small businesses and rode a boom in federal contracting.

By the time Talwar sold Advanced Management Technology in 2004, it had grown from a one-woman shop to a company with more than 350 employees and $100 million in annual revenue—all of it from government contracts.

Talwar’s success—and that of hundreds of other contractors like her—is a key factor driving the explosion of the region’s wealth over the last two decades. It also has exacerbated the gap between high- and low-wage workers, which is wider in the D.C. area than almost anywhere else in the United States.

Washingtonians now enjoy the highest median household income of any metropolitan area in the country

More than $80 billion in federal contracting dollars will flow to the region this year, up from $4.2 billion in 1980.

That’s my kind of smart, lean, and effective government!

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.

A Weak Defense of Disclosure

In an earlier post, I wrote about the problems with the Obama administration’s executive order to force government contractors to reveal their political activity.

The administration defends the mandate by arguing “taxpayers deserve to know how contractors are spending money they’ve earned from the government.”

For the first (and perhaps last) time, I rise to the defense of government contractors. The President apparently believes that anyone who sells a good or service to the government must account for the uses of the money received in the transaction in perpetuity? Obama’s press secretary said the President’s “goal is transparency and accountability. That’s the responsible thing to do when you’re handling taxpayer dollars.”

I do not understand this. The government extracts taxes and spends the money. Indeed, government officials should be accountable for that spending. But once the exchange is made, the money belongs to a private firm. It is no longer the property of the taxpayers.  Perhaps the use of a firm’s money should be disclosed, but you need a different argument to justify that mandate. The President seems to be proposing that anyone who does business with the government may have to account for the money they earn in those transactions. That assertion strikes me as a real expansion of government power.

The most troubling part of all this remains the President’s view that he can enact this mandate through an executive order. Americans should be wondering why a rule rejected by Congress can simply be enacted by fiat by the President. The President does not enjoy the power of a king, does he?

The President’s gambit may be in trouble. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, is questioning the content of the decree. I am glad she is concerned about the First Amendment. I would be happier if she questioned the Obama-Bush conception of executive power that informs this effort.