Roosevelt president and VP with their panelists, looking stately
Last Thursday was the Roosevelt Institute’s annual policy forum on the topic of the future of the U.S. defense industry. Never one to miss a good panel discussion, we sent defensive defenestrator Julia Goodman to report.
In case you’re unaware, the Roosevelt Institute is a nonpartisan think tank with chapters on college campuses across the nation. The Columbia chapter, among other things, knows how to put together a good panel discussion–they organize at least one forum a year. This year’s focus was the American military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower famously warned against in his 1961 farewell speech before leaving the White House.
The panel was an interesting group of people, and considering that there were only three speakers, the Institute leaders did an impressive job of capturing the diversity of experience within the defense industry. The speakers were Austin Long, a professor and consultant for various defense engineering companies; Ken Nevor, an executive from one such company; and John Schiffer, a GS student who served in the Marines. The dynamic between the three was quite interesting–as the youngest (and lowest-ranking) speaker, Schiffer seemed to carry less respect with the two older panelists, who frequently whispered loudly over him. Nevor, meanwhile, insisted on reading from a prepared sheet of responses. (He initially said this was because he was tired, but then said that he “ha[d] to,” which added to the sense that he was toeing the company line.)
Nevertheless, all had insights to share. Responding to questions about how they view the relationship between the military and private companies, none of the three speakers seemed to have any moral qualms with it. Nevor explained that, from his perspective, Eisenhower was warning against a nation in which the government would spend all of its time and energy on military technology (as Soviet Russia was perceived to be doing at the time) and thus outsourcing such work to private companies is actually in line with what Eisenhower would want. He also pointed out that side the military is “designed and tailored to meet the needs” of the U.S. government, outsourcing work to private companies does not mean the military will suddenly be doing things the government, or taxpayers, wouldn’t be okay with.
Long had a less uniformly positive perspective, saying of private defense contractors, “Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re just really weird.” To corroborate this statement, he shared the story of the private contractor whose job it was to make all the keys on one base Long worked on. When he needed a new key, Long had to go to the edge of the base to visit this man, known only as “The Keymaster,” and listen to him tell strange stories for a while before eventually getting his key. Schiffer added that because private contractors are nonmilitary personnel, they can technically choose not to work whenever they want, and can’t be ordered to go into the field. He occasionally witnessed significant problems with this, especially when private translators in Afghanistan would refuse to accompany a mission.
But there must be pros to contracting private labor, too?