Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.
A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.
It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.
Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.
The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.
Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.
So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.
Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.
The first story concerns the Canadian navy’s program to build a new generation of warships. This was originally budgeted as costing $14 billion. Now the parliamentary budget officer has announced that the cost has leapt to a mind-blowing $77 billion, and that the total could go up even more if the project experiences further delays (which, let’s face it, is quite likely).
Going over-budget is hardly unusual in the world of defence procurement, but a leap from $14 to $77 billion is more than a bit off the charts. Imagine what you could do with $77 billion. Apart from putting it back in taxpayer’s pockets, think of what you could do for healthcare, education, or the condition of the country’s indigenous people, many of whom don’t even have access to drinkable water. And then think of what benefits you’re going to get from $77 billion worth of warships. Or rather, think of how you would suffer if you didn’t have those ships. Would anyone invade Canada? Would the world collapse into chaos? Would any of you not directly involved in building or manning them even notice??? No, no, and no.
This is a scandalous and appalling waste of the nation’s wealth. Yet it’s passed almost unnoticed. We live in a world of pandemic economics, in which money appears to grow on trees, budget deficits have ballooned to simply incomprehensible proportions, and the loss of $70-odd billion just slips by without causing so much as a blink of an eye. Clearly, something isn’t right.
And then there’s story number two. This is the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a person whose work I have mentioned many times before. SIGAR audits the money spent by the United States in Afghanistan, and it’s a litany of waste and corruption on a scale that … well, I’ve already used the word mindblowing, so I won’t say that it blows the mind, but you get the point, it involves a lot, a real, real lot, of money flushed down the toilet in Afghanistan for no obvious benefit.
Anyway, SIGAR’s latest report, which came to me in an email, says the following:
–This report is the result of a congressional request of SIGAR to summarize all capital assets in Afghanistan paid for by U.S. agencies that SIGAR has found in its prior work to be unused, not used for their intended purposes, deteriorated or destroyed.
— The capital assets reviewed for this report were funded by DOD, USAID, OPIC, and the State Department to build schools, prisons, a hotel, hospitals, roads, bridges, and Afghan military facilities.
— Of the nearly $7.8 billion in capital assets reviewed in its prior reports, SIGAR identified about $2.4 billion in assets that were unused or abandoned, had not been used for their intended purposes, had deteriorated, or were destroyed.
— By contrast, SIGAR found that more than $1.2 billion out of the $7.8 billion in assets were being used as intended, and only $343.2 million out of the $7.8 billion in assets were maintained in good condition.
— Most of the capital assets not used properly or in disrepair or abandoned are directly related to U.S. agencies not considering whether the Afghans wanted or needed the facilities, or whether the Afghan government had the financial ability and technical means to sustain them.
— This waste of taxpayer dollars occurred despite multiple laws stating that U.S. agencies should not construct or procure capital assets until they can show that the benefiting country has the financial and technical resources, and capability to use and maintain those assets effectively.
— “SIGAR’s work reveals a pattern of U.S. agencies pouring too much money, too quickly, into a country too small to absorb it,” said Special Inspector General John F. Sopko. “The fact that so many capital assets wound up not used, deteriorated or abandoned should have been a major cause of concern for the agencies financing these projects. The lesson of all of this is two-fold. If the United States is going to pay for reconstruction or development in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world, first make certain the recipient wants it, needs it and can sustain it. Secondly, make certain before you spend the money there is proper oversight to prevent this type of waste.”
I’m a great fan of SIGAR, but there’s something about his work that really frustrates me. He’s been saying this stuff for years, but nothing ever changes. The money keeps flowing, and keeps getting squandered. There should be ‘proper oversight’ SIGAR says, but surely by now he’s got to have woken up to the fact that it’s not going to happen. It’s like all he can say is, ‘do all this stuff better’, but can never bring himself to say, ‘Stop doing it! It’s a gigantic boondoogle.’
To be fair, that’s not an auditor’s job, and I guess that he can’t go beyond his legal remit. But you see what I’m saying. This isn’t something you can solve by introducing better processes. It’s rotten to the core.
Unfortunately, it continues, and continues, and continues. And so it is that our profligate military and imperial adventures impoverish us all, while bringing us absolutely diddly squat in return for our money. Back in the day, I was taught that the essence of democracy is accountability. Judging by this, we’re not democracies at all.
But I’ll give the final word to two-times winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, General Smedley Butler. ‘War is a racket’, he said.
How very true.