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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bush's Strip Club Economics

As I write, Barack Obama will deliver a "major economic address." In it, he'll basically pitch his stimulus package -- which is reported to come in at $775 billion over two years. The problem is that we don't have it. In fact, just Tuesday, Obama warned that we're going to be dealing with deficits for some time.


President-elect Barack Obama said Tuesday that $1 trillion deficits could last for “years to come” as he sought to make the case for budget reforms amid an economy in peril.

Obama’s warning came as he met for the second consecutive day in Washington with his top economic officials, this time in a session devoted to fixing the budget process.

“Peter Orszag now forecasts that, at the current course and speed, a trillion-dollar deficit will be here before we even start the next budget,” Obama said, alluding to his nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget.

The president-elect suggested that such 13-figure deficits could last “for years to come, even with the economic recovery that we are working on at this point.”

The problem, of course, is that George W. Bush has spent money like a drunk in a strip club for the past eight years. And, like that drunk stuffing bills into a stripper's G-string, he really doesn't have anything to show for it. Defenders of Bush's bender will point to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, to the "Global War on Terror," and to events like 9/11. This spending, they'd argue, was forced upon poor George.

But that's not extremely true. With the exception of Katrina, all of these expenses were avoidable. Iraq is a war of choice, not necessity, and there's a very good argument to be made that 9/11 was Bush's fault. Attorney General John Ashcroft once threatened to fire the next person who wasted his time with terrorism, for example. Fighting porn was the Justice Department's big project. 9/11 happened because no one in the Bush administration took terrorism seriously.

In fact, that drunk in a strip club analogy holds up extremely well. Not only were we spending insane amounts of money with no return on the investment, but we aren't exactly sure where it all went.

An article in the Daily Beast reminds us of 20 Forgotten Bush Scandals. Of those twenty, three concern money that just disappeared. The most egregious is the first example:

When testifying before Congress in 2007, L. Paul Bremer, the former head of reconstruction in Iraq, was unable to account for as much as $12 billion -- about half of his budget -- as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority between May 2003 and June 2004. According to a report by Rep. Henry Waxman, contractors brought bags to meetings in order to collect shrink-wrapped bundles of money.

We literally shipped money to Iraq on pallets and, apparently, handed it out to whoever wanted it. There was no accounting done to track the money and no idea who we wound up funding with it. I guess we didn't care. Maybe the reasoning was that the Invisible Hand of the Market would make sure the money got into helpful hands.

"In 2004, Pentagon auditors found that Halliburton had not adequately accounted for $1.8 billion of the bill it sent to the United States government for its work in Iraq and Kuwait," we're told. Again, we had no idea where this money went.

Finally, "Also that year [2004], Bunnatine Greenhouse, the Army Corps of Engineers' chief contracting officer, charged that KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, unfairly received billions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts in Iraq. Greenhouse was demoted in 2005." People who bothered to try to find out where the money was going were punished for it. A couple billion here, a few billion there, and all of a sudden we find ourselves $1 trillion dollars in the hole. Being a drunk in a skin bar has a way of emptying out your wallet.

While some of the blame can be put on simple incompetence -- a commodity the Bush administration has had in abundance -- much of this missing money is inarguably theft. Bush opened the federal coffers to his corporate friends and they cleaned us out. We've spent all those billions and billions and billions, without any idea whatsoever what we've supposedly bought with it. All we know is that it's gone.

Other pointless expenses are things like missile defense, which doesn't actually work and exists only to be expensive. But at least there's a pretense of an investment here -- it may not work, but there's some object we can point to and say we bought it. We can't do that with KBR's unexplained overages or the pallets of money shipped to Iraq. That's just gone and all we have to show for it is an empty wallet and a hangover. We might've gotten a lapdance, but I don't remember it.

Acting like a drunk in a strip club turns out to be just about as bad a way to govern as you'd think.