Black Hole in the Budget
When Ronald Reagan announced his intention to bring the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the silver screen, every business in the industry wanted a ticket to ride on that gravy train. The small tech firm where I worked as a technician used only a small portion of its office and work space, and because it desperately wanted to board, the founders of the company decided to furnish vacant offices, make inactive test and assembly stations appear to be active, and set up more of the same to create the illusion of a much larger operation.
Men in uniform were coming, brandishing clipboards, to take it all in and write it all down.
The facility and the faculty would need to project the “the right stuff” -- and so a parade of aspiring actors in office and laboratory attire arrived early on that day, well before the scheduled visitation. They came to play assigned roles as secretaries, technicians, engineers, procurement agents, IT specialists, and human resource managers. They pretended to type and converse on inoperable equipment or walk about with fake files and dummy documents, speak in feigned office jargon while lab workers turned knobs, flipped switches, plugged and unplugged dead cables and moved technical-looking devices around hastily assembled inactive workstations.
This was San Bernardino, land of screenplay writers, aspiring actors, and the porn industry...
...and when the casting call went out for a one-day, well-paying gig, the parking lot filled with those hoping to audition for the 15 or 20 roles in this improvised theater that would open and close that same day. Those who made the best effort to look the part were brought in for coaching on how to act and what to say, especially if stiff military personnel in polished uniforms should engage them.
Dozens of extras remained outside the workplace and concern arose as to what the soon-to-arrive evaluators might think of the aimless congregation loitering around the business. I assumed the role of crowd control which also involved sampling the fine weed being passed between the attractive and unusual people mingling in the process. I announced that the exterior of the building was part of the movie set and that the scene required total vacancy in anticipation of ominous black SUVs pulling in and armored agents piling out -- and in that cinematic context and in their need to project familiarity with movie set decorum, they collectively nodded in an apparent expression of understanding and slowly left.
Their departure was not a moment too soon, for as I was about to enter the rear entrance, the sound of real ominous vehicles pulled in behind me. Inside, I gave everyone the heads-up and the employees and the actors playing employees assumed their respective roles and places.
The founders rushed to greet the contingency whom they led through the lobby, into a long hallway, past the multitude of once empty offices now bustling and eventually into the spacious, bright white technical area bathed in natural light from skylights in the high ceilings above. The entourage was led here -- to the real employees and away from those pretending to be, albeit convincingly -- assuring the procession saw what it needed to see and not what it didn’t.
At one point in the procession an officer broke rank and approached an actor in his white lab coat costume, engaging with a scrap device on his dummy workstation. “What’s ya’ got going on here, my boy” he said in a thick southern accent like this was a show and tell at a local junior high science fair. The actor froze up and shot me a look a look of distress. I pointed over my shoulder to a white board behind me that had a list of industry jargon printed boldly and legible from across the room. It was part of the prior training session that I had forgotten to erase, but had become a useful teleprompter for mixing and matching the tossed tech word salad, the officer cut off mid stream with: “excellent son, this country needs more fine young minds like yours...now carry on and don’t let the old guard marching through the place distract you from your important work here.”
When the examiners finally left, there was a collective sigh of relief and the feeling of having made it through opening night without a hitch. If there had been an audience, they would have been on their feet in wild applause shouting, "encore!". It felt that good -- because it was that good.
Over the sound system, which the techs were always making bigger and louder, “We Are The Champions” rained down from hot rod speaker systems positioned 16 feet above. The 15 or 20 actors (I lost count) were fascinating people and excellent company for when the champagne in blue ice buckets rolled in -- ahead of caterers from the one food establishment in the remote industrial park. We had pulled this damn thing off. There was good reason for celebration and celebrate we did -- through the afternoon and into the night. Management arranged for cabs and cab fare for anyone who needed a sober ride home, something we all needed that night.
The military contract to design and build satellite components for the SDI program would be awarded to a company that had feigned being something it wasn’t to satisfy the conditions of a program that would never be.
It’s ironic, that when those inspired by Reagan and Reaganism and currently by Trump and Trumpism, look back on past periods of the American experience, they so often choose the post-war period and the Eisenhower era in particular -- an era when taxes on the wealthy were as high as 90% and funding for certain social programs and for most infrastructure projects were sufficient to the need.
Originally passed in 1944, the GI Bill was still in effect, providing a generous range of benefits to veterans throughout the tenure of Ike’s administration. Vocational training and academic educations were offered tuition-free and no money down, low-interest home loans allowed veterans to buy into the prosperity of the era. The suburbs were flourishing with subdivisions and the homes were flush with modern appliances and furnishings. Shiny new cars were parked in driveways, labor unions were powerful, and wages were at an all-time high.
To see only the affluence of the American Dream at its apex, and the favorable economic conditions that brought it to fruition, but not to juxtapose it against the backdrop of the Cold War, duck and cover, nuclear winter, McCarthyism, blacklisting, the Korean War, and the serious social, racial, and gender inequality and inequity would be beyond bereft.
What came to be known as the military-industrial complex (MIC), has its origins in the War Department of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration when he brought together captains of industry and the US military high command into a symbiotic relationship -- in an effort to build a powerful and well-equipped war machine capable of prevailing against the Axis powers.
The tanks, bombers, battleships, the endless machinery of war that rolled off the endless assembly lines; the women who left behind indentured domicity to work alongside other women in war factories, providing industrial muscle in solidarity; the untold tonnage of raw scrap metal and materials that were brought forth to be recycled for the war effort; the many enterprises that were repurposed and retooled; the men in uniform who gave life and limb, following orders based on questionable strategies who were slaughtered and whose mangled bodies were strewn along and across the beaches of Normandy; the airmen who opened bomb bay doors over blacked out German cities decimating whatever was below in the darkness made light of day by their deliveries...
...all that unprecedented effort to build that unprecedented war machine that so many Americans look back on with such superpower pride... all that wasn't enough to bring the Japanese Empire (no larger than the state of California) into submission to end the war. Harry Truman would order two Boeing B-29 strategic bombers - the Enola Gay carrying "Little Boy" and the Bockscar carrying "Fat Man" - to take to the skies over Japan and drop the ultimate weapon of mass destruction on respective civilian cities, populated exclusively with women and children, the elderly and infirm, to finish the job the conventional war machine apparently couldn’t.
If we were truly the superpower that we believed ourselves to be, why did we need to do that? Why wasn't our industrial and military might enough to prevail against Axis nations a fraction of the size and capacity of the US ? Why did we have to be the first nation to open Pandora’s Box in the process of incinerating the innocent?
The last day of WW2 became the first day of the nuclear age and the launch of the Cold War. The collaborators who had built the old conventional war machine for the previous war would have a new mission to build the new nuclearized war machine for the present and future Cold War -- and in that seamless transition from what it was, to what it became, and to what it would become, it coalesced into the permanent, self-perpetuating juggernaut it is today.
It took Ike two years to write the farewell speech that he delivered three days before leaving office. Without reservation, he addressed the complexities and contradictions inherent to remaining the preeminent superpower in the context of the Cold War. He spoke of perpetual militarism and the unholy alliance between the military and war-profiteering private industries. He warned of its omnivorous disposition and how it would draw upon resources better spent in the service of the domestic economy and the social good. He implored the American people and peacetime institutions to work toward a better means of diplomacy and to avoid the use of aggression as the first response to geopolitical conflict. Those prescient elements in his speech, however, ran counter to the proclivities of the war hawks in Congress, the already established military-industrial complex, and the prevailing “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) milieu, indefinitely in effect with the Soviet Union.
Reagan was willing to redline the Cold War to the point of risking imminent global annihilation in order to bankrupt the “Evil Empire.”
Photos from the post-Eisenhower period show Reagan and Ike together, but being cut from such different cloth as they were, it wasn’t obvious as to why. Ike evolved from being a victorious battlefield commander abroad to an effective and beloved American president at home, concerned with the standard of living and the quality of life -- who used the power of the federal government in powerful ways to do great things, such as building the longest, most extensive, and most traveled interstate highway system in the world.
Twenty years later, Reagan would come into office with a science fiction movie fantasy that an impenetrable shield (SDI) could be built around the United States. The scope of the technology didn’t exist then, and no matter how much money was thrown at it and ultimately wasted, it remained an impossibility. Even by today’s standards, with all the advances in technology that have been made since, it is still beyond practical application, because it is still about hitting a bullet with a bullet with 100% certainty. In the attempt, however, he massively increased the defense budget, massively cut taxes on the wealthy, massively incised the web of the social safety net, and massively triggered the rise of social and economic inequality.
Provisions for the social welfare were slashed while he enhanced the fortunes of the monied elite and embraced the morbid machinations of recklessly ambitious neocons.
In stark contrast to Eisenhower, Reagan rose from a B-actor in Hollywood who was once president of the Screen Actors Guild. The charismatic, two-term governor of California was courted closely by influential neoconservative ideologues, many of whom were appointed to prominent positions and who wielded great power in his cabinet. They would set him on his path to becoming the rabid, union-busting, trickle down, partisan president who marginalized the federal government with the stated intent of shrinking it down to the size of a baby and drowning it in a bathtub.
Had he lived long enough to witness Reagan’s frontal assault on the federal government, Ike would have been equally disconcerted by the long shadow still being cast by the military-industrial complex.
Most will remain ignorant or apathetic of essential historical perspective; others may have a cursory understanding, but never connect the dots; but those who know and who make the connections are likely to be disturbed by such expressions of existential despair, warning us that ever more plowshares will be turned into swords than will swords ever be turned into plowshares.
Eisenhower (Ike) developed a deep disdain for the military-industrial complex -- that collective enterprise that defines the undefined dimensions of the American war machine, and the priority over everything else in the budget that it asserts.
Ike conveyed that foreboding in his farewell speech to whomever it may concern, but despite the prior reasons for why it may not elicit what he hoped it would, the black hole in the budget must never be allowed to escape our concern completely, or it will continue unabated from what it was, to what it is, and to what it will be, after all is said and done, if nothing is ever said or done.
There is a black hole in the budget at the center of our national economy, exerting a constant pull on the nation’s resources to forever feed its insatiable appetite.
If there is a glimmer of hope to be had in any of this, it’s that US military bases around the world are experiencing the dire effects of climate change. Climate change deniers are unlikely to find solidarity from within the Pentagon coping with the man-made phenomena first hand and in real time. Perhaps the MIC will come to put aside its systemic partisanship with congressional war hawks and throw its full weight behind the science and the scientists who are warning us -- like Eisenhower warned us about the MIC -- that we need to slow or even reverse our carbon footprint on this planet, before it’s too late.
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