An open letter to the Tea Party

By Hugh Gusterson | October 29, 2010

Congratulations to your movement for so quickly and fundamentally shifting the political debate in the United States. You have put a vital issue on the national agenda: the increasing share of our wealth as a nation that has been commandeered by the government, and the resulting budget deficits that are like a massive iceberg toward which our economic ship of state drifts at its peril.

If this is not corruption, what is? The sums of money involved here make the bailout of General Motors look like small change by comparison.

But your movement is ignoring a major sinkhole for American taxpayers’ money. If you want to find rage-inspiring examples of government spending, there is no better place to look than the military budget. Here are some examples that should raise the blood pressure of any self-respecting Tea Partier:

  • The US has over 100 military bases in Germany alone. These bases may have made sense when we feared a Soviet attack on Western Europe, but the Cold War ended 20 years ago. Why is American taxpayers’ money being spent on bases that stimulate the economy of Germany, while defending NATO against a threat that no longer exists? Gen. Roger Brady, who commands US air forces in Europe, says “we’ve got too many daggone bases,” and we could save millions of dollars by closing some of them. We should listen to our commander in Europe.
  • Since 2001, the US has spent over $55 billion on Afghan reconstruction. Much of this money has been wasted and has fueled corruption in Afghanistan. For example, USAID earmarked $100 million of American taxpayers’ money on the Khost-Ghardez Highway, but, due to a militant attack, opted to abandon the project halfway through until security improves. The Army spent $5.5 million to build seven police headquarters, five of which were not completed. And if you want a “bridge to nowhere,” the Army built a million-dollar suspension bridge in Afghanistan, but it is useless since no road leads to it. Further, under the $2.2 billion Host Nation Trucking contract, the Pentagon pays protection money to corrupt Afghan security companies that, according to the New York Times, gives some of this money to the Taliban to assure safe passage of American supplies.
  • The Pentagon cannot account for $2.6 billion that it spent in Iraq. According to congressional investigators, Halliburton overbilled American taxpayers by as much as $1.4 billion for services in Iraq. This included $45 for cases of soda, and $1,000 for VCRs. According to Fox News, Halliburton overbilled the taxpayer $61 million for gasoline.
  • Then there are the “little” things (by Pentagon standards). For example, the American taxpayer is spending $4.4 million to move an Army band from Maryland to Alabama and to build them a new rehearsal room, music library, and practice rooms. Taxpayers are also paying $683,000 to renovate a café; $773,000 for a Taco Bell; and $60,000 for a batting cage at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

The $708 billion defense budget proposed for 2011 is, in constant dollars, the highest it has been since World War II — 36 percent higher than it was at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, and as much as all other discretionary programs in the federal budget combined. Astonishingly, a half of all military spending in the world comes from the US taxpayer. The average American family gives $5,615 of its hard-earned money to the Pentagon every year. (See the excellent graphics published by Daily Kos.)

Inexplicably, some national politicians who profess to admire your movement seek to protect this outrageous waste of your money. John Boehner has said that we should raise the retirement age to stretch the social security budget, but that the military budget should be off-limits to budget cutting. And Foreign Policy reported that “Sarah Palin is waging a battle inside the ‘tea party’ movement to exempt defense spending from the group’s small-government, anti-deficit fervor.” Palin has even gone so far as to pick a fight with Defense Secretary Robert Gates over his plans to cut the military procurement budget.

Your movement has started a vital national conversation about the ways in which arrogant, out-of-touch Washington elites spend the hard-earned dollars of ordinary Americans like a kid blowing all of his allowance on candy. But this conversation will be incomplete if it only encompasses welfare programs, government health care spending, and social security. We need the power of your outrage to spotlight two of the great scandals in Washington life: first, the way politicians from both parties accept gifts from big defense contractors and then, in exchange, spend taxpayer money on defense contracts that are often padded, redundant, and wasteful; and, second, the lucrative double-dipping of retired military officers who earn as much as $400 an hour advising the Pentagon on contracts, while, simultaneously, earning consulting fees from the corporations whose products they are advising the government to buy. If this is not corruption, what is? The sums of money involved here make the bailout of General Motors look like small change by comparison.

Your movement has extraordinary power in American public life, but it has also brought you many false friends who hope to ride your coattails to Washington and have no real interest in cutting the federal budget. In the wake of the election, this is now the big question: Will the Tea Party change the game in Washington, or will it be captured by both defense contractors — who want to shrink social services so they can enlarge their share of the federal budget — and by politicians — who claim to be against government spending, but whose idea of “shrinking government” is to hand your money to corporations?

The founding fathers were suspicious of standing armies. They would be horrified to see how their beloved country has become a government of the people for the defense contractors. If you want to take your country back, you have to take it back from General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, Halliburton, Bechtel, and their errand boys and girls in Congress, too.

Together, we make the world safer.

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