Foreward: Presidential capture is a form of government failure that occurs when the office of the Presidency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of the President himself, his associates and special interest groups supportive of the President. When Presidential capture occurs, the interests of private individuals, corporations or political groups are prioritized over the interests of the public, leading to a net loss to society as a whole. By its nature Presidential capture abrogates national sovereignty. Repeated claims to be acting in the name of national sovereignty by a captured President should be examined carefully. Today there are very large and powerful industries (e.g. energy, banking, private military contractors) that have captured the office of the Presidency and are now using that power to advance their interests while simultaneously blocking policies at the federal, state or provincial level that many voters desire. Such actions are profoundly undemocratic and if unchecked, may result in the unplanned loss of blood, soil and material wealth.
The President is a puppet.
The unprecedented consolidation of Presidential power during the last 50 years has opened a Pandora’s Box of political manipulation and intrigue. Although it may appear that the Presidency reflects the power and prestige of one man, political insiders know that the truth is a lot more complicated. This is a story about who controls the Presidency and why.
Donald Trump’s White House crowns six decades of regulatory capture. The long term interference in the creation and application of government regulations by private industry has created a perversely inverted system of political influence in which government agencies have become entirely subservient to the industries that they are supposed to regulate. By exploiting their position within the regulatory framework of the government, and society at large, the men and women of private industry confer power and privilege upon themselves, while simultaneously undercutting traditionally democratic processes of public debate and open elections. Power begets more power.
Historically many of the deals struck by Presidential aspirants and their supporters provoke little backlash. In fact, the spoils system of political patronage has been a feature of American governance since the country’s birth in 1776. Individuals with little or no experience in government regularly assume the leadership of many agencies with little or no ill effect. On most occasions, the inertia of the agency, reflected in its culture and carried out by its staff, can mask even the most inept appointee.
For example; President George Bush’s appointment of Michael Brown to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency was a classic spoils system reward for Brown’s political patronage during the Presidential primaries. Brown went on to successfully lead FEMA for two and a half years before Hurricane Katrina exposed his inexperience and managerial incompetence. Before leading FEMA, Brown had been the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association.
Others with some government experience, but no familiarity with the agency’s mission, can pose a far more serious threat to the political health and function of the nation’s governmental agencies. President Trump’s choice of Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development is a prime example of a more nefarious application of the same patronage scheme.
President Trump’s long standing ties to the real estate and housing markets make this type of appointment troubling for its apparent desire to place an unqualified person in a position to benefit the man appointing him. This action reflects a blatant disregard for HUD’s historical mission to serve those in need of housing. Appointees should never serve at the behest of another seeking to profit from the arrangement.
Government agencies chaired by individuals antagonistic to the agency itself are even more concerning. Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is a textbook example. Pruitt was a self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” when Trump tapped him to head the agency. Unsurprisingly, Pruitt’s short tenure at the EPA was marked by significant regression of environmental protections, political unrest and staff attrition.
Finally, the President’s own antagonism toward the government, often derogatorily referenced as the “Deep State” in his speeches and dialogues with private business leaders, is a further extension of this disturbing paradigm. In this instance, control of the state is desired in order to decrease regulation, lower taxes, and ultimately increase profit realized by the President, his family, and his business associates.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans of this growing existential threat to our democracy in his farewell address on January 17, 1961. He believed that the amalgamation of military sub-contractors, and the politicians who directed the flow of funds to them, presented a clear and compelling risk to the health of the nation. Without vigilance there would be corruption and eventual political weakness. According to Eisenhower, the military-industrial-complex must never be allowed to enrich itself at the expense of democracy.
As one of the most decorated Generals in American history, President Eisenhower knew what he was talking about. Unfortunately, few in Washington listened. Since 1961 the U.S. military budget has more than doubled, growing from approximately 300 billion dollars at the end of Truman’s Presidency to a whopping 721 billion for fiscal year 2020.
Along with this growth has come a steady decline in the number of active duty servicemen and women in the U.S. armed forces. In Eisenhower’s day there were 2.5 million active duty personnel in the military. Today there are 1.5 million — a 40% drop. So why does our military cost so much?
The military-industrial-complex has been getting rich at the expense of our democracy. Defense spending, as foreshadowed by Eisenhower nearly 60 years ago, quickly grew during the Vietnam War, declined following the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia, and then ticked up again during President Reagan’s essentially conflict free military build up during the 1980s. The only substantive military conflict during Reagan’s entire two term Presidency was a three day invasion of Grenada in October, 1983.
President George H. W. Bush, our 41st President, briefly boosted defense spending during the second year of his administration when the United States, and a coalition of 35 other countries, pushed back against Saddam Hussein’s violent incursion into Kuwait. The resulting Gulf War raged from August 2, 1990 to January 17, 1991. It was a short, but violent display of American military might.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, U.S. military spending cooled significantly. When adjusted for inflation, the yearly U.S. military budget shrunk by nearly 100 billion dollars. Today, this five year spending trough remains the lowest point in defense spending history since the Reagan era. When President Clinton took control of the White House in 1992, this defense spending decrease was transformed into a “peace dividend” that served to accelerate the development of new and emerging technologies like mobile communications, personal computing, and creation of the Internet.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 put an end to the socioeconomic windfall born by the end of the Cold War. It also heralded a paradigm shift in the development and use of America’s emerging technologies. The Internet, personal computing, and data collection were quickly weaponized and used to form the backbone of a U.S. military intent upon surveilling the entire world. As a result, the last two decades of American military spending skyrocketed.
Today, this spending growth has nearly matched the level of U.S. defense spending during the height of WWII. This is an astonishing expense when compared to the massive deployment of U.S. forces during the Second World War. Also notable is the duration of this modern day spending spree. The War on Terror, initiated in response to the attacks of 9/11, has far surpassed the length of U.S. involvement in the Second World War by a factor of five.
The costs are staggering. Current estimates place the outlay of U.S. tax dollars during this period at five to six trillion dollars. Even more troubling is the expansiveness of the operation. What began as a targeted response against Afghanistan, the country believed to be hosting Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, quickly metastasized to include Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Libya, and the Philippines. Critics charge that the length and breadth of the war has been fueled by its very existence. For those profiting from the War on Terror this is good news.
How did this come about?
In many respects, the five largest military contractors in the world; Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon Technologies, and General Dynamics have exercised four decades of unprecedented influence in American politics. Prior to WWII, defense spending had primarily been defined and characterized by its insignificance. WWI was a tiny, isolated financial eruption when viewed in the context of American military expenditure spanning the last 120 years. Following WWII, defense spending increased its yearly baseline expenditure from less than 30 billion dollars a year to over 125 billion. Instead of drawing down spending, as the U.S. had done after WWI, defense spending continued to command a significant portion of GDP relative to pre-war spending after the end of WWII. This growth in spending heralded the creation of the military-industrial-complex that Eisenhower warned America to contain.
Since the end of WWII, the United States military-industrial-complex has sought and engaged in a series of elective wars that have been immensely profitable for military contractors and ruinously destructive to America’s international reputation and its financial health. The Korean War, Vietnam, Grenada, the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan comprise a series of conflicts that have left the United States without a single war-free decade since 1950. The last two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, have run concurrently for nearly two decades! Despite countless polls reflecting the American public’s nearly unanimous belief that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should be ended, they are still ongoing. Why is that?
The U.S. leads the world in defense spending, much of it attributed to the export and support of weaponry sold to third parties like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. The U.S. has also been involved in countless other minor skirmishes and firefights throughout the past six decades. In this scenario, proliferation begets more proliferation. Eisenhower’s admonition has been thoroughly scorned. Expansive sales growth, despite its moral depravity, has been welcomed and extensively rewarded within the halls of Washington’s power elite.
How does Presidential capture relate to the military-industrial- complex?
The concentration of power vested in the Presidency offers a tantalizing avenue of monopolistic control. This is further underscored when viewed in the light of the military’s already out sized influence on the governance and balance sheet of the nation as a whole. Eisenhower warned Americans to be vigilant and protect the nation from the undue influence of misplaced power born by the growth of the military-industrial-complex. He cautioned that only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry could compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our professed desire to engage in peaceful methods and goals of international diplomacy.
However, should the Office of the Presidency and the military-industrial-complex choose to cloak personal and private gain under the auspices of defense, intelligence gathering, and the deployment of military personnel and mercenaries to protect foreign investments abroad, then we may have very well passed the tipping point. Patriotic sloganeering and propaganda designed to deceive rather than educate and liberate the American public is a clear betrayal of Eisenhower’s admonition to create a neutral space that would allow security and liberty to prosper together.
Since September 11, 2001, the black hole of military expenditure has grown exponentially. In an effort to curb some of the spending, which is indicative of an awareness of the high costs associated with this growth, some of the high cost of our military has been off-loaded to private firms and sub-contractors. These outfits, deemed by the military to be better equipped and more efficient than the military itself, are now the unseen, and barely regulated, face of our government’s most enduring obligation to its citizens; their defense.
However, instead of performing functions vital to the defense of the homeland, private military contractors are primarily engaged in protecting natural resources like oil fields and refineries in foreign countries. They also provide security for large, overseas corporate development projects, and look after local government officials and their business affiliates.
This blatant form of protection has nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy and everything to do with outsourcing expensive corporate security measures to the U.S. tax payer. Although Eisenhower may not have foreseen this exact amalgamation of private and public coordination, the combination accurately reflects his concern that the untrammeled growth of this symbiotic relationship would pose a grave threat to the union.
Non-combat defense spending also plays a large role in the privatization of the U.S. military. Vehicle fleet management, food preparation, logistics/relocation services and waste disposal are just a few of the many responsibilities the U.S. military has outsourced to third party vendors. All companies must profit from the arrangement or face bankruptcy. The tail now wags the dog. Democracy serves the military-industrial-complex. Eisenhower was right. Privatization and profit has ruined everything.
Under the watch of the Trump administration, the military-industrial-complex continues to expand aggressively. Its foundation still lies with private military contractors and large energy companies like Exxon-Mobil, but it has also made extensive use of the entertainment and creative industries. Also incorporated into this tangled web of public agencies and military branches are private venture capital firms like In-Q-Tel.
Funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, In-Q-Tel is responsible for finding and funding private intelligence and data mining firms like Palantir Technologies and Recorded Future. Social media monitoring and analysis figures prominently in this novel intersection of national security and private enterprise. According to Christopher Wylie, employees from Palantir Technologies assisted in the development of data-based psychographic models used by Cambridge Analytica to plumb the minds of Facebook users in an apparent effort to influence the 2016 American Presidential election.
This convoluted and complex intersection of public and private industry betrays a form of political money laundering that most Americans have not even begun to wrap their heads around. Taxpayer dollars have been used to fund a not-for-profit venture capital firm (In-Q-Tel) that has seeded the creation and growth of a private intelligence agency (Palantir) that has collaborated with another privately owned company (Cambridge Analytica) to harvest the data of yet another private company (Facebook) to influence the 2016 Presidential election.
To further hammer the point home; both private companies are owned by billionaires who openly supported Donald Trump for the Presidency of the United States. Peter Thiel, the owner of Palantir, and Robert Mercer, the owner of Cambridge Analytica, may not have openly conspired to subvert the electoral process but the effect has been then same. Taken together, these men and the groups they represent, comprise an off-shoot of the military-industrial-complex that is acting in concert to develop and perpetuate their control over every aspect of public life. In doing so, the ideological, material and spiritual wealth of the Republic is expropriated and made to serve them.
This tyranny is evident throughout the Trump administration. Rarely does an hour pass without a Trump tweet or an absurd proclamation designed to refocus the nation’s attention upon Trump. This form of relentless self-promotion not only benefits Trump, but it serves to mask the massive military-industrial-complex hiding in his shadow. The notion of a shining capital upon a hill has given way to a monolithic morass of military overreach. Here lies the real swamp of American greatness and exceptionalism.
For some, Trump is predictably serving Trump, whether we like it or not. Indeed, his incessant tweets and meandering press conferences reflect a man bound by the tyranny of his own unbridled id. For these observers, Trump is simply unfit for the office of the Presidency. Conversely, Trump supporters posit that Trump is just being Trump.
This empty headed declaration, on par with the American expression, “It is what it is”, is precisely the type of uniformed discourse that has come to define American critical thought in recent years. The Urban Dictionary describes the phrase as a business term often used to convey a sense of helplessness. Literally, it means “fuck it”. This type of dismissive and imprecise thinking does not bode well for the country. It does, however, offer a mental salve to the many users who feel decidedly impotent when confronting the twin specter of a Trump administration bound to the military-industrial-complex.
How did we get here and what do we do about it?
It does not require a college degree to recognize the end stages of persistent regulatory capture. The unequal distribution of capital, environmental destruction and severe social dislocation play prominent roles in every country where it exists. George Stigler, esteemed economist and Nobel Prize recipient, makes the following argument in his 1971 book, The Theory of Economic Regulation.
“… as a rule, regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefit… We propose the general hypothesis: every industry or occupation that has enough political power to utilize the state will seek to control entry. In addition, the regulatory policy will often be so fashioned as to retard the rate of growth of new firms”.
Essentially what Stigler describes is a monopoly validated by the state. Given such a position, why would any organization, dependent upon the continued execution of present day business practices, ever wish to change course? Wikipedia sheds further light on the subject.
“For public choice theorists, regulatory capture occurs because groups or individuals with a high-stakes interest in the outcome of policy or regulatory decisions can be expected to focus their resources and energies in attempting to gain the policy outcomes they prefer, while members of the public, each with only a tiny individual stake in the outcome, will ignore it altogether”.
It’s hard not to conclude that the general public has been disenfranchised by highly organized special interest groups that are capable of spending vast amounts of money to see that their point of view defines the political conversation. In this case “public choice” is a misnomer. Instead, it reflects the similarly twisted linguistic pantheon of Republican concepts like the so-called “right to work law” and “trickle down economics”.
Individuals and publicly funded political organizations do not stand a chance against professionally financed corporate structures intent on furthering the means by which they already dominate a 24/7 political theater. Corporate structures can afford to employ lobbyists, think tanks, research analysts, public relations firms and significant amounts of political advertising to magnify their voice. Look no further than the obscene degree of political fundraising and unparalleled expenditure on advertising costs associated with the upcoming 2020 Presidential election.
The individual voter is at a disadvantage in every arena. He or she is simply drowned out by special interests capable of spending millions to promote their point of view. Recent developments in data mining and the application of social engineering theories further the rich returns available to those with access to this data. Most notably, privately owned corporations that manage and control these data rich platforms are being called to task for their apparent complicity in advancing Donald Trump’s Presidential aspirations. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica stand duly charged. Twitter is not much better.
It should be firmly impressed upon all U.S. citizens that the private control of the power to shape and control the networks by which most individuals communicate is dangerous territory. Serious debate, within the framework of a government unencumbered by corporate influence, otherwise known as regulatory capture, is desperately needed. Public/private cooperation in the creation and development of businesses like In-Q-Tel and Palantir also needs to be addressed. This arrangement, though beneficial to business interests, further blurs the lines of personal privacy and possesses inherent conflict of interest issues brought about by its structure.
Unfortunately, during this transformative time in U.S. history, many Americans find themselves bereft of the tools needed for personal introspection and self-discovery. Computer algorithms, designed to promote consumerism over critical thinking skills have been instrumental in this reorganization of American experience. Instead, we have been forcibly led to believe that doubling down on the use of economic tools to deal with traditional problems of political science will succeed despite the division and social inequality it has fostered. This is the false promise of “public choice”.
Not everyone wants to be fabulously wealthy. Not everyone sees the stock market as the only measure of wealth. There are alternatives to the so-called “disturbing truth” that political leaders, like Donald Trump, simply mirror the selfishness in all of us.
Indeed, it is the collective wish to enshrine our pluralistic democracy upon a shining hill that makes us a better nation. Though merely a dream, this idea of a more perfect union based upon the acceptance of our differences has sustained our country throughout centuries of conflict and political unrest. Clearly, not all politicians are angels, and Washington may indeed resemble a swamp at times, but this is not a reason to stop believing in the concept that binds all Americans to each other — pluralism. The motto of E pluribus unam, Latin for “Out of many, one”, has defined our nation since its beginning. We cannot simply desire to be rich without consideration for those less fortunate. We cannot value some more than others.
It should be made clear to all Americans that the crooked timber of our humanity has been, and will always be, the cornerstone of our ongoing political experiment. We must not aim for perfection in everything we do but seek acceptance of all citizens as our own, unique form of perfection. It is not okay to place blame on recent immigrants, victims of slavery, members of the LGBTQ community or any other defenseless minority, for our own failings. We are all imperfect. Instead, we must strive to reject complacency and the ease of taking solace in the comforts of an illusionary past.
The maintenance of our country requires constant attention. It is an act of selfless devotion, not an act of selfishness. If we are to secure the future, we must stay involved in the development of our country by acquainting ourselves with the important issues of the day, by participating in the electoral system, by volunteering when called upon, and by reckoning with our shared past.
President Trump’s success hinges on the illusion of independence without any acknowledgement of the sacrifice undertaken by our forbears, our parents and the countless civil servants who served our country to the best of their abilities. Our success hinges upon understanding the difference, sharing in the work, and taking responsibility for our mistakes.
It is this action and the motivation behind it that inevitably brings us back around to addressing the implications wrought by the capture of the Presidency. There is a very bold and clear line between believing in something and knowing something. Simply believing in something without knowledge of how or why it exists is merely wishful thinking. The truth is unequivocal. The President is a puppet. Failure to critically examine the means by which the President of the United States has come to office and the means by which he perpetuates his control exhibits both the ignorance and greed belied by the President himself.
Examples of regulatory capture:
Lawyer and Attorney General for Oklahoma in 2010. Self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” While running for AG Pruitt received contributions from the fossil fuel industry. As AG Pruitt sued the EPA on 14 occasions. He rejects the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause for climate change, or that CO2 is the primary contributor.
As a U.S. Congressman, Price voted multiple times to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Congressional Budget Office projected that such a repeal would imperil the health coverage of 24 million Americans by 2026. Price has also supported Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare. He opposes abortion and has voted to defund Planned Parenthood.
Carson is an American politician, public servant, author, and retired neurosurgeon. During his confirmation, some housing advocates were dismayed by his apparent lack of relevant housing experience. During the first year of his tenure Carson issued a statement supportive of cuts to his agency of 6.2 billion dollars (13%) and elimination of the Community Development Block Grant program.
Before his appointment, Clayton served as advisor and attorney for an extensive list of banks and Wall Street financial firms. As a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, Clayton specialized in mergers and acquisitions. A partial list of his private sector corporate clients includes; Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros, Duetsche Bank, UBS, Volkswagon, Pershing Square Capital Management and Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Under Clayton’s tenure as chairman of the SEC, the SEC has charged the fewest number of insider trading cases since the Reagan administration.
Former Governor of Texas and Presidential candidate. His nomination faced heavy criticism as Perry had called for the Department of Energy to be abolished during his 2012 presidential campaign. During this exchange, Perry claimed that he would eliminate three government agencies if elected. He named Commerce and Education but stumbled on the third, unable to remember the name of the agency he would later be chosen to run.
Former Chief of Information at Goldman Sachs. Mnuchin spent 17 years at the investment firm. His father notably served 33 years at Goldman Sachs and was a general partner at the investment firm from 1967 until he retired in 1990. After leaving Goldman Sachs, Steven Mnuchin went to work for several hedge funds and served on the board of two major businesses that went bankrupt, Sears and KMart. Mnuchin has also been embroiled in several lawsuits that have called into question the integrity of his business and financial practices. As Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin has advocated cutting taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. He also supports a partial repeal of investment protections afforded by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.