The Growing Costs of Bad Government, at Home and at Sea

It's a hell of a way to run a government on Waypoints this week. Join Rob, Patrick, and Natalie as they discuss a number of eye-opening investigative reports that have left them stunned lately. First, Patrick has been mesmerized by the saga of how local and state government in Wisconsin gave electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn one of the most lopsided deals in US history. It's a story told at the highest level by an article in Bloomberg Businessweek and at the ground level by a dramatic episode of Reply All that shows how a community tore itself apart for the distant promise of a factory. Next, Rob and Natalie have been reading ProPublica's haunting report on the USS Fitzgerald collision. How does one of the most advanced ships, with the best equipment, in one of the most prestigious fleets in the US Navy, end up falling victim to such a routine and preventable accident? There's no one clear answer, but a lot of contributing factors that add up to a portrait of a navy rotting away from the inside.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/mbz9dy/the-growing-costs-of-bad-government-at-home-and-at-sea

Pretty much this exact thing happened to the town I live in in central NC. Chicken plant here shut down relatively recently, like 4 years ago. Town council gave this company who wanted to build a new one a full three year exemption from taxes, and then once they found out the town lacked some regulations other places had, that they’d be able to dump all the nitrates directly into the river, they doubled the size of the plant. A trailer park right across from the old plant, where the new one is being built, got sold off in its entirety to this company without the knowledge of the residents, most of whom used to work in the old plant. At first they weren’t going to give them anything, but the local Hispanic Liaison got them to fork over $13k to each family. Town is in the process of converting some abandoned places into affordable housing, like an old school building, but it hasn’t actually started yet, so they just have to try and find vacant places right now. Plant is almost done by now. I’m unemployed and can’t get hired anywhere cuz I graduated from the vocational school in town and have a spotty employment track record, I may end up working there myself. Chicken plants are fucking miserable workplaces though so I’m gonna avoid it if I can help it.

Since I’m obliged to bring up differences between my hometown in Appalachia (a term I don’t like,) in southwest Virginia, and this one in central NC, it’s interesting how this kind of thing happens there vs. here. Here the entire culture and economy is heavily tied to chicken farms, and has been for a long time. People who own land raise chickens on it, people who don’t work for those people or work in the chicken plant or work transporting the chickens from the farms to the plant. Despite being a horticultural economy this mirrors how things work in factory towns more than it mirrors how things work in coal towns, like back home. An empty coal mine is dead capital. No part of it can be repurposed to generate profit, so no part of it brings jobs. You can’t just build a new one somewhere else either. It’s a sinking hole in the earth that poisons the wells you drink from. Same for salt mines and quarries. So in these places, people stake their hopes on “industrial parks” and the prison-industrial complex, and sometimes try to generate tourism by selling rich people with motorcycles on the landscape.

I have thoughts about how prisons serve to ratify white supremacy in even more dimensions than is commonly talked about, like with how the bolster openly white supremacist gangs and thus the drug trade and thus the gangs again and thus their influence on the local social landscape, but I’m tired and those thoughts aren’t organized.

EDIT: Hopefully the Navy continues to have these problems so they’re less capable of enforcing sanctions on food and medicine. Sudden rapid miarculous oxidization and shitty navigational equipment 2020.

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bink bink, cancelled.
The outro bits on the podcasts are a blessing.

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Hmm, YES! Give it to me!!!

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As a former enlisted sailor that got out in 2012, I could spend all day listing the problems the US Navy has at the moment. As to the question of where the money is going:

  1. The number of flag officers has exploded over the last few decades, and their perks are extremely expensive. Congress finally started to address this a couple years ago, but not nearly to the extent needed.
  2. During the Rumsfeld years, the military outsourced absolutely everything it could to contractors. Like virtually every public/private partnership, this served to raise costs and reduce the quality of services while enriching the politically-connected folks who could land the contracts. In the Navy, this effect was most deeply felt in the training pipeline, which went from legitimately excellent to straight trash in a handful of years.
  3. The Department of Defense processes for acquiring new military hardware are deeply compromised by the sort of revolving-door self-dealing seen in basically every other American industry these days. Folks bounce back-and-forth between civilian jobs in the DoD and extremely lucrative jobs at defense firms, and the decision makers in uniform almost universally are angling for second careers at defense manufacturers. In the Navy’s case, the acquisitions of the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt-class Destroyer are instructive. The Burke-class Destroyers remain the workhorse of the Navy not because they’re remotely new, but because the last several decades of acquisitions have been an unmitigated disaster.
  4. Obama’s Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, made a conscious decision to divert money from maintaining the existing fleet and fixing the pipeline for training new sailors to building new ships, most of which are useless Littoral Combat Ships. This is well-documented by another ProPublica piece.

As for where things go from here, I’m dubious of Congress’ will or ability to fix any of this. John McCain, shitty as he was, was basically the only remotely competent oversight that any of this had over the last 20 years.

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Is this where I get to point people at the Fat Leonard scandal page for people to read about?

Anyway, a Navy of some description is probably fairly essential (among other things, we have treaty obligations that it is good to live up to) but the entire department of “defense” needs a top down full on hercules-cleaning-the-augean-stables cleanout, so it’ll never happen. Also something like a 30% budget cut would be a good start

actually, if we wanted to talk about realistic starts, a simple audit of the DoD’s finanaces hasn’t been performed since the start of GWOT and at this point most people in power are terrified of the thought of performing one

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yes, a navy is instrumental to maintain empire (as you said “treaty obligations”), but why are we all talking about it like empire is a necessary thing?

I was unaware that countries who have existed for hundreds of years longer than we have are part of our empire

I’ll grant you a cultural hegemony argument but I have not had enough coffee yet to be galaxy-brained enough to postulate that we maintain imperial control over, like, France.

we are the leaders of capital and the international bourgeois use our military as the primary enforcement of global capitalist empire.

you and I are not going to be able to have a productive conversation about this, so I hope you have a good day!

I am still listening to this, but do want to make a few comments as I’m listening. Both @pkirkner and @dogsarecool make some very good and pertinent points about the story in the latter half of this Waypoints.

A few points:

ProPublica is great and I would definitely recommend people keep an eye on their output. They are, in effect, an investigative journalism outlet that almost exclusively focuses on doing work like this. They have a process piece in case anyone is curious how an article like this comes about.

Zacny raises the process of ‘running the Navy like a business’ during the Bush administration, which is exactly what this made me think of. As someone in a front-level understaffed customer service position, it is remarkable how much cultures of ‘lean’ business overlaps with overwork, burnout, and skimping on pounds to save pennies. Moments where I or my colleagues have gone above and beyond to do good work (either to avert a business-level crisis scenario or to solve a backlog of problems) are taken, by senior management, to be the day-to-day rhythm of the team, with the effect of driving down morale in the long run by disincentivising hard work.

That isn’t to draw a 1:1 comparison between these two things, but there is a serious deletorious impact to running anything in this fashion.

It does also bring to mind the business mentality of short-termism and ‘just in time’ logic, which (as someone living in the UK) is hard to overlook in current governments. I don’t have more fleshed out thoughts on this (because it is somewhat off-topic), but it is hard to not see this connection here.

I’d also say that it is worth reading the ProPublica report, particularly if you are sceptical about why you should care. It is affecting in its representation (which is something that Watson did a good job of bringing across) and it is a great example of why supporting outlets like ProPublica is good, so they can shine lights on issues of public mismanagement like this (particularly when a lot of their output focuses on domestic issues).

I do think it’s a little gauche to trivialise this incident, particularly when the architects of sanctions overseas or the officials choosing to undertrain servicepeople and send under-staffed warships to sea are never going to be the people paying for the consequences of those actions.

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It’s always weird when my podcast universes intersect like this. That ProPublica story tells things in a way that really highlights the human tragedy that institutional failures cause in a way I had not seen so much in other places, so I’m glad this turned me on to that.

To put my first point in numerical terms — in 1944 the US Navy had an admiral for every 23.77 ships, currently the US Navy has 1.29 admirals for every ship.

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I dunno this worked out great for the Habsburgs!

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I served on the Fitzgerald in the early 00’s as a petty officer second class sonar tech. I can’t provide much insight about navigation or the state of the Navy today, but I can share a few thoughts and anecdotes.

I did not find myself thinking the article erred with regards to any objective facts. The command seemed far more dysfunctional than when I was aboard, and I would not paint as rosy a picture of the atmosphere. I felt the esprit de corps it emphasized was perhaps overblown, but that’s highly subjective.

I found myself smiling at the talk of DDG’s being advanced vessels. Rob’s not wrong in that they are the some of the best in the fleet, but remember we are still talking about a technology base (with underfunded upgrades admittedly) from the 80’s. The sonar suite has entire rooms filled with human sized cabinets to house the electronics that could probably be replaced by the Moto G5 in my pocket.

With regards to the story indicating some people were not as skilled at their job as they should be, I would say that Yokosuka is not seen as a desirable duty location due to the location itself and the operational tempo. When you rotate between duty stations you get to choose from open billets. Top talent is probably not going to choose Yokosuka unless they are checking boxes to enhance promotability. I had first choice of duty station after training, and I selected the Fitz because she was stationed in San Diego at the time.

It is eerie to read the article and have flash backs to the exact spaces and equipment being mangled and submerged.

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The main sonar screen on the three years old mine hunter I spent my compulsory military service on showed something that looked like the game Asteroids. Not exactly state of the art (even back in 2001), though on the plus side, it didn’t run on Windows 2000.

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I would equate our 53 Charlie screens with Pong, but I can see asteroids :grin:

Important Marvel Studios Continuity Note: Infinity War deliberately fudges the fate of the Ragnarok characters, with a tossed off mention that Thanos killed “half” of Thor’s people - allowing for a scenario wherein all your favourites escaped. (Except for THOSE favourites, of course.)