The central obstacle we face in cutting the U.S. military budget is rooted in the nature of the political-economy of the military-industrial-congressional complex or MICC. All economies are political economies, hopefully with a small ‘p’ and a large ‘E,’ but the MICC is a political economy with a large ‘P’ and a small ‘e.’
The habitual modes of conduct shaping the P-e relations at all levels of the MICC, from the macroscopic behavior of large organizations as a whole (government and industry) to the microscopic behavior of the individuals making up these organization, is the product of a cultural evolution taking place over the last 60 years. The evolution is connected to a bottom up self-organizing process. This process is driven by the interplay of chance and necessity at the microscopic scale of organization conditioned by some sort of selection process that creates an increasingly complex order without conscious design at the macroscopic scale. In other words, the MICC initially evolved without much long-term forethought by decision makers in the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon, and the defense industry. Budgets reflect a reaction to meeting constituent needs and larger political pressures associated with the constituencies of the MICC As the complex becomes more powerful, that emerging order then feeds back on itself to create growing top- down pressures on the selection process that is shaping it.
What emerged is a top-down positive feedback loop that sustains and amplifies the evolution. Therefore, the accumulation of various districts lobbying for and receiving military spending, and in so doing, becoming dependent upon the increased flow of money, has been the increased power of the planning bureaucracy in the Pentagon and its political allies in Congress and defense industry. In this way, the MICC feeds the localities and the increasing dependence of those localities increases the power of the MICC. When viewed this way, it becomes clear that the MICC is a complex adaptive system, in the precise meaning of the term. But the order of that system was not designed by the “designing mind” of top-down influences; it emerged out of bottom-up pressures that became progressively conditioned by top-down influences. If I am right in this diagnosis, then any effort to shape the future evolution of the MICC must address this elemental nature or else that effort is doomed to fail.
Over the years, without intending originally to do so, my work in the Pentagon evolved into a sequence of efforts to explain and document how the MICC operates. Looking back, I endeavored to explain outline how the big ‘P’ works (‘P’ includes the bureaucratic politics as well an elective or economic politics). This led me, for example, to write a pamphlet Defense Power Games in the summer of 1990 explaining why there would be no peace dividend after the end of the cold war. (Unfortunately, about three weeks later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, I had to modify it slightly at the front end to account for that, but it remained essentially same). To reduce the defense budget you have unravel these power games–i.e., front loading and political engineering–from the bottom up. My 1996 paper Defense Budget Time Bomb (subsequently published in the economic policy journal Challenge) used the case study of Air Force tactical fighter aviation to explain what would happen if business as usual continued and why that unraveling was necessary. I proposed one way for defusing the budgetary time bomb and reducing the defense budget in my June 2002 testimony to Congress (there I tried to combine bottom-up activities with top-down pressures to evolve a set of solution pathways). In Jan 2011, I brought much of this work together in The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War (which was also the first chapter in The Pentagon Labyrinth, a manual for understanding how the Pentagon and MICC operates).
The problem you face–we all face–is that the use of persuasive logic and reason to explain why the MICC is damaging the economy and therefore convince people it should be reduced in size has not and will not work. Sound reasoning and irrefutable evidence along the lines argued by stalwart opponents of military over-spending like Seymour Melman did not result in corrective action, for example.
The fact is factional political-economic interests trump the rule of reason–which is the central reason why the Framers of the Constitution were hung up on checks and balances in a system of overlapping (not entirely separated) power centers. So, my view is that we must figure out a way of attacking the political dimension. This means we need to cope with the ability of the Pentagon to win local constituencies, make their regions economically dependent, and build up excessive factional power at the expense of others. If we accept that the MICC is fundamentally a complex adaptive system, evolved over the long term through cultural evolution, that means the likelihood of imposing a political solution from the top-down (by a rational deus ex machina) is virtually nil. National solutions that don’t provide alternatives on the ground, in local political communities and economies won’t easily work. Cosmetic military budget reductions, like those after Vietnam and the collapse of the Soviet Union, won’t reduce (and may increase) the pressure for perpetual war, with military budget hikes waiting just around the corner, as happened in the late 1970s and late 1990.
The only alternative, therefore, is a bottom up strategy centered on the ideas of building a power base by penetrating (infiltrating), undoing, and/or discrediting the habitual modes of conduct that give the MICC its staying power. Over time, if this approach can build momentum, and if and when it does, nodes of top down pressure may emerge to compliment and reinforce the evolution along a more constructive political-economic pathway. There is an obvious parallel to guerrilla war. Therefore, just like the Pentagon gained top-down power from bottom-up solutions, so to reformers must cultivate such bottom-up solutions.
The power of the Arab Spring the Occupy movements (both of which are now being undermined by top-down inspired counter-revolutions) lies in the fact that they are spontaneous, self organizing bottom-up processes. Ideas of micro finance (e.g. local credit unions) may aid in the evolution toward a financial system that precludes too-big-to-fail mega banks.
Traditional political alternatives have been based on the idea that one can design and impose a top-down solution. This kind of planning has its place, but at this point in time, it seems to me a strategy of focusing weakness against strength. I do not think it can take root before more ground work has been laid by a bottom-up efforts that soften (discredit) the power of resistance by the entrenched political interests–in the particular case of this discussion–by efforts to destroy the big ‘P’ inequities of the MICC. I think bottom-up anti-MICC efforts would be in natural alliance with the Occupy movements.
About the Author
Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney (born 1945) worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon for 26 years after serving eight years in the Air Force. He became famous in the early 1980s for the “Spinney Report.” This study criticized what he described as the Pentagon’s reckless pursuit of costly complex weapon systems. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called Spinney the “conscience of the Pentagon.”