On military spending: Having your cake and eating it too
Earlier this week, one of our contributors wrote an article stating that he thought Romney’s position on defense spending cuts is incorrect. This afternoon, the editorial staff received a letter-to-the-editor from “Rockwall Science Guy” in response to the original post.
This is written in response to Eye Desert’s column regarding the impending defense cuts.
“There can also be reforms into how military contracts are handed out… (anyone remember the $640 toilet seat?).”
Do you know why that toilet seat costs $640? The simplistic answer is that there is too much bureaucracy. It costs that much because it takes several people to approve a purchase. Every time a purchase has to be bumped up the ladder, not only does that person have to look at it (and add to the amount of man-hours it takes to get a toilet approved), but that next guy up costs more (not to mention it took some man-hours to fill out the form in the first place). Why does it take this many levels of approval? Because we don’t want just anyone to be able to buy things because we do not want waste. But isn’t a $640 toilet seat wasteful? Of course! Then give the lower people the ability to buy stuff. Ok, but once that happens, you buy the leather seat covers to go with it. Or you buy things you might not need because you might need them. See what I’m getting at here? This is not unique to government. At a company I used to work for, if I need to buy $5 for 100 cheap parts (which includes shipping), the sum total that the $5 part costs was much higher, on the order of $100. Why? Because I cannot buy things directly. I have to search for the part, specify which parts I need (including alternates if available), and send it to purchasing. Purchasing then codes the purchase (to make sure that the receive inspection is able to properly accept or reject it if it does not meet our standards), issues the paper version of the purchase order in the system, and places the order. This is just of a catalogue based purchase such as Digikey or Mouser. When the order finally arrives, the parts come in a daily UPS or FedEx drop off (no one uses the US mail). The receiver has to take in that day’s packages and sort through them. For each package, he has to go through and look at each purchase order to see what was supposed to come with each and whether or not someone needs to inspect it. If no one needs to inspect it and the order is received in full, he places the parts to the side and records it as received. If it needs inspection, it goes into a cart that will be inspected by a quality control person. Once it is inspected per the codes, it is either accepted and delivered to me or rejected and sent back. At some point typically no later than 30 days, someone else in the purchasing department will issue a check for $5.
Now, considering a single toilet costs $150 and up from Home Depot, start doing the same process as I suggested except now the toilet has to make sure to meet ADA, MILSPEC, and possibly other applicable federal standards on toilets. We would not want a disabled veteran to not be able to use the toilet your tax dollars paid for. Am I suggesting that we possibly have too many federal standards (including the military)? Quite possibly. Regarding the military specifically, it would be nice to reduce the number of these standards, but there is one problem: even changing a small standard in one place can ripple through the entire body and have unintended consequences. You need to audit and study the effects. This is why standards take so long to change or produce in the first place.
Do you know why so many military programs cost so much? It is because, for the most part, the proposals and bidding have to be open to so many people. It’s also because the standards for the military parts is so very much higher than normal products. Imagine an iPhone having to work in Saudi Arabia with gloves and sand and also that it has to work off the coast of Norway with sea salt spray and freezing temperatures. Also imagine someone stepping on it with their boot. As you can imagine, the costs tend to go up. Then tack on the requirement that for every item you say you can do, you have to document and prove that you actually did it (so that tax dollars are not wasted). When you sum these things up, it costs so much more than a commercial endeavor ever would (and remain profitable). Not only that, but our stuff has to not just work, but be good. If the welder misses grinding down a seam on the F-22, it goes from appearing the equivalent size of a metal BB to the size of a bus. That’s one seam! You have to make sure you don’t have these issues for any, or radar will spot you like Elton John in concert garb at the First Baptist Church on Easter Sunday.
Does the military waste money? Absolutely. The biggest question is this: can we be a world power protecting our interests abroad with less military? The euphemistically crude “sequestration” that Obama is all to happy to have happen is akin to using a sledge hammer to remove the cancer when a scalpel should be used. Even the biggest tumors still get cut away using precise instruments.
Incidentally, ever notice how sequestration and castration rhyme? In this context, they’re not far off from each other.
One thing I wish would get more taking time is how amazingly two faced our president is. Did you know that by law, numerous recipients of military contracts (including Lockheed Martin) are supposed to warn their employees of a pending layoff? Sequestration effectively terminates large numbers of these employees of private companies through the loss of their contracts. Obama has issued guidance that if Lockheed Martin failed to notify their staff, Lockheed Martin would not be affected by disregarding this law. The justification before was that Obama knew that the 20% budget cut would not happen because he and law makers would keep it from happening. Now it seems that he either has changed his mind, or was lying about his intentions. Regardless of whether or not the 20% cut goes through, any other story besides this is burying the lede. The lede should be that the president encourages lawlessness when politically expedient. They only had to keep silent to refrain from encouraging lawlessness. They did the opposite. This is having your cake (encouraging something that directly leads to layoffs) and eating it too (issuing guidance for Lockheed Martin to break the law so you avoid the consequences of your policy decisions).
-Rockwall Science Guy
The letter was posted as-is with no editorial changes.