Sunday, July 19, 2009

Using the F-22 Raptor to Reimagine Public Works Projects

The Secretary of Defense doesn't want any more of the high-tech fighter jets. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn't want them. The Secretary of the Air Force doesn't want them. And the President of the United States doesn't want them. But Congress is dead set on buying more.

I'm talking about the F-22 Raptor, an advanced stealth fighter that was originally designed to maintain American air superiority over the Soviet Union.

The Department of Defense has already bought 187 F-22s, in a program that has cost about $65 billion to date. (That's about $350 million per aircraft.) The planes have not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they are primarily designed to fight advanced enemy air forces.

Now a defense bill is moving through Congress that will include at least $2 billion to buy more F-22s. The military does not want these planes, but Congress insists they take them. President Obama has threatened to veto the defense bill if it includes spending on F-22s, but Congress may have the votes to override a veto. Progressive Democrats like Senator Ted Kennedy as well as conservative Republicans like Senator Saxby Chambliss support billions more for F-22s.

What is this strange force compelling members of Congress to spend huge sums of money on useless hardware? Is it corporate lobbying? That's certainly a part of it. Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the F-22, spent $6.35 million lobbying Congress just between January and March of this year. But that's really nothing new.

The strange force hypnotizing Congress members is the desire to maintain jobs, specifically high-paying manufacturing jobs, in their home districts. Lockheed Martin was smart enough to spread out the F-22's production so that it's in as many congressmen's backyards as possible. All the various parts of the F-22 are made by about 1,000 suppliers in 44 states. Lockheed Martin and Congress have been arguing that continued spending on F-22s will maintain 100,000 jobs across the country.

That sounds great, but the military doesn't even want the planes. When it's all said and done, the F-22 program is a widely-supported federal jobs program producing an unneeded product. The F-22 proponents in Congress tout the jobs that it will create rather than argue for the aircraft's military utility. (It's hard to argue for its military utility when the military doesn't want any more.)

So here's my proposal: Build something useful instead. It's cool--and a little unusual--to see even conservative Republicans support federal spending for job creation. So let's run with this strange political consensus. But instead of building super fighter jets for an outdated mission, let's build something beneficial for the public at large. How about lots of wind turbines to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?

How about solar panel fields? High-speed rail? How about retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient? There are lots of things we could build that would provide good jobs and benefit all of us.

We wouldn't have to limit it to manufacturing and construction either. For the $2 billion it would take to buy a few more F-22s, you could pay the starting salary for more than 44,000 teachers. Eliminate a couple of other useless defense projects, and you could make the teachers permanent.

The bottom line is that defense projects like the F-22 are basically federal jobs programs with tremendous support. Strangely, even "free market" conservatives support them. Progressives should use this opening to take the debate in a new direction. We should be saying:
"It's true that these projects provide a lot of good jobs. So imagine if our tax dollars bought not only those jobs but also beneficial products. Even better, imagine if we structured these public works programs so that every dollar of spending went to the jobs we want to create and the work we want to do, instead of being siphoned off for corporate profits, advertising, lobbying, and political donations. Then we'd be on to something."


ali said...

i like this one dave. boo on raptors.

Sara said...

I keep wondering why there isn't more wind turbine/solar panel talk like this? Between stupid defense spending and the environment and oil and war and jobs.
What's the hold up? Seems like somebodies missing out on major opportunity.
You'd think Lockheed Martin would be a good choice, what with all the propellers they probably make. ;) You know, for their jet airplanes.

Mason said...

How about this: One term term-limits? Therefore no incentive to vote according to what will get you re-elected.

Dave said...

Thanks Ali. Boo on Raptors indeed!

Sara, I'm with you. I don't know what the hold up is. On the one hand, wind and solar power are not exactly brand new, and there is definitely increasing interest in these. In fact, Lockheed Martin, just because it's a gargantuan company, is involved in some renewable energy projects already. But without public intervention, I think the market will move slowly in that direction. It will be a while before it's enormously profitable to build gigantic wind farms and solar fields. And it takes a big investment up front. That is where the government should come in. We can see where the market needs to go and where it will go eventually, so we should give it a jump start and a push in that direction. There are all kinds of ways the government could incentivize construction of renewable energy projects. We could make a big down payment on a green economy and take a big bite out of unemployment this way. Of course Obama and company have talked about this, but I haven't seen movement on the scale I would like to see yet.

Mason, that's an interesting idea. It reminds me of a comment that I think was made on this blog months ago proposing rotating compulsory service in representative office... as in if you're number is drawn you fill whatever office it is for a short time.

Amy said...

That is so crazy--the fact that this will probably get pushed through and all this money will be spent for something that no one wants.

As most of my political education comes from "The West Wing" eps, I seem to remember hearing the wind power is not practical cost-wise. As in, the land space required to have enough turbine-thingys is way too huge. Is that right? Am I confusing that with something else?

Am I still talking?

Elizabeth said...

A couple things.

One, it's interesting that people talk about heavy up-front costs as a reason to not invest in wind power. Because the reality is that oil companies spend billions (yes, I really mean billions) on exploratory wells that lead to nothing all the time. (I know this through familial affiliations).

Two, it's true that wind energy requires land (though I'm sure someone can figure out a way around this) and isn't exactly pretty, but I'll happily give them West Texas, Idaho, the Dakotas, eastern California etc etc. It would actually be to the benefit of these sparsely populated (and often extreme temps) states, as these wind farms could be a huge source of revenue as the states would leverage a tax on the companies who own the wind farms (same thing happens with oil wells).

Third, the reason oil companies can invest billions into an exploratory well that ends up dry is because of a couple things, including international (and domestic) tax structures and incentives, and, oh yeah, they're making a butt-load of a profit because they have a monopoly on the energy market. Assuming that "new, clean" energy companies do not have the profits to cover this exploratory phase (which, when it comes to wind, won't "go bust" in the sense that there will ALWAYS be wind), I believe we should be supporting tax structures and incentives that encourage this innovation. This will not only attract companies such as Lockheed Martin (who are always looking to make another dime), it may also encourage the big oil companies to look more seriously at diversifying their assets.

Dave said...

Well, how about that. The Senate struck the F-22 spending from the bill ( As usual, I will give BTM full credit.

I don't think wind turbines are going to be our main source of power any time soon. And space is part of the reason for that. But that doesn't mean we couldn't have a lot more of them. And in conjunction with other sources, we could tilt the grid heavily toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.

I agree, Liz. Eventually this stuff will be super profitable, and instead of fighting the influence of big oil companies, we'll be fighting the power of big solar and wave power companies. (Still, we'd all be breathing cleaner air and living more sustainably.) But as you suggest, there are a millions of ways the government could incentivize this to get it moving in the right direction.