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on May 8, 2011
Serious topics warrant serious treatment. Serious treatment, unfortunately, is a rarity in this brief excursion into the origins and implications of Eisenhower's enigmatic reference to an "unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex." If it is to be found, then it is to be found early where the recounting of the events and political wrangling within the Eisenhower administration are told with reasonable accuracy. Working forward to the present day, though, references to the "military-industrial complex" are presented in an increasingly sloppy manner, and done so in a way to put forth an increasingly silly point-of-view. That point of view, which lurks in the background throughout and rushes to the center at the end, is that Congress, the Defense Department, and their industrial conspirators are holding our economy hostage. As such, until knowledgeable citizenry awake and demand accountability, we will remain mired in a wartime economy and never be afforded the promises of a civilian one.
Perhaps on the verge of being true in Eisenhower's day, this take on the U.S. economy is far from true today. To any reasonable person, it should be clear that year after year, less and less of our economy is devoted to producing the articles of war, and that the idea we are trapped in a wartime economy is absurd. This inevitable conclusion rests in part on the fact that, like it or not, the articles of war are becoming prohibitively expensive, meaning we can afford to produce fewer and fewer of them. At the same time, our economy has blossomed to be much more diverse than it once was. In fact, the worldwide success of our commercial technologies has left any one of a number of publicly held companies dwarfing the major defense contractors. Compared to their prevalence in Eisenhower's day, these defense-minded companies are increasingly irrelevant, especially as the Defense Department's procurement budget shrinks, high dollar programs are cancelled, and personnel costs soar.
As the driving force behind Ledbetter's treatment of a president's lasting concern, the idea that we are held hostage by a wartime economy makes it hard to take the entire text seriously. And though the idea of a subversive military-industrial complex has haunted some for years, in the larger policy debates since Eisenhower's day, references to and implications of a "military industrial complex" have been largely ignored. To his credit, Ledbetter admits as much, but then disparages this point of view with a series of references to obscure bureaucratic maneuvers, the ramblings of equally obscure radicals, and finally some unsubstantiated fears about academic freedoms. The connections these out-of-the-way happenings have to Eisenhower's speech are tenuous at best; a conspiracist's propaganda at worst.
The most that can be said about Eisenhower's fear is that politics is not only local, it's shamelessly self-serving, at times destructively so. Politicians want to direct federal revenues to their districts, and when doing so can create a significant number of jobs for defense projects, the allure is all the stronger. As the frost of the Cold War began to crystallize, these natural inclinations probably mutated in ways that gave Eisenhower the gravest concerns.
Today, jobs don't appear to come so easily, in the ever-shrinking military-industrial complex or otherwise. Ledbetter's apparent angst at this industry's economic dominance is misplaced; his oh-so-promising investigation of it, misguided.