Sunday, June 22, 2003

An interesting article in the NYT Magazine -- Nation Builders for Hire (NYT free registration required)
I guess it is somewhat refreshing when a journalist does not have to let go of his/her bias and pretend to be objective. The article is informative, well written, even if I find a lot of the ire missplaced. The biggest problem Mr. Baum seems to have with the situation is that the people involved on the contractor's side get paid "private sector wages." Well, I guess being in the private sector myself I do not find it so disgusting. Frankly, as described these people come off as great engineers with teremendous amount of hard-to-get experience. Were they to work domestically their pay would probably be close to six figures as well (based on my acquantance with some civil engineers). The tax-free part of the bonus is nice, but considering the danger they put themselves into -- it does not strike me as particularly unfair. Finally, there are plenty of consultants of all kinds working for the Big 4, Oracle, and similar who make as much or more money with all their expenses paid and do not have to eat oil-filled dust for months or years. I guess it is pretty clear that I do not find the author's "they're overpaid" argument overly compelling.
Neither do I find the idea of these corporations making money somehow offensive. IBM, Walmart, and the NY Times Corporation, all make a great deal of money. As they say, "that's the American Way." I would have been more impressed if the author showed a definitive breakdown between how much these same services cost when the Army did them by itself versus outsourcing, particularly for logistics. I do find troubling the assertions of the Army's lack of talent depth to fix its own communications gear or the Abrams tanks -- although I presume the difficulty is overstated or irrelevant. I cannot imagine tank crews being able to *really* fix their tanks beyond unjamming a gun or fixing tracks since WWII. As far as not being able to get a tech to fix something until 9AM -- fire the Army lawyer who wrote up the contract. Citibank or Bank of New York do not have to wait until 9AM, and neither should the Army.
As I understand it, modern economy, and wafare, deal in specializations. Guys who deal with minefields would be the kind who make at least 60K on average a year in the army -- 10-15 years experience, a good number of officers or senior NCOs. Their cost to the army is much higher -- in training, maintenance, housing, insurance, etc. Presumably, this year they will spend 100% of their time in Iraq -- thus costing more than they would otherwise by some significant margin, let's say 30%. However, if last year they were hired by some civilian agency to demine some other place in the world, or just spent a few months on the beach, courtesy of private sector wages, the average works out just fine, except over time the USA has a pool of reserves that are up to date and happy to help without the cost of maintaining them during peacetimes. I cannot make the assertion of any of this numbers, and I would dearly like to see the reporter dig deeper on any of these numbers.
As I said earlier -- I liked the article, but would have liked some less anguish on how much money a corporation might make, and more numbers on how that money could really be saved, or spent more wisely.
ps. Now, the story with AirForce leasing tankers from Boeing is one I would like to see more coverage on. Boeing seems to stand to make a great deal more money than any of the companies working in Iraq right now, for a lot less work, and to much louder taxpayer-funded tune.

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