On Wednesday, the Progressive Women’s Alliance hosted a speaker from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) who talked about the necessity of changing how government functions.
Professor Danny Balfour’s talk was entitled “Righting the Ship of State,” which he said was a presentation on the importance of changing how government functions particularly while the country is in transition from the Bush administration to the new Obama administration. Balfour is also a co-author of the book, Unmasking Administrative Evil.
The speaker began by saying that he believed that with the new administration coming to power “there is a space now to talk about policy instead of politics.” Professor Balfour believes that the Bush administration has been ideologically driven and that there seems to be evidence that the new administration will not continue that trend. The presenter offered no evidence other than to mention some of the campaign rhetoric.
The presenter’s basic thesis for the evening was that the US is a country that has moved from being a country that is run as a Nation State (1900 – 1990) to one that one that is governed as a Market State (1990 – ?). A Market State is where “government exists to maximize opportunities for citizens. In other words there has been an increasing reliance on market-based governance.” He says this in effect began just before the Clinton administration took office.
The old format, what he called the Nation State, is where “government and corporations promote and provide for the welfare of the nation. Therefore, the reliance is more on bureaucracy.”
The speaker said:
“There has been an increasing sense that government cannot be trusted and that the Market State has made it nearly impossible for corporation to remain efficient and have the ability to serve the public good. A Market State provides opportunities and incentives as opposed to rules and regulations under the Nation State model. Government has become less and less trusted to provide basic services and have been replaced by the market and non-profit sector.”
The mantra has been, according to the speaker, “the market can do it better.”
Professor Balfour believes that corruption, under the Market State model, will increase. He provides some data on the increase in federal employees, particularly the use of privatize contractors. In 1999, there were 4.4 million contracted federal employees, which increased to 7.6 million by 2008. He also showed a graph, which said that federal spending on private contracts increased from $209 billion in 2000 to $415 billion in 2006. Unfortunately, the speaker provided no source for this data. The majority of contracts, he said, were for general management and support services, which previously was for products and services. He used the aftermath of Katrina as an example of this shift in contracting. He shows that most of the contracts were no bid contracts, thus insulating the public from the private. This provided an opportunity to do what Naomi Klein has called the “Shock Doctrine.” The “Shock Doctrine” is when government restructures economic systems through a catastrophe (Katrina) or through military force (Iraq).
This “Market State” approach can also be seen in the increase of private security forces being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contracts for private services through the State Department were at $2.55 Billion in 2000 and increased to $4.85 by 2006. He looked at Blackwater Worldwide as an example of the cost of these privatized services. Blackwater contracts went from $205,000 in 2000 to $1.2 Billion by 2007. The speaker also mentions that the bulk of these contracts had no transparency. Blackwater is now expanding its contracts with other countries, now that they have an infrastructure, which was paid for by US taxpayers.
The speaker then asked the question, “Why was their contract renewed in 2007, even after the bad publicity?”
Balfour gave two reasons for the contract being renewed. First, the laws that were put in place in Iraq under Paul Bremer prevented real prosecution of private contractors and second, the State Department is now in a position where they are dependent on contractors like Blackwater since there aren’t enough US military personnel to do what the private contractors do.
The speaker asked, “What are the challenges that are faced by the new administration?” Balfour believes the new administration should cut poorly performing contracts with private entities, add contract management staff and have a system of greater accountability. He stated that many of the current Bush staff will burrow–meaning that they will be re-titled and will not be removed, thus making it harder for a change in how the government functions. However, the speaker thought that since much of the current government staff is near retirement there is a need to recruit thousands of new employees, which could provide an opportunity for new energy in government.
The speaker concluded by pondering the question, “What has Obama promised?” Balfour believes that the new administration will “go through the budget line by line,” to make sure there is greater accountability in how government spending. He said that Obama wrote letters to the federal employees during the campaign to win their trust, but also acknowledged that he wanted their vote. Balfour also believes that an Obama administration will “pursue fewer but larger contracts for economies of scale, promote transparency & accountability, and add staff to Social Security, the EPA and Homeland Security. Balfour believes that without addressing the governance issues it will be impossible to change the system. He seemed hopeful that this will happen, at least to the degree that the president-elect has given verbal commitment to these changes.
During the question and answer period, Balfour was challenged on a few points. Someone said that they had a problem with the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives program and that the Obama administration has already said they will continue it. Balfour’s response was that the difference will be the new administration will take each contract with faith-based groups under consideration, whereas the Bush administration wasn’t interested in oversight.
MediaMouse.org asked if the speaker felt that the list of people who have been chosen for the new administration, many of which are former Clinton people, indicates little change to the “Market State” model. Balfour responded by saying that while it is true that some of the new appointees were in the Clinton administration they are smart enough to see that the current economic model isn’t working and that they will be looking for “a new paradigm that will fit within the global economy.”