Too Big to Exist

When corporate or government institutions become too big and too socially destructive to exist, we need a graceful method of putting them on a diet and reforming their lifestyle.

The American genius for creating magnificently productive mega-institutions has a potentially fatal downside: we have, as a society, no idea how to downsize them when they “go rogue,” i.e., become socially destructive. On balance, today, several of America’s major mega-institutions–the Imperial Presidency, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Finance–either are or are fast becoming socially destructive. They are “too big to exist;” we need to figure out how to downsize them gracefully, reorienting them toward socially useful behavior.

Perhaps the first step toward this new way of thinking that needs to replace the tarnished old “bigger is better” mantra is to understand the evidence supporting the contention that these mega-institutions are so bloated that American and, indeed, global society can no longer afford them. (I call these social units “institutions” because each is truly a unified organization composed of, perhaps, separate governmental or private units, but operating according to a clear if unstated and frequently illegal set of monopolistic rules designed to maximize profit and power at public expense and, in the case of the Imperial Presidency, at the expense of the rest of the Government as well.) Consider the following examples of mega-institution misbehavior:

  1. The Imperial Presidency, i.e., the rising ability of the White House and all its military-industrial support mechanism to overshadow Congress and Constitution on foreign policy, now employs something in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million mercenaries overseas, constituting an armed force capable of making independent war on most countries–completely outside of Congressional control and often beyond the reach of U.S. judicial authorities [see Jean MacKenzie, Jeremy Scahill, Glen Ford]. Since Augustus overthrew the Roman Republic with his palace guards and established the Roman Empire, we have known the profound threat to democracy posed by a mercenary army under the command of the chief executive.
  2. Big Pharma, constituting the whole U.S. health care industry, has degenerated so far that, to boost profits, it now essentially writes off as a “business loss” all of the nationa’s elderly with the almost universal cognitive problems associated with aging. At their most vulnerable, they are thrown into the arms of untrained relatives utterly unprepared for 24/7 nursing.
  3. Big Oil, alb eit receiv ing billions annually in welfare payments from U.S. taxpayers, can destroy ever-growing chunks of the earth through careless cost-cutting measures and escape responsibility. For the rest of our lives, we will be watching BP’s poison creep with Gulf Stream currents up the North American east coast and over toward England, while everyone complains about $4 a gallon gas, a price only a fraction of the real cost.
  4. As for Big Finance, the cost of its irresponsibility is now glaringly obvious to everyone. At the very least, Wall St. should keep accurate books, and regulators should scrutinize them.

The traditional way of toppling rogue mega-institutions is of course well known: the “barbarians” did it to Imperial Rome, Lincoln did it to the Southern slave system, Gorbachev did it to the Soviet state. But as these mega-institutions take on global scale, the cost of violent overthrow rises sharply. We should be able to do better.

Key to the smooth downsizing of rogue mega-institutions is twofold: 1) the breakthrough understanding of the bottom line insight that a cherished social structure has outlived its usefulness as currently designed combined with 2) the identification of specific traits requiring elimination. Specific reforms (Step 2) without acceptance of the goal of institutional downsizing, and redirection into a socially beneficial mode misses the point. That was the mistake of the Wall Street bailout, which successfully saved the bad old exploitative system rather than taking the opportunity to dismantle it by, for example, rebuilding the wall between the stock market and personal savings accounts. Similarly, eliminating mercenary forces while leaving the political supremacy over Congress of the Imperial Presidency untouched will only have a temporary impact. Surgical removal of a specific cancerous tumor must be done in the context of lifestyle changes related to nutrition, avoiding pesticides, and exercise.

Rogue mega-institutions must be recognized as enemies of society and redesigned to return to their proper purpose of servinhg society. The Presidency’s power should be balanced with that of Congress; stock market investments should b e used to stimulate growth, not gamble with people’s mortgages and savings accounts; the health care system should exist to provide a universal right, not to make a profit; the cost of gas should b e set by government to reflect its true value, incluyding the cost of pollution clean-up and the cost of wars fought to get the oil. And no industry that takes welfare from the taxpayer should turn its leaders into billionaires immune from prosecution.


To its credit, Washington is at least thinking about this issue. See comments by FDIC’s Sheila Bair.


Notes From the Levant: Last of the Combat Troops Leaving Iraq? – Only in your Dreams

Notes From the Levant: Last of the Combat Troops Leaving Iraq? – Only in your Dreams

If you imagine that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is coming to an end, read the above article. By the way, the author calls the number of U.S. mercenary troops (i.e., armed soldiers employed by the U.S. government but not wearing U.S. military uniforms and NOT under the oversight of Congress) in Iraq as “unknowable.” He’s pretty much right, since the Pentagon tries to prevent the number from being known, but the last quoted figure I have seen is “100,000” – one of the world’s more impressive armies.

US Congresswoman: Mercenary Threat

“Use of mercenaries masks scope of US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq”

04 February, 2010, 10:26

There has been a massive increase in the funding of US war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and private military contractors are flourishing in its wake, even though their reputations are at an all-time low.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky told RT that there are at least as many contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan as there are military.

“So when the President asks for a 30,000 troop increase in Afghanistan, we are talking about at least that number of contractors too, which makes the mission much bigger. We don’t even count them when they get killed,” she said.

Jan Schakowsky also added that private contractors in Iraq are getting away with murder.

“We have seen these private hired guns – mercenaries if you will – actually in situations that have jeopardized the mission of the US, have put her own troops at risk, have killed private civilians,” she said. “So far those cases have been dismissed. Fortunately, the Justice Department has decided to appeal the ruling and go forward, but they’re in a kind of grey legal limbo.”

Jan Schakowsky believes it is worrying that private firms like Blackwater have an even greater capability to wage wars than America itself.

“Blackwater use certain helicopters that, believe it or not, the US government doesn’t even have. These [private] companies have the capacity that the US government does not have. I think this is a very dangerous trend,” she concluded.

One of the most serious long-term innovations of the neo-con perversion of U.S. policy is the contracting out of military power to mercenary armies outside of oversight by either Congress or the U.S. judicial system. The result is the creation of a massive military force that already undermines U.S. foreign policy, violates U.S. law, and has the ability to wage private war.

Why U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky is making these crucial remarks about the danger of U.S. mercenaries to American control over its foreign policy to a Russian, rather than American, media outlet one can only wonder. Her efforts of several years’ standing to bring this issue to the attention of the deeply in denial U.S. government get little attention in the MSM. Is the conspiracy of silence now so extreme that a member of Congress can only get attention on serious issues through interviews overseas?

Trapping American in a Muslim Quagmire

What follows are just some thoughts, designed to provoke more thoughts, about the state of what one might call the Western crusade against Islam. Is it? And who is winning? And, should the West think about other methods, or even other goals?

Despite the change in administrations, Washington continues to fight a war against, if not Islam, then at least the specter of anti-American Islamists, and perhaps against Muslim reformers. Lots of questions follow. For one, is American behavior (aiding Muslim dictatorships, allowing Israel to oppress Palestinians and dominate the region militarily, and using the military as the key weapon against a networked opponent) making the situation worse?

According to Harvard terrorism specialist Jessica Stern:

Bin Laden has described his goal as bringing America into conflict with Muslims along “a large-scale front” which it cannot contain and al Qaeda strategists report that they want to expand what they call the “jihadist current,” eroding American power and prestige and separating the United States from its allies.

If that’s the enemy’s goal, it is doing quite well. The U.S. still has a monstrous 300,000-man force in Iraq (half mercenaries more-or-less outside the law, half uniformed soldiers under the legal authority of Congress) and another 120,000 (more than half mercenaries) in Afghanistan (according to the Pentagon).

Afghanistan is clearly the hotspot of the moment, so how are we doing over there, nine years into the war? According to CSIS analyst Anthony Cordesman, who may or may not draw reliable policy conclusions but is the man to go to for the basic analysis of current military realities:

Over the last seven years we have had almost no coherence in our strategy, in our civil-military planning. It took us more than half a decade to begin to seriously resource the war. Most of the aid money has gone outside the country and wasted, or been corrupt. We found ourselves only seriously beginning to create Afghan forces, in terms of actual flows of money, in 2006. Our troop levels have never approached the troop levels we’ve had inside Iraq….We have not provided any transparent or honest reporting on the growth of threat. The closest we have are metrics which came out in a Department of Defense report issued in July, that does not show the expansion of the threat area anywhere in the document. And up till January we were still reporting as if there are only 13 out of 364 districts threatened by the enemy. That was flatly dishonest. It did not reflect any of the maps which showed the penetration of threat influence.

Admiral Mullen recently had some further choice words.

Iraq remains a mess of feuding tough guys. Somalia is a disaster. Palestinians remain in their concentration camp; Washington did not even have the grace to thank Hamas for rooting out an al Qua’ida cell! And Pakistan? Why do I get the impression that the disarray in the Taliban is being taken by Islamabad as an opportunity to sit back and relax?

Then there’s that new front in Yemen…(well, I seem to recall something going on there with Nasser, so not really new). Anyway, the point is that Side A feels mistreated by Side B and, guess what? Washington thinks force is the answer! It’s not being applied by the U.S. or even Ethiopia (as in Somalia) but, this time, by the feared forces of Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Iran has made three moves that could be taken as conciliatory gestures on the nuclear front in the last week (not counting the effort by one official to invite talks that his masters promptly squelched), and the IAEA has just issued a report that seems at first glance quite positive. Is anyone going to take advantage of this opportunity to try to break some ice? Well, no, Netanyahu is on a diplomatic crusade in Europe to freeze the Western stance into a solid glacial front, and the great leaders of the Western world are tripping over themselves to line up behind him, with Obama positively on his knees.

Hastening to open his mouth without doing his homework,

“Based on what we have seen in press reports … it seems clear that Iran continues to not cooperate fully and continues its enrichment activities,” US State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly said, according to Reuters.

Perhaps the State Department spokesperson should read press reports from sources not approved by Israel or even read the IAEA report itself before making public comments. But I do understand. I have read the IAEA report and must confess that, yes, the evidence does confuse the issue. So perhaps the department spokesperson was wise to reach his conclusions without bothering to take the evidence into account.

Be that as it may, based on the evidence considered here (and I did not even mention the brutal tactics of U.S. soldiers that result in a steady stream of innocent deaths or the radicalization of Sunni Lebanon or the convenient pretense that Russian injustice toward Moslems of the Caucasus does not exist, just to cite three further examples), it does appear that bin Laden is moving smartly toward his goal of “bringing America into conflict with Muslims along ‘a large-scale front’ which it cannot contain.”

Provoking the Clash of Civilizations

Yesterday, I quoted the short history of U.S.-Palestinian relations from 2006 until today so pointedly written by Uri Avnery. It portrays Washington as provoking precisely the outcome it presumably least wanted: the empowerment and further radicalization of its most feared opponent (in the case of Palestine, Hamas).

This raises some very important questions for those concerned about U.S. national security and the possible emergence of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West:

1. Is this a pattern seen more broadly in relations between the West and Islam? (The rise of al Qua’ida in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, the strengthening of Ahmadinejad’s circle in Iran, the exacerbation of militancy in North Waziristan, the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a result of Israel’s 2006 invasion, and the war in Somalia come to mind as examples with considerable face validity.]
2. To the extent that it is indeed a pattern characterizing post-9/11 Western interaction with Moslem societies, is the West moving toward acknowledging it and learning how to overcome it, or are we fated to live with such a pattern for the foreseeable future?
3. Can the world “muddle through” in the face of continuation of such a pattern or is it likely, if it continues, to spread and intensify, provoking the emergence of an Islamic political fault line (which might be seen as a fault line between Islamic and Western societies and/or a fault line within Islamic societies)?
4. To the degree that such a fault line is emerging within Islamic societies, is it likely to push committed reformers into the arms of violence-prone extremists, making hopes of compromise with the West increasingly remote?

Mercenaries Surge in Iraq

For an update on my post about mercenaries, see the latest from TomDispatch, who, along with many other statistics we would do well to pay heed to, informs us that:

“Number of armed “private contractors” now in Iraq: at least 20,000-30,000, according to the Washington Post. (Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestseller Blackwater, puts the figure for all private contractors in Iraq at 126,000.) “.

Meanwhile, Robert Sheer provides a valuable case study.

Defense…The Devil is in the Details

Diagnosing the Health of the Global Political System. As I have argued elsewhere, the existence of an analytical framework for diagnosing the health of the international political system would help us understand where we are and where we are going in terms of world affairs. One aspect of such a framework might well be the capacity of the system to defend itself and, it follows from that, the nature of the defensive policies that are implemented.

Defending a Political System. Any system (e.g., family, country) must be able to defend itself. The critical issue is in identifying the tipping point where defensive measures begin to undermine the system more than preserve it. When a political system employs irregular, informal defensive organizations that do not have legitimacy such as secret informers, personal armies, lynch mobs, paramilitaries, or mercenaries, the system’s viability is called into question. Such may be the case even for completely legal defensive forces allowed to overreach a reasonable level of authority. For example, Roman Emperor Augustus sowed the seeds for the murder of future emperors when he gained the right to keep his personal guard in Rome.

In theory, one could imagine such irregular organizations functioning in a responsible manner, but to the degree they operate without transparent oversight or accounting they are more vulnerable to abuse than official state organs. The same applies to official defense units, like Augustus’ Praetorian Guards, that overreach normal defensive practices. To the degree that a regime’s security services or paramilitary organizations threaten the people they claim to be protecting, the system becomes endangered over the long-term. To the extent that such behavior is either increasing or becoming increasingly accepted as legitimate behavior on the part of a regime, a colonial power, or an invading force, the system is becoming more dysfunctional. Simply put, a larger proportion of people are experiencing degraded living conditions. But of course it is in reality not that simple. The resultant flow of internal or international refugees puts economic and security strains on the whole system and may feed rebellion; the feedbacks are incalculable.

Use of irregular methods—midnight visits to people’s homes by the police; assassinations of leaders or categories of people (e.g., teachers, union leaders, human rights activists, reporters); displacements of populations, especially those which are intentional; military attacks on whole segments (e.g., peasants or an ethnic minority) of the population; collusion between the military and groups advocating violence–means the political system is in desperate shape. Removing governing authority from local civilian leaders to give it to the military is a significant indicator of the breakdown of normality; for such special authority to continue to be exercised in practice by the military even after being ruled illegal is even worse – a sign that the military is operating on its own and the rule of law is collapsing. Another major set of indicators that the system’s defensive mechanisms are failing concerns the presence of foreign military and the nature of their participation in internal military operations (e.g., as advisors, participants, or in command).

Pathological Defense. Since all of the above measures are justified by those who advocate them as measures to enhance the ability of the system to defend itself, why should they be considered indicators of system pathology? At least two reasons exist:

  • misuse of these purportedly defensive steps for ulterior purposes;
  • timeframe.

Concerning misuse, the danger is that a regime will take advantage of its legitimate right to defend the system to eliminate political opponents. Measures that circumvent standard legal protections put in place precisely for the purpose of preventing abuse of power, such as indefinite detention without trial or closed trials by military court, are indicators that such intentional abuse is occurring with “defense” as the excuse.

The second reason for considering the above-mentioned defensive steps as indicators of system pathology is one of timeframe. This essay is concerned with how one measures the fundamental, long-term ability of a system to continue functioning at an optimal level. Any of the above defensive measures may indeed temporarily shore up defenses, at least from the perspective of the actors who implement them. A politician may well survive his term in office on the strength of such short-term measures.

More positively, a genuine threat may be met, just as a person with a severed artery can survive by using a tourniquet. But what is the subsequent quality of system performance? If the tourniquet is not removed within a few minutes, the patient may die of gangrene. Similarly, emergency measures lacking clearly defined temporal and procedural limits would be indicators of system pathology. Do the measures make short-term progress at the expense of long-term degradation of performance (e.g., “cleansing” of dissident minorities or coca-growing peasants provoking a rebellion in the future)? And if not, do the short-term defensive measures throw the baby out with the bathwater? If a democracy defends itself by converting itself into a military dictatorship, the elites may win (at least temporarily), but the population and the system have lost: the democracy is dead.

Moreover, the future of the system will be questionable for any number of reasons if the elites win by alienating the rest of the population. Aside from obvious threats such as civil war and revolt lie other perils for a system with internal divisions that make the masses apathetic.

Evaluation of the quality of defense must consider the relevance of the defensive measures. In a word, do the defensive steps taken actually serve to protect the system? A now-classic example of how easy it is to take supposedly defensive measures that harm rather than protect the system is the discredited idea of suppressing all forest fires to protect the forests. In the Western U.S., some tree seeds actually require fire for germination: forest fires are not an attack on the system but a necessary part of it.

The impact of time delays on this process is fundamental because the short-term and long-term impacts of an action may be opposite (exactly opposite to the typical assumption that if X is good, then more X will be better). It must be kept in mind that an action will have a set of effects, perhaps the desired one and almost certainly a number of others that will be surprises, some nasty, but all are equally results of the action, whether anticipated or not. A tourniquet has two effects: it stops the bleeding, and it rots the limb. As system dynamics expert John Sterman put it in his text Business Dynamics, “there are no side effects, there are just effects. (p 11) It is not legitimate to brag about stopping the bleeding and then to blame “bad luck” for rotting the limb. The political equivalents are endless.


The United Nations working group on mercenaries has issued a report that merits close reading by everyone concerned with the quality of our lives, the state of democracy, and governance of our world. My thanks to Cyril Mychalejko at Dissident Voice for alerting me to this important report. Since the report speaks for itself, I shall simply provide a few quotes.

1) “PMSCs [private military and private security companies] in
Iraq commonly operate without control, without visibility, without being accountable beyond the private company itself, and in complete impunity.”

2) In Iraq, PMSC employees account for 3 of 10 soldiers deployed by the regular armed forces of the coalition. During the first Gulf War, in the early 1990s, only 1 of 100 was employed by a PMSC. The exponential expansion of PMSCs is not only reflected in the number of employees, but also in the quantity of contracts, which amounted to more than US$ 100 billion in 2006.7″ (p 11)

3) “In its report to the General Assembly, the Working Group expressed its concern at the participation of the employees of two PMSCs in violating human rights, which occurred in the prison of Abu Ghraib (A/61/341, para. 69). These employees held key functions without being accountable to effective regulatory and control mechanisms, as the employees allegedly implicated have not been subject to any investigation nor sanctioned. Their alleged involvement, with others, in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal “has increased suspicion, especially from the United States military, of the reliability of (private) contractors” and contributed to hamper reconstruction efforts in Iraq.10 The Working Group is oncerned that these cases are not isolated, and could represent only a fraction of all cases.” (p12)

4) “Another phenomenon of interest to the Working Group is the increasing use of force by PMSCs and private groups that are exercising domestic police functions in Latin American countries. This trend has led to a situation where in many countries the employees of PMSCs have surpassed the numbers of the police forces. For example, in Honduras, estimates vary that PMSCs, whether legally registered or illegal, effectively employ between 12,500 and 70,000 security guards, compared to the national police which has an estimated 8,000 police
(p 18)

5) “…the Working Group issues the following recommendations:
– The Working Group calls upon all States that have no yet done so to consider taking the necessary action to accede to or ratify the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (entered in force in 2001). It encourages States parties to introduce national level legislation against mercenarism, through introducing and adopting specific provisions in the national criminal codes, or to introduce separate legislation on mercenaries. The Working Group also invites Member States to consider also regional standards for possible incorporation in domestic legislation, notably
where such instruments are adopted by subregional organizations, as is the case with African Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Economic Community of West African States;

– The Working Group recommends the urgent need to embark on a process of determining the future of the monopoly of States on the use of force, and suggests a process of regional preparatory round tables during 2007 to lead to a global round table in 2008;
– The Working Group urges States to meet the challenge of regulating and attributing the responsibility that arises from the structure and transnational nature of the PMSC industry and its global reach, as well as the exponential growth of the numbers and activities of PMSCs in different regions. To this end, the Working Group urges States to avoid granting blanket immunity, leading to effective impunity, to PMSCs and their personnel;
– The Working Group recommends thresholds of permissible activities, enhanced regulation and oversight of PMSCs at the national levels, including the establishment of regulatory systems of registration and licensing of PMSCs and individuals working for them. Such regulation should include defining minimum requirements for transparency and accountability of firms, screening and vetting of personnel, and establish a monitoring system including parliamentary oversight. States should impose a specific ban on PMSCs intervening in internal or international armed conflicts or actions aiming at destabilizing constitutional regimes;
– The Working Group recommends human rights components in ducation and training programmes to be offered to the staff of PMSCs, including on international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and United Nations standards on the use of force;”
(p 24-25).