Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Post Goes for Its Pulitzer

The Washington Post has anted up for a 2011 Pulitzer Prize with a sprawling, days-long series titled "Top Secret America." Its stories, written primarily by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, attempt to describe the size and scale of the American intelligence community, taking as a starting point the 854,000 or so people who hold top-secret clearances.

The series documents how the U.S. intelligence community's explosive post-9/11 growth has created waste and redundancy, and may now lie beyond any single person's ability to grasp. The series has started out well, focusing on the government's role Monday and contractors' role today, and while I don't know much about Arkin, I'll read anything Dana Priest writes the moment I come across it.

But the Post stories also describe how the sheer size of the national-security community causes it to have some banal, clock-punching characteristics, as in these grafs from Monday's article:
In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it's in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.


In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
While the Hollywood idea of intelligence agencies as tightly knit teams of supersleuths and assassins has particles of truth, the reality is that the agencies also contain huge numbers of workaday cube dwellers who look forward to each Thursday, when the cafeteria within their heavily secured installation serves that delicious carrot cake.*

* Ongoing thanks to Jack Boulware for lodging this enduring image of quiet desperation in my mind.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Exporting Their Way to Prosperity


In April I wrote about the pointlessness of the U.S. leading in the production of "specialty" steel when it's a loser in manufacturing nearly everything else that people around the world want.

In this morning's Post, columnist Harold Meyerson takes up this refrain and explains that Germany's and China's coherent industrial policies give them an edge in the manufacturing and export wars. Here he looks at the German example:

Germany has increased its edge in world-class manufacturing even as we have squandered ours because its model of capitalism is superior to our own. For one thing, its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself. The typical German company has a long-term relationship with a single bank -- and for the smaller manufacturers that are the backbone of the German economy, those relationships are likely with one of Germany's 431 savings banks, each of them a local institution with a municipally appointed board, that shun capital markets and invest their depositors' savings in upgrading local enterprises. By American banking standards, the savings banks are incredibly dull. But they didn't lose money in the financial panic of 2008 and have financed an industrial sector that makes ours look anemic by comparison.
Depressed yet?

Meyerson also notes that despite the self-perception of the U.S. as a high-tech leader, it's actually running annual high-tech deficits that reached $61 billion in 2008, quoting Clyde Prestowitz's new The Betrayal of American Prosperity. See Simon & Schuster's promo page for that book and notice the first stat: China's number-one export to the U.S. is now computer equipment, while our number-one export to China is waste paper and scrap metal.

Not rice, not aircraft parts, not Levi's, not Coca-Cola, not financial services. Junk.

Silver linings, anyone?
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