Are American politics absurd enough?

No one’s complained yet, but it’s been weighing on my conscience that I make fun of British politics more often and more joyfully than I make fun of American politics. I have several excuses, all of them true but none of them good enough:

  1. I grew up in the U.S. and spent most of my life there, so its absurdities are less visible to me. Mostly. If you want to see what’s right in front of you, it helps to be an outsider.
  2. Britain wraps its political absurdities in such glorious traditional craziness that it invites satire, from the little loops in the parliamentary cloak room where you can hang your sword, assuming you weren’t in such a hurry that you rushed out without it this morning, to the prayer cards MPs leave on a seat because it’s the only way to reserve one and there aren’t enough to go around. It’s like saying dibs, but infinitely more grown up and bizarre.
  3. U.S. politics (like most—or maybe that’s all—countries’ politics) can be despicable, but most of the time they fail the absurdity test. If I could recommend a change to my fellow Amurr’cans, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, it would be that we cultivate a bit more absurdity in our political lives. It’d be good for us. Both sides of the political spectrum could unite in an effort to eliminate it. And in the midst of fulminating or being depressed about the problems we face, we could share a good laugh at ourselves.

But T. sent me an email a while ago that allows me to even the balance a little. According to Reuters News, the Pentagon has been—and here I’m going to abandon the balanced language of Reuters for a minute—throwing money in the air without bothering to count it.

Speaking of absurdity: From the pose, this could be Washington crossing the Delaware and threatening to tip over the rowboat, but it's a picture of someone in a House of Lords robe. I'm not sure what period it's from. The hairstyles and the poses have changed but the robes are pretty much the same. From Wikimedia.

Speaking of absurdity: From the pose, this could be Washington crossing the Delaware and threatening to tip over the rowboat, but it’s a picture of someone in a House of Lords robe. I’m not sure what period it’s from. The hairstyles and the poses have changed but the robes? Not much. From Wikimedia.

How much money are we talking about? Oh, $8.5 trillion or so. Not enough to worry about. And that goes back to 1996, so, you know, per year and all it’s not that much. Just a few hundred billion or something. You can’t trust me with numbers, especially when we’re dealing in amounts I can’t even imagine, never mind count. Let’s just say a number with a whole bunch of zeros following it. Per year. I do understand years.

Apparently, the problem is that the Pentagon uses “a tangle” of accounting programs that can’t talk to each other. “ ‘It’s like if every electrical socket in the Pentagon had a different shape and voltage,’ says a former defense official who until recently led efforts to modernize defense accounting.” (The quotes here are from a series of three Reuters articles. I won’t include separate links. Follow the link above and you’ll find them all.)

Record keeping, as Reuters puts it, is “rife with made-up numbers to cover lost or missing information.”

That leaves the military storing physical object that are out of date and buying new ones it doesn’t need because it has no idea what it needs. It has “a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known.”

When it comes to veterans and serving personnel, in some cases they aren’t being paid what they’re owed. In others, they’re overpaid and then the overpayment is clawed back all at once. Or an amount they haven’t been overpaid is clawed back because some computer system somewhere thinks it was overpaid, so poof, the income a vet had every reason to rely on stops coming. In a case Reuters followed (a mistaken claw-back), no explanation was offered until Reuters got involved, at which point—surely this wasn’t connected—the mistake was corrected.

In fairness, the Pentagon has tried to fix the problems but ended up making them worse.

“In 2000, the Navy began work on four separate projects to handle finances, supplies, maintenance of equipment and contracting. Instead, the systems took on overlapping duties that each performed in different ways, using different formats for the same data. Five years later, the GAO said, ‘These efforts were failures. . . . $1 billion was largely wasted.’ ”

But, y’know, $1 billion? What the hell.

The Pentagon is the only federal agency that’s never been audited. So how much of that $8.5 trillion has been paid out legitimately, how much wasted, and how much stolen? We don’t know. And more to the point, they don’t know either.

But it’s only money, as my father used to say whenever an inappropriate situation came his way. You can’t buy happiness with it.

You can, however, buy a lot of other stuff. And no doubt someone has. We just don’t know who or what.

So there we go. Absurdity in American politics. But you’ll have to admit, it needs a few swords and a wig to make it funny.

96 thoughts on “Are American politics absurd enough?

  1. No one has ever audited the Pentagon? That’s beyond absurd and into the very troubling.

    To my mind, a lot of the absurdity in American politics comes from the ridiculous layering. There are federal, state and county layers in politics that I don’t yet comprehend but I do understand that there’s a lack of communication, correspondence and coherence between them. Most of the rest of the absurdity comes from the personalities of the politicians. One only had to look at the ever lengthening list of Republican Presidential candidates to wonder if the whole thing isn’t either a horrible satire or an audition for a ridiculous sitcom or reality show.

    Actually my whole response to the question you pose can be answered in two words: Donald and Trump.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good answer.

      The whole city/county/state/federal layering is rooted so deep in American politics that we (we here meaning Americans) tend to take it for granted. You have to step outside to see the ways it’s counterproductive.

      I went to a meeting recently, a Cornwall County presentation on how wonderful life would be once the central government devolves more power to Cornwall. I have mixed feelings about devolution. Given the history of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and yes, Cornwall as separate nations, it does make some sense. On the other hand, I’ve watched how it works in the US, and all the talk of bringing decision-making power closer to home often means people being ignored by a lower level of politician and the corruption being carried on at a lower level. Devolving bits of the NHS (which is underway, I’m sorry to say) will mean is we (we here being the British) no longer have a national system. It also means that failures can be blamed on the local government, even when they didn’t get enough funding to stand a snowball’s chance in granny’s hot oven.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. For the next 15 months, you could easily write a blog post a day on an absurd event in American politics. Please don’t. Someone else will, but I won’t follow and I enjoy reading your blog. I’m guessing we don’t care about an audit because a trillion is equally absurd to consider as is our current crop of candidates. I’m not sure I know what a trillion is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A lot of money is the closest I can come to how much it is.

      I hesitated for quite a while over whether to publish this. On the one hand, it is absurd, and it should be known. On the other hand, it’s not what you’d call a light-hearted post. I promise not to do much of it, but from time to time I just don’t seem to be able to help myself. Let me know if it gets to be too much. Seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This tempts me to talk about politics, which I probably should refrain from doing here. However, to me the issue with the Pentagon is the American obsession with profiteering from perpetual war. Some entities (individuals, corporations) are making a killing — pun intended — from the military industrial complex so why should they change? It probably serves a purpose to make it redundant and confusing. I find it hard to identify any mirth or levity in this but it does conjure a theatre of the absurd, I agree. I know almost nothing about British politics. Maybe if I studied it more, I would not be as disgusted with the US on these matters. :-D

    Liked by 1 person

    • If we don’t laugh we’ll cry. Or throw things.

      Actually, I think it does us good to see the absurdity in all this. It might remind us to audit from time to time, looking for those $800 military toilet seats that were such a scandal a decade or more back.

      At a wild and irresponsible guess, I’d say the UK is probably behind the US in terms of profiteering off the military, but don’t trust me on that. It is introducing privatization to prisons, health care, and who knows what else. When the government outsourced security for the Olympics the result was such a disaster that they had to quite literally call out the military to fill in what the company they were paying hadn’t pulled its act together to do.

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  4. We’re ‘Mericans. We don’t do swords, we do guns!

    This reminds me of the old quote (Wilbur Mills, I think): “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money!” Fast forward 40 years and we’re talking trillions. What a difference those decades made.

    It must be challenging living overseas with the silliness back home. I lived in Switzerland during the Monica Lewinsky show and the early Bush W years. It was a challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the quote as Everett Dirksen and millions, but let’s not argue over trifles. What difference do a few zeroes make?

      We were in the UK as visitors during the Lewinsky hooha and yes, I do remember it being a little hard to explain to outsiders.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We’re both right and both wrong. I had to look it up because I am neurotic. It WAS Everett Dirksen and it WAS billions.

        The french were particularly baffled by why sex would be a problem!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks for that. The financial wizard for an organization I used to work for (I’ve forgotten her actual title) posted the quote on her office door, using either millions or billions, who’s to say? I thought it was hysterically funny, but I’m pretty sure a few people felt unsettled by it.

          Liked by 1 person

    • All too true. Except for J. Edgar Hoover–for years head of the FBI, who kept politicians too terrified to move against him, presumably because he knew too much about everyone. He was a closet drag queen and loved nothing better than putting on a red dress and heels–something that only came out after his death. If you want a mental picture, think of a bulldog in a red dress and heels. Add rhinestone earrings if you like. I’m sure he’d have loved lace, and probably ermine.

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  5. Seeing as there have been kids getting expelled from school because they chewed a pop-tart into the shape of a gun…I shudder to think what an American Politican would do with an ACTUAL sword…

    Wigs, however, I have no problem with…bring ’em on – the higher and curlier the better :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not convinced, John. First there’s my experience with local governments, which didn’t impress me as any more responsive or less bureaucratic, or any freer of the influence of big money. Then there’s the problem of creating many small countries (landlocked, as Wild Thing reminded me when I bounced the question off her, because part of her background is as a historian and she always manages to come at these questions from an angle that wouldn’t have occurred to me). Many of the states would be too small to stand alone as countries. And at this point their economies are so interlocked that businesses would suddenly find themselves spread over separate countries, negotiating tariffs and import/export restrictions, increasingly separate sets of laws, and who knows what else. My guess is that we’d do better to address the problems that keep democracy from being a reality.

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      • Yes, just look at the EU, or whatever it’s calling itself these days. And even within the Eurozone, with a shared currency, we have proof that without shared politics, the economy just flounders… I think it was more interesting when all the countries were more different…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I live in Italy, so I don’t really want to comment. “Inappropriate” issues are unearthed week after week, month after month, year after year. Tiny as this country is compared to the USA, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve hit the trillions too over time. I have a pretty developed sense of humour, but it’s a struggle when you push the “politics-politicians” button…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If I may chime in here as an auditor –

    – Audits tend to be things that are required if there is some sort of higher reporting power. Public companies report to the SEC, not-for-profits report to the IRS, and entities that receive grant money report to the state and/or federal government. Those are all examples of things that get audited. The Pentagon doesn’t really report to anyone (similar to the Federal Reserve) so there isn’t really an authority calling for an audit.
    – Auditors work off a concept called “materiality” which, roughly translated, means “only the big stuff” where “big” is a relative term. Without having the Pentagon’s budget in front of me, there is a very real possibility that the $8.5 trillion in total would not have been material in any given year, and thus would not have been helped by an audit.
    – Going along with the above point, auditors are limited in their ability to assess what is a “reasonable” expense. To the extent that we address this issue, we look at documentation (i.e. did it really cost that much?) and talk to people (i.e. did someone actually review and approve this?) and get management to sign in blood under pain of death, dismemberment, and jail time that they cross their heart and hope to die that there were no inappropriate expenditures on their watch. All that is to say, maybe there was something special about the $800 toilet that would have “passed” an audit.

    So, what would fix the Pentagon’s finances?

    – A culture of competence where people actually perform reconciliations between things. Yes, it’s more difficult and complicated when there’s multiple systems, but it’s nothing outlandish that people don’t do on a regular basis.
    – A good internal control structure. If people are expected to enter transactions and reconcile accounts, who is reviewing their work? And does the reviewer know how to do it so they can help if necessary?
    – Periodic, random compliance-focused audit-type procedures. This would ideally cover pretty much every area over a 5-year cycle (or so) and a compliance focus (rather than a financial focus) would be more likely to find the little but outrageous things (like $800 toilets) that add up to big outrageous dollars.

    TL/DR: Audits aren’t a magic pill; they can help but they are only as good as the organization’s internal culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry, and I’m not an auditor, and perhaps I’m misreading your comment, but the Pentagon is a synonym for the Department of Defense, part of the executive branch of the US government, and is no way similar to the Federal Reserve, which is an independent agency (like the postal service and a bunch of others). The DoD budget is developed by the President, and approved by Congress. The DoD reports to those branches of government, and, by proxy, to the people of the United States.

      The General Accounting Office (another independent agency of the US government) exists to audit government departments and agencies, but its mission has long been thwarted by “irregularities” at the DoD.

      The budget of the DoD has been the subject of a lot of discussion in the US, for as long as I can remember, with lots of folks in uniform regularly called to testify before Congress, which is how we find out about $800 toilet seats (or whatever), every couple of years or so.

      Anyway, my point is, all the controls exist, they’ve just been ignored, and not a lot has been done about it, for mostly political reasons (my opinion).

      Liked by 2 people

      • I admit that I wrote this off the cuff with general auditing info at the top of my head, so I appreciate the additional detail. Couple things I want to add (I’ll try to keep this helpful and relevant without overwhelming with technical detail) –

        – Yes, the budget of the DoD gets discussed and debated before it is approved, and if I understand you correctly, this is where we get testimony about things like $800 toilets as if to say, “You don’t use the money we’ve given you in the past wisely. Why should we give you more?” At that point, the question of whether the money was spent appropriately is too little, too late, and too far above the level at which these things actually happen to effect any change. There’s a difference between “here’s money you can spend for X purpose for the entire year” and timely, regular accountability to be efficient and effective with money. Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is structural because of the way appropriations and government accounting works. I don’t know how to fix that.
        – When I say “controls,” I mean an organizational culture and processes that will prevent or timely detect the $800 toilet purchases. Timely as in, while there’s still an opportunity to fix it before the money is actually spent, which is WAY before it comes up in a budget debate the following year. That’s why I made the comments about controls over who authorized this / who approved this / did they actually review this / how can we tell.
        – Also, there’s a difference between controls existing and controls operating effectively. All the controls in the world can exist but they are not worth anything if they are not working, i.e. being practiced regularly with the right level of attention and care.
        – I didn’t intend to imply that the DoD reports to nobody; what I meant to convey is that it appears (although I may be wrong with your comment about the GAO – I’ll get to that in a minute) that regular audits (financial, compliance, or whatever) are not part of a regular reporting structure the way they are for public companies and the other examples I mentioned. I know the Federal Reserve has never been audited, and it was stated above that the Pentagon has never been audited, so I assumed it was no one with the power to do so had required it.
        – Regarding the GAO, now I have a question for you – are you saying that the reason the Pentagon “hasn’t been audited” is not because no one has attempted it but because they haven’t been able to successfully complete it? I know that there are “irregularities” with regard to various classified things and how that money is used; when I had heard about this in the past, I had assumed that the classified stuff had dominated whatever “irregularities” there were. Is it bigger than that? Or how would be even know?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Good question, which I’m not sure I can answer. This is all strange territory to me, so when I read the Reuters articles I didn’t have your question or many of the categories that are natural to you (but deeply foreign to me) in mind. What that means is that if the answers are there (and I’m guessing they are but don’t have time to reread the article right now), they didn’t register with me. If I remember correctly, though, an audit is scheduled, which would say that someone has the power to require it. I don’t think classified information is the heart of the problem, although it probably complicates it. The articles do talk about people plugging estimated amounts in where they should be plugging in real numbers.

          Liked by 1 person

        • The GAO has been unable to complete an audit of the Pentagon because of the haphazard way financial records have been kept there. This is not true of all government departments/agencies, it’s a specific problem at the DoD (and also Homeland Security, apparently). I believe outside auditors have been hired to attempt to straighten out the mess.

          And we know about this stuff because we live in an (imperfect) democracy with a (mostly) free press.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I read the comments, Ellen, and now I’ve completely forgotten what I wanted to say about your post. I need more caffeine. The sun just came up here. ☺ I’m sure it had something to do with wigs and swords as a solution to our economic issues. Or maybe Donald Trump as Ringmaster. ??? ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow…this is really interesting. Knew the debt was up there is the U.S. but 8.5 trillion, just cannot get my mind around those numbers..

    A great post Ellen, and I really enjoyed reading the comments….well articulated and courteous, showing respect for your blog. :)

    ~Carl~

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Carl. I’ve appreciated the comments as well. They’ve ranged from the funny to the informative, and all without any of us going to war with any of the rest of us.

      The $8.5 trillion isn’t the debt, though–no idea what that is–but the amount spent of money the Pentagon’s spent over a period of years that it can’t quite account for. That it adds to the debt, yup, no question. As for getting our heads around the numbers, I found myself wondering where I’d end up if I took a trillion steps. It might be a way I could actually understand the size of the number.

      Liked by 1 person

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  14. Love this post, Ellen, and all of the comments that followed. I’ve been watching the Republicans in general and Trump in particular raise the absurdity stakes here in the US. In fact it is often my morning entertainment to turn on my computer and read the day’s headlines and Trumpisms.

    Liked by 1 person

        • I know, I know. That thought keeps popping into my head too.

          I’m about to sound like I’m promoting my own book here, but what the hell: One of my novels is political satire, based on the premise that a radio talk show host hits pay dirt with the claim that the Vietnam War never happened, it was all a vast conspiracy, and as I was writing it and then as I was trying to find it a publisher, I kept worrying that the insanity of American politics would quickly outrun it. I couldn’t get it into print fast enough.

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            • Oddly enough, I can be fairly literal about things as well–or so Wild Thing tells me, but then she’s from Texas and believes the truth should never get in the way of a good story. But writing satire? It’s surprisingly freeing. If you need Richard Nixon to march through naked and playing the tuba (and I can’t think why you would, but you might; you just might) you can make it work.

              Like

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