The Common Good
July-August 1998

The Classic Con

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 1998

'Star Wars' just won't go away.

I have to confess a deep and abiding respect for the old-fashioned flimflam man, the confidence man, that knave and schemer who can bilk you out of billions (or just your retirement fund) and have you thanking him as he tips his hat in exit.

Take Stanley Huntington of Farmington, New Mexico, for example. He pulled the classic con. Huntington’s smooth, sincere sales pitch offered citizens a chance to help the government and preserve the environment at the same time. He was selling "California red super-worms"—genetically developed for the digesting of nuclear waste. For only $500, you get four pounds of super-worms to raise at home until you double or triple your total worm population and your initial investment when you resell your super-reds to the local nuclear waste burial facility. According to Huntington (and his completely false but very official-looking contract with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), the government will pay top dollar for these "rad-reds." You’ll make millions!

Who says Americans have lost our creative edge! We may not think much of the fine arts, or even the avant-garde, but we still shell out for the con arts.

Perhaps Huntington went on scholarship to that ivory tower of scheming and chicanery called the Pentagon. Maybe he did his field study with Lockheed Martin or Boeing. Their current con is called the Ballistic Missile Defense System. Ronald Reagan’s original 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars"—the lasers and mirrors show—had to be altered somewhat due to the inconvenient fact that after billions of dollars of testing, it didn’t work (although Fourth of July laser shows have been substantially upgraded). It was proven, however, beyond any lick, spit, or polish, that allowing the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin to spend billions and billions of dollars is a phenomenally successful idea. Go figure!

In 1985, Congress explicitly nixed the "let’s aim our little lasers at the neighbor’s satellite and see what happens" idea. But when the Reagan pod people moved into Congress in 1990 they allowed that ban to expire. Congress’ new guiding philosophy is "let them eat cat food" while stuffing a few more billion into the biggest game of laser tag this side of Alpha Centauri.

THE CATCH IN the Ballistic Missile Defense con is this: We, dear citizens, are the mark. A Defense Department independent panel just published a 76-page report titled (I paraphrase) Duck and Cover—If It Was Good Enough for My Parents Then It’s Good Enough for Me, detailing the miserable failure of the "defensive anti-missile umbrella over the territory of the United States." The report goes on to say "the perceived urgency of the need for these systems has led to high levels of risk that have resulted in delayed deployments because of failures in the development test programs...which have then led programmers to reduce the number of tests in order to stay on schedule. This is inconsistent with the complexity of the task and has produced no discernible benefits."

Well, "perceived urgency" is a flimflam man’s field of dreams and "discernible benefits" depends on where you look. Not even the bars and stars know how much money you and I have been bilked out of on this scheme. A modest estimate would be $4 billion a year since the Great Teflon Communicator had his little brainstorm. Even with the new math, that $60 billion sure could pay the light bill.

Just for kicks, let’s play the numbers. According to Dollars & Sense editor Marc Breslow, $60 billion would be handy to have around. We could provide 2.4 million people with jobs paying $25,000 per year. Alternatively we could carry up to 12 million people on public assistance at $5,000 per person per year. We could clean up those nasty leaking barrels of radioactive waste at Washington’s Hanford nuclear site ("We have significant uncertainties and data gaps in the movement of the contaminants into the vadose or groundwater zones," as they say at the DOE) and preserve the salmon in the Columbia River watershed. We could double the federal education budget, rather than relying on Disney, Microsoft, and ATT to teach our kids the finer points of market-driven capitalism.

The biggest problem with the classic con is the little people who get hurt. So in the end I prefer the Robin Hood approach. Perhaps Huntington could make the Pentagon a deal they just couldn’t refuse.

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