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Thursday, May 22, 2003
Bob Herbert makes what can only be described as a facile comparison between the Dixie Chicks and Halliburton:

Who's less patriotic, the Dixie Chicks or Dick Cheney's long-term meal ticket, the Halliburton Company?

The Dixie Chicks were excoriated for simply exercising their constitutional right to speak out. With an ugly backlash and plans for a boycott growing, the group issued a humiliating public apology for "disrespectful" anti-Bush remarks made by its lead singer, Natalie Maines.

The Chicks learned how dangerous it can be to criticize the chief of a grand imperial power.

Halliburton, on the other hand, can do no wrong. Yes, it has a history of ripping off the government. And, yes, it's made zillions doing business in countries that sponsor terrorism, including members of the "axis of evil" that is so despised by the president.

If you want to compare the two, you really should mention the ways they're similar: both have faced broad public outcry and threats of a boycott, but in both cases it has been unsuccessful because they both still enjoy broad institutional support (the Chicks were never really banned from that many radio stations, and most importantly, they're still being carried by retail). I guess this could pass for irony in some weird backwards universe, but c'mon Bob, we all know that what the Chicks are dealing with isn't anything approaching censorship, its stoking by media monoliths notwithstanding. (It's nice that he alerts us to the letter of protest Henry Waxman wrote to Rumsfeld, though.)

If you want a better comparison to illuminate the problems with Halliburton or Betchel in general, you might try something I was talking about earlier today: the educational system. When the educational system, or the FCC, or the EPA does something wrong, you a) know it's done something wrong, and b) can change its policy through political action. Sure, it might not always work, and the ways people might want to change these institutions might run counter to your interests, but the power is clearly there. It's accountability; even if, in the case of the FCC, there are structural barriers to change, those barriers can be removed through public pressure.

Call me a statist if you will, but I prefer that a thousandfold to Halliburton, a private industry doing government (i.e., public) work without any of the oversight we have with an actual government agency. In 99% of the cases where a civic activity is privatized or outsourced, the level of secrecy jumps, and the ability to make changes once the policy has been implemented is greatly reduced. (The main exception I can think of would be the computer industry, and that's mainly because of open-source doctrine and the fact that the NSA is the government's main agency computer-wise, and what would you expect from an organization with "Security" in its name?) So the problem with Halliburton isn't so much that it's getting these contracts, or even that it's probably getting these contracts due to the Cheney connection; it's that we have no idea how they're getting the contracts, and we have no idea what they're doing, ultimately.

So with the educational system, if you don't like the textbook they're using, you can, for better or worse, convince them to use a different one. If you don't like Halliburton's activities, you can, of course, vote Cheney out, but if you're a lawmaker you can't change the policy, and you can never really sever the ties the company has with the establishment. Worse, you can't even raise a good case for why they should be removed, because you don't know what the hell they're doing. John McCain made the excellent point in asking for the 9/11 commission to release its findings that "excessive administration secrecy ... feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public's confidence in government." Damn straight. Most of the time the reality always turns out to be better than what you would guess given the secrecy, and so it's unclear why the secrecy was there in the first place. Of course some areas of government require secrecy to do their job, and sometimes private industry is going to be a lot more efficient than government, but as citizens I think we shouldn't be so eager to promote efficiency in favor of being able to know what our government is doing and to make changes accordingly, as seems to be the trend recently. We also shouldn't be so eager to throw up our hands at the thought of reforming government inefficiency and simply surrender the job to the private sector.