Fire Mary Barra

Early last winter, the Justice Department fined Toyota $1.2 billion for failing to disclose a possible electronic defect that turned out not to exist. Shortly afterward, it became clear that General Motors had spent years covering up an all-too-real defect that, by the Reuters count, killed seventy-four people. If $1.2 billion was the proper fine for regulatory error, the fine for GM’s grotesque disregard of human life should be far higher. And there should be clawback of the roughly $145 million in bonuses conferred on Richard Wagoner, Ed Whitacre, Dan Akerson, and Mary Barra, CEOs during the period of the cover-up. Wagoner got an $8 million severance even though the company lost $65 billion under his leadership; he also made the biggest auto blunder since the Edsel, investing billions in the Hummer brand fiasco. CEOs say their extravagant paydays are justified because the buck stops with them: then, when something goes wrong, they claim they knew nothing and had no responsibility. Yet after running what the company’s own report called a management culture of “incompetence and neglect,” GM’s CEOs keep the money they awarded themselves.

Cleaner air later

The White House has unveiled commendable fuel-efficiency standards for automakers—but the rules will not become strict until after Barack Obama leaves office. Whether they ever actually take effect, only time will tell. For now, the government-favored GM continues to build such monstrosities as a fifteen-mpg Camaro and a fourteen-mpg Escalade, both of which emit ten tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Religious criminals belong in jail

Recently Pope Francis told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that 8,000 priests—about 2 percent of the Roman clergy—are pedophiles. The first step in recovery is to admit the problem, so this is progress. The number ought to shock. There are bad apples in every organization, but could it really be that 2 percent of elementary schoolteachers or camp counselors grope or rape kids? In the United States, about half a percent of men are registered sex offenders. This suggests clergy are four times more likely to be sex offenders than adult men in general.

The Vatican has said the Catholic Church has paid $2.5 billion in civil settlements involving the sexual abuse of children. But almost none of the priests’ names have been reported to law enforcement—meaning that, unlike other kinds of rapists, godly rapists don’t face prison time. Why should there be no prosecution of crimes by clergy? If a priest were raped, the church would be outraged if the offender were only assigned a period of prayer and penance.

Since 2002, Bernard Law, former head of the Boston archdiocese, has lived in Rome to avoid answering Massachusetts charges regarding obstruction of justice for child rapes during his administration. Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, defrocked for sexually abusing children, faces only a Vatican City tribunal. They and the thousands of child-abusing priests who hide from the law are doing something both morally wrong and cowardly. The Christ-like act would be to surrender and accept the consequences.

BP can’t stop spills of oil or money

BP is being bilked in the distribution of Deepwater Horizon settlement money—poetic justice for an arrogant company that killed workers and thumbed its nose at the environment. It is a double dose of poetic justice that for all its power and pounds sterling BP was too dumb to realize that Louisiana’s Napoleonic-rooted civil code is notoriously crooked. The company freely agreed to a distribution procedure that was just asking the Louisiana bar to pick BP’s pocket. Other beneficiaries include the New York Times and the Washington Post, which have received millions of dollars’ worth of full-page BP ads whining about the bilking.

Use Amazon to order an X-47B

Defense-bill markup time in Washington annually leads to military contractors purchasing local advertising. The Northrop Grumman X-47B was touted in Post ads, while the news station WTOP ran spots extolling the P-8 antisubmarine aircraft. Military funding ads feature flag waving and misrepresentation. Boeing bought full pages declaring that ending construction of the EA-18G electronic warfare jet would “leave the U.S. Navy without future Growlers.” Classic half-truth: the Navy already has 100 of the planes, more than needed for any contingency. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, defense contracting is the last refuge of crony capitalism.

At the start of a defense budget cycle, the White House and the Pentagon propose dramatic cuts. Once members of Congress have maxed out campaign donations and promotional appearances at military bases, they add back everything, a process known on the Hill as “plus-up.”

The United States has ten supercarriers—versus zero for the rest of the world. Five years ago the Enterprise, the oldest carrier in the fleet—christened in the Eisenhower administration—was slated for decommissioning. Congress insisted on a $662 million plus-up. Even afterward, the Enterprise was barely functional, and now she is being scrapped, the extra money pure waste. When this budget cycle kicked off, the White House proposed to dry-dock the George Washington, leaving the United States with a 9-0 advantage over the rest of the world, with two super-advanced supercarriers under construction. House and Senate members plussed-up the Washington. That will keep the Austrian navy in check!

Important procurement fights concern the Air Force’s A-10 antitank plane, the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS), and the Army’s years-long bungling of the need for modern armor. The A-10 has been praised in these pages, and in James Fallows’s 1982 National Defense—a book that has stood the test of time well—for being a relatively inexpensive, reliable jet based on rugged low tech. Its design is dated, but proven: in Iraq and Afghanistan, the plane performed well. Soldiers love the A-10 because its mission is close-air support of Army and Marine units in battle. The Air Force dislikes the A-10 for the same reason. Flyboys want to soar high in the sky, not come down to the deck to aid grunts.

Now the Air Force proposes to retire the A-10, leaving the United States without a close-support jet. Getting rid of the A-10 would allow the Air Force to argue that the F-35 is needed for the air-to-ground role—though this plane was designed for air-to-air missions. The F-35 is the Air Force’s number-one funding priority, and the treasure chest of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor.

Adjusting for inflation, F-35 program cost has grown 71 percent in the past decade, to $400 billion, the largest defense contract ever. Yet the F-35 sputters in trials; in July, F-35s were grounded after one caught fire on the runway. The F-35 has been in production for eight years, but still is not ready for combat. The Air Force so yearns to rationalize blank checks for this clunker—it’s the Spruce Goose of stealth—that the two-star James Jones told a congressional committee that if the service doesn’t win permission to junk the A-10, it will respond by retiring all B-1 bombers.

As the Air Force made known that it would go to the mat for F-35 money, Lockheed Martin’s stock price soared from $115 to $170. Defenders of the blank checks include New Hampshire Senators Kelly Ayotte (Republican) and Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat), because the Granite State won some F-35 subcontracts—showing that pork transcends both party and gender.

As for the Army, its M1 main tank and M2 light tank need to be replaced: both are too heavy for likely uses, and lack long-range weapons. The Army threw billions out the window on an advanced-tank project, the Future Combat System, that never led to hardware. A successor, the Ground Combat Vehicle, faces cancellation. Pentagon procurement is so badly mismanaged that half of the world’s defense spending occurs in the United States, yet modernization of U.S. armor is overdue.

Then there’s the littoral combat ship, which, like the F-35, has persistent technical faults. Lead ships of the class are the Freedom and the Independence, whose names are a lot better than their performance. The LCS is a corvette the Navy began designing a decade ago, to control the Guinea Coast of Africa. This was foresight on the Navy’s part; at the time, the U.S. oil boom had not happened, and military analysts believed the nation would become dependent on African petroleum. Instead oil imports are declining, and the less the United States has to do with Nigeria, the better. Shallow-draft and light on firepower, the LCS is unsuited to the blue-water duties that are the Navy’s core mission. Production has been cut from fifty-two to thirty-two, with further reductions in store.

When the Pentagon’s 2015 budget was released, dropping the planned LCS buy, several pundits wrung their hands that America was becoming weak. The boat is a white elephant! The mainstream media’s grasp of military affairs is shown by LCS commentary in another way. For years the Navy has employed a cover story that the purpose of the LCS is to chase pirates. Coast Guard cutters are ideal for that role, which does not require the missiles an LCS carries. As best I am aware, no major newspaper reported that the LCS was designed for use off the coast of Africa.

At least the House Armed Services Committee had its priorities in order. The chairman named this year’s defense bill after himself, announcing—I am not making this up—the Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act.

Yet the Pentagon is a model of efficiency compared to …

Standing in the shadow of Georgetown’s magnificent Key Bridge, completed in 1923, the president recently lamented that construction of highways, bridges, and mass transit is stagnant. Obama’s explanation: “We are not spending enough” on infrastructure.

We’re not getting enough for what we do spend. The Tappan Zee Bridge, north of New York City, was completed in 1955, at a cost of $650 million in today’s money; a replacement under construction will cost at least $4 billion, six times as much. The John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge in Louisville, completed in 1963 for $80 million in today’s money, is being replaced with a new bridge costing more than $1 billion, a dozen times as much. A generation ago, the final underground segments of Washington’s Metro system cost $215 million a mile in today’s money. New subway tunnels being dug in Seattle and San Francisco are costing a billion dollars a mile.

Not far from the White House is a light-rail project—the Purple Line for Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s insanely overpriced at $150 million per mile for aboveground construction on land the relevant government authorities already own. Also near the White House, Metro’s Silver Line expansion is costing $245 million per mile for one very complicated flyover but otherwise routine aboveground work.

In addition to being insanely expensive, contemporary government infrastructure efforts are ridiculously slow. Repaving three miles of River Road, a commuter artery into the nation’s capital, is scheduled to take about a year. A pedestrian underpass is being built to allow people to walk from a Metro stop to the Bethesda Naval Hospital without having to dodge traffic on a busy thoroughfare. Slated to cost $68 million and take four years—for a walkway!—the project is everything that’s wrong with modern government-run infrastructure work in a nutshell.

Part of the reason for high cost and glacial tempo is union work rules that are designed to slow construction. Federal law generally requires project labor agreements (once called Davis-Bacon rules) that mandate maximum hiring coupled to minimum pace. Yet Europe’s strong unions do not prevent cost-effective infrastructure construction. The new East London line extension rail project will cost $85 million per mile, or barely more than half the price of the Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C., though London’s congestion makes the city among the most difficult places in the world for heavy engineering.

Part of the problem is that when the federal government is paying for a locally managed project, the incentive is to drag it out and keep funny money flowing. The East London contracts involved substantial financial penalties for delay; in the U.S., federally backed mass transit contracts all but award prizes for delay.

Liberals have trouble facing up to the bloated cost of infrastructure in the U.S. because they can’t admit when government runs things poorly: whatever the problem, the solution must always be more spending. The inability of federally backed projects to be reasonably priced and on time discredits government. Rather than ask for more money to distribute, Obama should roll up his sleeves and make government construction spending efficient.

Shoot ’em in the head

Botched chemical executions in Arizona and Oklahoma have caused condemned men—both monsters who murdered the helpless—to die moaning in pain. The Supreme Court can’t make up its mind whether chemical execution is cruel in constitutional terms. A Utah state lawmaker was scorned by popular opinion for saying the firing squad is more humane than the lethal cocktail. Only eight states still use the chair, which causes horrific suffering.

Killing can be justified if to defend self or others. The incarcerated pose no threat; for that reason, capital punishment is unjust. Yet if there is to be capital punishment, let’s shoot ’em in the head.

Being shot in the head is the fastest way to die, thus is the least inhumane form of execution. Firing squads aim for the heart, so death takes a moment. With a shot to the head there is no suffering, life just ends. Sure, brains splatter everywhere, but let’s not get all squeamish. Shoot death row convicts in the head, and televise executions to maximize the deterrent effect.

I am not saying this in “modest proposal” terms, but, rather, in earnest. Prosecutors and many voters want those who commit mortal sins executed in some bloodless, genteel manner that allows society to wash its hands. If executions were by a shot to the head, and anyone could watch, support for capital punishment would evaporate.

Nowhere to go but up

America’s space program continues to lack vision. Officials talk vaguely of a manned Mars flight, but that’s out of the question with current propulsion technology. A pretty basic Mars mission would weigh about 4,000 tons at departure from low earth orbit. That’s the mass of a Perry-class frigate, and the U.S. is not sending a frigate to Mars anytime soon. Putting those 4,000 tons into orbit would require the launching of thirty Saturn V-class rockets. The entire Apollo moon program entailed twelve Saturn V launches.

NASA space science (probes, telescopes, earth study) is going well, but manned concepts remain aimless—astronauts taking each other’s blood pressure on the Space Station, whose achievements are, ahem, we’ll get back to you. A reasonable way to prioritize NASA would be the following: space science, propulsion research, and work on an asteroid defense. Asteroid defense sounds like a bad Bruce Willis movie, but in the last twenty years it’s been discovered that there are far more “near-earth objects” than previously thought. The count is 11,143 as I write this, two-thirds of them located in the last decade. New research shows that deadly space strikes have been uncomfortably recent. The Tunguska event was 1908; if that rock had hit a major city instead of Siberia, loss of life would have been awful. According to some theories, multiple large objects falling from space caused the sixth century’s mini ice ages: a similar sudden cooling happening today would knock out global agriculture.

The Obama White House has paid some attention to developments in asteroid research, and authorized an initiative to snag an asteroid using an automated probe, transfer the rock to orbit around the moon, then send astronauts to stage an inspection. This seems like a colossal waste of money—but perhaps will get the public enthused about doing something real about the space-rock threat.

Here’s the problem. Orion, the new space capsule that may receive an unmanned test late this year, is barely improved over the Apollo capsule of the 1960s. The Space Launch System (SLS), the new Saturn V-class rocket that Orion would ride atop, is years behind schedule. Recent estimates total the cost of the SLS to be about $5 billion or more per launch, versus $2 billion, in today’s dollars, for Saturn V. The drive, discipline, and optimism that once characterized U.S. space efforts have been replaced with the same featherbedded foot dragging found in federal infrastructure projects. “America’s incoherent space program is unable to accomplish anything other than to spend money,” space historian Robert Zimmerman wrote recently. And with “Space Launch System,” NASA can’t even do names anymore.

Is Afghanistan the new Flanders Field?

Thousands of American service members—and tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians—died as a result of U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. Fallujah, taken by U.S. Marines at terrible cost in 2004, was back in insurgent hands this year. Obama says most U.S. combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The certain result is that there, as in Iraq, the cities and towns that American soldiers died to liberate will return to the control of the very forces we wanted to oust. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot who flew missions above Iraq and Afghanistan, summed up the feeling of many when he said, “We owe it to the Americans who gave their lives for our cause” not to walk away. But do we, in fact, owe this debt to the dead?

The 1915 poem “In Flanders Field”—the most influential literary words since the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—helped convince Britons to support World War I. Written in the voice of those who fell at Ypres, it declares, “Take up our quarrel with the foe / To you from failing hands we throw the torch / If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep.” This reasoning has been used to sustain bloodshed in many nations and contexts. In her outstanding new book Japan 1941, Tokyo-born historian Eri Hotta reports that Hideki Tojo opposed Japanese withdrawal from China—the obstacle to normalization of Washington-Tokyo relations before Pearl Harbor—because he “insisted it was inconceivable for Japan to withdraw troops from China in light of all the heroic souls” already lost there.

War should continue for one reason alone: if it is a moral necessity. Those who died early in World War II had to be followed to the grave by others. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no moral clarity: soldiers can’t even say what their mission is. It was always the case that whatever would happen when we left Iraq and Afghanistan, would happen when we left. Accepting this does not break faith with the fallen. The military dead do not wish to be joined. They have far too much company already.

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Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.