The government is lying to you.

In other news, water remains wet and the sky blue. The fact that the federal government isn’t entirely honest with its citizens shouldn’t surprise anyone - we all know it. It’s why we elect politicians who also claim to distrust the very government they want to run, and it’s how those in office manage to keep the country divided on wedge issues instead of focusing on governmental sleights-of-hand.

Distraction is, after all, the #1 tool of any good stage magician…or politician.

It’s why they exploit emotional issues instead of focusing on pragmatic reality. It’s easier to get people riled up with a personal issue like religious freedom than it is to get them passionate about something like discretionary spending, for example. So they distract and mislead us, and people vote against their interests because emotion always wins over cold logic. We’re not Vulcans.

Of course, they can’t completely ignore things like the national budget, but they only ever really talk about it in very careful, measured ways that tend to push emotional buttons more than they engage the critical thinking skills of the American public.

They love to talk about the national debt, for instance. It’s always a big issue, even though most people don’t understand it at all - and it’s not because people are stupid or incapable of getting it. It’s by design. Make it confusing and keep the numbers large enough, and budgetary concerns become a kind of ineffable, intangible concept to simply be opposed by reflex rather than simple math to be understood.

In 2015, the national debt was over $18 trillion, which is a huge amount of money that’s almost impossible to visualize in any context most people will have any familiarity with. We can handle numbers that hit closer to home. Talk in hundreds or thousands of dollars, even millions, and we can process that as real money. But once you get into billions and trillions of dollars, things get real theoretical, real fast.

So the government will talk about how awful the national debt is, and about how we really ought to do something about it - while never actually doing very much about it. In fact, more money was lost to tax breaks in 2015 than all the money that was spent from the entire discretionary fund, and far, far more than was spent paying interest on the debt. (In government circles, tax breaks are actually called “tax expenditures”, because choosing to give up tax revenue is functionally the same as spending money they already have - at the end of the day, there’s less cash in the treasury.)

A blank US goverment check with selective focus on the statue of liberty

Wait. I’m already talking about discretionary spending before I’ve even explained what that means. Maybe I’d make a good politician, after all!

The national budget is divided into three parts: discretionary spending, mandatory spending, and paying interest on the national debt. Basically, discretionary spending needs to be approved by Congress each year for things like defense funding, while mandatory spending is pretty much already baked-in to the budget through existing programs, like Social Security and Medicare.

Mandatory spending takes up the biggest chunk of the national budget, followed by discretionary spending, and paying interest on the debt. However, despite all the bluster and focus on the debt, paying the interest on it only accounts for a tiny sliver of the national budget. In 2015, $229 billion was spent on paying the interest, which was only 6% of total spending.

But you wouldn’t know that by listening to the politicians, who make it sound like the debt is crippling the economy.

It isn’t. (Remember those tax breaks I mentioned? They cost the government about $1.22 trillion in 2015.)

The remaining 94% of the $3.8 trillion spent that year was split between mandatory spending ($2.5 trillion, or 65%) and discretionary spending ($1.1 trillion, or 29%). But now we’re back to talking about trillions of dollars again, which doesn’t really help anyone.

So let’s break it down into smaller numbers. They’ll still be huge, but it’ll show you where the money actually goes - which is more than any politician will do for you.

Since mandatory spending is a lot harder to change (just look at the battle over healthcare, for example), we’ll focus on discretionary spending. Remember, this is the spending that has to be approved by Congress each year, so funding is a lot more fluid and malleable. (Or buyable, as the case may be. But more on that in a minute.)

The biggest part of the discretionary fund is taken up by defense spending, which is something every politician gives priority to because to suggest we cut defense spending is to commit political suicide. We all want out government to at least keep us safe, after all, and nobody likes the thought of closing bases and defunding our military.

But here’s the thing they don’t tell you: it’s entirely possible to cut defense spending without closing any bases or discharging any troops.


Every year, billions of dollars are funneled into the pockets of private defense contractors instead of the U.S. military. These contractors provide everything from weapons systems to information technology, and they do it at a premium price.

In fact, private contractors routinely overcharge the Department of Defense (DoD) for things like consumer products and spare parts as a matter of normal business operations. Think of it in terms of Judd Hirsch’s line from Independence Day: “You don't actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?”

That joke is not entirely without merit. While no one is actually pretending to spend $20,000 on a hammer or $30,000 on a toilet seat, DoD does routinely pay outrageous prices to private contractors for simple items that should cost a whole lot less than they do.

That should cost idea is so important that it’s even become official policy. Probably the most hated man in the Pentagon (by defense contractors) is a guy named Shay Assad, the Director of Defense Pricing. Assad is the man who holds the contractors accountable for what things should cost, rather what they will cost or do cost.

This report on spare-parts spending from the DoD Office of the Inspector General (OIG) highlights the problem. Out of 32 DoD OIG spending reports issued since 1998, it found that the DoD obtained a fair and reasonable price in only 3 of them.

Of course, in the Information Age, this goes beyond spare parts and commercially-available components. Charging the DoD orders of magnitude more for a part they could literally walk into a store and buy off the shelf for a fraction of the price also applies to software and technology.

The common belief among people is that the alphabet agencies develop their own systems. They don’t. Not anymore. They used to - from encryption to surveillance and intelligence, agencies like NSA and CIA worked in-house and relied heavily on drawing personnel from the military. However, that’s changed over the years.

Today, most intelligence systems are developed and maintained by private citizens working for private contractors. These are not military personnel, or CIA spooks. We’re talking about normal, everyday people walking around with a security clearance that allows them to work on sensitive projects and handle classified information as part of their jobs, despite having absolutely no need-to-know regarding any of the documents they have access to.

Man monitoring cctv cameras in modern control room

To give you an idea of just how pervasive this practice has become, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) determined that, out of the 4.2 million people who currently hold a security clearance, nearly as many non-government private contractors hold the nation’s highest clearances as government employees do.

There are several reasons for this shift from keeping things in-house (and secure) among the intelligence agencies to contracting them out to private companies and citizens, but I’m only going to focus on the biggest one: cybersecurity.

By way of example, let’s take a quick look at NSA, which was particularly ill-prepared for the Information Age, drowning as it was in vast amounts of data it wasn't able to process due to both a lack of personnel and adequate filtering systems to help find relevant intelligence needles in multiple haystacks the size of Kansas.

Mired in outmoded ways of thinking even as the internet began coming into its own in the ‘90s, NSA still held to the traditional intelligence sources and data mining techniques it had spent decades perfecting. It’s hard to fault them for that, though. Not many people saw where technology was going to take us in the early years of personal computers and dial-up modems, so seeing NSA dismiss them is really no different than newspapers thinking no one would ever read the day’s headlines on a computer screen. And we all know how that turned out.

Of course, there were some in the agency who could tell which way the wind was blowing - there always are - but they fought an uphill battle against an entrenched hierarchy wholly committed to tradition. A small group of these forward-thinking employees even went so far as to develop a program in the late ‘90s designed specifically to tackle NSA’s biggest problem: drowning in irrelevant data. The specifics of how the program worked aren’t important, though. The fact that it did work, however, is very relevant - especially since the program was discontinued in favor of a much, much more expensive program to be developed by a consortium of private contractors led by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) - a program which ultimately proved ineffective and was eventually declared an absolute failure.

The program that actually worked, though? That one was shut down three weeks before September 11, 2001.

Now, before you go putting on your 9/11 conspiracy theory hats, it’s important to note that this was just business as usual. The fact that the existing program was shut down just before 9/11 is only a tragic coincidence. Programs are discontinued all the time, and with the increased emphasis on private contractors, they’re often replaced by outsourced projects. There’s a revolving door between the DoD and defense contractors that allows and encourages this: employees from one move over to the other all the time, then contracts are awarded to the companies they’ve either already worked at, or will walk into once they leave government. It's nothing new.

15th Annual Commemoration Ceremony Held At WTC Site For 9/11 Terror Victims
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SAIC, the company that developed the failed NSA program, has been around since 1969. Booz Allen Hamilton was founded way back in 1914, and climbed into bed with the government in the ‘40s. Northrop Grumman began as two companies in the 1930s, before merging into the contracting powerhouse it is today in 1994.

The point is, don’t read too much into the timing. These things happen every day, and blame for the failure to foresee and prevent the 9/11 attacks is widespread and systemic. Which is why everything changed on September 11, 2001.

The need to increase our national security was made obvious by the multiple failures of intelligence that led to the horrific attacks, which meant vastly increased defense spending in the post-9/11 world. It also meant an increased reliance on private contractors to help meet the demands of the changing landscape of intelligence. Simply put, there weren’t enough people employed by the government to meet the increased demand, so DoD began leaning on the private sector even more than it had previously.

Which is what led to so many private citizens having so many security clearances today.

This, of course, has its drawbacks. Despite being a former CIA employee, Edward Snowden wasn’t some kind of super spy or anything. He was just an IT geek with a security clearance. That’s all. (Although you wouldn't know that by listening to the guy describe himself.) It’s just that, in order to do his job as a system administrator, he needed full access to the systems he was administrating, because that's how computers work - which is how he managed to copy and leak thousands of NSA documents when he was working for Booz Allen. There are literally hundreds of thousands of potential Edward Snowdens working in the intelligence industry right now: private citizens with security clearances that give them access to some of the country’s most sensitive information.

(Not only that, but one of the dirtiest little secrets of the defense industry is that the contract companies, like all other companies, work to maximize profits by minimizing expenditures - which leads to outsourcing personnel to offshore sub-contractors. This means that, while they might not have direct access to classified material, there are plenty of foreign nationals out there with varying levels of access to our intelligence apparatus as part of their daily jobs. Granted, they’re usually officially limited to minor, non-security roles such as tech support and end-user assistance, but every point of entry into a secure system is, ultimately, a point of entry into a secure system.)

So how does all this wrap back around to how this whole article started? Simple. The government is lying to you.

Fingers crossed

They’re lying to you about the impact of the national debt, and they’re lying to you about where military spending actually goes. They’re lying to you about our national security, and they’re lying to you about their own priorities.

Remember, defense spending comes from the discretionary fund, which Congress has to approve each and every year, so lobbyists and defense contractor insiders rub palms with Senators and Representatives all the time to ensure their programs get funded. A great example of this is Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter: the most expensive military weapons system in history, which is still getting annual funding, despite all of its failures and shortcomings.

When SAIC found itself unable to bid on lucrative new contracts due to Federal Acquisition Regulations that prevented it from bidding on them because of their existing contracts, it simply changed its name to Leidos, which took over as the parent company, then it spun off a new $4 billion unit that retained the original SAIC name. The company was then able to resolve the conflict of interest provisions by moving their conflicting contracts between the two units, and the federal government had no problem with it. Problem solved!

Our tax dollars aren’t going where we think they’re going, and they’re definitely not going where the politicians desperately want us to look. The federal government collected $3.8 trillion in revenue in 2015. Individual income taxes - our money - made up the largest individual portion of revenue, at $1.48 trillion. In contrast, corporate income taxes accounted for only $342 billion, while borrowing only made up $583 billion. Meanwhile, the government gave away $1.22 trillion in tax expenditures - nearly as much money as they took out of our pockets.

While they have us arguing over wedge issues, we could easily fund something like universal healthcare at no additional cost to the taxpayer by trimming the defense spending fat and shoring up those tax expenditures - but it'll never happen, because they want us to think tax breaks create jobs and defense spending means supporting our troops, when they both actually mean the exact opposite. They don't want us to know where that money really goes.

"$20,000 on a hammer. $30,000 on an ashtray."

Even when they spend money on defense to keep us safe, the DoD overpays for goods and services provided almost exclusively by private, for-profit corporations via single source/no-bid contracts, who then employ private citizens the government grants security clearance to. Which is how people like Edward Snowden and Reality Leigh Winner happen, and secrets leak. Our security is compromised. We aren’t made safer.

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In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the American people to keep a careful eye on the military-industrial complex that developed in the post-WWII years. He cautioned us to guard against the “danger that public policy could itself become captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

We didn’t listen. Or, maybe we did, but Eisenhower was just the last one to tell us the truth, and we slowly forgot to pay attention.

Either way, the government is lying to you.

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