Retail government

Dateline NEW CASTLE, Del. — Volunteers with Operation Air Conditioner today are mailing 500 pairs of combat boots to American troops serving in Iraq. After today's shipment, the ad hoc nonprofit group will have shipped about 3,600 pairs of the desert-ready boots to U.S. service men and women.

Operation AC started in 2003 when Frankie Mayo received a letter from her son, an MP serving in Iraq, complaining about the summer heat there. She bought an air conditioner and shipped it to his unit. Things kind of snowballed from there as Mayo realized that other units serving in Iraq had a similar need. She started raising more money and buying more air conditioners. With the help of a growing number of volunteers, Operation AC has shipped about 8,000 air conditioners and 14,000 heaters for the troops. The group has raised and spent about $2.3 million — with $300,000 of that going for postage and shipping costs and the rest used to purchase the equipment.

Edward Kenney of The [Del.] News Journal has the whole story.

REACTION #1:

Frankie Mayo is a hero. Donating to Operation Air Conditioner is money well-spent and a good way to "support the troops."

That's only, of course, for those who are really interested in supporting the troops and not just in giving themselves the warm fuzzies by putting an ugly magnet on their SUV and thinking that this somehow helps in a meaningful way and is not simply a sad and desperate attempt to make themselves feel better about their own insubstantial patriotism by maligning that of others, i.e., those others who do not have such a sticker on their own vehicles.

REACTION #2:

What the …? Combat boots? The U.S. military needs to rely on private charity and civilian volunteers to supply the troops with combat boots?

Apparently $87 billion + $80 billion isn't enough to pay for combat boots. Apparently the Department of Defense, despite having a budget larger than the defense budgets of the rest of the entire world combined, can't afford to keep it's soldiers shod. Maybe they could've if they hadn't, you know, misplaced $8.8 billion. (More good news from Iraq: U.S. officials are fairly confident they know what happened to 90 percent of the $87 billion they've spent there.)

I'm glad Operation AC is helping out, but, again, combat boots? Isn't this really something the military ought to be supplying on its own? And if it's not, shouldn't some officers be going all Matthew Broderick in Glory, trashing supply closets and tearing up paychecks until their troops are properly equipped with decent shoes?

Charitable efforts like Operation AC have built-in limitations and inefficiencies. Specifically, they end up paying retail for everything.

This is the canned-food-drive model. Canned food drives are great. It's nice to get disparate members of the community pitching in to restock the shelves at the local pantry. But all those donated cans were purchased at retail prices, which means the total cost of restocking those shelves was a lot higher than it needed to be considering the volume of goods. That cost difference is, in essence, a subsidy the charity is paying to the local supermarkets. (That subsidy helps to explain why those supermarkets are always so enthusiastic to support and promote the canned food drives.)

Operation AC has gotten big enough and garnered/generated enough publicity that they probably get a decent price on air conditioners and heaters. But what about those nice new Altama boots the volunteers worked hard to ship today?

One hopes the shoemaker offers the nonprofit a bulk and/or charitable discount. But corporations rarely do such things without milking the gesture for as much positive PR as possible. The company Web site isn't very up to date, but there's no press release about donated boots. Only investor-oriented releases like this one boasting of Altama's $19 million boot contract with the military. (Apparently the DoD is buying some combat boots — just not enough of them.)

The point here is that relying on charities to supply the troops at retail prices is a stupid, inefficient, wasteful and dangerous way to run a war. This hardly compares to some of the larger, deadlier consequences of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's epic incompetence, but it's one more item for the list.

The fiscally prodigal Bush Administration might not understand my complaint about the wastefulness of paying retail. It is, for this administration, a matter of official policy. Bush's prescription drug bill, for example, made it illegal for the government to negotiate for lower prices despite becoming the largest single consumer of prescription medicines on the planet. The canned-food-drive principle helps explain that multi-billion dollar squandering of the taxpayers' money. But where supermarkets might benefit from a few hundred dollars as an unintended side effect, the billions that pharmaceutical companies will reap as their taxpayer-funded subsidy is by no means unintended.

And but so anyway — our soldiers don't have freaking combat boots?

  • Peter

    The article does say desert-ready combat boots. Maybe standard issue army combat boots date from the Cold War era, and are tundra-ready, made for tramping through Siberia; they’d be unbearable in the Iraqi summer. It wouldn’t surprise me.

  • Ab_Normal

    So, if the Army is sending them to Iraq, isn’t the Army responsible for making the *right* boots available, even if only for purchase by the troops? *boggle*

  • Jordin Kare

    It’s always been pretty common for soldiers to be able to get better personal equipment on the open market than they get from the Army, partly because the Army has such a long procurement cycle, and partly because stuff it buys has to meet zillions of requirements, many of which are probably irrelevant in any particular case. As I recall, soldiers in Vietnam used to buy their own AR-15 rifles (the civilian rifle the M-16 is based on) because the “minor changes” the Army made to the AR-15 design made the M-16 much more likely to jam in jungle conditions. Back in Desert Storm, the favorite gift was a GPS receiver, because the Army hadn’t ever envisioned being able to buy GPS receivers for a couple of hundred bucks, and had bought only a comparative handful of indestructible multi-thousand-dollar mil-spec receivers.
    That doesn’t excuse the current Army from blame for screwing up on supplies (especially really critical things like body armor), but it does explain why soldiers might prefer the Operation AC boots to their standard “wearable from -40 F to 120F” ones.

  • Peatey

    from Glory (1989):
    [Col. Shaw approaches Rawlins after having Trip horse-whipped for deserting]
    Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Mr. Rawlins… this morning, I… it would be a great help to me if I could talk to you from time to time about the men. That’s all.
    [turns to leave]
    John Rawlins: Shoes, sir.
    Colonel Robert G. Shaw: I beg your pardon?
    John Rawlins: The men need shoes, Colonel.
    Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Yes, I’ve been after the quartermaster for some time.
    John Rawlins: No, sir. Now. The boy ran off to find him some shoes, Colonel. He wants to fight. Same as the rest of us. More, even.

  • Susan

    They probably have foreign-made boots that are crap. Wouldn’t that be a surprise.

  • MrProliferation

    In addition to historical examples, in WWII Pacific Marines used to buy Tommy Guns and bring them from home because they were way better than the non-automatic rifles they got from the government.
    I would caution on the prescription drugs, though. I work at Veterans Affairs, which has a discount drug buying system (the only one allowed in federal law), and there’s a lot of evidence that allowing the government to buy drugs at a discount just means the price for the rest of the market gets pumped up dramatically to make up for the shortfall.
    While I would love to see the government get drugs for seniors at a lower price, the pharm. business would just make up the money by charging everyone else who is not a senior citizen an exorbitantly higher price, which in the end may be a cure worse than the disease. The bottom line to seeing a drop in drug prices is weakening intellectual property law, which will never happen.

  • Terry Karney

    Hrmn…
    I went in Mar. 2003, and the supply of uniforms and boots was short. We actually had a session of the oft described basic training scene where a pile of boots is tossed out and one finds the pair which best fits (this is no longer the case. I spent 45 minutes being fitted for my first pairs of combat boots, and I miss them, now that they are dead and gone).
    I had to take a size too-large; and narrow, because they fit best.
    The other problem is the soles. That pale/dark brown rubberr is too frangible. Reports out of Afghanistan, as reported in Army Times, had them crumbling under the wear. Seems karst was too rought for them.
    These days deploying troops get two-pair, but the soles still wear out (God forbid I get sent back, I am taking the time and spending the money to get my issue boots re-soled before we leave).
    So those are probably being sent to replace boots that are falling apart.
    TK

  • I wanna live in a blue state…

    “Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at one-hundred-and-forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than one-hundred-and-forty-five millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.”

  • Jon H

    If there comes a day when US forces are reduced in Iraq, it would be a nice thing if these air conditioners were given to Iraqis who could really use them, rather than brought home to the US.

  • R. Mildred

    Wouldn’t a working electrical grid/plumbing be just as good though?
    An A/C, even in Iraq, is a luxury item, people have existed in the region without the things for millenia, and it deprives any enterprising Iraqi A/C salesman of revenue.
    I’m really torn about whether or not I agree with you Jon, it strikes me as a case of giving chocolate bars to the starving though and the returning troops will certainly not come back to a better country than the one they left.

  • Jon H

    “An A/C, even in Iraq, is a luxury item, people have existed in the region without the things for millenia, and it deprives any enterprising Iraqi A/C salesman of revenue.”
    True, but only in cases where the A/C recipient could have afforded an air conditioner of their own. It shouldn’t be that hard to find candidates who could not afford one. (And I’d bet some of the A/C machines would wind up in the inventory of those A/C salesmen, purchased for a fraction of the regular wholesale price, but sold at full price, and thus still profitable. Some people would be poor enough that they’d prefer the cash.)
    Air conditioners would also be good to have in poorly-equipped schools or medical facilities, where their money would be better spent on books and paper, or medical supplies, respectively.
    The worst-case scenario would be if the troops just trashed their hand-me-down free air conditioners, rather than paying to bring them back.

  • Beth

    Wouldn’t a working electrical grid/plumbing be just as good though?
    I think a working electrical grid would kind of be a prerequisite. Jon’s not saying A/C’s are the best presents soldiers could possibly give the Iraqis, but if the soldiers don’t need them anymore and the Iraqis can use them, why not?
    If I were starving and someone gave me a candy bar, I wouldn’t complain because they were giving me a treat when I needed a solid meal. I’d gladly accept whatever food they had on hand.

  • Lila

    The hospital idea is very good.

  • drieux just drieux

    Hum… if america had been attacked on 09/11/2001 and we still had not worked out the basic logistical problems by 03/2003 – HUM… could there be a bit of a planning and organizational problem in the process that should be making americans completely FRIGHTENED at what is STILL going on.
    Or is that the real problem here.
    Americans prefer to pay lip service, make a few charitable contributions, like giving away a few seats to the Super Bowl.. and that’s all that they need to do to do their part for ‘the war effort’.

  • animus

    there’s a lot of evidence that allowing the government to buy drugs at a discount just means the price for the rest of the market gets pumped up dramatically to make up for the shortfall.
    This is already happening. Elsewhere in the world, governments use their purchasing power to hold prices down, and the US price gets pumped up dramatically. If the US were to join in trying to hold prices down, then you guys wouldn’t have to subsidise the rest of us.
    Of course, if this ever looked likely, the pharmas would just buy a few more congresspeople and stop it…

  • Frankie Mayo

    It isn’t a surprise to me that you people just don’t get it. Yes I get everything I buy for troops at a huge discount. The boots are $61.95 a pair for me and $99 for everyone else. I do this not because the Army can’t get boots to the troops, but rather because these are the best made boots there are. We send the best AMERICAN MADE socks to go with them, made by Americans in North Carolina. You all feel real good about yourselves with your ‘support the troops’ magnets on your cars. The air conditioners – well turn up your oven to 145 degrees and stick your head in it and take a breath – that is what it is like for our troops in Iraq in the summer. I know what I’m doing….do you?