Government Outsourcing Conference Engages Hamilton Community

Late on a January afternoon, amid a bitter snowstorm that engulfed Hamilton’s campus, the Dwight Lounge of the Bristol Center was alive with activity. Young men and women gathered in the large space and began to fill the seats that spread out around a large podium. They awaited a conference that would prove to be stimulating, engaging, and at times even lighthearted: "Outsourcing National Security: The Law and Politics of Military Contracting."

After a brief introduction, Cadet First Class Benjamin Joelson of the U.S. Air Force began the discussion with a summary of his paper, “Hyper-Contracting and National Defense: The Wages of Outsourcing in Conflict Zones.” Joelson made it clear that he was not speaking in an official capacity. Though the topic of military outsourcing may seem esoteric and complex, Joelson created an appealing and comprehensible argument about the harmful effects of private organizations on the way in which the United States engages in warfare. Among the most prominent of these private organizations were KBR, an engineering and construction company, and Blackwater, a private military company. The crux of Joelson’s argument lay in the “human toll” of military outsourcing and the instability that a lack of public sector ethics creates in war environments.

According to Joelson, faulty electrical systems in buildings contracted by KBR led to numerous electrocutions of U.S. troops. Blackwater agents have needlessly “sprayed fire” upon Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, killing 17 innocent people. Meanwhile, the Defense Contracting Management Agency, or DCMA, does little toward finding solutions or penalizing companies that generate harmful results.

Joelson argued that the key difference between the public and private sectors is the lack of an ethical code among private corporations. While the military answers to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, companies such as Blackwater face a far lesser threat of penalty for ethical breaches or other forms of misconduct. In essence, military contracting creates an environment in which the quest for economic profit outweighs moral guidelines.

Joelson also mentioned that military contracting has proved to be “politically advantageous” as it creates jobs and opportunities for those who align themselves with a particular candidate. Furthermore, the number of private company agents who are involved in current wars (nearly 250,000) allows for the government to underreport the number of troops who are active or who have died in battle. When contracting is so intertwined with politics, it may become harder to separate it from its more negative effects.

On the other hand, Joelson and others that followed him agreed that eliminating private contracting would be not only unrealistic, but unnecessary. Without some form of private contracting, it would be nearly impossible for the military to properly focus its funds and energy. Rather, the crucial change that must be made lies in the accountability of the private companies that the military hires. That is, the U.S. should focus on making private contracting more stable and dependable, even at the cost of higher taxes.

Joelson made clear that his remarks were his own and in no way reflected the opinions of the U.S. Air Force Academy or any governmental body. His argument was followed by questions taken from a panel of four Hamilton students from Government 338, “American Public Administration.” Their questions probed deeper into Joelson’s proposals, such as prompting more thorough examples of the necessary changes that need to be made.

Following a short break, a panel of three professors from a diverse selection of New York universities discussed the potential solutions to the problems associated with outsourcing, including the need for increased accountability, proposed by Prof. Dennis C. Smith of New York University, and spreading the word about the current outsourcing issues, suggested by Prof. Gwendolyn Dordick of City College of CUNY, who also taught at Hamilton College from 1993-1997.

The conference on outsourcing was not only interesting and informative, but current and very relevant to recent events. The opinions voiced were varied and occasionally even argumentative, but the conversation was constructive and educational, exemplifying Hamilton’s unique ability to bring truly influential speakers to campus.

Student author Esther Malisov '13 is a graduate of The Heschel School.
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