Dave Gilson

Dave Gilson

Senior editor

Senior editor at Mother Jones. Obsessive generalist, word wrangler, data cruncher, pun maker.

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Dave Gilson is a senior editor at Mother Jones. Read more of his stories, follow him on Twitter, or contact him.

Let's Roll: Unraveling the Pentagon's Toilet Paper Budget

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:00 AM EST

They say that an army marches on its stomach, but another measure of a military's power may be how it protects its rear. The prospect of running out of government-issued TP has become a talking point against trimming defense spending. Former Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work cautioned that if sequestration was allowed to continue, "we will go back to 1975 where I'm buying toilet paper for my Marines." Former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) warned of the bad old days before 9/11 when "we did not have enough money to get toilet paper for some of our soldiers." So far, budget austerity does not appear to have seriously affected strategic toilet paper reserves, though the Air Force Academy went into a temporary holding pattern when its tissue procurer was furloughed.

Click here for more on the Pentagon's bottom line.

Just how much TP the military goes through is a bureaucratic enigma. (Grunts in Vietnam were reportedly issued 19 squares a day.) According to contracting data, the Pentagon bought an average of $2 million worth of "toiletry paper products" annually between 2000 and 2010. Yet that figure jumped to $130 million in 2012. A closer look at the numbers reveals about $58 million of paper products you might conceivably wipe with, plus a ton of padding—including $2.7 million of lightbulbs and $9.6 million of canning supplies. Let's just chalk up those to the Pentagon's infamously sloppy accounting system.

So who is getting flush on the military's bathroom budget? In 2012, the Pentagon's—and the government's—biggest vendor of toiletry paper products was Georgia-Pacific, a.k.a. Koch Industries.

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Is This Plane the Biggest Pentagon Rip-Off of All Time?

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 6:27 PM EST

The passage of the Ryan-Murray budget plan in the House sends a strong signal that the Pentagon's budget is basically untouchable. Under the deal, the military's base budget (which doesn't include supplemental funding for overseas operations and combat) will be restored to around $520 billion next year—more than it got in 2006 and 2007, when the United States was fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Read our full package on the enormous, untouchable Pentagon budget.

As Erika Eichelberger reports, the deal could spell the end of efforts to make the Pentagon budget more efficient, particularly in the realm of procurement and contracting. Exhibit A is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy, high-tech fighter jets that are supposed to do everything from landing on aircraft carriers and taking off vertically to dogfighting and dropping bombs. Faced with sequestration cuts, the Air Force had considered delaying its purchases of the fighters, which are years behind schedule, hugely over budget, and plagued with problems. If the House budget plan becomes law and sequestration is eased for two years, those plans also may be shelved. 

More on the pricey plane with a reputation as the biggest defense boondoggle in history:

  • Rolling out the F-35 originally was expected to cost $233 billion, but now it's expected to cost nearly $400 billion. The time needed to develop the plane has gone from 10 years to 18.
  • Lockheed says the final cost per plane will be about $75 million. However, according to the Government Accountability Office, the actual cost has jumped to $137 million.
  • It was initially estimated that it could cost another $1 trillion or more to keep the new F-35s flying for 30 years. Pentagon officials called this "unaffordable"—and now say it will cost only $857 million. "This is no longer the trillion-dollar [aircraft]," boasts a Lockheed Martin executive.
  • Planes started rolling off the assembly line before development and testing were finished, which could result in $8 billion worth of retrofits.
  • A 2013 report by the Pentagon inspector general identified 719 problems with the F-35 program. Some of the issues with the first batch of planes delivered to the Marines:
    • Pilots are not allowed to fly these test planes at night, within 25 miles of lightning, faster than the speed of sound, or with real or simulated weapons.
    • Pilots say cockpit visibility is worse than in existing fighters.
    • Special high-tech helmets have "frequent problems" and are "badly performing."
    • Takeoffs may be postponed when the temperature is below 60°F.
  • The F-35 program has 1,400 suppliers in 46 states. Lockheed Martin gave money to 425 members of Congress in 2012 and has spent $159 million on lobbying since 2000.
  • Remember this bumper sticker?

And those are fancy, San Francisco foodie cupcakes.

We've got much more on the Pentagon budget here.

The Venn Diagram That Explains How the Ryan-Murray Budget Deal Happened

| Thu Dec. 12, 2013 8:29 PM EST

The House just passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal, signaling an unexpected end to the cycle of budget crises and fiscal hostage-taking. A few weeks ago, such an agreement seemed distant. Sequestration had few friends on the Hill, but the parties could not agree on how to ditch the automatic budget cuts to defense and domestic spending. Republicans had proposed increasing defense spending while taking more money from Obamacare and other social programs, while Democrats said they'd scale back the defense cuts in exchange for additional tax revenue. Those ideas were nonstarters: Following the government shutdown in October, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) called the idea of trading Social Security cuts for bigger defense budgets "stupid."

Which explains why Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray's deal craftily dodged taxes and entitlements while focusing on the one thing most Republicans and Democrats could agree upon: saving the Pentagon budget. Ryan's budget committee previously declared the sequester "devastating to America's defense capabilities." Murray had warned of layoffs for defense workers in her state of Washington as well as cuts to combat training if sequestration stayed in place.

The chart above shows why military spending is the glue holding the budget deal together. It also shows how any remaining opposition to the bill in the Senate may bring together even stranger bedfellows than Ryan and Murray: progressive dove Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and sequestration fan Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

We've got much more coming on military spending and how the Pentagon just dodged a budgetary bullet. Stay tuned.

NRA: Our Elephant Gun Owned by a Guy Who Shot a Baby With an Elephant Gun Is a "Treasure"

| Fri Dec. 6, 2013 5:05 PM EST

In addition to fighting furiously to keep guns in our warm, live hands, the National Rifle Association celebrates guns pried from cold, dead hands in its National Firearms Museum, "one of the world's finest museum collections dedicated to firearms." The museum's Treasure Collection includes everything from Annie Oakley's guns to Dirty Harry's Smith & Wesson. Another item in the trove, which the NRA tweeted about yesterday, is an elephant rifle that belonged to Henry Morton Stanley, the 19th-century British American journalist and "explorer" who marauded through east, southern, and central Africa.

The 22-pound rifle, which fired a quarter-pound of lead with each shot "was considered heavy artillery," explains NRA museum senior curator Doug Wicklund in the clip above. With it, Stanley shot 16 elephants during his 1871 trek in search of the missionary and doctor David Livingstone. Yet the NRA doesn't mention that when he wasn't shooting charismatic megafauna with his elephant guns, Stanley was shooting people with them.

As Stanley related in his own accounts, he repeatedly used his big guns to intimidate and kill people he encountered on his African travels. Here's how he dealt with some of the "savages" who got in the way of his trans-continental journey in 1875:

I discharged my elephant rifle, with its two large conical balls, into their midst…My double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot, was next discharged with terrible effect, for, without drawing a single bow or launching a single spear, they retreated up the slope of the hill…

Twice in succession I succeed in dropping men determined on launching the canoes, and seeing the sub-chief who had commanded the party that took the drum, I took deliberate aim with my elephant rifle at him. That bullet, as I have since been told, killed the chief and his wife and infant, who happened to be standing a few paces behind him, and the extraordinary result had more effect on the superstitious minds of the natives than all previous or subsequent shots.  

On getting out of the cove we saw two canoes loaded with men coming out in pursuit from another small cove. I permitted them to come within one hundred yards of us, and this time I used the elephant rifle with explosive balls. Four shots killed five men and sank the canoes.

The final body count of this incident, Stanley claimed, was 14 dead and 8 wounded, presumably including the baby and its mother. Due to tales such as this, Stanley gained a reputation for indiscriminate slaughter. George Bernard Shaw described him as a "wild-beast man, with his elephant gun, and his atmosphere of dread and murder." Fellow expeditionist Richard Burton observed, "Stanley shoots negroes [sic] as if they were monkeys." Though the elephant gun in the NRA's collection is likely not the one fired in the passage above, it's not surprising that the gun lobby isn't volunteering the larger story behind the trigger-happy owner of this "special treasure."

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