Fair warning to foreign lobbyists and defense contractors: POGO’s just added some major firepower to its national security team. In June we were joined by Ben Freeman—a corruption-busting, night-lecturing, Floridian who earned his Ph.D. in political science from Texas A&M University. The Watercooler recently caught up with Doc Freeman to find out how he wound up here, what it was like to write a book, and where his allegiances were in the NBA Finals, among other things. Read on, but don’t forget to follow Ben on Twitter.
Watercooler: What got you interested in working for POGO and in the realm of national security?
Ben Freeman: POGO was an easy choice. I’ve always been very patriotic and concerned with making our government the best it can possibly be. POGO has been doing precisely this for 30 years. What I like most about POGO is that the organization doesn’t just identify problems and complain about them, it tells policymakers and American taxpayers precisely how the system can be fixed. This is an invaluable service to America and a very noble calling. POGO’s task is not easy because it often works to change entrenched systems filled with very powerful people that thrive within those systems. POGO does what’s right regardless of who’s doing what’s wrong, and that makes me immensely proud to be a part of POGO.
I study national security and U.S. foreign policy because America enjoys phenomenal influence over the entire world—more so than any other country ever has. The flip-side is that with globalization, technological advances, and heightened political interconnectedness, America is also more open to foreign influence than it has ever been. So, it’s vital for us, as Americans, to be concerned about national security and to consider the impact of U.S. foreign policy on other countries. There’s just so much at stake on both counts that it’s impossible for me to NOT investigate national security and U.S. foreign policy.
Watercooler: What brought you to Texas?
Ben Freeman: I ended up in Texas because I fell in love with studying politics. I’m one of those crazy people who actually loves numbers, math, and statistics, so I was drawn to the Political Science Department at Texas A&M University, which has a top-notch quantitative methods program. Although I definitely missed Florida, where I was born and raised, Texas was awesome! Some of the greatest people in the world live in the great state of Texas. Aggieland and Austin, where I lived for a year, will always have a place in my heart.
Watercooler: Why did you decide to write a book, and what is it about? How was the experience of writing a book like?
Ben Freeman: At A&M, I was doing some work on U.S. foreign aid—the amount of economic assistance we give to other countries—and I kept noticing some very odd patterns. Basically, we give a lot of aid to a lot of countries that we probably shouldn’t. Something was missing from conventional, academic theories of aid allocations—lobbying by foreign governments. So, I wrote a dissertation explaining how this foreign lobbying drives U.S. aid allocations.
In effect, other countries actually buy aid, and the return on investment is enough to make Bernie Madoff blush. Estimates vary, but on average countries can expect $50 in additional aid for every dollar they spend lobbying for it, all else equal. My book, The Foreign Policy Auction (due out late 2011/early 2012), is based upon this, but it goes much, much deeper into foreign lobbying in America. The most sensational part of the book is that I was able to find dozens of instances where lobbyists made campaign contributions to representatives on the very same day they met with the reps to discuss their foreign clients’ issues. At the very least, these exchanges reek of quid pro quo; at worst, they’re illegal because the [Federal Elections Commission] FEC prohibits campaign contributions from foreign nationals.
In case you can’t tell, I LOVED writing the book! Obviously a very solitary task and I often wished I had someone else around simply so I could jump up and say, “Look at this! Can you believe this sh*t?! WTF?!” Research tourettes aside, I truly enjoyed exposing the rampant corruption that surrounds foreign lobbying in America. Hopefully, readers will share my enthusiasm and outrage, then we’ll work together to change policy and better insulate policymakers from corrupt foreign influence.
Watercooler: What’s the biggest difference between living in Texas and living in DC?
Ben Freeman: $8 beer. Are you kidding me?!?! In Texas I could, literally, get entire pitchers of good beer (Shiner, oh how I miss thee!) for less than $8.
Watercooler: Favorite place in the city?
Ben Freeman: Tough question. I’m such a patriotic guy, so I get awed just by walking down the street. It’s crazy just to be strolling along and see all the embassies, national museums, and even the White House! If I had to pick a single spot it might be the Jefferson Memorial. The location is great because it’s on the water and a great spot for watching sunsets, and the inscriptions on the interior walls rock—“Almighty God hath created the mind free…”—love it! Ok, I might be a nerd.
Watercooler: Team LeBron or Team Nowitzki?
Ben Freeman: Gotta go for Dirk and Big-D on this one. Though I’m from Florida, I’m a huge fan of the Orlando Magic, which are rivals of and in the same division as the Heat. Plus, many of my Aggie friends are from Dallas, so I had to cheer for the Mavs. That said, I believe LeBron is one of—if not the most—skilled basketball players ever. Hopefully, this will bring him back down to Earth and he’ll come back humble and hungry next year.