By Kathy Sawyer
THOSE WHO CARP about the high price the Pentagon pays for toilet seats fail to comprehend its role as a crystalizer of American values. It is the ultimate Yuppie bureaucracy, and those prices are not high; they are haute.
The Yuppie -- young urban professional -- who spends $125 for track shoes, or $600 a month for membership in a New York gym, or $1,000 for a Rolex watch, has nothing on Maj. Gen. Bernard L. Weiss. He paid $1,496 for two pliers and thought it was a bargain. They were marked down from $5,096.
What Weiss, director of contracting and manufacturing policy for the U.S. Air Force, bought was a matched set of designer pliers. They are as different from your standard off-the-rack duckbill pliers ($7.61 at the neighborhood hardware store) as Polo shirts are from Sears flannels. They have a small extra notch on the end, a special black oxide finish and an Air Force parts number on the side. For your average KC135 tanker engine mechanic, this is the equivalent of a designer signature on the old backside.
Just as Ford is importing its Yuppie-oriented car line (Merkur) from West Germany to give it the cachet of a foreign label, the Army, after three-quarters of a century, abandoned the all-American Colt .45 for a foreign model. Henceforth its officers will carry the more delicate Italian-made Beretta 9mm "personal defense weapon" or handgun.
True, the 54,000 officials who shop for the Pentagon and those who cater to them fall a little short in the category of entrepreneurial efficiency, which Yuppies are known to value greatly.
But in its zeal to "have it all," the unabashed reach of its expectations, its self-indulgence and last but not least its spending power of $28 million per hour, the U.S. defense establishment embodies the ideals embraced by these pathfinders of the baby-boom generation.
Like the Yuppie, the Pentagon defines itself through its possessions. As in the case of the woman who owns $1,200 worth of pots and pans but eats at a restaurant, it is not totally preoccupied with function, such as how well certain super-sophisticated weapons will perform for users in case of actual hostilities.
If there are occasional excesses, a little compassion is in order. Indeed, compulsive shopping has been identified by mental-health specialists as a new American mental disorder.
It is a form of behavior that, like compulsive gambling or drinking, provides instant gratification for someone starved for love and admiration -- someone who doesn't feel good about himself. Feelings of insecurity or depression are often alleviated by the sense of competence, excitement and control over one's life that comes with buying things, according to the experts.
"Shopping is a secret compulsion that most Americans aren't aware of. It's viewed benignly, but people are using it in an unhealthy way," Dr. William Rader, of Los Angeles, told Newsweek.
One attribute of the compulsive shopper is a certain deviousness, such as the woman who slips dry cleaner's bags over her new clothes in order to slip them into the house undetected. The urge to conceal cost overruns is not so different.
Such a compulsion is one thing when it involves clothes shopping binges such as the one Alison Cowan, 23, fell into during her freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, according to the Newsweek article. Her habit finally overloaded her closet rods to the point that they "came crashing down."
But national security is another matter. Surely a little extremism is no vice when it comes to feeling good about that.
Although discipline, rank consciousness and other military attributes clash on many points with the free-wheeling, egalitarian values of civilian society, in their penchant for acquisition the two have achieved harmony.
Yuppies, of course, are only a minority, albeit a disproportionately influential one. And some argue that the economic hedonism they espouse is no more prevalent today than it ever was.
The Pentagon may simply be pursuing, on behalf of all Americans, one of the most ancient and deep consumer urges -- to invest daringly in a hedge against mortality.
The United States is assuring its people of a designer defense by nurturing its own coast-to-coast mall of arms boutiques, in a creative atmosphere where the artisans are guaranteed profits and not bothered much with having to pay taxes, much as wealthy ruling classes throughout history have coddled their Michelangelo. This system enables the arms designers to focus on their high-tech art, such as Lockheed's proposal for a new military transport jet. The proposal weighed three tons and had to be delivered in a cargo plane.
Is it so surprising that most Americans support President Reagan's vision of the Star Wars defense which, as one official put it, is "now laying track for a spending train to roll along for the next two decades"? Think of the esthetics: hundreds of shiny machines -- pop- up X-ray lasers, satellites, relay mirrors and "smart rocks" in space, in the air and on the ground, working in perfect synchronicity.
With a price tag of $26 billion for the research, the project easily one- ups the old Manhattan Project, which spent less than two-thirds as much producing the first U.S. atomic bombs.
Since the beginning of history, nations have poured their treasure into costly monuments to the collective spirit. Since the military is rivaled only by church, synagogue and university in terms of established, continuous tradition, and it has the disposable income, what better vehicle for the creation of America's monument?
The $2.3 trillion U.S. defense buildup under Reagan, crowned by Star Wars, could be the Great Pyramid of its day. Or put another way, the Fourth Dynasty pharoah, Khufu, whose designer tomb at Giza took 100,000 men 20 years to build (not counting a decade just to build the construction access road) may have been one of the earliest Yuppies.
There is at least one difference. In ancient Egypt, it was the ravages of the future that wore away the monuments. These days, it could well be the other way around.