"Self-licking ice cream cones" and the rentier state
As far as I am aware, the phrase came into usage among knowing observers of the Vietnam War. A self-licking ice cream cone is a programme or policy that costs money and resources [rents] , generating a great deal of activity; produces indicators of its own success, preferably quantitative; but does not actually achieve its announced goals. Indeed, a proper self-licking cone undermines the very purposes for which it was created, while at the same time sucking in ever more resources [rents] from worthy and effective activities.
In the early 1960s, the US Air Force (USAF) advisory mission was trying to expand its role in South Vietnam. For this it required targets that were helpfully supplied by South Vietnamese officers. The targets were labelled “VC arms factory” or “command and control facility”, but were in fact peasant huts or the most prominent building in a village. The fighter bombers would go out and blow up these “structures”. Damage assessments duly reported a high rate of “success” - blown up huts.
To really grow this cone and set the self-licking in motion, an ever expanding list of targets had to be invented.
More targets meant more bombing, and more bombing meant a bigger role for the USAF. The result was more budget, more planes, and career advancement for all concerned.
The only problem [for whom?] was that the bombing was helping lose the war. ...
Today, however, the problem is exponentially worse. Neoliberalism, with its audit culture and fetish for short term quantitative indicators, is a mass production facility for self-licking cones. Everywhere bottom line measures of “efficiency” shape the activities of organisations and determine career advancement, selecting the kind of people and personalities who prosper in the system.
No Child Left Behind is one obvious example, but national politics (the polls and votes are the indicators) could be another, Obamacare will turn out to be another, and so on.
And, oh yeah, the war on terror and the war on drugs. Yay!