Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and respected author on the globalization-age economy, wrote about one of the worst aspects of the economic crisis. He wrote that our corporations and financial institutions had turned their backs on those attitudes and values that have always been our hallmarks for success: hard work, prudent investment and careful saving.In the issue of Harper’s Magazine now on newsstands, former editor Lewis Lapham responds to Friedman succinctly: “You gotta be kidding!” Or possibly his response could be summarized as a question: “What are you smoking?” Lapham’s piece ought to be required reading for anyone charged with restoring order to the chaos Mr. Bush has created and deposited for others to clean up. The article’s sheer fun for the rest of us, so I highly recommend it to all of you. Lapham now occasionally contributes a tight, sardonic and incredibly revealing column, perhaps every third or fourth issue. They alone are worth the price of the magazine. What Lapham does as he blows holes through Friedman’s argument is trace the actual history (as opposed to the official, mythical version) of the building of our great national fortunes. It has always been the case, he demonstrates, that the road to wealth in this society has not been through diligence, investment and savings, but through a much quicker path: outright piracy of the public treasury.It started with the Continental Congress chartering New England sea captains as pirates. The governing body sent them forth to wreak havoc on British shipping and quartermaster contracts for army uniforms, munitions and equipment (always sold to our troops at greatly inflated prices, patriotism never being allowed to interfere with profit). The trend continued with the Transcontinental Railroad sweetheart contracts, which turned over vast tracts of America’s heartland to robber barons for no purpose other than to boost their fortunes at the public’s expense. Yes, America’s wealthy have always been able to rely on our government to keep the money flowing their way.This reverse Robin Hood spirit (“steal from the poor; give to the rich”) has possibly reached new heights under W. Bush. He enabled no-bid contracts with Blackwater, Halliburton and anyone else with both a Republican Party credential and an idea to sell. He gave license to siphon billions from the public vaults each month for deposit directly into the new pirates’ accounts—with no oversight or auditing to interfere with the fun.But even for Bush/Cheney, it was certainly not a novel way to get rich quick. This is how defense conractors, IT boomers and Medicare/Medicaid service fabricators have feathered their nests for decades. They just bank the tax money quickly and prattle on loudly about how those single-mom “welfare chiselers” are dragging the economy down.What is amazing to me are both the pious mouthings and headshaking of pundits concerning the governors of Illinois and New Mexico (“allegedly” engaging, on a much smaller scale, in similar acts of looting), and the public’s mostly quiet acceptance of the scandalous and abusive “bailout” of financiers (who’ve been ripping us off as fast as they could stuff thousand-dollar bills into the pockets of their three-piece suits).Now don’t get me wrong; if Gov. Blagojevich tried to sell an appointment to a U.S. Senate seat, that action was not in any way justified by our rich national history of similar acts of corruption. And if Gov. Richardson (or his aides) are found to have taken the concept of “contributors get access, not favors” a tad too far and are hauled before a court to answer for their offense, it will be no defense to point to dozens of other “pay to play” officials in our country’s spotty ethical track record.My point is, however, that scale ought to be somehow related to the degree of outrage we express over such banditry. And if we recoil in horror from state-level peccadilloes involving perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, shouldn’t our reaction to federal-level piracy involving hundreds of billions of dollars (for non-math majors, that’s a million times greater) be calibrated to reflect just a teensy bit more revulsion at the greater act of plunder?Yet what I see each night on network television news programs is vastly more coverage given to Richardson and Blagojevich than to the AIG plunderers or the Wall Street golden parachute artists. A few years ago, the press expressed its collective horror at an explanation put forward by a New Mexico Democratic candidate for national office. The candidate said large contributions from people whom she might someday be in a position to benefit were legitimate because, after all, everyone recognized that the only thing such contributions earned their donors was “access to the policy maker, not a favorable decision.”It hasn’t proven surprising that many donors are willing to settle for “access.” Until we have genuine, enforceable and loophole-free limits on campaign contributions, we will continue to have a system that provides the rich with access to the public pocketbook. And that’s all a pickpocket or a pirate needs.
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