I.C., the floor is yours
Part One: A description of the forces and persons having brought us to our present financial condition.
We are sinking. We are in the greatest financial crisis of our time. The dangers, however, are more than economic. They are political, severely so. That is why the old name ‘political economy’ needs to be resurrected and applied. An economy is always political—it benefits some and not others, and too often only a few. Political economy’s new appropriateness is revealed in the Republican payback to President Obama for winning. They have rejected his attempts at bipartisanship out of hand.
James K. Galbraith has analyzed the subject explicitly: “Republican (with a small “r”) government, with its checks and balances, exists to limit the abuse of power. It is a matter of negotiation, compromise, the making of public arguments, and of listening to private dissent.”1 There are differences of reasonable opinion, negotiations of interests, and concern for public welfare in the consideration of public policy. Modern government has evolved otherwise. “Modern corporate decision-making structures exist, on the contrary, to permit senior executives to do what they want. This is the culture that Richard Cheney brought back into government from Halliburton, that George Bush imbibed at his minor perches at Harken Energy and the Texas Rangers.”2 In addition an army of 13,000 corporate lobbyists has appeared to advance the political agenda of such predators.3 Their purpose is to deny public functioning in favor of corporate control. These are the ‘creeps.’ Their values are for themselves entirely, where they actually possess any values other than their love of money.
The predators in the Bush/Cheney administration attempted to stymie the capacity to govern. They largely succeeded. In the short run it will look like a simple incompetence but that is a deliberate illusion. “Nothing will work and nothing will be done about the fact that nothing works. Failure was intended. Failure on that scale is not due to incompetence. Rather it is intended. Inside [such a] government no one cares.”4
There is a willful indifference to the problem of competence in government. The intentional strategy was to turn over government functions to the profit making desires of a voracious class. A maximum appropriation of wealth from the public for that class was intended. It required a mammoth sluice for sucking wealth away from everyday people. They did it without a single qualm.
There is quite probably not a single function of government that has not been damaged or significantly corrupted by the Bush/Cheney administration. It runs from the Forest Service to the Bureau of Mines, from Immigration to the Labor Department to food and drug inspection. The creeps left a very diminished and ineffective government. No lonely walker along desolate, empty streets in any American city late at night has ever been ‘rolled’ as effectively as the citizenry of the U.S. were mugged in broad daylight by the last administration.
In such a situation, democratically minded people must take decisive action in order to reframe the debate and arrive at democratic answers. To fail to do so is to risk more than being merely dismissed. As Barack Obama stated in his campaign, the change is not him, it is us. Otherwise we risk being run over by our inaction. Failing to involve ourselves will leave power and perceptions in the hands of the very predators that brought the crisis on and landed us in the quagmire. This has already happened in the banking sector. By monstrous and vicious propaganda, which has already begun, wing nuts of the right are attempting to undermine the public’s faith in the Obama administration so as to work themselves back into power.
Merely ridding ourselves of these political actors, however satisfying, is not enough. The problem remains more than a ‘few bad apples.’ As John C. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard mutual funds has stated it: “I believe that the barrel itself—the very structure that holds all those apples—is bad.”5 If the disease is structural, however many maggots (sometimes spelled m-a-d-o-f-f or s-t-a-n-f-o-r-d and the like) are feeding off the national economic carcass, that carcass itself is still the problem.
Democratically minded Americans are not well organized politically. An effective campaign of 30 years duration to deny workplace democracy has prevented it. An engaged electorate adequately represented by unions and other organizations has always been seen as a danger to corporate control as the corporate class tries to leverage wealth toward the top. Every effort has been and will be extended by them to prolong it.
In the United States, we live in a flagrant contradiction. Our financial system which rests on public consumption, nevertheless attempts to extract the maximum wealth from that public by low wages prior to its ability to consume. Then by artful pricing and mind soaking advertising, the system attempts to extract even more wealth during consumption. Workers that do not receive sufficient wages from the wealth they create, cannot maintain their existence. That is why so many citizens in the last few years reverted to using credit cards and cash withdrawals from home re-mortgaging to maintain their lifestyles. When such devices also fail to keep up with the bounty of economic production the economic effect is known as ‘lack of demand.’ To the extent such conditions are not reversed, the economy weakens.
Of course, many people were profligate and foolish in their lifestyle choices as they were propagandized to be. The American system is nothing if it is not the purloined attempt to propagate unrealistic expectations from which exceptional profits can be extracted. Unrealistic expectations are the exquisite function at the center of capitalism. It has been rapturously believed in for generations and religiously guarded from criticism. Yet as anyone still standing today and in possession of their faculties can see, capitalism is one sorry excuse for a financial system.
For a time it brought us great perceived wealth though even that wealth developed the strange habit of continually migrating to the top tier of wealth ‘owners.’ As early as 1988 it was perceived that since 1977 the lowest 10% of the public had suffered a 10.5% drop in its income while the top 1% had received an increase of 74.2%.6 This perceived wealth was built on an extensive network of expanded debt and debt devices that have now collapsed. The good times are over. Who is to pay the bill? President Obama’s initial efforts to attach some of that wealth previously grabbed, has been met with howls of corporate indignation. The whining is to cover the great and extensive public fraud that allowed such overweening accumulation in the first place.
To say it was happenstance, the market, that it wasn’t seen or couldn’t even have been seen, is to channel some medieval, political airhead. Jim Hightower has called it “the tsunami myth.” That myth insists that no one could have seen “The Thing from Nowhere” and Wall Street chieftains are merely victims too and didn’t know. But these “masters of the universe” were paid to know. Paid millions to know but didn’t bother to find out, which indicates they either invented the scheme or didn’t want to know who did. “They were making too much money to stop.”7
From the public standpoint, to live a satisfactory life in the modern world requires developing the ability to maintain a creative tension between two opposing forces. The first is a grounded reality, aware of the corruption of the political process. The second is a belief in our essential aspirations for a better life even as the means to that life is diverted to the benefit of a leisure class.8 Our human, democratic need is to correct that indecent misuse not only for ourselves but for the generations who will follow.
The function of a capitalist system is to confound that tension, to dissolve it into an excessive materialism so that public wealth can be plundered for private gain. We have arrived at its result. The system propagated blinders on the citizenry such that they see only the advertising billboards of roadways, magazines, newspapers or TV. It attempts to produce compulsive consumers who are mindless of the human arena of others around them who need consideration. Consumer-ization attempts an individualism that is insensitive, uncaring and impervious to the condition of others.
How do we correct those conditions? Leaving the country to the corporate ‘experts’ brought us to this quicksand and dumped us in. Stuck as we are, shaking ourselves about while screaming for rescuers will only sink us deeper. Whatever rescuers arrive will want a price. It is better that we rescue ourselves by supporting the possibilities of the responsive, democratic government we just elected.
This is not to say fawn over it, believing it without questioning. It means publicly directing its attention to the practices that will best serve us democratically. Experts will be needed. The problem is to use them effectively in a broad context of citizen participation, not a shrunken, secret arena of moral vacancy, allowing the experts to run free to their own tunes and devices as Dick Cheney directed the U.S. government.
It is therefore necessary that we build the broadest possible public understanding of how the present system functions or more precisely, failed to, and continues to fail to function. It means organizing ourselves into a kaleidoscope of actors and organizations proceeding with those others to define our safety and well being in our own terms, building a knowledge base for a new democratic state.
In order to do so and participate in a positive way toward those goals we must understand what is going on, how it has occurred and why. It is not of a very great complexity, but it does have some difficult and obscure details.
Most of the public understands the more obvious causes—the Bush/Cheney administration was a key culprit because it allowed where it did not actively promote the significant disruptive devices. Most older citizens may recognize the Charlie McCarthy/Edgar Bergen relationship of the Bush/Cheney administration. Younger people may have their own names for such a puppet/ventriloquist metaphor. The collusion itself, however, was not a metaphor but a true operating strategy, a malicious corruption of the constitutional basis of our government.
The purpose always was to disguise the real operator of the system in order to free him to perform his intentional funneling of the economy away from everyday publics, toward an already prosperous and piggish class. The puppet, served simply as a ‘front,’ idling away time so as to portray calm and control--‘nothing to get excited about here folks.’ George W. Bush performed this act remarkably well, precisely because he grew up in it, believed in it, benefited by it and paid so little attention to anything else. Whatever he examined was carefully selected for him and supplied to him by Dick Cheney or Cheney’s staff.9 Cheney and associates did not intend the train wreck of the economy, exactly; they merely intended the corruption of government functions including the complete loss of function to prevent a train wreck.
The after effects of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War are the best examples we have of how the U.S. government was crippled to the point it could not effectively react to the hurricane or execute its own invented war. The mechanism was deceptively simple. It was used with equal or even greater ineffectiveness in Iraq than in New Orleans . After the fall of Baghdad to American forces, the Bush/Cheney/ Rumsfeld administration made use of this mechanism in high volume—they sent in the clowns.
Loyal junior graduates from somewhere, anywhere or plain party hacks were given preposterous positions in Iraq . Jay Hallen, a 24-year-old Yale graduate with no financial background was told to reopen the country’s stock exchange. Jim Haveman, a social worker from Michigan without a medical degree but with an anti-abortion opinion was assigned to rebuild Iraq ’s public health sector. Bernard Kerik, an admittedly experienced New York City police commissioner, was sent in to rebuild, retrain and vet Iraq ’s police forces. Although a previous U.S. Justice Department report concluded that 6,000 foreign police advisers were needed to rebuild that police force, Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld sent one guy, Kerik. Upon arrival Kerik spent his time going on midnight raids with interdiction personnel and slept through whatever daytime administration occurred. Then he simply left Iraq without apparent explanation.10
Reading details of the disaster that ensued brings to mind the thought that like the war itself, perhaps the recovery process was also invented destruction. To understand more of the claptrap staffing that went on in the civilian ranks read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s remarkable book on the calamity that policy caused.
Many more served their political loyalty to similar effect at home. “The Heritage Foundation boasted it had a conservative to fit every position.”11 Why would a U.S. administration delegate so abominably? Why would government officials staff so carelessly and devise so ignorantly? There was one clear, exact reason and purpose. Every appointee and functionary had to be totally loyal to the administration team regardless of the adequacy of training or skill available for the job under consideration. That is, exceptional loyalty was required toward the personages of the White House and Defense Department, never mind the office itself or the Constitution that established those offices.
Such loyalty was essential because the process of wrecking a government is a nefarious and terrible thing. It is a betrayal of constitutional function and national values if it is not criminal behavior besides, and probably should be considered as such. Wrecking government performance therefore was judged too fraught with danger to be placed in any person’s hands who was not the perfect toady. For every function of government that could be driven off a cliff, its staff savaged or displaced, a profit making private company could be inserted with which to extract enormous wealth. For example, Blackwater guards for American Pro-Consul Paul Bremmer were paid $1000 per day while American soldiers functioned on chump change.12 Blackwater’s CEO Erik Prince, recently resigned, has become a billionaire on the no-bid contracts.
So in this crisis the major predators, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld turned loose on the nation a civilian army of lobbyists, cronies, loyalists, and saboteurs. It granted them clear and absolute access to steal and destroy resulting in, guess what—theft and destruction. That is to say it made for a ‘mugging’ of public and governmental functions for the maximum amount of wealth that could be grabbed. Or as James Galbraith has presented it: “Bush II simply and systematically nominated the most aggressive anti-environmental, anti-safety, anti-consumer protection advocates they could find to every regulatory position it couldn't afford to leave unfilled. It empowered the reactionary wing-- the predatory wing-- within each branch of business.”13
It was a strategy to grab hold of the national cake and eat it too. These thugs did not invent, however, all the means at their disposal. They adapted many procedures, reversed the purpose of others, threatened and silenced key officials and bureaus, expanded the scope and reach of most of the devices they inserted or manipulated and thereby profited immensely.
The ‘creeps’ then are those personages who redeployed the U.S. economy for outrageous personal gain for their class as well as themselves. Continuous propaganda insists that the work of those who benefited was and is so ‘difficult, inventive and extraordinary’ that they must be paid in the high millions of dollars if not billions, for their manipulations. This ‘hard work’ characterization is the great white hope of Republican and Democrat predators alike. It is the basis of their claim that it is anti-democratic to tax away, restrict or otherwise diminish what these men and a few women received for what they have done. There are other opinions.
Thorsten Veblen , America ’s great turn-of-the-last-century economist called such predators the “higher barbarian culture.” James Galbraith has paraphrased his position:
- “The leisure classes do not work. Rather they hold offices. They perform rituals. They enact deeds of honor and valor. For them income is not compensation for toil and is not valued mainly for the sustenance it makes possible. Income is, rather, a testament by the community of the prestige it accords the predator classes, to the esteem in which they are held. It is a way, in other words, of keeping score. [They are] predatory as a matter of course. [Prominent are] the absentee landlords and the vested interests, who live off the work of others by right and tradition, and not by their functional contribution to the productivity of the system…Predators rely on prey for their sustenance, but they also require and must motivate their assistance…The success of the enterprise depends in turn on keeping the predators sufficiently in check. If in their compulsion to fight, they lay waste to the environment, then neither they nor their prey will survive.”14
In a second essay I shall attempt to lay out where and why the citizenry must educate itself to the weaknesses and dangers of the American economic system. It will include how that system overextended itself by deceptive devices built upon a weak and poorly thought out superstructure and finally crashed. Obama is trying to save it much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to save it in the 1930s. The question today is whether such a mendacious and deceitful contraption is worth saving.
The analogous questions are not merely how we extract ourselves from the present but what democratic, truthful economic institutions we must build for the future. Only habit and fearfulness can conclude that we have to save what has proven so deceitful. That no other system supposedly exists to put in its place is only partially true. The public has not been allowed to consider another such system for 70 to 80 years. How would we know? There are thinkers who have considered such and it may well be necessary in this time of crisis to listen to them.
1 Galbraith, James K. The Predator State . New York , The Free Press, 2008. p 144.
3 Hightower, Jim and Phillip Frazer, eds. The Hightower Lowdown, v 11 no 3, March 2009 p. 4
4 Galbraith, p. 148.
5 Madrick, Jeff. “Mistrust Funds.” New York Times, Jan 29, 2006. A review of John C. Bogle’s The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005.
6 Ross LaRoe and John Charles Pool, “Gap Grows Between Rich, Poor,” Columbus(OH) Dispatch, July 16, 1988 in Kevin Phillips The Politics of Rich and Poor. Random House, 1990. p. 14.
7 Hightower, Frazer, eds. The Hightower Lowdown, v 11 no 4, April 2009 p. 2
8 Parker Palmer. As guest on Bill Moyer’s Journal, PBS Channel 13, 2/20/09. His book Let Your Life Speak is essential for a modern awareness. My debt is here acknowledged for taking his centered understanding out of its original context of a spiritual life and applying it to here to the mundane.
9 Galbraith, op cit. p. 146
10 Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. New York , Vintage, 2007. Passim.
11 Thomas Frank. The Wrecking Crew. How Conservatives Rule. Henry Holt & Co. 2008 p. 127
12 Ibid, pgs. 150-172, passim and p. 254
13 Galbraith, op. cit p. 143
14 Galbraith, op. cit., p. 127