Houdinis Are Hard At Work

There are as many blogs as there are stars in the Toronto sky. “TomDispatch” is one of them. It may not be more radical in its anti-greed polemics than many a Sunday morning sermon but William J. Astore’s latest contribution is striking by any standard. He teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

This is an edited version.

Houdinis are hard at work, seeking to make yet more money vanish from pockets – and reappear in theirs.

Never has the old adage my father used to repeat to me – “the rich get richer and the poor poorer” – seemed fresher or truer. If you want confirmation of just where we are today, for instance, consider this passage from a recent piece by Tony Judt:

“In 2005, 21.2 percent of U.S. national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population: 120 million people.”

Wealth concentration is only one aspect of our increasingly kleptocratic system. War profiteering by corporations (however well disguised as heartfelt support for our heroic warfighters) is another. Meanwhile, retired senior military officers typically line up to cash in on the kleptocratic equivalent of welfare, peddling their “expertise” in return for impressive corporate and Pentagon payouts that supplement their six-figure pensions. Even that putative champion of the Carhartt-wearing common folk, Sarah Palin, pocketed a cool $12 million last year without putting the slightest dent in her populist bona fides.

Based on such stories, now legion, perhaps we should rewrite George Orwell’s famous tagline from Animal Farm as,All animals are equal, but a few are so much more equal than others.”

And who are those “more equal” citizens? Certainly, major corporations, which now enjoy a kind of political citizenship and the largesse of a federal government eager to rescue them from their financial mistakes, especially when they’re judged “too big to fail.” In raiding the U.S. Treasury, big banks and investment firms, shamelessly ready to jack up executive pay and bonuses even after accepting billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts, arguably outgun militarized multinationals in the conquest of the public realm and the extraction of our wealth for their benefit.

Such kleptocratic outfits are, of course, abetted by thousands of lobbyists and by politicians who thrive off corporate campaign contributions. Indeed, many of our more prominent public servants have proved expert at spinning through the revolving door into the private sector. Even ex-politicians who prefer to be seen as sympathetic to the little guy, like former House Majority Leader Dick Gebhardt eagerly cash in.

An old Roman maxim enjoins us to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” Within our kleptocracy, the prevailing attitude is an insouciant “We’ll get ours, though the heavens fall.” This mindset marks the decline of our polity. A spirit of shared sacrifice, dismissed as hopelessly naïve, has been replaced by a form of tribalized privatization in which insiders find ways to profit no matter what.

Is it any surprise then that, in seeking to export our form of government to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve produced not two model democracies, but two emerging kleptocracies, fueled respectively by oil and opium?

When we confront corruption in Iraq or Afghanistan, are we not like the police chief in the classic movie Casablanca who is shocked, shocked, to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café, even as he accepts his winnings? Why then do we bother to feign shock when Iraqi and Afghan elites, a tiny minority, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority? Shouldn’t we be flattered? Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Isn’t it?

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4 responses to “Houdinis Are Hard At Work

  1. As Anonymous put it:

    “It’s the same the whole world over;
    It’s the poor as gets the blame,
    It’s the rich as gets the pleasure-
    Ain’t it all a bleeding shame!”

  2. If we want our form of government to endure we better find a way of restoring more equality !!! The poor won’t endure being poor for ever. RK

    • The poor will not rise against their rich exploiters unlss they are led by leaders who either have never been poor or are no longer poor.

  3. Elisabeth Ecker

    Economics 101. In order for Capitalism to work you need the consumers. We blame the present economic problems on all kinds of things, but the elephant in the room nobody talks about is that wages have not kept up with inflation. Capitalism cannot be based on debt alone.