1. Ex Nihilo
Lamar Alexander is certainly one of the biggest non-entities in the history of modern American politics. You would have to range far and wide to find a more negligible, pointless, unproductive figure on the national level than Alexander, the senior U.S. senator from Tennessee; indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find such a one on the smallest school board or city council in the remotest corner of the country.
Perhaps only George Walker Bush could match Alexander in the “coasting through life with corporate coddling” sweepstakes. Like Bush, Alexander was once a Republican governor who did almost no work in office, letting the Democratic leaders of the state legislature — with whom he had some cozy business entanglements — handle the nitty-gritty of governing while he whiled away the hours greasing wheels for his cronies and cutting sweetheart deals to enrich himself. [For details on some of these wheels and deals, see here, here, here, here and here.]
And like Bush with his Crawford dude ranch, Alexander adopted an entirely faux pose as a soil-of-the-soil type in a cynical campaign ploy. Following a first, failed attempt at the governorship in 1974 — in which he had his head handed to him on a platter by a genuine son of the soil, the genially corrupt Ray Blanton, who hammered away at the fact that L’il Lamar had gotten his political schooling in the bowels of Richard Nixon’s White House — Alexander ditched his five-hundred dollar suits for a plaid work shirt, to show that he was jes’ plain folks. In the race to replace the scandal-scarred Blanton in 1978, the plaid-clad Alexander thundered that his opponent, obscure country banker Jake Butcher, owned an interest in an establishment that served — gasp! — demon rum. The fact that Alexander also owned shares in an upscale eatery that served liquor did not, of course, deter him from his attack on Butcher’s lack of Christian morals. Alexander’s PR machine swept past Butcher’s bumpkinish campaign and got him into the statehouse for his eight years of goofing off.
He then floated into the presidency of the University of Tennessee (where he signed my paychecks for three years), again doing nothing but scratching his ears and feathering his nest. In 1991, George Herbert Walker Bush summoned Alexander to Washington, naming him Secretary of Education — an obvious joke on George Herbert’s part, given Lamar’s previous call for the Department of Education to be abolished.
(George Herbert’s literally wicked sense of humor is too little appreciated, I think. Like a lot of humor, Herbie’s jokes involved the cloaked expression of savage malice — in this case, malice toward the country he was supposedly governing. For example, there was his deliberate, knowing choice of an incompetent, unstable political hack — Clarence Thomas — to take the place of the venerated Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. And then of course, there was Bush’s supreme joke: choosing frat-boy goofball Dan Quayle to stand a heartbeat away from the presidency. This level of Coriolanus-like contempt for the rabble was not matched until 2008, when John McCain picked dimbulb Christianist warrior Sarah Palin as his running mate — while Barack Obama picked the plagiarizing corporate bagman Joe Biden as his. But we digress.)
After Herbie lost the White House to Bill Clinton, the man he now considers his “son” — and with whom he curiously shared his leading benefactor in 1992 — Alexander was forced onto the corporate board breadline, where he eked out a meager existence on a few hundred thou a year, plus the usual sweetheart stock deals, while launching his two hilariously abysmal bids for the White House in 1996 and 2000.
Finally, in 2002, this suit of clothes — or rather, this puffed-up plaid shirt — walked into the wasteland that has become the U.S. senatorship of Tennessee, where such egregious goobers as Fred Thompson, Bill Frist and Bob Corker (who is actually giving Lamar a strong run for the money as the nation’s greatest political non-entity) have prowled around to very little purpose other than their own self-aggrandizement. Lamar was the choice of the Bush organization to fill the shoes of jowly, growly Fred when he ambled off to television, and Alexander duly served George Walker faithfully, most signally in his staunch support for Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq.
“A slight unmeritable man,” then, “meet to be sent on errands,” as Marc Antony says of the non-entity Lepidus in Julius Caesar. And yet despite the big blank spot that Alexander has left in American politics, he should be rightly regarded as a Founding Father of one of the most profound and far-reaching developments in American society, one which will reverberate in a myriad of ways through generations: turning convicts into cannon fodder for corporate profits.
II. Miracle Money and Failing Upward
As is well known, the United States of America locks up more of its people — both in bulk and by percentage — than any other nation on earth. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, there were 2,293,157 people behind bars in the United States at the end of 2007, the latest year for which totals are available. The incarceration rate is 756 prisoners per every 100,000 of the general population: a staggering rate that far surpasses the closest competitor, Russia, which jails 626 out of every 100,000 of its people, or Communist China, which jails 119 out of every 100,000. Indeed, America’s total prison population outstrips China’s by more than half a million — even though China’s population is five times larger than America’s. It also far outstrips Russia’s puny total of 887,000 prisoners. With the possible exception of the Soviet Union under Stalin, no country in history has ever incarcerated more of its citizens than the United States does today.
The prison population saw runaway growth under George Walker, but, as I wrote almost three years ago:
Bush is merely standing on the shoulders of giants – such as, say, Bill Clinton, who once created 50 brand-new federal offenses in a single draconian measure, and expanded the federal death penalty to 60 new offenses during his term. In fact, like the great cathedrals of old, the building of Fortress America has been the work of decades, with an entire society yoked to the common task. At each step, the promulgation of ever-more draconian punishments for ever-lesser offenses, and the criminalization of ever-broader swathes of ordinary human behavior, have been greeted with hosannahs from a public and press who seem to be insatiable gluttons for punishment – someone else’s punishment, that is, and preferably someone of dusky hue.
The main engine of this mass incarceration has been the 35-year “war on drugs”: a spurious battle against an abstract noun that provides an endless fount of profits, payoffs and power for the politically connected while only worsening the problem it purports to address – just like the “war on terror.” The “war on drugs” has in fact been the most effective assault on an underclass since Stalin’s campaign against the kulaks.
It was launched by Richard Nixon, after urban unrest had shaken major American cities during those famous “long, hot summers” of the Sixties. Yet even as the crackdowns began, America’s inner cities were being flooded with heroin, much of it originating in Southeast Asia, where the CIA and its hired warlords ran well-funded black ops in and around Vietnam. At home, criminal gangs reaped staggering riches from the criminalization of the natural, if often unhealthy, human craving for intoxication. Ronald Reagan upped the ante in the 1980s, with a rash of “mandatory sentencing” laws that can put even first-time, small-time offenders away for years. His term also saw a new flood — crack cocaine – devastating the inner cities, even as his covert operators used drug money to fund the terrorist Contra army in Nicaragua and run illegal weapons to Iran, while the downtown druglords grew more powerful. The American underclass was caught in a classic pincer movement, attacked by both the state and the gangs. There were no more “long, hot summers” of protest against injustice; there was simply the struggle to survive.
Under Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, the feverish privatization of the prison system added a new impetus for wholesale, long-term detention. Politically-wired corporations need to keep those profit-making cells filled, and the politicians they grease are happy to oblige with “tougher” sentences and new crimes to prosecute.
And here we come to little ole Lamar. As noted, the floodgates into prison gaped wide in the 1980s. This human flotsam was too tempting a resource to remain unexploited. Also, there was big money to be made from the harsh and vengeful spirit coursing through the political landscape in those days, with the continuing call to build more and more prisons to hold the Drug War captives and the “three-strikers” who were being sentenced to life in prison for a string of often minor offenses. Anyone hot-wired into a major political establishment – a state government, say – could coin it like crazy from those cooped-up cons.
Enter the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company co-founded and led by Tom Beasley, a long-time Alexander operative and former chairman of the state GOP, who had helped manage Lamar’s campaigns, and had even lived in his house for a time, as AgainstPuryear.org notes. Beasley and his partners were staked by a venture cap maven named Jack Massey – another old pal of Lamar’s. While CCA was lobbying the state government run by their friend for a $250 million contract to take over the state’s prisons, it emerged that Alexander’s wife, Honey, has somehow acquired $8,900 worth of CCA stock – the kind of sweet deal that jes’ plain folks rarely run across.
To avoid embarrassment, Honey traded her stock straight up for shares in an insurance holding company owned by none other than CCA bankroller Jack Massey. When Honey sold off her insurance stock, her $8,900 had miraculously turned into a $142,000 windfall. (The Alexanders have been the lucky recipients of several such miracles. For example, Lamar picked up corporate board goofing-off pork for years from Chris Whittle, the Knoxville tycoon who spearheaded the corporate invasion of public schools. When Lamar became Education Secretary, and very ethically left Whittle’s service, one of Whittle’s other minions “bought the Alexanders’ Knoxville home for $977,500 – more than $400,000 more than they had paid for it a year before,” as the Ethical Spectacle reports. Whittle also bought back $10,000 worth of his company’s stock from Alexander – for the tidy sum of $330,000.)
In the end, CCA’s handling of Tennessee’s prisons turned out to be so cack-handed that the state had to take back all but one of them. But Lamar was long gone by that time, with Honey’s miracle money in his pocket, while CCA – benefiting from that “failing upward” phenomenon so typical of American business – had inexplicably established itself as the major player in the burgeoning prison privatization racket. As Global Research reports:
Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry complex. About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut, which together control 75%. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, “the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners.” The CCA has an ultra-modern prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, they get 30 days added – which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.
Building on its success in skimping on such fripperies as sufficient guards and food in order to squeeze maximum profits out of its prisons, CCA soon expanded its operations across the sea to the UK, where it found an even more eager audience of well-connected grease merchants. George Monbiot reports:
Encouraged by the committee’s report, the Corrections Corporation of America set up a consortium in Britain with two Conservative party donors, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd and John Mowlem & Co, to promote privately financed prisons over here. The first privately-run prison in the UK, Wolds, was opened by the Danish security company Group 4 in 1992. In 1993, before it had had a chance to evaluate this experiment, the government announced that all new prisons would be built and run by private companies.
The Labour party, then in opposition, was outraged. John Prescott promised that “Labour will take back private prisons into public ownership – it is the only safe way forward.”(Jack Straw stated that “it is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration. This is surely one area where a free market certainly does not exist”. He too promised to “bring these prisons into proper public control and run them directly as public services.”
But during his first seven weeks in office, Jack Straw renewed one private prison contract and launched two new ones. A year later he announced that all new prisons in England and Wales would be built and run by private companies, under the private finance initiative.
Well, what else would you expect from a party – “New” Labour – that modeled itself on Bill Clinton’s “triage” strategy: i.e., adopting a endless slew of right-wing policies and simply calling them “progressive.” This philosophy – which has been adapted wholesale by the Obama Administration and its horde of Clinton and Bush retreads – was succinctly summed up by George Orwell: “Four legs good, two legs better.”
III. Bringing It All Back Home
Of course, wholesale privatization is only one prong of the fork that sweetheart dealers have plunged into that juicy prison pork. As Global Research reports, major corporations have moved into state prisons as well, tying their own profits – and increasing proportions of the American economy – to the need for an endless, expanding supply of convict labor:
Who is investing? At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.
Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.
[Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that “there won’t be any transportation costs; we’re offering you competitive prison labor (here).”
There’s a real stimulus plan for you! There’s a way to bring the big manufacturers back to America’s shores. Forget targeting their tax havens and tax dodges: give ’em cheap, captive labor, and they’ll come running.
Of course, today’s rampant exploitation of convict labor — with its attendant, inevitable corruption of individual officials (such as the New York judges recently convicted of selling children into detention for kickbacks from a privateer), and the political process and the economy at large – is itself something of a coming home for American society. For example, it played a key role in rebuilding the post-Civil War fortunes of the elite in the “New South” – the same states that now employ more private prisons than any others. As we noted in a piece here awhile back (“Postcards of the Hanging: Race and Sex in Tennessee”):
Side by side with the lynching – indeed far surpassing it in terms of depth and reach through the black community – was the money angle. The end of slavery didn’t mean the end of servitude by any means. As each Southern state was returned to the control of its defeated white elites after the Civil War, they quickly gamed the legal system to provide them with a virtually unlimited supply of convict labor – without rights, without protection, in chains, under the bullwhip, just like the good old days. The smallest infractions of the law, petty fines, bad debts – or often, nothing at all but the need of the local bossman – swept multitudes of black men and women into minor jail terms that would be extended by months, sometimes years through draconian “fees” and “court costs” they would have to “work off” – in the fields, in the mines, laying rail, building roads, draining swamps. Savvy brokers contracted with state and local governments to manage the trade in these convicts, many of whom were simply worked to death or crippled for life. There was no profit in looking after them anymore; they were no longer someone’s valuable “property” but just so much ever-replaceable fodder churning endlessly through the legal machine.
Freed but disenfranchised, emancipated but still in chains, balked by law and brutal custom from full participation in society, the Southern blacks also made handy targets to divert the anger and dissatisfaction of the “poor white trash” from the elites that exploited them as well, albeit less severely. If even the poorest white man could consider himself superior to someone, if you could keep him tied up in psychological and emotional knots about inferior darkies messing with his women, going to his schools, sitting at his lunch counters, drinking from his water fountains, swimming in his public pools, living in his neighborhoods, why then he’d never make common cause with his black brothers and sisters in poverty to fight for a better life. Canny patricians played whole decks of such race cards to win the votes of the crackers and rednecks they privately despised: “Don’t vote for that commie over there talking about unions and fair wages and equality; vote for me, vote for the man who’ll keep your women and children – and your drinking water – safe from the Negro!” [For much more, see the book, Worse Than Slavery, by David Oshinsky.)
As the economy craters around the world, governments and their servitor intellectuals are sounding clarion calls about a coming tide of “unrest” amongst the newly pauperized rabble. This is to be met not with sensible economic policies designed to rectify the vast imbalances, injustices and virulent corruption of the sweetheart-deal world, but instead with multitrillion-dollar bailouts of bankers, venture capitalist and privateers – and with “contingency plans” for “security operations” to keep the rabble in line. The jails, prisons and detention centers will soon be full to bursting with those forced into petty crime by need and desperation – and with anyone who dares to venture outside a specially designated, often fenced-in “free speech zone” to protest the continuing greed of the elite. Meanwhile, the failed Drug War keeps on raging, doing nothing to stem the flow of narcotics but enriching a few people immensely, and providing justification for an every-expanding array of draconian police powers that too many states find too useful to give up now. So there will be no end of backroom operators and government frontmen ready to work their correction connections to squeeze money from this rising tide of human suffering.
The career of Lamar Alexander is of little moment in itself; he’s just another garden-variety corruptocrat gliding through life on a stream of grease. But like the life of George W. Bush, it is a highly instructive example of the poison fruit that even the most bland, feckless non-entity can produce in a system that is willfully, brutally blind to its own injustices. The phrase “banality of evil” comes all too readily to mind.
CHRIS FLOYD is an American writer and frequent contributor to CounterPunch. His blog, Empire Burlesque, can be found at www.chris-floyd.com.