A Bottomless Well of Greed

Sometime presidential candidate and full-time lunatic Steve Forbes recently wrote a column on “Obama’s Soft-Core Socialism”.

In case the title wasn’t already enough to knock you off your chair and have you rolling on the floor laughing, consider the big ol’ photo that leads in the article.  Is it of Barack Obama, the subject of the piece?  No, it is not.  Is it a picture of Steve Forbes, the author of the essay?  No, I’m afraid it isn’t.  Instead, it’s yet another obligatory hagiographic rendering of Saint Ronald the Raygun, complete with jaunty smile, plastic Gumby hairdo, and obligatory American flag in the gauzy background.  How very… er, relevant.  Check my math, would ya, but wasn’t it thirty years ago that this guy was elected president?  Before cell phones and CDs, let alone MP3s?  And wasn’t Reagan the dude who tripled the national debt, shredded the Constitution, and began the process of cutting the legs out from underneath the American middle class?

As if this isn’t bizarro enough, consider Forbes’ title and thesis.  He’s arguing that the guy who threw massive mountains of taxpayer money at Wall Street banks to save them from collapse because of the bad casino capitalism bets they had made is a socialist.  (Actually, Forbes is not quite so sure – like many apoplectic freaks on the right, he simultaneously wants to call Obama a fascist too, and sorta does so.)  He’s arguing that the guy whose health care solution involves forcing thirty to forty million private Americans to buy crappy expensive insurance from private companies who provide absolutely no value added in the delivery of a crucial product is a socialist.  He’s telling us that the president who opened up massive tracts of offshore areas for private sector (read BP) oil extraction in unprecedented quantity, location and scope is a lockstep adherent of Marx and Lenin.

It’s really quite breathtaking.  If we hadn’t learned already (and almost no one in the Democratic Party or the American public seems to have) just how insidiously ingenious and recklessly disingenuous these monsters on the right are when it comes to the art of political framing, it would otherwise be tempting to conclude that people like Forbes must be snorting enough cocaine every day to launch a herd of elephants into space and park them in low earth orbit.  That’s how paranoid they are.

The piece is riddled with more bad lies than a local Rotary Club golf tournament – after a liquid lunch – and is packed with more stupidity than a truckload of Texas state GOP party platform photocopies coming back from Kinko’s.  But the line that really caught my eye was this one:  “The truth is that not even the Franklin Roosevelt Administration was as hostile to and ignorant about free enterprise as this Administration is.  Almost every action Obama officials take underscores their belief in the stereotype that businesspeople are mostly amoral, corner-cutting, consumer-shafting, pollution-loving menaces.”

Clearly, Steve Forbes and I read different newspapers.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  But it might be more accurate to say that we live in different countries.  His is America The Beautiful.  Mine is Embarrassica The Mutilated.

I’m sure there are tons of good-hearted small business men and women out there, trying to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage, and serving their communities in every way they can (in fact, there happens to be someone just like that living in my house).  But the big business corporate actors who meet such a description may well be as rare as a fundamentalist preacher who would actually be going to heaven, if there was such a thing.  Even if they’re not polluting or scamming or downsizing the rest of us with wild abandon, at a minimum these corporate porkers all seem to be lobbying the government (or, what used to be called ‘buying Congress’) for subsidies, tax exemptions and deregulation, at the expense of the rest of us.

In Steve Forbes’ America The Beautiful, these corporations are “doing god’s work” as the astonishingly oblivious Lloyd Blankfein described his Goldman Sachs cancer – er, corporation.  They’re waging battle against the government which seeks to take away all our freedoms.  Well, not quite all, of course.  For example, the freedom to breathe clean air, eat safe foods, drink clean water, maintain our health, keep our pensions, receive a pathetic minimum wage, work in a safe place, etc.

In my Embarrassica The Mutilated, on the other hand, corporations and the associated plutocracy of the über-wealthy in this country form an economic dictatorship of unparalleled greed, power and arrogance.  Nor am I alone in this regard, and nor is this exactly a flash headline shouting out breaking news.

In fact, this is a very old story, and I’m keeping some pretty good company in retelling it.  This guy called Jefferson that you might have heard of once said, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country”.  I don’t remember seeing that in my sixth grade civics textbook for some odd reason, but that does not diminish the significance of the sentiment.  The same might be said of that Madison dude’s observation that, “The growing wealth acquired by [corporations] never fails to be a source of abuses”.

Or there was Andrew Jackson’s take on this question (thanks to Thom Hartmann for collecting these):  “The question is distinctly presented whether the people of the United States are to govern through representatives chosen by their unbiased suffrages or whether the money and power of a great corporation are to be secretly exerted to influence their judgment and control their decisions.”

Or Grover Cleveland’s:  “As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel.  Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

Or Teddy Roosevelt’s:  “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.  To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

I haven’t even included FDR’s impassioned eloquence on the subject, Lincoln’s complaints about banks that he feared more than the Confederate Army, or Dwight (career military man, five-star general, commander of the Normandy invasion, Supreme Commander of NATO, Republican, conservative) Eisenhower’s famous invocation against the all-consuming power of the military-industrial complex.

In fact, against the authors of these passages, the actions and rhetoric of Barack Obama look ridiculously tame, passive and corporately compromised by comparison.  Which means that, according to the ‘thinking’ of Steve Forbes – notwithstanding his widespread fame as a profound philosopher and saint-like man of unbridled compassion – Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Eisenhower and both Roosevelts were even bigger socialist-fascist-whatever-label-paranoid-freaks-will-come-up-with-next than you know who – Commissar Trotsky’s just-activated sleeper agent currently ensconced in the White House.  Golly, that seems like an awfully big collection of revered and iconic Americans to lump out there in the radical left.  By the time you get done dynamiting these traitors’ faces off of Mount Rushmore, only Washington would remain (and maybe he said the same sort of things too, for all I know).  I know it sounds preposterous, but it almost seems that the problem isn’t so much that all of America is way out on the left as it is that people like Steve Forbes are way out there on the right (and, Steve, just so you know – that’s what we mean by the word ‘fascist’).

And, really, does the wisdom of these former presidents or the pathetically mild scolding that occasionally emerges from the current one require such a lengthy leap of logic to comprehend?  I mean, what would happen if, for example, Mr. Forbes poked his head out from behind the Wall Street Journal, or the magazine produced by the empire he valiantly pulled himself up by his bootstraps from to inherit from his father, only to read just the few reports of corporate predation still available in the rest of the (largely corporate) media?  What might he observe there?

Maybe he’d read about the nice folks on Wall Street who crashed the economy of the entire globe by taking outrageous risks with other people’s money, knowing that if their bets went bad the taxpayers and the hated government would ride to their rescue, a hundred pennies on the dollar, and they’d continue to make record salaries and bonuses while nearly one out of five Americans left in the wake of their disaster can’t find a job.

Maybe Mr. Forbes would see the same articles I’ve been seeing about British Petroleum, and its completely unmatched record for greed and disregard of worker and environmental safety that led to producing a series of catastrophes, culminating (we hope) in the Gulf oil spill, the worst environmental disaster in American history.

What if he were to read “Gulf of Mexico Has Long Been Dumping Site” in the New York Times this week, which notes that “at least 324 spills involving offshore drilling have occurred in the gulf since 1964, releasing more than 550,000 barrels of oil and drilling-related substances.  Four of these spills even involved earlier equipment failures and accidents on the Deepwater Horizon rig.  Thousands of tons of produced water – a drilling byproduct that includes oil, grease and heavy metals – are dumped into the gulf every year.”  The article also describes how “Even the coast itself – overdeveloped, strip-mined and battered by storms – is falling apart.  The wildlife-rich coastal wetlands of Louisiana, sliced up and drastically engineered for oil and gas exploration, shipping and flood control, have lost an area larger than Delaware since 1930.  ‘This has been the nation’s sacrifice zone, and has been for 50-plus years,’ said Aaron Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a nonprofit group.  ‘What we’re seeing right now with BP’s crude is just a very photogenic representation of that.’”

Perhaps Mr. Forbes would read the investigative piece revealing that “Millions of Americans are being duped by life insurance companies that have figured out a way to hold onto death benefits owed to families.  MetLife and Prudential lead the way in making hundreds of millions of dollars in secret profits every year on money that belongs to relatives of those who die, an investigation by Bloomberg Markets magazine found.  Among the people being tricked are parents and spouses of U.S. soldiers killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  The scam is to issue a fake checkbook to beneficiaries, rather than the payout they are owed.  The insurance companies then pay the families a whopping 0.5 percent interest on the funds, keeping five to ten times that amount for themselves on all the returns harvested from investing those dollars.  Such patriotism, eh?  Support Our Troops!  Don’t forget your yellow ribbon sticker!

Maybe Steve Forbes could take a gander Bob Herbert’s latest column, detailing how corporations are doing great right now, in part because they’re holding onto gobs of cash rather than hiring workers or paying a decent wage to the ones they’ve got.  “They threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output,” said Professor [Andrew] Sum.  ‘Here’s what happened:  At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion.  And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.’ … As Professor Sum writes in a new study for the labor market center, this period of economic recovery ‘has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history’.”

And while he’s at it, perhaps Mr. Forbes might want to take a look at the country that’s been created by thirty years of bowing to the interests of corporations and other oligarchs, as institutionalized by the Washington whores of both parties whom they’ve purchased to do their bidding.  The US median wage is the same as it was decades ago, and even fell during the Bush years.  Today the richest one percent of Americans take home almost a quarter of all income in the country, just like it was in the good old days of 1928, but way up from the less than 10 percent they got in the pre-Reagan years.  Meanwhile, millionaires realized a growth in their wealth of fifteen percent last year, rather a different experience than most of the rest of us, I’d say, especially the more than 15 million unemployed people, along with another ten million who either work part-time or have quit looking for work altogether, not to mention the 39 million people in this country who are chronically poor and do not have enough food to eat, or the 47 million without health insurance.

This is just for starters.  We could go on and on here.  There doesn’t appear to be any bottom to the well of greed.  It is the Tragedy of the Commons cranked up on a killer cocktail of amphetamines, steroids and radioactive pellets.  Our greed seems entirely boundless.  Good luck to any geese out there who lay golden eggs, or for that matter geese of any kind.  Or the ground they walk on.  Or the rivers they drink from.  Or the air they breathe.  Is there not a way that’s been found yet to commoditize and profitize air?   If they can’t sell it, some good folks will at the very least insist on getting rich polluting it.

This society has just lost its way.  But looking at its history of stealing land from Native Americans and then abusing them, slavery, prison labor, oppression of women and minorities, and neocolonialism throughout the developing world, it may be that it never did know its way – or at least a decent, humane way.  It just seems so much more grim today.

Today we raise our children with the sort of values that make them (and especially us) seem as though they were never raised at all.  Gimme-gimme greed is an embarrassing attitude associated with toddlers.  Oh, and adult Americans.  Bullying exploitation is a shameful behavior generally left behind on the playgrounds of junior high.  Unless, of course, you’re a corporate CEO or a leader in American government.  Lying is something people are supposed to learn to stop doing when they’re kids.  Unless you’re a regressive, that is.

Plutocratic plunderers just can’t seem to wreck this world, its people, and the planet which sustains us all fast enough.  We are now rapidly reaching the natural limitations of such exploitation, and the planet is beginning to bite back.

If we’re lucky, people will too.




DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.  More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.