Corruption in the Republic

How could one not be appalled by the porcine politics that pass for American Democracy these days? Each bill that slithers its way through this Congress soaks us more brazenly than the last.

In an economy where wages barely outpace inflation, the influence industry is booming; the number of creepy-crawlies on K Street has more than doubled in five and a half short years under the Bush Administration.

We all have our favorite exhibit of pernicious looting posing as public policy. Mine is a local phenomenon: the mega-bucks tax-payer financed sports stadium swindle. It's a perennial favorite -- some well-connected billionaire who makes the right contributions at City Hall and the Governor's mansion and is on the right cocktail circuit manages to convince a city full of hard-working Americans that they've got to buy him a new stadium. The pitch is always the same: the sweaty exertions of 'roid-raging pro athletes will bring prestige and prosperity and, most of all, jobs, jobs, jobs! As supporters of San Francisco's 3Com park pitched it: "Build the Stadium -- Create the Jobs!"

It's basically an old-fashioned grift on an enormous scale. Almost a decade ago, economists Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist undertook a study sponsored by the Brookings Institution that's considered a public-policy classic. They found that stadiums cost cities tens of millions of dollars in subsidies per year. Contrary to supporters' claims, "Sports facilities attract neither tourists nor new industry":

A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment. No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus.
But despite the debunking of the economic rationale (in subsequent studies as well) we keep falling for it. And our cities' fat cats -- the D.C. power-broker lawyer, the Cleveland shipping magnate, the computer direct-sales gazillionaire -- get fatter and our happy local politicians sit in the owner's box and moon for the cameras; mom and dad complain about the $8 dollar beers and $5 dollar hotdogs and never think twice about the $184 dollar chunk of concrete that they paid for even if they never once go to the park.

There is no ideological stake in objecting to such outrages. Corporate socialism isn't conservatism, it just proves that there's no public participation keeping our "leaders" honest. The only way government builds stadium after stadium for a select circle of rich guys is if they're the ones doing the governing.

It's the same at every level, most visibly in D.C. Last month Molly Ivins wrote that we're "pigging out on pork", and Paul Krugman lamented that what passes for governance these days is little more than "machine politics at work, favors granted in return for favors received."

Ivins and Krugman look at a particularly corrupt administration but fail to see the ungovernable beast behind it, the hot blood of tax dollars coursing through its veins. The problem isn't that you can go to and find out who owns your representative and how much they paid for him or her, it's that there has to be an in the first place.

But while it's easy to gripe, it's harder for us to recognize the fact that the sorry state of affairs in government today is truly a monster of our own creation. I have seen Dr. Frankenstein and he is us.

We've built a country -- the nation founded as a bold experiment in self-governance -- into a glorious monument to apathy, a beacon of democratic neglect so far removed from the ideals we hold dear as to be completely unrecognizable.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In a 1787 letter to Edward Carrington, a hero of the Revolution and member of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the role citizens played in keeping the government's nose to the grindstone: "If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, Judges, and Governors, shall all become wolves."

Jefferson and his fellow Framers understood that we'd lose control of our government the further distanced from its workings we became, and the less we believed in our capacity to govern ourselves.

We departed from their ideal following the Civil War. The 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments shifted the balance of power from Boston, Albany and Philadelphia to Washington, DC. The irony is that the price we paid for a central government that could guarantee us equal protection under the law also estranged us in perpetuity from that government and distanced us from its purse strings.

So we became oblivious to its workings. In the 2000 election cycle, before the upsurge in 2004 driven by the war in Iraq, gay marriage, and Swiftboaters, America ranked 131st in the world in voter participation -- sandwiched between those bastions of Jeffersonian democracy, Chad and Botswana.

According to the most recent (1997) Household Survey of Adult Civic Participation, less than a third of American adults read a newspaper or news magazine "almost every day."

The natural consequence of this inattention is that many -- perhaps most -- Americans haven't a clue what their government is up to. Almost a third couldn't tell you what "job or political office" Al Gore held after he had spent five years in the vice-presidency, around a third didn't know which party held the majority in Congress and, stunningly, 49 percent of Americans surveyed didn't know "which party is more conservative at the national level."

Almost four in ten Americans find politics and government "too complicated to understand," and a similar number believed their families "had no say in what federal government does." They're right, of course, but it's nobody's fault but their own.

So who cares if politicians hand out hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare to the boys down at the club while one in five American children lives in poverty? Nobody in America is paying attention anyway, even as the vultures continue to circle overhead. It is a mainstay of our political culture -- and the greatest victory that powerful corporate interests have ever achieved -- that we consider government as something apart from ourselves, and that we are powerless to change it.

And if you think the prescription is to elect more Democrats, as so many progressives do, the last week of business in the House should dissuade you of the perception. Forty-one Democratic members voted for President Bush's energy bill, about which the Washington Post carried the following headlines during the last week of July: "Energy Bill Raises Fears About Pollution, Fraud," "Energy Deal Has Tax Breaks for Companies," "Energy Tax Breaks Total $14.5 Billion" and "Bill Wouldn't Wean U.S. Off Oil Imports, Analysts Say."

Or consider the image of Representative Jim Moran, D-Va., who not only voted for the industry-authored Central American Free Trade Agreement, but also lobbied fellow Democrats to join him, receiving a "standing ovation from lobbyists and a word of thanks from the Speaker," as reported by The Hill.

It's true that Democrats needed six decades to achieve the kind of raw patronage system the Republicans have created in one, but they too got there eventually, thanks to our epic inattention.

So we find ourselves living in a perverse corporate welfare state, where military Keynesianism drives foreign policy and multinationals drain ever more of our public resources into their off-shore shelters.

But if our frustrations were ever to build to the point where we had had enough, we could bring down this sordid status quo in a minute simply by becoming engaged.

Just look at what the tenacious efforts of the fundamentalist Christian minority have achieved in the Republican Party. As Thomas Frank exposited so gracefully in What's the Matter With Kansas?, they staged a bloodless coup by taking over at the local level and forcing their agenda upwards. By running for precinct captain, school board member and dog-catcher, they pushed their party to toe the line they had drawn in the sand of American culture. Nothing is stopping us from following their model except for our intolerable somnolence.

So next time you're watching Good Morning America and the well-coiffed anchor talks about the latest pork-greased legislation slinking through Congress in the dead of night with the bemused "there they go again" half-smile of a parent discussing a recalcitrant child, and you feel that ire welling up within you, don't cast about for someone to blame. Peel your fat ass off the couch, go to your mirror and stare the culprit right in the face.

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