Hightower Lowdown

Campaign end on election day — movements don't

Campaigns end on Election Day. Movements don't. Voting day is a time stamp for measuring our progress, and when the polls closed last Nov. 6, it was clear that the intensive organizing by grassroots groups throughout 2017-18 had paid off. But let's not forget that it's all the days in between elections that matter on Election Day. We're like the farmers and gardeners who do grub hoe work through the summer for a good harvest in the fall. Let's look at what we've learned.

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Jim Hightower: We Need a Revolution on Our Plates

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, an Iowa farmer asked if I knew the difference between a family farmer and a pigeon. When I said no, he delighted in explaining: “A pigeon can still make a deposit on a new John Deere.”

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For-Profit Colleges Get Rich by Sinking Students Into Debt - and Their Scam Is Financed by Our Tax Dollars

Butch Hancock, one of Austin's finest singer-songwriters, grew up in the Texas Panhandle, out among dryland farmers and strict fundamentalist Christians. Butch once told me that he felt he'd been permanently scarred in his vulnerable teen years by the local culture's puritanical preachings on sexual propriety: "They told us that sex is filthy, obscene, wicked, and beastly-- and that we should save it for someone we love."

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Three Big Myths Right-Wing Propagandists Are Spreading to Frame the 2012 Election

During the past several years, a mess of plutocratic myths has been growing like kudzu across our political landscape. This aggressive ideological vine has crept from place to place, incrementally covering over the vital spirit of egalitarianism that defines us as Americans and unites us as a society. Deliberately planted and nurtured by various Koch-funded front groups, these invasive myths (let's dare call them lies) have been spread by assorted Ayn-Randian acolytes, advancing the anti-democratic notion that corporations and the wealthy are America's most able, virtuous, and deserving citizens.

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There's Been a Dictatorial Coup -- Koch Bros. Have a Bunch of Czars Running Cities Across Michigan

Here's a political storyline that might seem familiar to you: With economic pain and political discord ripping across the land, he appeared to have the ideal resume to become the Republican contender for the top job. Not just another career politico from the dysfunctional Congress, he was a son of heartland Michigan who had founded his own venture capital firm. He looked like the image-perfect "job creator," and he'd achieved notable financial success in the no-nonsense corporate world. That success, he figured, would now catapult him to electoral victory, for it demonstrates that he's a can-do fellow with the know-how to run government like a business and fix the economy.

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Movie Theater Solution to Preventing Mass Murder by Guys with More Guns Than Rambo? Search Women's Purses

Gosh, I feel so much safer now that teenage ticket takers at the Regal chain of movie theaters have been directed by corporate chieftains to search the purses of their female customers.

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Could You Raise Your Kids on Less Than $15,000 a Year? Millions of Parents Are Forced to Learn How

Sometimes, it's useful to state the obvious. Here's a fact, for example, that we all know to be true: America's economy is enormous. It's worth saying that out loud and repeating it to ourselves and others, because today's Powers That Be (economic, political, and media) are wrongly forcing a regime of austerity on our nation. They're insisting that we hoi polloi must downsize our middle-class dreams, claiming that America no longer has the wherewithal to do big things.

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How a Corporatist Supreme Court Cabal Joined Forces With Right Wing and Kochs to Quietly Sell Out Our Democracy

Bill Watterson is Mark Twain--with a drawing pen. He is a master cartoonist, but also a sharp-witted observer of the absurd, with an impish sense of humor. From 1985-1995, Watterson penned "Calvin and Hobbes," the truly marvelous comic strip that featured six-year-old Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes. In Calvin's inventive and iconoclastic mind, Hobbes was a genuine tiger (and his best friend) and they shared boundless adventures that challenged conventional thinking and defied authority, often crashing right through the prescribed social order of the 'real' world.

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Why Was a Lightweight Montana Senator on the Finance Committee Tasked to Take on Health Care Reform?

America's shouting match over health care reform has turned completely goofy -- and I'm not talking about confused seniors at teabag rallies getting red-faced with anger after being told by the right-wing scare machine that "government is trying to taker over Medicare." No, I'm talking about our United States senators.

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Americans Are Raring for a Fight Against Corporate Power

Last October, Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus blew a gasket, spewing outrage in all directions. "This is the demise of civilization," he exploded. "This is how a civilization disappears. I'm watching this happen and I don't believe it!"

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The Five Most Wanted Rip-off Artists from Wall Street and Washington

What the hell's happening here? Why is my bank in the tank? And my house and job? And my retirement money? Even my state's teetering on the brink of broke! Who did this to us?

Fair questions, but we're not getting honest answers. Last year, at the first signs of the global financial slide toward the abyss, we were told that it's just a little hiccup caused by something called subprime mortgages. Not to worry, the Powers That Be declared confidently, for we have the damage contained. And rest assured that "the fundamentals of our economy are sound."

Then, this spring, Bear Stearns cratered, requiring an emergency federal subsidy to cover billions in bad loans. Okay, admitted those in charge, that subprime stuff actually is leveraged on up the financial system, and maybe there's been a bit of greed among a few of the big players, but we really do have the problem contained now, and, hey, "the fundamentals of our economy are sound."

But in September--Omigosh!--there went Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, WaMu, Wachovia, and others. Well, yes, conceded the now-frazzled financial establishment, but gollies, we're throwing hundreds of billions of your tax dollars into sandbags to contain the problem, and remember: "The fundamentals of our economy are sound."

In October, the contagion rolled through Britain, Canada, and Europe; it spread to Brazil and across to China and Japan; and--Holy Schmoly--suddenly all of Iceland was melting in bankruptcy! Stay calm, cried an openly panicked chorus of Washington officials, for we're holding some big summit meetings soon and consulting our Ouija boards, and...uh...ah...um...y'all just keep clinging to the thought that "the fundamentals of our economy are sound."

Laissez Fairies

You don't have to be in Who's Who to know What's What, do you? The fundamentals are NOT sound.

Wall Street and Washington (excuse the redundancy there) want us commoners to believe that this viral spread of economic grief was caused by those lower-income homeowners who couldn't pay their subprime loans--merely an unforeseeable glitch in a complex and otherwise healthy financial system. Hogwash. The source of today's pain is the same as it was in America's previous financial collapses: the unbridled greed of economic elites, enabled by their political courtesans in Washington.

This unbridling has been the long-sought goal of a cabal of deregulation ideologues who dwell in laissez-fairyland. During the past two decades, they have relentlessly pushed their economic fantasies into law. Their theory was that (to use Ronald Reagan's simple construct) "the magic of the marketplace" would create an eternal rainbow of prosperity through financial "innovation"--if only the market was unshackled from any pesky public regulations. What the dereg theorists missed, however, is that magicians don't perform magic. They perform illusions.

Let's meet some of the illusionists who are directly responsible for hurling you, me, America, and most of the world into this dark and as-yet unplumbed economic hole.

Phil Gramm

Snide, sour, and sanctimonious, this former senator from Texas is now head lobbyist for the Swiss-based banking giant, UBS, as well as chief economic adviser for his old chum John McCain. A bathed-in-the-blood, footwashing, free-market absolutist, Gramm advocates a virulent brand of antigovernment, market-knows-best, Rambo capitalism.

In 1999, as chair of the Senate Banking Committee, he had the power to implement some of his cockamamie dogmas. First, he pushed through a bill to dissolve the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, a New Deal reform that prohibited banks, investment houses, and insurance companies from combining into one corporation. By keeping these components of our financial system separate, Glass-Steagall made sure that the crash of one of them would not bring down the other two. But a number of Wall Street banks, led by what would become Citigroup, saw a profit windfall for themselves if only they could scuttle the old law and merge banking, investment, and insurance into huge financial conglomerates. The senator was their ideological soul mate, and he was delighted to rig the system for them.

On November 12, 1999, a gloating Gramm celebrated having sledgehammered the regulatory walls that separated the three financial functions:
"We are here today to repeal Glass-Steagall because we have learned that government is not the answer. We have learned that freedom and competition are the answers. We have learned that we promote economic growth and we promote stability by having competition and freedom. I am proud to be here because this is an important bill; it is a deregulatory bill. I believe that's the wave of the future, and I am awfully proud to have been a part of making it a reality."
But repealing Glass-Steagall was only step one for this free-market holy roller. In literally the dead of night, just before Congress's Christmas break in 2000, Chairman Gramm snuck a short provision into an 11,000-page appropriations bill. The item, which only a few lobbyists and lawmakers knew had been inserted, became law when the larger bill was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Gramm's little legislative sticky note decreed that a relatively new, exotic, and inherently risky form of investments called "derivatives" were not to be regulated--or even monitored--by the government.

It should be noted here that Democrats were also butt-deep in the dereg orthodoxy. Such Wall Street sycophants as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had drunk deeply from the holy cup of derivatives deregulation, and Clinton's top economic advisors Robert Rubin (formerly with Goldman Sachs and now with Citigroup) and Lawrence Summers (also a veteran of Wall Street) were in harness with the Republicans on this effort.

By 2008, the freewheeling derivatives market, including derivatives based on those lowly subprime housing loans, bloated to a stunning $531 trillion. That's 531 followed by 12 zeroes! These little-understood, essentially secret investment schemes came to dominate our entire financial system--and when thousands of regular folks began defaulting on their subprime loans, the derivatives based on them essentially became worthless. Investment houses, which were up to their corporate keisters in these funny-money subprime derivatives, began collapsing, and the now-interlocked banks and insurance companies began tumbling down with them. Gramm's deregulatory "wave of the future" had become a financial tsunami.

Alan Greenspan

This guy's mug should be on wanted posters in every post office in America. As Federal Reserve chairman from 1987 to 2006, he held the regulatory power to prevent the irrational inflation of the huge derivatives bubble that has now burst-- yet he fought fiercely through four presidencies to prevent even the meekest oversight by the Fed or any other agency. Nicknamed "The Oracle," Chairman Greenspan was inscrutable and arrogant, but he also possessed a detailed knowledge of financial minutiae and an air of superiority that simultaneously bedazzled and intimidated presidents, lawmakers, and other public officials.

However, not everyone was sanguine about the chairman's reliance on derivatives as the pillar of Wall Street's financial strength. Many wise heads viewed these financial "products" as speculative mumbo-jumbo. Billionaire financier George Soros says his firm never invested in them "because we don't really understand how they work." Investment banker Felix Rohatyn described them as "hydrogen bombs." Back in 2003, investment guru Warren Buffett called them "financial weapons of mass destruction" that were "potentially lethal" for our economy.

But Greenspan's voice was the most powerful, and he was both a determined bureaucratic protector and an exuberant cheerleader for derivatives. Meanwhile, wealthy investors worldwide were making a killing from their investments in these bizarre pieces of paper, and few in Washington were willing even to question The Oracle.

"I always felt that the titans of our legislature didn't want to reveal their own inability to understand some of the concepts that Mr. Greenspan was setting forth," said Arthur Levitt, a well-regarded Wall Street regulator under Clinton. "I don't recall anyone ever saying, 'What do you mean by that, Alan?'"

So the bubble kept expanding.

Why was Greenspan so insistent on no regulation? Because he is the hardest of hardcore laissez-faire ideologues, holding a blazing disdain for government. An avowed worshiper of libertarian novelist Ayn Rand, he views public oversight of business as an evil force that deters the creativity of smart elites. He is so psyched by his religious-like faith in the "free market" that he fervently believes in what he considers to be the innate good will and moral superiority of investors and bankers. He asserts that these self-interested individuals can simply be trusted to do the right thing, and that government should not second-guess their decisions.

Even the faith of snake handlers is not as devout as Greenspan's. Unfortunately, however, he was able to hitch our nation's economic well-being to his own absurdist ideological fancy. The guy who was lionized as the smartest, most- stable economic thinker in the land essentially turns out to have been a quasi-religious nut.

Chris Cox

A GOP member of Congress for 17 years, Cox was another deregulation diehard and a reliable advocate for Wall Street's pampered CEO class--a role he continued to play after Bush chose him in 2005 to succeed Donaldson as SEC chair. At the commission, he weakened the ability of the enforcement staff even to investigate securities violations by Wall Street firms, much less prosecute them. Also, in an act of pure ideological folly, he eliminated an office that had been set up specifically to watch out for future problems with such high-risk investments as derivatives.

In essence, he took the cops off the beat at the very time more cops were needed. In October, when the stuff was hitting the fan, a chagrined Cox offered this brilliant insight: "The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work." Thanks, Chris.

William Donaldson

The Securities and Exchange Commission supposedly regulates investment banks, and in 2004 it was headed by--guess who?--a Wall Street investment banker, Bill Donaldson. On April 28 of that year, he presided over a little-noticed SEC meeting held in the commission's basement to consider an obscure rule change urgently requested by the Big Five investment banks (including Goldman Sachs, then headed by Henry Paulson--yes, the same treasury secretary who just designed George W's Wall Street bailout). The bankers wanted an exemption from a sensible requirement that they keep a sizeable pool of money on hand to cover potential losses. Turn these reserve funds loose, pleaded the bankers, so we can put more of our investors' money into this opaque but lucrative area known as derivatives.

After less than an hour of discussion, Donaldson and his four SEC colleagues voted unanimously to do this favor for the bankers. As a bonus, the generous commissioners also decided to let the banks themselves monitor the level of risk they were putting on investors--and ultimately on the backs of taxpayers.

In this one meeting, which was not covered by the media, the dereg geniuses had struck another major blow for banker recklessness, and the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and others were sent further down the giddy path to their--and our--ruin. "The problem with such voluntary [regulations]," said Roderick Hills, Gerald Ford's former SEC chairman, "is that, as we've seen throughout history, they often don't work." Duh!

Henry Paulson

As honcho of Goldman Sachs, Hank drew a $37 million paycheck the year before Bush waved him into the Treasury Department to oversee the whole U.S. economy. At Goldman, he was considered one of Wall Street's "smart guys" who had figured out how to make billions in brokerage fees by packaging and selling these wondrous pieces of wizardry called derivatives, and he came into government as an unquestioning believer in deregulatory doctrine. Now that deregulated derivatives have turned out to be so much hokum, Hank's in charge of the bailout--and his former firm is in line to get at least $10 billion from it.

The Paulson bailout plan is flawed in many awful ways, but start with this basic one: the money (some estimates now put the total taxpayer cost above $2 trillion) is being handed to the same schemers and finaglers who caused the crash. The public gets to contribute the funds, but it gets no seat at the table to decide how the system (and who in it) will be "rescued."

With typical antigovernment extremism, Paulson's plan makes the public passive investors in the banks we're saving, leaving all the say-so to the banks' current executives and directors. Our money is being given away by the Bush ideologues with no strings attached--not even a requirement that it go into new loans so credit can quickly flow into the American economy again! Excuse me? Unclogging that credit flow was Paulson's rationale for giving $125 billion to nine giant banks (Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of New York, and State Street). He now says he "hopes" the banks will use the money to make loans, but he refuses to require them to do so.

Meanwhile, bankers themselves say they are more likely simply to sit on the money for awhile or--get this--use it to buy up smaller competitors! Yes, that means that our tax dollars will go toward eliminating competition in America's banking market. Not only will this leave consumers and businesses with fewer choices, but this will also increase the size of poorly managed megabanks that have already been designated by the Bush-Paulson regime as "too big to fail."

Laissez-faire follies

One positive to come from this collapse is that it exposes the bankruptcy of several core ideas that have been pushed by free-market illusionists. For example, market infallibility--the notion that Wall Street investors, analysts, and bankers know more than anyone else, and the government (aka the public) should just get the hell out of the way and behold unfettered genius at work. So, behold. (And, by the way, these are the exact same people who only months ago were insisting that Americans would be so much better off if they would move their Social Security money from government hands to the more adventuresome wizards of Wall Street.)

Yet, those bankers and politicos who pushed this antigovernment ethos to today's disastrous conclusion remain delusional. They cry for trillions of our tax dollars, but they insist that the profiteers must control the bailout and remain free of public supervision. George W himself still sticks with fantasy over reality, claiming that the fundamentals of the system are sound and that it is "essential" that any reforms not interfere with the "free market."

It's been a scream to hear these devout market ideologues explain how they've just become Wall Street socialists. Having big, bad government buy up the failed investments, then partially nationalize America's financial system, is an unwelcome choice for Bush. "I frankly don't want the government involved," he said. "It was necessary." Bailout chief Paulson (dubbed "King Henry" by Newsweek) said, "We regret having to take these actions"--but they're necessary.

Why necessary? Because laissez-faire ideology is a crock. It failed. Americans are not being told the blunt truth, which is that the financial mess we're in today is a direct result of the laissez-faire fraud that Wall Street and Washington willfully imposed on our nation. CEOs and banking lobbyists, presidents and treasury secretaries, regulators and lawmakers (of both parties) failed to protect America from money-grubbing bankers, hedge-fund speculators, and other big players.

As we've learned in the past few weeks, there is no "free" market. Indeed, it's quite pricey when it trips and falls over the inevitable outcroppings of greed. That's why strong, vigilant, and aggressive public regulation is essential. Don't be fooled by claims that just throwing money at the hucksters will fix the problem. The only way to make America's financial system trustworthy is to return to the sound fundamentals of public oversight--starting with the bailout itself.

Immigrants Come Here Because Globalization Took Their Jobs Back There

The wailing in our country about the "invasion of immigrants" has been long and loud. As one complainant put it, "Few of their children in the country learn English ...The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of the importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

That's not some diatribe from one of today's Republican presidential candidates. It's the anxious cry of none other than Ben Franklin, deploring the wave of Germans pouring into the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Thus, anti-immigrant eruptions are older than the United States itself, and they've flared up periodically throughout our history, targeting the Irish, French, Italians, Chinese, and others. Even George W's current project to wall off our border is not a new bit of nuttiness -- around the time of the nation's founding, John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, proposed "a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics."

Luckily for the development and enrichment of our country, these past public frenzies ultimately failed to exclude the teeming masses, and those uproars now appear through the telescope of time to have been some combination of ridiculous panic, political demagoguery and xenophobic ugliness. Still, this does not mean that the public's anxiety and simmering anger about today's massive influx of Mexicans coming illegally across our 2,000-mile shared border is illegitimate. However, most of what the politicians and pundits are saying about it is illegitimate.

Wedge issue

There is way too much xenophobia, racism and demagoguery at play around illegal immigration, but such crude sentiments are not what is bringing this problem to a national political boil. Polls show -- as do conversations at any Chat & Chew Cafe in the country -- that there is a deep and genuine alarm about the issue among the nonxenophobic, nonracist American majority. In particular, workaday families are fearful about what an endless flow of low-wage workers portends for their economic future, and they're not getting good answers from Republicans, Democrats, corporate leaders or the media.

For the GOP candidates in this year's presidential run, the contest is coming down to who can be the most nativist knucklehead. They accuse each other of not wanting to punish immigrant children enough, of not being absolutists on "English-only" proposals, of having coddled illegal entrants in the past with amnesty proposals and sanctuaries, and of not being hawkish enough on sealing off and militarizing the border.

The leader of the anti-immigrant Republican pack is Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congress-critter who based his ill-fated presidential campaign on immigrant bashing. This goober is so nasty he'd scare small children. His website screeched that immigrants are "pushing drugs, raping kids, destroying lives," and his campaign slogan is a sledgehammer demand: "Deport those who don't belong. Make sure they never come back." As for illegal immigrants, Tom thinks that the term "illegal" is too soft, preferring to demonize immigrants as "aliens." Tancredo doesn't merely rant, he foams at the mouth, maniacally warning about waves of Mexican terrorists who are "coming to kill me and you and your children." Accused of trying to turn America into a gated community, he exulted, "You bet!"

At least he's taken a position, even if it's un-American and loopy. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have mostly tried to do a squishy shuffle, wanting to beef up law enforcement against illegal immigrants while also mouthing soothing words about the good work ethic of our friends south of the border and offering a bureaucratic rigmarole to allow some of the younger ones to gain permanent residency in our country. Worse, such corporate Democrats as Rep. Rahm Emanuel urge the party's candidates either to adopt the Republican's punitive message or simply to try ducking the issue.

Which brings us to the wall, both figuratively and literally. The fact that we are resorting to the construction of an enormous fence between two friendly nations admits to an abject failure by policy makers, who are so bereft of ideas, honesty, courage and morality that all they can do is to try walling off the problem.

We've had experience here in Texas with the futility of tall border fences. Molly Ivins reported a beer-induced incident that took place in 1983. Walling off Mexico had been proposed back then by the Reaganauts, and a test fence had been built way down in the Big Bend outpost of Terlingua. This little town also happened to be the site of a renowned chili cookoff that Molly helped judge, and it attracted a big crowd of impish, beer-drinking chiliheads.

There stood the barrier, 17 feet tall and topped with barbwire. It didn't take many beers before the first-ever "Terlingua Memorial Over, Under, or Through the Mexican Fence Climbing Contest" was cooked up. Winning time: 30 seconds.

Yet here come the border sealers again. Bush & Co. (including Democrats who have allowed the funding) is putting up an initial $1.2 billion to start building this version of the wall, which is projected to cost up to $60 billion over the next 25 years to build and maintain. It's a monster wall -- two or three 40-foot-high rows of reinforced fencing that take a swath of land 150 feet wide and stretch for 700 miles.

The Mexican government and people are insulted and appalled by the wall; ranchers, mayors and families living on either side of the border hate it; environmentalists are aghast at its destructive impact on the ecology of the area. Still, it's being built. Indeed, a 2005 federal act contained a little-noticed section authorizing Bush's Homeland Security czar to suspend any laws that stand in the way of building the wall. Current czar Michael Chertoff has already used this unprecedented authority to waive 19 statutes, including the Endangered Species, Clean Water and National Historic Preservation Acts.

All this for something that will not work. As Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona put it, "Show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." People have literally been dying to cross into the United States, and it's not possible to build a wall tall enough to stop them. They will keep coming.


The question that policy makers have not faced honestly is this one: Why do these immigrants come? The answer is not that they are pulled by our jobs and government benefits, but that they are pushed by the abject poverty that their families face in Mexico. That might seem like a mere semantic difference, but it's huge if you're trying to develop a policy to stop the human flood across our border.

Although you never hear it mentioned in debates on the issue, you might start with this reality: Most Mexican people really would prefer to live in their own country. Can we all say, duh? Pedro Martin, who has seen most of the young men and women in his small village depart for El Norte, put it this way: "Up north, even though they pay more, you're not necessarily living as well. You feel out of place. Here you can walk around the whole town, and it's comfortable. Life is easier."

Their family, language, culture, identity and happiness is Mexican -- yet sheer economic survival requires so many of them to abandon the place they love.

Again, why? Because in the last 15 years, Mexico's longstanding system of sustaining its huge population of poor citizens (including small self-sufficient farms, jobs in state-owned industries and subsidies for such essentials as tortillas) has been scuttled at the insistence of U.S. banks, corporations, government officials and "free market" ideologues. In the name of "modernizing" the Mexican economy, such giants as Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and GE -- in cahoots with the plutocrats and oligarchs of Mexico -- have laid waste to that country's grass-roots economy, destroying the already-meager livelihoods of millions.

The 1994 imposition of NAFTA was particularly devastating. Just as Bill Clinton and the corporate elites did here, Mexico's ruling elites touted NAFTA as a magic elixir that would generate growth, create jobs, raise wages and eliminate the surge of Mexican migrants into the United States. They were horribly wrong:

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Is a Presidential Coup Under Way?

Where is Congress? It's way past time for members to stand up. Historic matters are at stake. The Constitution is being trampled, the very form of our government is being perverted, and nothing less than American democracy itself is endangered -- a presidential coup is taking place. I think of Barbara Jordan, the late congresswoman from Houston. On July 25, 1974, this powerful thinker and member of the House Judiciary Committee took her turn to speak during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

"My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total," she declared in her thundering voice. "And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution."Where are the likes of Barbara Jordan in today's Congress? While the BushCheney regime continues to establish a supreme, arrogant, autocratic presidency in flagrant violation of the Constitution, members of Congress largely sit there as idle spectators -- or worse, as abettors of Bush's usurpation of their own congressional authority.

Why it matters

Separation of powers. Rule of law. Checks and balances. These may seem to us moderns to be little more than a set of dry, legal precepts that we had to memorize in high-school history class but need not concern us now. After all, the founders (bless their wigged heads!) established these principles for us back in 17-something-or-other, so we don't really have to worry about them in 2007. Think again. These are not merely arcane phrases of constitutional law, but the very keystones of our democracy, essential to sustaining our ideal of being a self-governing people, free of tyrants who would govern us on their own whim. The founders knew about tyranny. The monarch of the time, King George III, routinely denied colonists basic liberties, spied on them and entered their homes at will, seized their property, jailed anyone he wanted without charges, rounded up and killed dissidents, and generally ruled with an iron fist. He was both the law and above the law, operating on the twin doctrines of "the divine rule of kings" and "the king can do no wrong."

(Alert: Ready or not, the following is a high-school refresher course on American government. There will be a test.) At the front of the founders' minds was the necessity of breaking up the authority of their new government in order to avoid re-creating the autocracy they had just defeated. The genius of their structure was that legislating, administering, and judging were to be done by three separate but coequal branches, each with powers to check the other two, and none able to aggregate all three functions into its own hands (a result that James Madison called the very definition of tyranny). Just as important, to deter government by whim, all members of the three branches were to be subject to the laws of the land (starting with the Constitution and Bill of Rights), with no one above the law. As Thomas Paine said, "The law is king."

These were not legal niceties but core restraints designed to protect citizens from power grabs by ambitious autocrats. Such restrictions also make our country stronger by vetting policies through three entities rather than one. This balanced authority helps avoid many serious policy mistakes (or at least offers a chance to correct them later), and it is intended to prevent the one mistake that's fatal to democracy -- allowing one branch to seize the power to rule unilaterally.

Of course, sound schemes are oft screwed up by unsound leaders, and we've had some horrible hiccups over the years. John Adams went astray early in our democratic experiment by claiming the unilateral authority to imprison his political enemies; Abe Lincoln took it upon himself to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War; Woodrow Wilson launched his notorious Palmer Raids; FDR rounded up and imprisoned Japanese-Americans; J. Edgar Hoover and the infamous COINTEL program spied on and arrested thousands in the Vietnam War years; and Ronnie Reagan ran his own illegal, secret war out of the White House basement.

In all these cases of executive excess and abuse, however, outrage flowed from the public, courts stood up to the White House, congressional investigations ensued, and the American system regained its balance relatively quickly. As Jefferson put it when he succeeded Adams and repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts, "Should we wander [from the essential principles of our government] in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety."

This time is different

Now, however, come two arrogant autocrats like we've never seen in the White House. George W and his snarling enabler, Dick Cheney, are making a power grab so unprecedented, so audacious, so broad and deep, so secretive, so stupefying, and so un-American that it has not yet been comprehended by the media, Congress, or the public. The dictionary defines "coup" not just as an armed takeover in some Third World country, but as "a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one affecting a change of government illegally or by force."

Constantly waving the bloody flag of 9/11 and swaggering around in commander-in-chief garb, the BushCheney duo are usurping authority from Congress, the courts, and the people, while also asserting arbitrary power that does not belong to the presidency. Their coup is changing our form of government, rewriting the genius of the founders by imposing a supreme executive that functions in secret and insists that it is above the law, unaccountable either to congressional oversight or to judicial review.

As Al Gore pointed out in a powerful speech he gave last year (read it here), the BushCheney push for imperial power is much more dangerous and far-reaching than other presidential excesses for a couple of big reasons. First, the Bushites make no pretension that they want these powers only temporarily, instead contending that a super-powerful presidency is necessary to cope with a terrorist threat that they say will last "for the rest of our lives." Second, they are not merely pushing executive supremacy as a response to an outside threat, but as an ideological, right-wing theory of what they allege the Constitution actually meant to say.

Called the "unitary executive theory," this perverse, antidemocratic construct begs us to believe that the president has inherent executive powers that cannot be reviewed, questioned, or altered by the other branches. Bush himself has asserted that his executive power "must be unilateral and unchecked." Must? Extremist theorists aside, this effectively establishes an executive with arbitrary power over us. It creates the anti-America.

The list of Bushite excesses is long...and growing:

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The Bushites Have Outsourced Our Government to Their Pals

The sprawling $43 billion homeland security department (HSD) is known chiefly for being the agency in charge of America's color-coded terrorist-threat alarm system ("Good morning, Americans. Today is Yellow. Be vigilant. Report all suspicious people.") It's boogeyman nonsense, of course, doing absolutely nothing to make our country safe. But such falderal helps those in charge obscure HSD's real mission: to serve as a giant federal cookie jar for corporate America. Go to HSD's website, and you'll find a prominent section called "Open For Business." There, on any given day, corporate shoppers can scroll through the hundreds of contracts and grants available to them. Just dip in and grab some cookies, each one worth from $50,000 to more than $80 million. Like the department's color codes, the vast majority of these projects do nothing to make our country safe. Instead, they are make-work studies, silly technologies, and useless systems that essentially serve as mediums for transferring billions of our tax dollars to a few corporate big shots. Ever helpful to its clients, HSD also maintains a private-sector office, headed by an assistant secretary who is not a security expert but a former banker from JP Morgan Chase. This office provides concierge service for cookie grabbers. For example, it recently held a corporate seminar, entitled "The Business of Homeland Security," offering "tips, hints, and directions" on how to grab the latest contracts and grants. Lest you think that patriotism or even national security might be the motivating force behind these government-industry confabs, a Sikorksy Helicopters executive who attended the session bluntly explained why he was there: "To us contractors, money is always a good thing."

Government by corporation

A monumental shift has quietly and quickly been taking place in the way the public's business is done -- and We the People have not even been informed about it, much less been asked to discuss and okay it. Corporations are taking over our government. No longer is it just a matter of big business's lobbyists and campaign donations perverting public policy. Now, politically connected corporations are also seizing day-to-day governmental operations for their own profit.

Since the Carter years, Washington has drifted toward more and more outsourcing of public functions to private contractors, but Bush Incorporated has turned that gradual increase into a fullblown, jet-powered rush to privatization. The shadowy and highly lucrative world of government contracting has boomed under George W, rising 86% since he's been in office and now totaling nearly $400 billion a year. Get this: There are now more people doing federal jobs under corporate contracts than there are people employed directly by the government. In other words, in today's government, corporate servants outnumber civil servants.

Bush likes to claim that he has cut the federal bureaucracy. In fact, he's increased it, but most of the people working in his government wear corporate logos. The New York Times recently reported that contract employees are in practically every agency, not merely doing perfunctory chores, but sitting in on policy sessions and drawing up agency budgets. "Even government's online database for tracking contracts, the Federal Procurement Data System, has been outsourced," says the Times.

This phenomenal change is the product not of managerial rationality, but of nonsensical anti-government ideology. Like the Iraq invasion, which was on the international agenda of the rabid neocons from Day One of Bush's tenure, privatization has long been on the domestic agenda of the laissezfaire ideologues. A January 10, 2001, report from the right-wing Heritage Foundation provided the roadmap. Titled "Taking Charge of Federal Personnel," it showed the Bushites how to storm into office and seize control of every agency. It stressed that they "must make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second," that "the whole governmental apparatus must be managed from this perspective," and that they should use "contracting out as a management strategy."

The official rationale for this privatization surge is that corporations are inherently more efficient than government and save the taxpayer oodles of money. Nice theory, but they aren't ... and they haven't. Start with this ideological assertion's most obvious flaw: By their very nature, corporations are loyal to their own bottom line, not to the country or to the common good. Any "efficiency" that they produce is derived from paying workers less (hardly a morale booster) and by taking shortcuts on the services or products they deliver. These "savings" are more than eaten up by the high profits, extravagant executive salaries, and other compensation that corporations demand -- costs that are not incurred when government does the job.

Another flaw in this privatization push is that Bush & Company are unabashedly running it as a crony program. An analysis by the Times found that more than half of their outsourcing contracts are not open to competition. In essence, the Bushites choose the company and award the money without getting other bids. Prior to Bush, only 21% of federal contracts were awarded on a no-bid basis.

Also, if privatization is so good, why is there no ongoing analysis of the costs and quality of service being delivered? This is an administration that demands a cost-benefit analysis of even the smallest government regulation of business, yet it is throwing trillions of our tax dollars into the coffers of corporate contractors without monitoring whether the outsourcing is costing us more and producing less than if the work were done by government employees.

Meanwhile, as the number of contracts has skyrocketed, the number of contract supervisors in federal agencies has remained the same, which means that the supposed overseers can't keep an eye on the performance of the profiteers. Whenever agencies or members of Congress do try to probe, the corporations simply claim that their financial and performance records are proprietary. While agencies are accountable to the public and subject to the Freedom of Information Act, corporate contractors are not.

Even when it's known in advance that a privatization project will be a rip-off, ideology has trumped integrity. Last fall, for example, Congress rubberstamped a Bush initiative requiring the IRS to outsource the collection of certain taxes to three private debt collectors. The collection agencies will pocket about 24 cents of every dollar they recover. But if the IRS were simply allowed to hire more revenue agents, it could collect these same debts for only 3 cents of every dollar brought in. Over 10 years, the three companies expect to reap $330 million from this deal.

A corporatized war

As we've learned during the last four-plus years, George W's Iraq war is run by a bumbling triumvirate composed of the White House, the Pentagon, and the Department of Halliburton.

This massive military contractor has done awfully well the past few years, thanks to its old CEO, "Buckshot" Cheney. Since the BushCheney regime took office, Halliburton's government contracts have increased by a stunning 600%, including more than $10 billion in Pentagon contracts -- many of them awarded without the fuss and muss of competitive bidding.

In return, Halliburton has delivered gas-price gouging, contaminated food and water, and a consis- These are our "savings" from privatization A 2006 federal audit of $1.7 billion in Pentagon purchases found that taxpayers were soaked for excessive fees from contractors and for tens of millions of dollars in waste. One reason was "poor contracting practices." Such as? The audit reports that 92% of the contracts were awarded without verifying that the contractors provided accurate cost estimates, and 96% of the work was inadequately monitored. 2 Hightower Lowdown June 2007 tent pattern of overcharges. It has been caught hiring Third World laborers to do its grunt work in Iraq, paying them as little as $5 a day, and then billing Uncle Sam more than $50 a day for each worker. In a February analysis of $10 billion in waste and overcharges by various contractors in Iraq, federal investigators found Halliburton responsible for $2.7 billion.

The corporation's 2006 profits were $2,348,000,000, and its overall profits have increased over 368% since the Bushites have been in office. Meanwhile, Halliburton has now outsourced itself, announcing this year that its top executives will move from Houston to palatial new corporate headquarters in Dubai. But don't worry -- the executives are keeping enough of a corporate presence in the good ol' USA to qualify for more government contracts.

People see Halliburton as the face of the privatized war in Iraq, but that's hardly the whole story. Indeed, there's a dirty little fact that Washington's warmongers don't tout: Bush has put almost as many private contractors in the Iraq war as U.S. troops.

Prior to Bush's "surge," there were about 140,000 American troops in Iraq and about 100,000 contract employees there. Contrast this to only 9,200 privatized troops sent to the Gulf war by George's daddy in 1991. And the 100,000 number doesn't count subcontractors, which would add an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 more private troops (no one knows for sure, since the Pentagon doesn't keep track of them). In addition, while the surge will put another 22,000 military troops in Iraq, it will also increase the private forces by an untold number.

Outfits like Halliburton, DynCorp, Blackwater, L-3, Titan, Custer Battles, Triple Canopy, and Wackenhut are reaping billions of our tax dollars doing military work that the Bush-Cheney Pentagon has outsourced. Not coincidentally, nearly all of these corporations are big-dollar donors to Republicans and/or are run by executives with tight GOP ties.

In part, corporate Iraq assignments provide support services -- laundry, meals, delivery of water and gasoline, etc. But a huge part of the military function itself has been privatized in this war -- such things as interrogating prisoners (including in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison), training the Iraqi army, guarding the Green Zone and the Baghdad airport, protecting military convoys, analyzing intelligence, and providing paramilitary security forces.

The personnel performing these tasks are not soldiers but hired hands, most of whom lack the training needed to make proper combat judgments, and they operate independently of the military command. "They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath," says a frustrated U.S. officer.

They also get shot, bombed, maimed, and killed. Yet the Bushites, wanting to downplay the negatives, don't count such people in casualty reports. The official number of 3,400 troops killed in Iraq doesn't include any from Bush's contract army. How many of them have died? No one knows the real number, but the Labor Department, which tracks workers compensation claims, has silently recorded 917 contractor deaths. More than 12,000 have been wounded in battle or on the job. These casualties are a hidden toll of this awful war, another measure of its deceit and immorality.

Contractors galore

Washington is under assault by hordes of corporations that are eagerly dicing up our government into digestible segments and then consuming them through either contracts or outright privatization.

Here are some examples:

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Can You Believe This War Is Still Going On?

* 3,300 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead.

* Rumsfeld said the Iraq attack would cost $50 billion. The tab so far exceeds $500 billion.

* Almost two million Iraqis have fled the country and only 30% of kids can go to school.

On Easter Morning, George W. made another of his periodic shows of Standing With The Troops. He attended church services in the chapel at Fort Hood in Kileen, Texas, after which he offered to the assembled media this pious little announcement: "I had a chance to reflect on the great sacrifice that our military and their families are making. I prayed for their safety. I prayed for their strength and comfort. And I pray for peace."

He prayed for our troops' safety? How clueless is he? George, you have the troops stuck in another country's vicious civil war. They're under attack from every direction by every faction, every hour of every day, hit by car bombs, roadside bombs, chlorine bombs, IEDs, suicide bombs, rocket fire, mortar rounds, snipers, and assassins. There is no safety in Iraq.

He prayed for peace? George, YOU made this war. Don't put it on God! The ONLY reason that America is in Iraq is because you, "Buckshot" Cheney, Rummy, and the rest rode us into an invasion and occupation on a pack of lies.

God didn't do this, YOU did. Praying won't get it done. God helps those who help themselves. You have peace in your own hands.

Yet the war goes on

Only three days after George the Pious told us about his prayers for safety, strength, comfort, and peace, his Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, announced that all active-duty soldiers already in Iraq or going there will have their tours of duty extended from 12 months to 15. "Our forces are stretched," Gates admitted, but he said that this added burden is "necessary" in order to carry out Bush's latest war strategy, his "surge" scheme. The extension order affects 100,000 soldiers. Plus their families. Bear in mind that many of these families have already gone through two or three tours in Iraq.

Back at Fort Hood, where Bush prayed, families were angry. "A year is so long apart you hardly know your husband," said Nichol Spencer. "Now they're making it longer?"

Theresa White said, "To a civilian, three months is 12 weeks. To an army wife, three months is the straw that broke the camel's back."

Of course, that's three more months in hell that Bush is committing these people to endure (this from a guy who could not even complete an Easy Street tour of duty stateside in the "champagne unit" of the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War). To add insult to injury, after saying that he had prayed for the "comfort" of these soldiers and their families, Bush didn't even have the courtesy to inform them in advance that the extension was coming. "It was disrespectful," said Mindy Shanahan, also from Fort Hood. Her husband is in Iraq and will now be stuck there an extra three months, assuming he survives. "We should have had at least 48 hours notice, instead of having to see this on CNN," she said.

Prolonging the time soldiers must spend in Iraq hides one of the military's other little problems: Very few Americans want to join Bush's war. Not even those young Republicans who say they so enthusiastically support the war are willing to bet their lives on it. So, in a country of 300 million citizens, recruiters are straining to meet a quota of roughly 80,000 new soldiers a year, much less find more troops to cycle into Bush's surge. The military has already raised the maximum enlistment age from 35 to 42, which means that if you and your wife had kids when you were 20 and you're now 40, the whole family could go to war. Wow--the Brady Bunch does Iraq!

Despite doubling the number of felons permitted to enlist and lowering the minimum standards so more high-school dropouts and people with low mental-aptitude scores can be taken, the Pentagon still is not getting enough volunteers. Even recent West Point graduates, the Army's elite, are saying "no thanks" to Iraq, choosing to leave active-duty service at the highest rate in more than three decades.

Yet, the war goes on

Bush's war, now in its fifth year, has already lasted longer than World War II. On Easter Sunday, as George was saying his prayers, the number of American military deaths in Iraq was approaching 3,300. And now, with his surge, the rate of U.S. deaths is on the rise. All this killing has prompted more eloquence from the commander-in-chief: "Make no mistake about it. I understand how tough it is. I talk to families who die."

Then there are some 24,000 soldiers who haven't died but instead have come home maimed and traumatized, including more than 1,300 who've lost arms and/or legs, and more than 4,600 who've suffered severe head or brain injuries. Many of them have been sent to the "comfort" of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, just a short hop from Bush's hangout at the White House. There they have been greeted with horrific conditions and cold indifference.

When news of this scandal broke, Bush feigned surprise and expressed obligatory outrage. But, wait, George -- you're the president, you're in charge of this disgrace! It's your Pentagon budget (now above half-a-trillion dollars a year) that has been lavishing money on favored contractors while quietly snipping away at funding for Walter Reed. A review panel concluded last month that your Pentagon was aware of this neglect, yet it still cut funds even as the hospital was being inundated with thousands of severely maimed soldiers returning from Iraq. The panel said the hospital is now beyond repair.

It's not just Walter Reed, either. The nationwide VA system is overwhelmed with patients and experiencing crucial shortages in staff and facilities. As of January, there was a backlog of 600,000 vets awaiting care--nearly a third of whom have been waiting six months or longer. All this on your watch, George--while you've been demanding that war critics "support our troops." Meanwhile, your current budget proposal reduces funding for veterans' care in 2009 and 2010--just when the military expects that the influx of wounded will peak.

Yet, the war goes on

Asked in January 2003 what the price tag was for the Bushites' upcoming Iraq attack and occupation, Donny Rumsfeld said that the budget office forecast "a number that's something under $50 billion."

Not quite right. Iraq is now costing us $6 billion a month (the surge will be extra), and total direct costs through this year will top $500 billion. Included in that is $12 billion that was airlifted in 2003 to the interim Iraqi government in shrinkwrapped stacks of $100 bills (the load weighed 363 tons) and promptly disappeared. Poof...gone!

Add in such indirect costs as veterans' long-term health care and replacement of the military hardware consumed by the war, and the tab runs to $1.2 trillion or more. David Leonhardt, a New York Times economic analyst, has itemized some other things we could've bought with that sum instead of the mess in Iraq. His list includes:

  • TEN YEARS of universal health care, covering every American who is now without it.
  • DOUBLING the cancer research budget.
  • GLOBAL IMMUNIZATION of the world's children against measles, whooping cough, tetanus, TB, polio, and diptheria.
  • UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL for every 3- and 4-year-old child in America.
  • RECONSTRUCTION of New Orleans.
  • IMPLEMENTATION of all of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

Yet, the war goes on

Being positive is one thing, but George W has gone from positive to delusional. Last year, in a rhetorical reach to claim that things were looking up in Iraq, he offered this: "I think--tide turning. See, as I remember--I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of--it's easy to see the tide turn."

He might ask the Iraqi people about tide-turning progress in his war. Outside of Baghdad's four-square-mile fortress known as the Green Zone, where the U.S. brass and Iraqi political elite reside, life is miserable. Violence erupts constantly and unpredictably, fear is everyone's companion, jobs are scarce, going anywhere is dangerous, basic services are practically nonexistent, and distrust, frustration, and anger rule.

An official UN count puts last year's death toll of innocent Iraqi civilians at 34,452--three times higher than the U.S. had admitted. Another 36,685 were wounded. One analysis puts the civilian death toll much higher--a total of 655,000 since the invasion.

Some 2 million Iraqis (16% of the population) have fled the country, including 40% of professionals (one third of doctors fled, 2,000 have been murdered). Three thousand people a day are fleeing--so many that Saudi Arabia (Bush's superrich ally in his war) is building a 560-mile fence to keep them out. By the way, the U.S. allowed only 202 Iraqi refugees into our country last year.

Another 1.6 million Iraqis are displaced within their country, forced from their homes by various factions in the civil/religious war. Many of these are children. Only 30% of Iraqi children attended school last year (pre-war, nearly 100% percent were in school). Children routinely witness violence and killings that are often gruesome, including seeing family and friend die. A recent study of 2,500 grade school children in Baghdad found that 70% showed symptoms of trauma.

While Bush brags that his war has liberated women, in reality there has been an explosion of violence against them, including widespread abductions, public beatings, rapes, "honor killings," torture, beheadings, and public hangings. The president of the Iraqi National Council of Women goes nowhere without a bodyguard. "I started with 6," she said, "then I increased to 12, and then to 20, and then to 30." One of the women in Iraq's parliament said bluntly, "This is the worst time ever in Iraqi women's lives."

Yet, the war goes on

Lest we forget in the foggy mist of Bush's rationales for his war (WMDs! al Qaeda connections! Democracy for the people!), Iraq sits atop the world's second-largest oil reserve. The proven reserves are 112 billion barrels, with a probable pool in excess of 400 billion barrels. At current prices, that's about $25 trillion worth of crude.

When certain outrageous commentators (like me) suggested at the start of the war's build-up that an oil grab could be involved, Rumsfeld barked to the media, "It has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil." Could that have been another Bushite lie?

Yes. Big Oil has long wanted to get its hands on Iraq's vast reserves. In a 1998 speech, Chevron's CEO said, "I'd love Chevron to have access." Big Oil's wish is Bush's command, and as early as December 2002, just before the invasion, the state department's oil-and-energy working group was saying that Iraq "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war."

In 2004 Bush & Company drafted a secret legislative proposal to deliver this national treasure to the oil giants. This February, the proposal was introduced to the Iraqi parliament, and now the Bushites, oil lobbyists, and a handful of Iraqi pols are urgently trying to pass it.

This law would transform Iraq's oil reserves from a nationally owned resource to a privatization model, opening two thirds of the known oil fields (and all fields discovered in the future) to control by Big Oil. Instead of having Iraq's parliament make the major decisions over oil, an unelected authority called the Federal Oil and Gas Council would take charge. And guess who would have seats on the council? The major oil corporations!

This autocratic group would then decide who gets the contracts to extract the nation's oil. That means Big Oil would be approving its own bids! Also, the corporations would not have to hire Iraqis, reinvest profits in Iraq, or share new technologies. Foreign interests would even be allowed to divvy up the territory now, hold their pieces of the action until after the current civil war settles down, and then move in to grab profits.

Yet, the war goes on

If you think that maybe our selfannointed "war president" is in over his head, ponder this bit of strategic insight from George: "No question that the enemy has tried to spread sectarian violence. They use violence as a tool to do that."

Uh, yeah...and it seems to be working. Bush's surge strategy is intended to concentrate our forces in Baghdad to rid the capital of violence. But since the surge began, residents have not noticed any lull in the carnage, instead experiencing a record number of car bombings. On April 12, the Green Zone itself got a wake-up call when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the parliament's cafeteria, killing three lawmakers and five others.

Meanwhile, knowing that the U.S. surge was coming and would last for only a few months, the deadly Shiite militias based in Baghdad have simply stood down to wait out Bush. With U.S. and Iraqi forces surging in Baghdad, the bloodshed has spread to the countryside. In late March, for example, two massive truck bombs ripped through the town market in Tal Afar, killing 48. In response, Shiite militia went on a revenge spree against Sunni residents, killing some 60 of them.

Then there's the Kurdish zone in the north, which had been rather calm...until now. The Iraqi constitution cobbled together by the Bushites a couple of years ago contains a provision requiring a referendum on the future of the region's capital city, Kirkuk. Now, because two sides want to control this wealthy city, a new front has opened in the Iraq war.

On one side are the Kurds, who have set up their own essentially autonomous government in the north and have well-armed, battleseasoned militias ready to fight for the land they claim as their own. Opposing them are the Arabs, who were moved into the Kurdish zone by Saddam Hussein years ago but now consider it to be theirs. They are also heavily armed and--follow the bouncing ball here--they are backed by the government of neighboring Turkey, which is fighting a Kurdish independence movement inside its own borders.

Literally underlying this explosive ethnic imbroglio is one of the world's largest oil reserves, which means Big Oil also has a keen interest in "winning"--whatever that involves. To add to the nasty potential, Iran cares very much about this fight and has deployed security forces to the border it shares with the Kurdish zone.

The government in Baghdad, under enormous pressure (aka blackmail) from Kurdish legislators, has just decided to back the Kurds' claim--and the Arab side in Kirkuk is already setting off bombs in Kurdish neighborhoods.

Yet, the war goes on

In a tragi-comic bit of presidential posturing, Bush assembled a dozen or so veterans, soldiers, and family members in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House for a media show on March 23. With these human "stage props" lined up behind him, George lashed out at congressional Democrats for passing a bill requiring withdrawal from Iraq next year. Without even a smile of irony, Bush called the Democrats' effort "an act of political theater."

Well, this particular withdrawal bill won't get the job done, but it's a reflection of the broad public demand to stop this horrible folly. Roughly two thirds of Americans want out of Iraq by next year, and 54% support a cutoff of funds for Bush's surge. Even the troops in Iraq want a withdrawal, for only 35% of those polled by Military Timeslast December said that they approve of George W's handling of the war.

Still, some progressives despair. They say that last year's elections were a clear mandate for withdrawal, but the Democrats have been weak and the killing continues, so what's the use? That's right on the facts, but totally wrong on the attitude. We made great strides last year, and we've changed the national debate on the war. Yes, Bush and Cheney are boneheads, and the Democratic leadership has Jello in its spine, but what did you expect? Popular movements have always had to muster the tenacity to overcome disappointments-- and ours is no different. Come on--we've got 'em on the run! Far from being down, take energy from the gains we've made--and keep pushing on. No one is going to stop the war but us.

Candidates Who Shun Corporate Cash Are Winning

A number of travel firms offer a "democracy tour" of Washington, DC. They'll buzz you through the White House, let you behold the ornate grandeur of the Senate and House chambers, give you a peek into the marbled halls of the Supreme Court, and generally introduce you to symbols of American political power. But to see actual political power in today's system, you'd need to take what amounts to an "antidemocracy tour," following the money trail through our Capitol City. Unfortunately, tourist buses don't go there.

To see money power at work, you could take a five-minute walk from the gleaming dome of the Capitol building to the Republican and Democratic party headquarters. In both, there are banks of small offices (fancy cubicles, really), each with a table, a couple of chairs, and a phone. This is where our stalwart lawmakers spend an inordinate amount of their time telephoning corporate executives, lobbyists, and other special interests, methodically asking each of them to give or raise $5,000, $50,000, $500,000 -- or more -- to fund their re-election campaigns. It's not unusual for senators to spend three hours a day, three days a week holed up in these dark spaces, doing nothing but making money call after money call to a list of wealthy elites.

Also missing from the Gray Line tours are the secluded watering holes, restaurants, and unmarked private clubs where lobbyists routinely host a full schedule of breakfast, brunch, lunch, cocktail, and dinner fundraisers for members of Congress. GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff is one who specialized in these greet-gulp-and-grab functions, holding so many that he opened his own restaurant to handle the traffic.

It's a corrupt, virulently antidemocratic system in which private money buys multiples of public money. Private interests -- overwhelmingly corporate -- put up millions of dollars in campaign funds each election cycle...and, in turn, the beholden recipients deliver billions of dollars to self-interested donors through public subsidies, contracts, tax breaks, regulatory favors, and other financial gains.

This is the "pay to play" system of Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, and others who got caught reaching too openly into the goody bag. But it is also the system of those not yet caught, even of some who speak loudly about the need for reform (as long as "reform" doesn't go so far as to interrupt the cash flow).

This is the problem with the "sweeping" reform package recently passed with great fanfare by the new Democratic majority in Congress. The provisions are nice, but good grief, didn't any of our lawmakers have kindergarten teachers? Having to tell members that it's a no-no to take free rides on corporate jets, winging off on all expenses- paid golfing junkets with lobbyists, is a measure of how far ethics have sunk in Washington -- and such bans are certainly no solution to the actual problem.

The power that lobbyists wield over legislators will be undiluted with the Democrats' package, for, while it sweeps broadly, it doesn't touch the one filthy spot that truly matters: campaign donations. If a lobbyist says to a member, "Back my bill, or I won't buy you dinner," that's not a lot of swat. But for a member to be dependent on a lobbyist for raising a half-million bucks or so for the next election...well, that's swat with some thunder and lightning in it. It's instructive that only hours after changing the House rules last month to stop lobbyists from doling out certain freebies to lawmakers, Democrats celebrated. How? With a fundraising gala that drew some 200 check-writing lobbyists, still free to pay and play.

Grassroots rebels

Well, say the cynics, the Democrats' hypocrisy just shows that you can't change the system -- special interests will always find their way around any restrictions reformers can dream up. Horsestuff. Look to the states and cities, and you'll find examples of citizens reclaiming their politics and government from the exclusive grasp of the monied powers.

Their reform mechanism is a rather simple notion called "clean elections." CE gives candidates for state and local offices a choice: (1) go ahead and run the old way if you want, ceaselessly hustling campaign money from private funders and hocking your independence to them; or (2) choose to forego money from private interests (and use of your personal wealth) in return for receiving nostrings- attached public funds to finance your campaign.

To qualify for clean financing, candidates have to demonstrate a broad level of support by getting signatures and $5 donations (which go to the CE fund) from a certain number of local voters, usually about 200 for a state legislative race and up to 25,000 for a gubernatorial run. This sorts out those running as a lark, for getting this many people to hand you $5 endorsements is tedious, door-to-door work.

Once qualified, CE candidates receive a fixed and equal amount of public funds. They get an allotment to run in their party's primaries (including third-party primaries), and those who win receive another allotment for the general election. Also -- and very important -- if a CE candidate is being grossly outspent by a candidate with Big Bucks backing or one spending a personal fortune, the clean candidate gets an extra allotment of matching funds to stay competitive.

The advantages of clean elections are enormous -- not only for the candidates, but also for the public good:

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Throw the Bums Out and Change Direction

At an October fundraiser in Topeka, the Republican faithful lined up to shake hands with the headliner, Dick Cheney. But before getting to the Veep, they had to get past the wife of the local Congress critter. She was standing adjacent to Cheney, holding a big bottle of Purell, a hand sanitizer that claims to kill "99.99% of most common germs." Each person waiting to get their grip-and-grin with the honoree first had to accept a squirt of the goop from this lady to purify their hands! After the meet-and-greet was over, Cheney ducked backstage and rubbed a generous dollop of the antiseptic onto his own hands, cleansing him of the human contact he had just endured.

On November 7, however, it was voters doing the cleansing, washing their hands of the Bush-Cheney regime. Yes, I know that Bush & Gang are still there, and they'll be trying to do all the damage they can in their remaining two years. But by losing the House and Senate majority, they have hit a serious speed bump.

Toward the end of the campaign, the White House insisted that Republicans would retain control of Congress because voters were focused on local issues and candidates, not on Bush or his policies. "We have succeeded in making these races choices between two local candidates," bragged Karl Rove. And when a reporter suggested that Bush's disastrous war in Iraq was dragging down GOP congressional candidates, Cheney chimed in with his two cents' worth of political insight: "We're not running for office."

Wrong, Karl. Wrong, Dick. In its exit polls, The New York Times found that Bush's war, Bush's economy, and Bush himself were foremost on voters' minds as they entered the voting booths to toss out the Republican Congress.

68 percent said that the Iraq war was either "very" important or "extremely" important in how they voted (only 10 percent said it was "not at all" important).

83 percent said the economy was very or extremely important in how they voted (and 68 percent said that their family was either falling behind financially or barely staying even).

In fact, George has become so unpopular that only the GOP candidates in the reddest of red spots asked him to campaign with them. The cruelest blow came on the campaign's last day. Bush was to appear in Pensacola, Florida, at a Republican rally featuring the party's gubernatorial hopeful, Charlie Crist. Ten thousand partisans turned out for Bushbut one person who decided at the last minute not to come was…Charlie. Seeing Bush's poll numbers in Florida below 40 percent, Charlie suddenly remembered that he needed to be over in Palm Beach that day. Jilted, poor George had to call in Brother Jeb to do the introduction.

Spin it as they will, this election was a resounding rejection of the Bushites' agenda. As an independent voter in New Jersey said as she headed into her polling place, "I don't care if I vote for Happy the Clown, just so it's not who's there now." She added that she was voting "against the powers that put us in this situation" in Iraq.

Progressive surge

The establishment media pundits, clueless as ever, have tried their damndest to contort the Democratic sweep into a victory for conservatives! They claim that the Dems who won in red areas were victorious only because they adopted Republican-like positions on guns, abortion, or religion.

Your average rutabaga has a sharper analytical ability than that. If these pundits would venture out and talk with anyone besides themselves, they'd find that people aren't one-dimensional stick figures. Being a hunter and a defender of gun rights in a so-called red state, for example, doesn't turn you into Dick Cheney.

Take Jon Tester, the new senator from Montana. He's a big burly guy, with the boots, belly, and buzzcut that makes him appear to be a rural conservative caricature. To add to the stereotype, he's pro-gun and antigay marriage.

But let's fill in this stickman drawing of Tester. He's an organic farmer. He took time off in the heat of the campaign to go home to harvest his crops. He's a working guy who's missing three fingers from a tangle he had with a meat grinder. He's been a teacher, soil-conservation leader, and president of the state senate (where he established a solidly progressive record of siding with common folks against the corporate interests).

Jon defeated three-term incumbent and corporate favorite Conrad Burns by running a flatout populist campaign that took these stands: raise the minimum wage to a livable level, provide health care for all, fight the drug giants for lower prescription prices, stop big interests from selling off or locking up our public lands, halt the use of the Patriot Act to invade the lives of innocent Americans, oppose NAFTA-like trade scams, ban lobbyist-paid gifts and travel, make college affordable, promote renewable energy and conservation, save Social Security from the privatizers, battle railroad monopolies that hold rural communities captive, focus tax relief on the middle class instead of on millionaires, and--a big one--give military control of Iraq to the Iraqis, bring our troops home, and fully fund veterans' health care.

Conservative? On the kitchentable issues that matter to people (issues that require a political leader to side with ordinary folks against the corporate and governmental elites), Jon Tester is the kind of populist progressive that America needs.

The good news is that voters not only took out Bush's rubber- stamp congressional majority, but they also brought in a crop of real progressives who'll add badly needed energy and more of an "outsider" attitude to what has been a lackluster, tired, corporate-coddling Democratic party. In addition to Tester, the Senate will feel the progressive surge that will come from Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bernie Sanders (Vermont)--all of whom ran campaigns centered on economic populism.

Likewise, the House majority will be invigorated by a new class of Democrats who campaigned on a core progressive agenda, including minimum wage, health care, Social Security, and Bush's Iraq war. Meet a few of them.

Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire is a teacher, social worker, and staunch war opponent. Short on money but strong in volunteer support, she had to battle her own party's establishment to win the nomination. Then her shoe-leather, issue-oriented, no-nonsense, populist approach upset the GOP's entrenched incumbent, making her the first New Hampshire woman in history to go to Congress.

Tim Walz is a high-school teacher, football coach, 24-year member of the Army National Guard…and passionate defender of liberty and justice for all. In 2004, he escorted two of his students to a Bush rally in his hometown of Mankato, Minnesota. At the checkpoint, however, George W's security thugs barred them from entering because one of the students had a Kerry-Edwards sticker on his wallet. "This is not how America is supposed to be," Tim said. So he has now paid Bush back by running a populist campaign that upset a six-term incumbent who was a Bush apologist and servant of special interests. John Hall is a rock musician (founder of the band Orleans) and longtime environmental activist who lives in New York's Hudson Valley. In 2004 the Bushites lifted one of his tunes, "Still the One," as their presidential campaign song, not bothering to get permission. Hall protested their thievery and forced them to stop. This year -- with the enthusiastic backing of labor, environmental, and antiwar groups -- John lifted the Republican incumbent from Congress.

Jerry McNerney is a California alternative-energy entrepreneur, an engineer … and now a giant killer. With strong grassroots support from environmentalists and other progressives, McNerney had a stunning victory over Richard Pombo, the arrogant, corporate-hugging, antigovernment absolutist who was chair of the natural resources committee.

Vigorous antiestablishment campaigns like these have brought renewed progressive strength to Washington. More importantly, though, this year's campaigns have greatly strengthened our grassroots power, even in areas where our candidates didn't make it. We've added more and better-trained campaign activists, gained experience, spread the populist message where it has long been unheard, attracted new voters (including many who had dropped out or had considered themselves conservative), and created frameworks to sustain a continuing movement.

Seizing the initiative

While this was a "throw the bums out" year, it was just as clearly a "change America's direction" year, with the majority finally rising up to throw off the rightwing plutocracy, autocracy, theocracy, and kleptocracy that Bush & Company have hung around America's neck.

One sign of this fed-up sentiment was the total repudiation of a bit of corporate-backed ugliness called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, it's more like a Bill of Wrongs, for it's essentially another ploy by the antitax, hate-government elites to defund even essential public services from education to public safety. It's the creature of the ultranutty Grover Norquist and receives its main financing from a multimillionaire New York developer named (you won't believe this!) Howie Rich.

TABOR was put forth as ballot initiatives in nine states this year, but six states stripped it from their ballots because of fraud and assorted wrongdoings by the initiative's pusher.Then, by convincing margins, the voters of Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon said no to TABOR's ideological malevolence.

Meanwhile, there was widespread positive news on the initiative front. The most resounding victories came in all six states which had initiatives to increase the minimum wage. Voters said "yes" in Arizona (66 percent approval), Colorado (53 percent), Missouri (76 percent), Montana (73 percent), Nevada (69 percent), and Ohio (56 percent). In all the states but Nevada, the initiatives also required that the minimum wage be adjusted annually for inflation. Voters in Arizona and Nebraska (supposedly antitax, bright-red states) approved initiatives to increase funding for early childhood education. Washington State voted to require that big utilities produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Oregon expanded access to a prescriptiondrug program for the uninsured, and Missouri okayed funding for stemcell research.

Secretaries of state

Amazingly, America still can't seem to get this democracy thing down. People are actively discouraged from voting, and votes aren't counted as the voter intended. There were no total meltdowns this year (à la Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004), but serious problems persisted. Outrageous electronic voting "glitches," disgraceful voter intimidation and suppression, and crass purges of voter rolls continue to be a plague on our country's democratic pretensions.

Some of the problems turned comical. In Ohio, Republican Congress critter Steve Chabot was turned away from voting because the address on his ID differed from the one on his registration card; the top election official in Missouri was asked three times to show a photo ID in order to vote, even though state law does not require one; and Gov. Mark Sanford was sent away from his South Carolina polling place because he showed up without his registration card.

Then there's the ghost of Katherine Harris. As Florida's secretary of state in 2000, she infamously rigged the vote count for George W. She then went to Congress, and this year she ran for (and lost) a U.S. Senate seat. But her bad mojo reached out and touched the election to replace her in the House. Touch-screen voting machines which she had championed as secretary of state appear to have malfunctioned on November 7 in her old congressional district, erasing the votes of some 18,000 people. Only 373 votes separated the two candidates, so a recount is underway. However, since there's no paper trail to these machines, it'll be hard to prove that all those people didn't just fail to vote in this particular race. This sort of ridiculous stuff is why the little-known office of the secretary of state is key to getting a grip on our democracy -- and why progressives ran for these offices in seven states this fall, winning in Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio. In Minnesota, my old friend Mark Ritchie ousted an eight-year incumbent who had turned the office into an electioneering wing of the Republican party. Crisscrossing the state, Mark tapped into a deep well of anger about the lack of fairness and integrity in the voting system and will now do the work needed to restore people's faith.

What now?

On the plus side, some good people are going to be in positions to do good things in Congress. Speaker-tobe Nancy Pelosi has come out with a "First Hundred Hours" agenda that ranges from passing a new minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to breaking the corruption ties between lobbyists and legislation. And nearly everyone except "Slow Joe" Lieberman seems to realize that Bush's war is wrong and we must get out of it--pronto.

Also, there are some promising changes in who runs Congress's committees, such as John Conyers (Judiciary), David Obey (Appropriations), George Miller (Education and the Workforce), Henry Waxman (Government Reform), Nydia Velázquez (Small Business), Bennie Thompson (Homeland Security), Bob Filner (Veterans' Affairs), and Charlie Rangel (Ways and Means).

On the down side, there are still too many go-slow, don't-rock-theboat, weak-kneed, money-grubbing, corporatized Democrats who won't break their habits of bedding down with the lobbyists and even the Bushites. They will push hard from inside the Democratic Caucus (while the White House, the money interests and the establishment media pushes from outside) for the majority to "be nice," move to the corporate right, and agree from the start to surrender half of what they want (and then compromise down from there).

Now is the time for progressives to be more vigilant than ever -- focus on what the Democrats are doing and not doing, make loud and clear demands that they do more, and keep organizing at the grassroots level. Just a few months ago, George W. declared, "I'm the decider." No, he's not. Neither are the Democrats. You are.

Blasting American Infrastructure Away

CODE RED, AMERICANS! Screaming, flashing, neon-bright, God Almighty RED!!! Not just a single disaster, but multiple, biblical-level catastrophes are being plotted by a diabolical, heretofore unnamed network of terrorists who're out to destroy America with an unprecedented series of attacks.

They have their sights on our busiest airports. Also our dams, with the potential for horrific mass destruction. In addition, our municipal water systems and unified electric-power grids are on their list. Plus, we have proof that these ruthless cowards, in zealous pursuit of their own narrow ideology, have already spread into every area of our country with copycat plans to bring down countless numbers of America's schools, directly targeting our children.

These terrorists are not connected to Osama, the "Axis of Evil," or any other foreign-based network. Instead, they are homegrown extremists, and they are doing more long-term, systemic damage to our country than al Qaeda could possibly imagine, much less pull off. Their leaders are sitting undetected in the White House, Congress, governors' mansions, and city halls from coast to coast. They do not attack overtly but covertly by passively allowing such essential public works as our highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, levees, water-purification plants, pipelines, chemical-storage tanks, libraries, and schools to deteriorate, erode, corrode, leak, collapse, fossilize, and otherwise come apart, sapping our nation's strength and security.

If there were the merest suspicion that some group of Arabicspeaking Islamic extremists was plotting even a fraction of this damage, George W's hair would burst into flames, Congress would throw open the doors of Fort Knox to fund retaliation, martial law would be declared, and every Muslim in America would be rounded up. But our "leaders" of both political parties are the ones doing this to our country, without paying so much as a political price, much less being shackled and hauled off to Gitmo.

They have escaped public exposure and punishment because (1) "infrastructure" is a non-sexy, mostly silent asset; (2) the destruction of America's vital infrastructure is happening by acts of omission, not commission, and (3) the Powers That Be have found a way to make their assault a point of political pride, spinning it as a valiant effort to cut taxes and defund Big Government.

From George W to George W

Granted, people (including me) don't like Big Government, but as we learned from Bush's Katrina fiasco, we damned sure do want essential government. This has been the case from the start of our nation, and the boneheaded, shortsighted, self-aggrandizing, "kill government" ideologues of today are enemies of history, common sense, progress, and America's public welfare.

The first W--George Washington --was on board with using public funds to provide the new country with a solid infrastructure, including an extensive system of postal roads and canals. Jefferson stepped up with tax dollars for the Louisiana Purchase. Even in a time of civil war, Honest Abe saw the need for a transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, and a public system of land-grant colleges. Teddy Roosevelt--a Republican-- pushed for our sterling network of national parks and created the National Forest Service. FDR put America to work building courthouses and dams, planting windbreaks and arbors, creating music and plays--jewels that are still with us. Ike, a fiscal conservative, saw the need to launch the Interstate Highway System. Lyndon Johnson fought for crucial investments in hospitals, schools, water systems, and parks.

From the early 1950s into the 1970s, total public spending on America's physical plant (including money put up by local, state, and federal agencies) amounted to about 3% of our Gross Domestic Product. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, this investment in the public good fell victim to posturing budget whackers and dropped well below 2% of our GDP--a cut of more than a one third.

The situation has worsened under the Bushites, who are sworn enemies of public investment in anything but the military and their corporate cronies. While federal infrastructure outlays in the 1960s were equal to the amounts spent by state and local governments, locals are now putting up three times what the feds spend, with the federal investment shrinking this year to an abysmal 0.7% of GDP.

Of course, George W has a fib to fit every figure, including this deceit: "Infrastructure is always a difficult issue," he said recently. "And I, frankly, feel like we've upheld our responsibility at the federal level with the highway bill." Well, frankly, George, you haven't. Not even close. Experts point out that your $286 billion bill is more than $30 billion short of the bare minimumneeded simply to bring America's once proud highway system up to the low standard of "adequate." And what you provide is way short of what's required for rail, mass transit, smart highways, and other transportation needs.

Instead of offering an overarching vision of a forward-thinking transportation plan for our growing, sprawling population, this blob of a bill is a catchall for special-interest projects funded on the basis of insider influence, not need.

Citizens Against Government Waste reports that the bill so loudly touted by Bush puts $1 out of every $14 into pork projects. Included, for example, is $223 million for a ridiculous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, linking the small town of Ketchican to Gravina Island (population 50)--locations which are already linked by a seven-minute ferry ride running every half hour. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens wanted this piece of pricey pork so badly that he threatened to quit Congress if his colleagues did not approve the bridge. Now, there was a golden opportunity to make two gains for the public interest in one stroke! But, alas, Congress and the White House sided with Stevens.

Third World USA

Any homeowner knows that if you ignore a leaking roof, you'll soon find your ceiling buckling, sheetrock crumbling, paint peeling, studs rotting… and a world of misery. The same is true of our national house, and the decay is increasingly obvious and ominous.

  • We now know that the ghastly drowning of New Orleans was not the result of Hurricane Katrina, but the failure of presidents, Congress, and the Army Corps of Engineers to fortify the levees--a disaster that had been predicted and was preventable. The people of this iconic American city (60% of whom have yet to return), are victims of right-wing, antigovernment theorists who insist on reducing public safety to "cost-benefit" formulas-- cold calculations that do not count consequences that occur only sometimes. Thus, no need to have a First World levee system (a lá the Dutch), since Category 4 and 5 storms aren't that frequent… even though they are inevitable and catastrophic.

  • Two years ago, during what was supposed to be a brief interruption for routine maintenance on locks and a dam on the Ohio River, upstream from Louisville, the system had to be shut down for eight weeks because deterioration was far worse than expected. This meant that coal being barged to power plants that supply electricity throughout the Midwest was stopped. A power blackout was only narrowly averted in this case, but such shutdowns of locks on the Ohio and Mississippi are increasing as infrastructure funds dry up. "If I had more money," the head of civil works says solemnly, "I could reduce these shutdowns to a level that I might consider satisfactory." The Commission on Public Infrastructure reports that half of the Corps of Engineers' 257 locks on our inland waterways are functionally obsolete.

  • The bursting of even a small dam can be a disaster. We regularly drive over dams, but we can't see the internal structures, so we don't give dam safety any thought-- until a dam fails. Then the TV has saturation coverage of the issue-- but soon it disappears again. Since 1998, the number of unsafe dams in the U.S. has risen by a third to more than 3,500, with the number of "high-hazard" dams up by 1,000. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports that $10.1 billion is needed over the next 12 years just to fix dams that are in such critical shape they pose a direct risk to human life.

  • After the school-shooting horror in Pennsylvania Amish country, George W convened a quickie, made-for-TV "conference" on school safety, designed more for midterm electioneering than for producing any action. No one mentioned, however, that our leaders are letting America's school facilities deteriorate so badly that schoolrooms themselves have become unsafe. Collapsing ceilings, lead paint, crumbling stairways, broken windows, asbestos, radon, malfunctioning heaters and plumbing, lack of insulation, massive overcrowding, toxic waste, and other problems persist and are growing worse as maintenance and construction budgets are shortchanged at all levels of government. A 1999 federal report found that 14 million of our children were attending dilapidated schools--a record so sorry that the feds have refused to issue any safety reports since. But according to the National Education Association, at least one third of America's 80,000 schools are in need of extensive repair or replacement. In 2000, the NEA estimated that $268 billion is needed just to bring school conditions up as far as "good." "Excellent" requires much more.

  • Thanks to deteriorating water works and polluted water sources, it's no longer an oddity to have health warnings and "boil water" mandates attached to our tap water. A 2003 survey of conditions in 19 cities by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that one (Chicago) rated excellent in water quality and five could claim good, while eight earned only fair and five poor. Yet as of last year, federal funding for upgrading our drinking-water infrastructure was less than 10% of the national need, and the Bushites continue to hold it at this inadequate level. The watchdog group Food and Water Watch says that to protect public health, America needs to invest $277 billion over the next 20 years in improving our 55,000 community drinking-water systems.

  • Road and bridge conditions all across the country aren't just a mess--they're deadly. ASCE reports that bad and congested roads are a hidden tax that runs us $54 billion a year in car/truck repairs and excess operating costs, forces us to spend an average of 47 hours a year stuck in traffic (burning 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline in our idling vehicles), and--worst of all-- causes some 13,000 highway deaths each year. Bridges, too, are a threat; ASCE finds that 27% of America's spans are now structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, requiring $9.4 billion every year for the next 20 years to repair the deficiencies.

America's backbone

George W insists that he has made America "strong and safe," referring to the hundreds of billions of dollars he has dumped into Iraq and homeland security. Actually, he has failed the strength and safety test even on his foreign watch. But internally--where such essential physical networks as schools, dams, water systems, libraries, power lines, rails, parks, and airports are the vertebrae of our nation's backbone--the no-tax/no-government mantra of Bushite ideologues (with the complicity of spineless Democrats in Congress) has left America a fragile and vulnerable nation.

Last year, ASCE compared the conditions in 12 categories of our nation's infrastructure to conditions in 2001. From wastewater to the power grid, schools to airports, the 2005 overall grade had slipped down to a D from the D+ it got four years earlier. Of the 12 categories, only 2 had a slightly improved grade, 3 stayed the same, and 7 grew worse. No category rated either an A or B – only C's (mediocre) and D's (poor). The highest grade for any category was a C+. ASCE president William Henry blamed this pathetic, Third World level of performance directly on our current "patch and pray" approach to America's crucial infrastructure.

Infrastructure is more than just enjoying good roads and bridges. It is the key to a functioning society-- to attaining good jobs, supporting a middle class, producing a high quality of life, and achieving the common good. For all of their pretensions about being self-made, self-reliant entities, the corporate powers could not function without the public infrastructure that so many of them scorn, try to privatize, and seek to defund.

One delightful example of the power of public works is the 2.5 mile Riverwalk that meanders so beautifully through the heart of downtown San Antonio. With its broad walkways, 21 unique bridges, 31 native sandstone stairways, numerous public plazas, and gorgeous flora, this "Paseo del Rio" along the banks of the San Antonio River has become a tourist magnet. Drawing millions of visitors, it's home to a plethora of shops, restaurants, bars, strolling musicians, festivals, and fun. Riverwalk is second only to the Alamo as the city's defining attraction, and the local business establishment touts it worldwide as a masterpiece of the American marketplace.

What the corporate honchos don't broadcast, however, is that Riverwalk was a WPA project, built between 1939 and 1941 with federal money as part of FDR's National Recovery program. At the time, business moguls derided it as a "make-work" project.

Why not excellence?

ASCE's scorecard concludes that America must invest $1.6 trillion just to bring our basic infrastructure up to a grade of B, which is still short of "excellent." Though "good"is better than the "poor" level where we now reside, is that an acceptable aspiration for the richest country on earth? Come on--the Bushites are weak, but the American people are strong, with far bigger dreams of what our society can be than merely "keeping up" with the middling nations.

Let's reinvest in ourselves! Bring the troops home, move money out of the bloated corporate-military machine, put the ultrarich back on the tax rolls--and put millions of Americans to work rebuilding our nation's infrastructure to the world's top level.

Let's also tap into our country's deep well of grassroots ingenuity, can-do spirit, and commitment to the common good in order to update and extend our infrastructure into the new age. If we build a national network of renewable energy systems, for example, we will achieve energy independence for ourselves and future generations. And if we are truly to be a world leader, we must quickly build a public, information-age infrastructure that provides highspeed broadband connections and computers for every American in our land.

Not only can we do all of this, we must. To start, we have to spread the word about the disastrous decline our leaders have wrought and put what I call "pothole politics" up front on our local, state, and national agendas. Potholes don't get fixed until people scream.

Bush Is Trashing Our National Parks

It seems to me that George W. missed his true calling. I think he has long harbored a secret desire to be a thespian, for he's a man who clearly loves to dress up in costumes.

There's his famous Top Gun outfit, for example, which he strapped on back in 2003, strutting around vampishly to declare "mission accomplished" in Iraq. Also, every few weeks, George likes to reprise his abolish this magnificent system, and failing our children and all future generations who should receive America's public-park heritage in even better shape than it came to us. They diminish our country by shortchanging the rich culture, history, science, and natural life that spring from these unique places. For a nation of incredible wealth, this political failure is a damning stain on our professed ideals of the common goodand of good stewardship.

The politicos don't seem to get it that parks are beloved, even by people who don't like much of anything else that government does. In a Harris Poll last December, people ranked the Park Service as the most popular government program of all. With 85% support (including 83% of Republicans!), parks even outpaced such programs as crime fighting, Medicare and Social Security.

There are 388 of these public spaces, and they are widely used, especially by middle-class and lower-income families who count on them for recreation, vacation, education, and more. An astonishing 280 million visitors a year find their way to these forests, scenic rivers, historic sites, mountains, seashores, canyons, volcanos, monuments, islands, artifacts, glaciers, and other wonders -- more people than attend all football, baseball, and other professional sports events combined. For these millions, the park system is a tangible and highly valued benefit, firsthand evidence of what government is doing for ordinary folks.

The problem for park whackers is that this is one place where their whacks show. The years of budget shortfalls have taken an obvious toll on a park system that the general public considers its own. Visitors arrive to find such unpleasant surprises as reduced hours, discontinued tours andtalks, closed trails, unrepaired storm damage, boarded-up historic structures, leaky lodges, shuttered visitor centers, curtailed education programs, crumbling boardwalks, neglected campgrounds, dilapidated bridges, eroded roads -- and, of course, ever-rising fees. Here is a sampling of the deterioration, as documented in reports by such watchdog groups as The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (motto: "Green Blood Still Runs Deep"), National Parks Conservation Association, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER):

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How to Fix Our Health Care Mess

How messed up is America's health care system? Consider the case of the Leavitts. Anne and her husband Dixie, both in their 70s, got frazzled trying to work their way through the maddening maze of George W's new prescription drug program, which compels seniors to choose among 1,400 competing drug-insurance schemes offered by 80 corporations. Each plan in this baffling "marketplace" offers different coverage, is frustratingly complex and is filled with fine print. The Leavitts had to call on their son to help them select a company to cover their meds.

But -- oops! -- even with hands-on help, Anne and Dixie made a bad choice that almost cost them their entire medical coverage. They rushed to drop that plan and were lucky to find another at the last minute to avert a family disaster.

What makes the Leavitts' story unique among the millions of seniors who've been similarly discombobulated by Bush's convoluted prescription plan (including 15 million who've been left with no drug coverage) is that their helpful son is none other than Mike Leavitt. Yes, the head honcho of Bush's Health and Human Services Department! One more twist: Dixie Leavitt made his fortune in the insurance business.

If someone who's an insurance professional and is personally advised by the government's top health official still gets flummoxed -- that's a clue that the Powers That Be have saddled us with a truly lousy program.

The health-industrial complex

There's no legitimate excuse for this mess. A program to provide medicines for every single senior could and should be simpler and far less expensive than Bush's $1.2 trillion scam. Medicare, with its extremely low overhead and an efficient payment system already in place, is the logical conduit for such a program. It could negotiate with drug makers on behalf of every senior to get low prices on all medicines, then pay pharmacists directly for the total cost of prescriptions they fill.

Instead, Bush and Congress put the new drug benefit in the hands of the corporate bureaucracies that separate us patients from our medical professionals. All seniors are on their own to purchase one of the confusing myriad of drug cards from HMOs and insurance companies. These middlemen then bill Medicare for whatever medications the seniors get and put no lid on the prices of the drugs.

Thus, rather than being a straightforward benefit for people in need, Bush's program has become a boondoggle benefit for America's bureaucratic, wasteful, fraud-ridden health-industrial complex. Such giants as UnitedHealth, Humana, and WellPoint (which have already scarfed up more than half of the new drug program's market) are given both a new source of monthly premiums and a generous federal subsidy to provide prescription coverage.

Not to be left out of the financial fun, the drug barons have obtained a green light to bloat their profits (already the highest of any industry) with overpriced pills that ultimately are paid for by Medicare dollars taken out of all of our paychecks. WARNING: The following fact could make your eyeballs explode: Bush demanded and got a provision in his new program that specifically prohibits Medicare officials from negotiating with drug corporations to lower the prices they charge. If only this were a bad horror movie! Alas, it's the core reality of America's sick health care system. Wait, you say. We've got the top technology and medical know-how in the whole freakin' world. America is No. 1! We have the healthiest people, and we get the best quality health care there is, bar none. USA! USA! USA!

Well, that's the rah-rah myth we're fed by the industry, the media and most politicians, but it's not true. Still, if you insist that the United States simply must be No.1, it is true that ours is by far the most expensive health care system on the globe. Go, USA! In 2004, spending averaged $6,280 for each man, woman, and child in America -- more than double the average ($2,307 per capita) spent in all other industrial countries.

Over 16 percent of our economy ($1.9 trillion last year) goes into our corporatized system -- 50 percent more than Switzerland's universal system, which ranks second in spending per person. Not only does the United States drastically outspend everyone else, but it does so while leaving tens of millions of Americans outside the system. In contrast, Canada puts only 10 percent of its economy into health care, Australia 9 percent, and England 7 percent, and these countries manage to provide care for every one of their people.

While we Americans pay much more, we get far less. The World Health Organization's latest survey ranks the quality of U.S. health care at -- cue the trumpets -- 37th in the world. Ta-da! Not only is our system's performance beneath Canada, Japan and all of Europe, but it's also beneath such powerhouses as Malta, Colombia, Morocco, Chile and Dominica. We're only one notch above Slovenia, for godssake!

America's "CorporateCare" system fails on the most basic measures of health. For example, babies born in impoverished Cuba have a better chance of survival than babies born here. On average, 77 babies die every day in the United States -- an infant mortality rate that, according to the CIA World Factbook, ranks us way down at No. 42. At the other end of life's span, our people can expect to die younger than those in 34 other countries -- including Cuba, Andorra, Luxembourg, San Marino and, yes, Slovenia.

Rationing care

Universal health care is not an economic issue -- our country is the richest in the history of the world, and we already throw more money into the health care trough than any other nation in history. Nor is health care even a health issue -- our doctors, nurses, technicians, nutritionists, pharmacists and others are phenomenally skilled, having both the intellectual and technical capability to meet the health needs of everyone in our land.

Universal care is a moral issue -- and that's where our country has gone all slippery. Notice that the CEO class and political elites all are rolling along in the Rolls Royce of health plans, courtesy of generous subsidies from us taxpayers. These are the very people who control policymaking in Washington, and they have shown no ethical qualms about taking good care of themselves while watching the majority of their fellow citizens trying to go down life's bumpy health care road in a sputtering Yugo -- or, worse, on bare feet.

It's well-known that our system coldly leaves more than 46 million of us without any health coverage. That's one in every six Americans, including 8.3 million children. If you're keeping political score, the number of uninsured has jumped by six million under the Bushites' five-year reign in Washington. More than half of America's low-wage workers (those paid $20,000 a year or less by such outfits as Wal-Mart, Tyson or McDonald's) are not covered -- and more than half of them are having problems with their families' medical expenses. Quite a few are paying a heavier price -- some 18,000 Americans die unnecessarily each year due to lack of health insurance, roughly the same number who die of stroke, HIV or homicide. Less well-known, however, is the costly burden on millions more who supposedly are "covered" but may suddenly find themselves on the hook for thousands of dollars if they get seriously sick. Here's how it can happen:

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The Upchuck Rebellion

Even though winter is just beginning to release its frigid grip on most of the land, I'm already thinking out of season, looking ahead to one special thing: fresh, ripe, right-out-of-the-soil, good-and-good-for-you summer tomatoes. Oh, I can taste them now! And eggplant, too. And peppers. And all kinds of other edible wonders.

I'm a food guy. I've got a small but richly composted garden plot in my backyard, I'm a regular at several farmers' markets, and I frequent a number of great restaurants here in Austin, Texas. I love poking around food stores of any variety, I like to browse through seed catalogs and cooking magazines, and I always try to sample the local specialties as I travel around the country. I enjoy friendships with quite a few chefs and restaurateurs, and I love visiting with farmers and food artisans who are doing creative things. Though it still pisses off the corporate establishment, I was once the agricultural commissioner of Texas.

I know firsthand about the phenomenal cornucopia of good, fresh, nutritious and delicious food that our country is capable of producing. That's why it knocks me whopperjawed to see the stuff that dominates too many American diets -- an array of industrialized, conglomeratized, globalized products that have lost any connection to our good earth. This stuff is saturated with fats, sugars, artificial flavorings, chemical additives, pesticide residues, bacterial contaminants, genetically altered organisms and who knows what else? Plus, the major factor driving prices is not the cost of any actual food that might still be in these products, but the cost of packaging, advertising and long-distance shipping.

What has caused us to stray so far from the farm, so far from the essential and wonderful sustenance provided by nature itself? The answer, of course, is that the brute force of corporate power has been applied both in politics and the marketplace to pervert our food economy. During the past half century, control over our nation's food policies has shifted from farmers and consumers to corporate lawyers, lobbyists and economists. These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the highway patrol flag down customers for them! Yet they're in charge, saddling us with a food system that enriches corporate middlemen while driving good farmers off the land, poisoning our productive soil and water supplies, and literally sickening those who consume these adulterated foodstuffs.


Do we have to swallow this? Of course not -- we're Americans, rebellious mavericks -- and the revolt is on! For the past few years, a grassroots movement has quietly but rapidly been spreading throughout the country. I call it The Upchuck Rebellion: a growing number of people fed up with the destructive power of industrialized food are declaring that they're not going to take it anymore.

More than declaring … they're taking action. Part of this effort is political, trying to get the industrializers and globalizers to clean up their act. At another level, however, America's food rebels are taking on the idea of industrialization itself by creating their own alternative food economies. These are based on local farmers, seasonal consumption, organic and sustainable production, local food processors and artisans, and local markets. The goals are (1) to build a system that delivers tastier, healthier food; (2) to keep a community's food dollars in the local economy; and (3) to treat food not as a corporate commodity, but as a centerpiece of our culture.

Naturally, the Powers That Be have howled in derision at these efforts, sneering that local farmers, consumers, entrepreneurs, chefs, marketers, gardeners, environmentalists, workers, churches, co-ops, community organizers and just plain citizens simply don't have the savvy to create and run any kind of significant food system. However, my friend John Dromgoole, who runs a successful natural gardening and composting center in Austin, has a snappy retort to these elites: "Those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

This is a movement that has antecedents going back generations -- both J.H. Kellogg and C.W. Post, for example, were health-food visionaries more than a century ago (and both would be appalled by the products now bearing their names) -- but the modern-day movement is barely 20 years old. In this short time, however, these innovative doers have made astonishing gains. Just in terms of raw numbers, today's "Good Food" movement is impressive:

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All Good Politics Are Local

What an embarrassment our national government is. Mired in the sickening muck of corrupt corporate money and right-wing ideology, our so-called leaders continue to divert our public treasury and our nation's unlimited potential for good into war, into the pockets of the superrich, into the self-serving whims of greedheaded corporate executives, into a rising police state, into the careless desecration of nature … into waste.

Then why am I laughing, why am I almost giddy with optimism about where we're heading? You might say, That's an easy question, Hightower; you're either stupid or insane. Indeed, I know a few leaders of progressive groups based in Washington who have been drained of all optimism. Looking at the national scene, they share Woody Allen's despairing observation: "We stand today at a crossroads: One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let's hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice."

Luckily, however, my work is not based in Washington, and my frequent travels allow me to be in touch with a grassroots America that's unabashedly progressive and on the move. Yes, Washington is ignoring our country's real needs and squandering our democratic promise, but out beyond the Beltway (and below the radar of the Powers That Be) there are folks, groups, coalitions, and even elected leaders who're taking action at the state and local level to build an America based on our historic ideals of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all. I have great hope, because grassroots people are so much stronger, more resilient, more creative, and more American than the gooberheads at the top, and they'll not long be held down or held back.

There is a ferment for change in our land today and undeniable movement toward it. We should take heart in our people's history, which is the long story of ordinary folks agitating, organizing, and mobilizing for a little more justice.

Progress often gets diverted or dammed up by the avaricious powers, but it ultimately finds another outlet. I can give my own testimonial to this dynamic. Coming of political age in segregated Texas in the 1960s, recalcitrant state and local officials were blocking progress, so all of us involved in the civil rights movement looked to Washington as the channel for producing progressive action and we made progress. Likewise, in the 1970s, it was through the national government that we opened channels for progress on women's rights, worker safety, environmental protections, etc.

By the 1980s, however, the monied interests were locking down both parties in Washington, and progressives were largely stymied. But not for long -- a trickle of action soon began coming out of cities and states across the country. I was one of those small trickles. Having been elected Texas agriculture commissioner in '82, my office became a source of action for small farmers, organic production, pesticide regulation, direct marketing, rural development, renewable energy, and more.

Since then, with corporate and right-wing interests seizing all three branches of the national government, and with the Democratic leadership being either co-opted or inept, the flow of progressive energy has moved steadily out of Washington and (like water finding a new course) into grassroots organizing. In the past decade, these feisty groups using street actions, ballot initiatives, lawsuits, the internet, media exposés, local elections, radio, potluck suppers, festivals, satire, and every other tool at their disposal have become a powerful force on a wide range of issues, and they are changing American politics from the ground up. Let's take stock of some of the progress being made.

Wage wars

For years, Washington and Wall Street have been waging a war on American wages, using everything from monetary policy to immigration policy in their constant effort to push workers' pay down.

The most visible of these efforts is the obscene sight of fat-cat CEOs and well-paid Congress critters conspiring to keep our country's wage floor stuck at the subpoverty level of $5.15 an hour (about $10,500 a year). As John Edwards says, "it's a moral disgrace." Yet despite support for boosting the minimum wage from 86 percent of Americans (including the chairman of Wal-Mart, who wails that these poverty workers can't afford to shop at his stores), corporate lobbyists have kept hourly pay nailed down at $5.15 for nearly a decade. Washington won't budge, so there's nothing we can do, right? Wrong. Led by ACORN, the innovative community-organizing group, a broad coalition of wage-increase advocates has shifted the battlefield to the cities, counties, and states, putting forth a concept called the "Living Wage."

The idea is that corporations getting contracts, subsidies, or other benefits from local governments should not get away with poverty pay. Pushing local ordinances or ballot measures, the Living Wage coalitions propose pay scales that raise the minimum above the region's poverty level, with most proposals requiring some health-care benefits and many indexing the pay levels to inflation. Well, you might think, that's a nice proposition, but people are way too conservative to go for it. Wrong. In fact, when put before voters, Living Wage initiatives typically win by more than two thirds of the vote.

A telling case is Florida. In 2004, a modest initiative was on the ballot proposing to raise the state's minimum wage by a buck, to $6.15 an hour. John Kerry's presidential campaign studiously avoided supporting this measure, fearing that voters in this red state were so conservative that being associated with a wage hike would hurt his chances. So much for his political genius 72 percent of Floridians approved the pay increase! Kerry, on the other hand, got only 47 percent of the vote.

For these Living Wage battles, coalitions have been forged among workers, poor people, women, churchgoers, small-business owners, neighborhood groups, civil rights advocates and even some conservative business leaders who either see it as a moral issue or understand that higher pay means more spending and a stronger local economy. That's a pretty stout coalition! While it has received little national media coverage, these combined efforts are achieving stunning successes all across the country. More than 130 cities, counties, and states have already enacted some form of the Living Wage.

These victories are not just coming in the liberal outposts of, say, New York City and San Francisco, but also in such places as Dayton, OH ($9.30 per hour, with benefits); Palm Beach, FL ($9.73, with benefits); Louisville, KY ($10.20, indexed to inflation); Pima County, AZ ($8.35, with benefits, indexed); Bozeman, MT ($9.73, with benefits); Rochester NY ($9.43, with benefits, indexed); Covallis, OR ($9.00, indexed); the Richmond, VA, school district ($8.77, with benefits); and the Central Arkansas Library System ($9.00, with benefits, indexed).

Clean elections

What a scream it was last month to watch George W, Tom DeLay, and some 60 other top elected officials rush out to throw tens of thousands of dollars at various charities. These were campaign funds they had previously taken from sleazeball superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. Until January 2, none of these politicians had been even slightly squeamish about banking Jack's checks. But on that day, the GOP's leading influence-peddler pleaded guilty to three counts of money corruption involving his lobbying operation. As part of his plea deal, Abramoff agreed to "tell all" to federal prosecutors about his money-for-favors relationships in Washington … and to testify against his former political cohorts.

When the lead prosecutor declared that the corruption "is very extensive," that did it. Suddenly our stalwart leaders were spontaneously struck with the need to offer up loads of cash to charity -- as if such a showy gesture could remove the indelible green stain that contaminates them and our national capital. Of course, giving back a few bucks doesn't alter the culture of corruption (notice, for example, that while George W grandly donated $6,000 of his Abramoff money to charity, he refused to give away as much as $200,000 that Jack had raised for his '04 run). Sheesh.

The spreading Abramoff scandal, coupled with DeLay's Texas indictments for money laundering, the Duke Cunningham bribery conviction, and the relentless pursuit of corporate dollars by practically all of our top political leaders shows that we no longer have elections -- we have auctions. Can't something be done? It can be … and is -- but not in Washington. Once again, the action is in the countryside. In the past decade, eight states and fourteen cities have passed "Clean Election" laws to end the money chase in their political races, and eight other states and at least one major city are moving toward passage of such laws this year.

The key component of Clean Elections is to provide the alternative of public financing for the campaigns of all candidates who agree not to accept money from corporations or other favor-seeking interests. This means that people running for mayor, governor, the legislature, a judgeship, or whatever don't have to spend the bulk of their campaign time in corporate suites or at the watering holes of lobbyists -- and if elected, they owe absolutely nothing to the monied powers! It also means that regular people (a schoolteacher, factory worker, nurse, farmer, shopkeeper, cabdriver, et al.) can run for office, for they could qualify for a level of public funding that would make them competitive with a lobbyist-financed candidate. It gives us a meaningful tool for reclaiming our democracy.

Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut now have public-financing laws for all of their state offices, from governor to corporation commissioner. Vermont and Massachusetts have also approved statewide systems but have not yet implemented them. In addition, North Carolina has okayed public funding for its judicial races, New Mexico has done so for candidates seeking to be on its Public Regulation Commission, and New Jersey has approved a pilot project for public financing in four legislative districts.

Cities are on the move, too. Portland, Oregon, will have the Clean Election alternative for all of its city races this year. In 2005, 69 percent of Albuquerque's voters said "yes" to a charter amendment providing public funds for its mayoral and city council candidates. Another 12 cities have put partial systems in place, and Los Angeles is presently structuring a plan for full public financing.

Most important, the Clean Election system works. In Maine, the state AARP, AFL-CIO, Common Cause, Council of Senior Citizens, Dirigo Alliance, League of Women Voters, Peace Action, Peoples Alliance, and others joined hands in 1996 to pass an initiative creating the nation's first public-financing program. When first implemented in 2000, half of the state's senators and 30 percent of house members were elected without taking a dime in special-interest money, and the program has grown more successful with each election. Today 83 percent of Maine's senate and 77 percent of its house are made up of legislators who ran "clean."

The result is that Maine's state government is able to reflect the people's will. In 2003, for example, Maine became the first state to pass a bill providing health care for all of its people. As a state legislator says, "There is just no way this bill would ever have seen the light of day under business-as-usual politics dominated by private campaign contributions. Instead, we took on the big pharmaceutical and insurance companies and adopted a healthcare plan that serves the people rather than special interests."

Now the incumbent Democratic governor and two of his three Republican challengers have taken the "clean" pledge for this year's election. Last year the state fixed a loophole in its law by requiring that in the last 21 days of an election, all attack ads or other campaign material put out by so-called "independent" groups must disclose the source behind the ads. In addition, the state will provide public matching funds for the candidates who are attacked, so they can respond.

There's similar success elsewhere. In Arizona, for example, 58 percent of the house, a fourth of the senate, and 10 of 11 statewide officials (including the governor) are "clean." The grassroots coalition that passed Arizona's public-financing system in a 1998 ballot initiative has also remained vigilant, beating back seven court challenges and repeated efforts by corporate interests to repeal the law.

Again, there's no need to wait on Washington for electoral reform when you can make it happen in your own city, county, school district, state, or any other jurisdiction you choose to tackle.

Reefer medicine

Isn't being horribly sick punishment enough without having the FBI, DEA, and other police agents busting down your door to throw you in jail? Unfortunately, the federal government's crackpot drug war has turned cops into drug thugs as they pursue an insane, inhumane, ideologically driven policy of cracking down on seriously sick people who use doctor-prescribed marijuana to treat the chronic pain and nausea of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, polio, and other harsh illnesses.

Two years ago, nine armed members of a DEA task force raided Don Nord's home in Hayden, Colorado, arresting him and seizing his three marijuana plants. Nord is no drug dealer -- he's a disabled, wheelchair-bound, 57-year-old man battling kidney cancer, diabetes, lung disease, and other problems. He was not toking on reefer for a joy ride, but using the marijuana under a doctor's supervision as a medical necessity.

Meet Suzanne Pfeil. She is paralyzed by post-polio syndrome and was under the care of WAAM, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, California. In 2002, she was awakened by five DEA agents pointing automatic rifles at her head. WAAM is a non-commercial medical co-op that, with the blessing of local officials, maintained a marijuana garden at its hospice to treat its 225 members, 85 percent of whom were terminally ill. In the early hours of September 5, the DEA burst in. They terrified the patients, charged two with violating federal drug law, ripped up the coop's garden, handcuffed WAAM's two founders, and took them to jail.

This was too much even for the arch-conservative editors of the Orange County Register, who called DEA's actions "an unwarranted and extreme operation against sick people … Such cruel raids suggest that a law that can be used to terrorize sick people is in need of reconsideration." But Washington -- under Democratic administrations as well as Republican -- has done nothing to stop the stupidity, instead continuing to sanction such extremism in the name of looking tough in the drug war. Last year on June 15, for example, Congress voted 264-161 against allowing the ill to use this proven treatment.

These people are nuts … and dangerous. Luckily, though, there's sanity among grassroots folks. Polls constantly show overwhelming support for laws to let the sick use doctor-prescribed marijuana. The latest Gallup survey shows 78 percent of Americans backing such common sense. Lest you think that's a lot of blue-state, smoke-induced, ex-hippie sentiment talking, independent polls in the deep red states of Alabama and Texas register three-to-one margins in favor of medical marijuana, including 67 percent support among Texas Republicans!

More significantly, when given a chance, people are voting their convictions. Led by the Marijuana Policy Project, coalitions of doctors, nurses, and patients have come together to raise common sense to high places. Defying the furious fulminations and fervid opposition of assorted drug czars from Washington, voters in 11 states and numerous cities have already approved the medical use of marijuana by compelling margins. Let's do a brief roll call:

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Vanquishing the American Dream

People like Robert Paulk and Jerry Roy are the heart of corporations like General Motors. Paulk, 58, and Roy, 49, are longtime, highly skilled hourly employees who've been working-class proud of being part of GM. Over the years, they've known their share of the hard labor, heavy lifting, and stress that come with being an autoworker, but they've stayed loyal, taken great pride in their work, and kept increasing their skills and productivity, doing their part to help General Motors become the largest car seller in the world -- and helping GM's investors pocket years of profits.

The job has been good to Paulk and Roy, too. Under the contracts negotiated by the United Auto Workers, Paulk, his wife, and their two teenagers have been able to enjoy a slice of middle-class comfort. Likewise, Roy, a third-generation GM worker, has done well enough to afford a modest but pleasant house on a lake near Flint, Mich., where his job is.

The Paulks and Roys represent a common story that can be told by millions of Americans of their generation. It's the story of our country's "social contract" -- an implicit agreement between working stiffs like them and corporations like GM. This is a remarkable success story, embodying our nation's egalitarian ideals and our commitment to the common good. In practice, America's historic social contract has established within our huge, diverse and fragile society something essential: a stable middle class. While the Constitution and Bill of Rights are the legal glue of our nation, this contract is the social glue -- it binds us as one people, giving tangible evidence that "we're all in this together." Those who produced this democratic advance were not the founders back in 1776, but our parents and grandparents -- and doing so did not come easily for them.

In the 1920s and '30s, working families in industry after industry openly rebelled against the rampant corporate greed, workplace abuses and political corruption of the day. As they organized, marched, and held sit-ins and strikes, they were bludgeoned, shot and often killed by corporate bosses, Pinkerton goons, police and even the National Guard. It was a hellacious period of bloody labor war, deep social unrest and spreading political upheaval. Finally, fearing for the very survival of capitalism, corporate chieftains began to signal to union leaders that they were ready to negotiate for labor peace and a new social order.

The ensuing bargain was straightforward: Corporations would get labor, loyalty and productivity in exchange for assuring job and retirement security. From the New Deal until the mid-1980s, unions, corporations and government hammered out a series of explicit agreements, rules and laws that gave legal structure to this implicit contract. The result was a new balance of power that made ordinary people like autoworkers the first decently paid, decently treated working class in the world.

Work was still hard and demanding, but the development of our social contract meant that, for the first time, tens of millions could find the American dream within their reach. By no means would you be a millionaire, but you could buy a modest home, have health care for your family, take a vacation and not have to fear retirement -- in other words, have the work ethic fairly rewarded. Such a contract also enabled working folks like Paulk and Roy to feel positive about America's commitment to the common good, to pride themselves as being a valued part of the economy and the larger community, and to have hope for the next generation. Such feelings are more than touchy-feely niceties -- they determine whether people support the social order. This is why the feelings of workaday folks like Paulk and Roy are a crucial baromenter of America's well-being, and why today's corporate and political elite had better begin tuning in to them. "We're all worried. Everybody is worried," Paulk says of GM's workers. "There are a lot of people that are really mad. They think this is the thing that revolutions are made of."

The thing

What has the majority of America's working families worried, angry and in a mood to revolt is that the Powers That Be have unilaterally decided to walk away from the social contract, and in so doing, to kiss off our country's middle class. The evidence of their abandonment is everywhere:

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What I Want For Christmas

Dear Santa: There are so many toys I'd love to find under my tree this year! All kinds of new kitchen gizmos have caught my eye, and a bunch of CDs have caught my ear. Oh, I love gardening stuff, too. Plus, I hear there's a little robot that goes to the fridge and gets a beer for you -- could I have one of those? Pleeeeeze. There are so many things, and I know I can't be greedy and ask for them all, so I've been making a list of my very top favorites.

But last night as I was looking over my list ... I suddenly tore it up! Ripped the whole thing to bits and trashed it. I still like toys, mind you, but well, we live in a weird time, don't we Santa?

Even if I got everything on my list, by Christmas afternoon I'd be asking myself: Is that all there is? I don't mean I'd want more stuff. Stuff is the problem! Stuff is an insidious diversion, and it's so ... so ... so unsatisfying.

I need -- we need, our country needs something much bigger to strive for than mere possessions. There's a widespread hunger for a sense of national commitment and purpose. We need a connection to a common effort that'll enlist us to stop Washington's and Wall Street's abandonment of our egalitarian values, that'll reverse the growing sense most of us have that our America is headed in the wrong direction, that'll rekindle our democratic idealism.

So, Santa, bring me no stuff. Instead, the one and only thing I want is this: A REAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY, ALIVE AND KICKING!

It's not enough to wail about what the Bushites are doing to our country. Yes, it's awful they're brazenly ransacking our public treasury and giving the loot to the rich, they have us mired in a macho-maniacal war to make the world safe for Halliburton, they're sawing the rungs off the ladder of upward mobility for the poor and the middle class, they're defoliating our environmental and safety protections, they're gutting labor and consumer laws, they're deliberately defunding our public infrastructure, they're militarizing both the federal budget and our society, they're supplanting our basic liberties with executive autocracy, they're enthroning corporate supremacy through trade scams and stacked courts, they're ... well, the list goes on and on.

But what did we expect? As I wrote when Bush first began to run for president in 1999, "George W is an absolute corporate wet dream" and an ardent "practitioner of crony capitalism." Throughout their careers, BushCheney&Company have always been loyal corporate servants and always will be. That's why they were put there. Santa, here's the question people ask me everywhere I go: "Where the hell are the Democrats?"

Lost in Washington

With no strong national voice, Democratic officials in Congress now proclaim themselves to be the leaders and conscience of the party. God help us.

These people dwell in selfimposed exile inside the Beltway, operating under the sad delusion that they're actually a part of the government. In most cases, their backbones have been drained of any populist commitment they might once have had and filled with both corporate cash and the corporate agenda (from the Iraq war to the anticonsumer bankruptcy bill, most of the Bushite horrors have been abetted either actively or passively by congressional Democrats). They seem incapable of standing tall for the vast constituency that desperately needs them, instead slinking behind the skirts of clueless consultants and fundraisers who keep advising them to put forth only the meekest, corporate-approved, don't-rock-the-boat proposals. At a time when we should be setting off big caliber ideas, Democratic leaders are firing pea shooters.

A fellow named Doyle, who is a Lowdowner from Kansas, put it well in an email to me: "I've pretty well gone blind looking for leadership from my party these days. How come my yellow dog has strayed so far from home?"

The American public is looking for an honest answer to that, Doyle. It's fun to watch Tom DeLay get pinched and Karl Rove get squeezed, and it puts a big grin on every Democrat's face to see George W's poll numbers sink like a Mafia corpse in the East River. But the party's old guard and in-house operatives can forget trying to skate by on a campaign slogan of "We're Not Them."

First of all, they are them. Congressional Democrats are mired in the same swamp of corporate money that has sucked up the Republican party, and Democrats have shown (with some notable and encouraging exceptions) that they cannot be trusted to vote for the people's interest over corporate power. This is why voter esteem for Democrats has not risen as the GOP's numbers have fallen.

Second, and most important, people are not shopping for the best of the worst. Folks are yearning for integrity, for deep change in how the system operates ... and for whom. Being the "anti" party not only is a loser, but it's also fundamentally dishonest and a craven abandonment of the Democratic party's essential democratic role in our nation's history. Americans don't want merely to be "aginners," but to be FOR a party -- to be for it because it is clearly for the people, and better yet, is the people.

What I want

Santa, a lot of people are drawing up lists of issues and tinkering with language to clarify what the Democratic party should be for. That's good, but I think there's another, more important starting point: First, send me a party that knows WHO it is for.

"Everyone" is not an answer. As we've learned from recent experience, a party can't be "for" working families if it doesn't have the guts to declare war on the corporate thieves who're stealing the middle-class possibilities of those families. It can't be "for" the poor if it constantly caves in to the wishes of the bankers, Wal-Marters, developers and others who keep running over the poor. It can't be for small farmers if it lacks the stomach to con front the middleman giants that are squeezing the life out of those farm families. A party has to choose sides.

My wish is for a Democratic party that chooses to reconnect with its populist roots, recognizing that its only real reason for existence is to be the unabashed, unequivocal, unrelenting representative of its core populist constituency, including America's working stiffs, the middle class (this means the 60% of the country who have incomes of less than $55,000 a year), the poor (a fast-growing constituency, unfortunately), small farmers and local business, old folks and children, grunts and veterans, and proponents of clean air and water.

Corporations and the millionaire class already have a party -- and notice that it is relentless in its devotion to their interests, including the open raid the GOP is presently making on our public treasury to grab another $146 billion for tax giveaways, 97% of which will go to the wealthiest 4% of Americans (more than half goes to the richest one-tenth of one percent). These fortunate few are doing fine; they don't need another party's help.

But the great majority of people whose incomes are not even keeping up with inflation, the families working three or more jobs trying to stay afloat, the folks who actually feel the squeeze of ripoff gasoline and heating prices, the young people who see college education priced beyond their reach while also seeing their middle-class opportunities being callously offshored to China and India, the growing number of families with either no health coverage or practically useless coverage -- these and so many more desperately need a party that is wholly theirs, not owned or leased by the monied elites.

It's reported that Democratic congressional leaders are scrambling to come up with a message and slogan to spiff up the party's image for next year's elections -- sort of like a corporate branding campaign. House leaders tried this last year with the clarion call "New Partnership for America's Future." You saw how well that worked out. Instead of turning to PR firms, how about just saying something genuine that'll go straight to the heart of the populist base, which now feels politically homeless? Here's my entry, free of charge: "WE'RE ON YOUR SIDE."

That's what people want to know by word and deed. Why not say it plainly to them and then show that the party means it?

Are Americans really conservative?

The second thing I really, really want, Santa, is a Democratic party that's not afraid of its own grassroots. The Washington cognoscenti the pundits and the politicos -- have decreed that America is a center-right country. Thus, they intone sonorously and ceaselessly, it is sheer folly for Democrats to base their appeal on anyone more progressive than middle- of-the-road, party-switching, SUVdriving, suburbanites whose chief concern is traffic gridlocks.

Astonishingly, party elders have bought this load of bunkum , in large part because they mostly huddle with their consultants, big campaign donors, and others who peddle the bunkum. If they were instead to venture outside the Beltway, outside the safe pods of the national fund-raising circuit, and outside the echo chambers of their orchestrated "town meetings" -- if they were to talk with and listen to regular workaday people -- they would be astonished to find a different America than they think they're in. Contrary to the contrived wisdom of the cognoscenti, the American majority is amazingly progressive ... and pissed off.

How progressive? It doesn't get covered by the corporate media (imagine that), but mainstream polls consistently find that big majorities of Americans are not meek centrists, but overt, tub-thumping, FDR progressives who are seeking far more populist gumption and governmental action than any Democratic congressional leader or presidential contender has dared to imagine. In recent polls by the Pew Research Group, the Opinion Research Corporation, the Wall Street Journal, and CBS News, the American majority has made clear how it feels. Look at how the majority feels about some of the issues that you'd think would be gospel to a real Democratic party:

  1. 65 percent say the government should guarantee health insurance for everyone -- even if it means raising taxes.
  2. 86 percent favor raising the minimum wage (including 79 percent of selfdescribed "social conservatives").
  3. 60 percent favor repealing either all of Bush's tax cuts or at least those cuts that went to the rich.
  4. 66 percent would reduce the deficit not by cutting domestic spending but by reducing Pentagon spending or raising taxes.
  5. 77 percent believe the country should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment.
  6. 87 percent think big oil corporations are gouging consumers, and 80 percent (including 76 percent of Republicans) would support a windfall profits tax on the oil giants if the revenues went for more research on alternative fuels.
  7. 69 percent agree that corporate offshoring of jobs is bad for the U.S. economy (78 percent of "disaffected" voters think this), and only 22% believe offshoring is good because "it keeps costs down."
  8. 69 percent believe America is on the wrong track, with only 26 percent saying it's headed in the right direction.

Americans might not call themselves progressive -- but there they are. On the populist, pocketbook issues that are rooted in our nation's core values of fairness and justice, there's a progressive super-majority. It flourishes in red states as well as blue, cutting through the establishment's false dichotomy of liberal/ conservative.

It's also a pissed-off super-majority, for its views are treated with infuriating disdain by the whole political system -- including corporatized Democrats who minimize and trivialize the grassroots populist fervor. By routinely dismissing the boldly progressive views of the people as unworthy of consideration, much less action, the political elites are coldly dismissing the people themselves and saying, "You don't matter."

Knock, knock

Hello ... Democrats. That knocking sound you hear echoing across America's political landscape is the BAM-BAM-BAM of opportunity pounding at your door, demanding an answer. So, Santa, this brings me to the third wonderful present I'd like to find under the tree: A Democratic party that will open its ears to the insistent knocking, recognize it for what it is, and (dare we hope?) lift its butt from the easy chair and open the damn door!

The simmering anger of a scorned majority offers a transforming opportunity in American politics, and it's there for the Democrats' taking if -- and only if -- the party is willing to stand forthrightly for workaday people, presenting a clear, uncompromised choice between the Common Good and Corporate Greed.

If the party knows, with clarity and conviction, who it stands for, then it will know what it stands for. The people themselves know the basics of what they want, so that would become the party's defining agenda. It would include:

Healthcare for all, taking on drug-company price gougers, insurance leeches, HMOs, etc.

Good jobs at good pay, going up against the low-wage economy, union bashers, job exporters, etc., to rebuild middle- class opportunities.

Put America to work rebuilding America, providing middle-class jobs to restore our nation's vital infrastructure, refurbish our parks, develop energy independence through renewable resources and conservation, etc.

Strength through education, making a full national commitment to having the most educated citizenry in the world, including assuring small classroom size, recruiting and retaining top teachers, providing free computers to every student, and extending the concept of free high school upward to college and higher technical training for all who want it.

Restore democracy, providing public funding for all campaigns, requiring national standards and funding to make it easy for everyone to vote (and have their votes count), cracking down on cronyism and corruption between lobbyists and office holders, providing Instant Runoff Voting, etc.

Make America strong, rebuilding our government's ability to cope competently with disasters, restoring our nation's commitment to civil liberties and the highest moral standards, reinvesting in clean air and water, assuring retirement security for all, etc.

There is no shortage of particular tasks to take on, from war to tax reform, but the common theme for a revived Democratic party is that it would unite the great majority of people around America's historic ethic of the Common Good. In stark contrast to the Bushites' laissez-faire ethic -- all of us on our own, let the strongest thrive, goodbye and good luck -- Democrats should spread the democratic gospel that our country is always strongest when all of us truly believe that we count, that we're all in this together, and that our society's policies are firmly rooted in America's egalitarian values of economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all. That's a Democratic party that ordinary folks could call their own again. And it's a party that would matter in the big scheme of things.


So, Santa, wouldn't this be a better project for all of your elves to work on than another sack of toys? I know that a lot of people would say to me, "Gosh, Jimbo, you know Santa doesn't really exist. You're setting yourself up for a big disappointment."

I disagree. I think there's a little Santa within all of us. So our job is not just to make a wish list and hope that some party "leaders" will magically deliver it to us, but to become elves ourselves and build this party that we want, piece by piece. It's a daunting challenge -- but it's worth the prize, and worthy of our efforts.

From The Hightower Lowdown, edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, December 2005.

Neutering Social Security

When George W. says he's going to "fix" our Social Security system, I feel like a dog that's just been told, "We're taking you to the vet to get you fixed."

Whether it's to dogs or to We the People, George's message is the same: This radical surgery is needed for your own good. If, however, you suspect that something besides your welfare is really motivating him ... you're exactly right.

Extremist, right-wing ideology and the insatiable corporate grab for money are the two forces behind Bush's push not merely to neuter this enormously popular and effective retirement program ... but ultimately to kill it. As reported in last month's Lowdown, step one is to portray Social Security as fatally flawed. The promised benefits are a "hoax," the taxes paid into the trust fund are "wasted" rather than invested for maximum return, and "the so-called reserve fund ... is no reserve at all."

Interestingly, these are quotes not from today's alarmist Bushites but from the lips of Alf Landon and the pages of his party's platform when he was the Republican candidate for president way back in 1936! Note that the first Social Security check was not mailed until 1937, so the ideologues and big money interests were predicting doom and gloom and trying to undermine the program even before it started.

Indeed, dismantling Social Security has been a central tenet of the right wing for nearly 70 years, and it's been an increasingly serious goal of GOP presidential politics since the hardcore right made its grab for the reins of the party's national leadership with Barry Goldwater's 1964 run. Nothing that Bush is saying today is new. Just as George is now doing, Goldwater painted a picture of a collapsing system 40 years ago, declaring that "it is not actuarially sound" and contending that he merely wanted "to make Social Security solvent, to improve it." Likewise, Ronnie Reagan called for the same sort of privatization approach now touted by Bush. "Can't we introduce voluntary features that would permit a citizen to do better on his own?" the Gipper asked.

While politicians from Goldwater to George have portrayed their assault on the program in terms of "saving" it with a curative dose of privatization, it's really the very existence of Social Security that sticks in their craw. (In '64, in a moment of candor about his real intentions, Goldwater said, "Perhaps Social Security should be abolished.") Behind this campaign is the right wing's anti-government dogma, which has trumped the obvious need to guarantee people a basic level of retirement security.

These are laissez-faire extremists who loathe the notion of anything "public," who cringe at the ethic of the "Common Good," and who despise any government program that supports anything other than military and corporate interests. For them, America is not about a people uniting to share society's burdens and to stretch the possibilities of individual achievement, but about people watching out for themselves and being solely responsible for their own gains, unfettered by any concern for the larger society. A leading proselytizer for this self-centered ethic of "everyone on your own" is Grover Norquist, a longtime Washington lobbyist, bagman, and strategist for the far right. He says bluntly that he seeks to shrink government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Because Social Security actually works and is far more efficient than private pension annuities, it is especially galling to Norquist and his allies. Living in an ideological fantasyland, they see the New Deal as the Great Evil that transformed Americans from mythic rugged individualists to weakling drones dependent on the federal government. Starting with Social Security, these sprites of the right intend to make us Americans better people by freeing us from any traces of such dependency.

"Social Security," exclaims a top executive of the privatization-boosting think tank the Cato Institute, "is the lynchpin of the welfare state." Government, such dogmatists contend, has no business worrying about things like people's retirement -- let the marketplace sort that out. If they can drive a spear through Social Security, they say, they can kill the whole beast (which is how they describe our government). In short, their goal is to cancel the basic social contract struck between ordinary workaday folks and rapacious corporate power in FDR's day and to return us to that earlier, glorious age of the Robber Barons, when citizens didn't have a bunch of sissy laws, meddlesome programs, and a safety net to empower and strengthen them.

Enter George W.

All of this frothing at the mouth by the right-ring fringe would merely be silly -- except that the fringe has now moved into Bush's White House and Tom DeLay's Congress and is turning silly into policy.

George himself has long been a part of this journey from the wilderness. He's currently squawking like a rooster choking on a peach pit about the urgency of dealing with a looming "crisis" in Social Security, as though this issue suddenly has appeared on his radar. But he's been nurturing privatization as a policy goal from his days as a prep school brat. In 1963, while a senior at Andover, he got a copy of Goldwater's campaign manifesto, "Conscience of a Conservative." Apparently, this is a book he actually read, taking to heart Goldwater's pointed example of Social Security as a government program that would better be put in private hands, making individuals responsible for their own retirement.

Fifteen years later, Bush practiced his privatization chops while running for a West Texas congressional seat, telling an audience at the Midland Country Club that the program "will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes." Sound familiar? His "ideal solution" back in this 1978 race will also sound familiar. He said that people should be "given the chance to invest the [Social Security] money the way they feel."

Jump ahead another 20 years to 1997, when George was governor of Texas and prepping to run for president. For help in framing his message on Social Security, he brought in Jose Piñera, the architect of Chile's ill-fated conversion to private-market retirement, and Ed Crane, head of the Cato Institute and a determined crusader for toppling Social Security. They did not have to do much selling to Boy George, who not only embraced their dogma but declared, "I do believe that privatizing Social Security is the most important issue facing the nation."

The Push

Today's push for those accounts has nothing to do with the program's long-term finances, as the Bushites and most media pundits tell us, and everything to do with this relentless decades-long campaign by antigovernment zealots to replace our public system with a private one. In a flash of refreshing frankness, Norquist says that Social Security should be privatized "not because the system is going broke, but because it's a lousy program." From this corporate-backed, ideological tower, they literally plotted the demise of the public system, drawing up both the privatization policy they intended to implement and a long-term political plan for getting it done.

These two documents are to Social Security privatization what Paul Wolfowitz's 1992 "Defense Policy Guidance" memo is to the Bushites' mad scheme of unilateral, pre-emptive military strikes on Iraq and elsewhere. Cato's documents have received very little media attention, but they are key to understanding today's attack on our retirement program, for they put the lie to George's assertion that he's merely responding to a financial "crisis" in the system that suddenly has loomed on the horizon.

Indeed, the ideologues have been planning to privatize for the past quarter-century, making a constant and concerted effort to move their radical idea from the fringes of our nation's public-policy discussion to the front burner. Their push began in 1980 when Cato published a littlenoticed, 600-page manifesto on privatization. To give their wacky plan a patina of legitimacy, Cato convened a 1980 Washington policy conference for staffers of conservative congress critters. "I knew this idea was too far out for serious consideration," says the author of the manifesto. "It needed vetting."

Next came the political road map, again from a little noticed document prepared under the auspices of Cato. Written in 1983, it laid out a five-point strategy for creating a political environment that would give privatization a chance:

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Stop the Corporate Takeover of our Water

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own,
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

--English Nursery Rhyme c. 1764

The greater villains are loose in our world today, literally thirsting to take things that are yours and mine -- and this time they might make off with the greatest plunder of all: our water.

Yes, the ideologues and greedheads who brought us the fairy tale of energy deregulation and the Ponzi scheme of Enron are aggressively pushing for deregulation and privatization of the world's water supplies and systems. They are determined to turn this essential public resource into another commodity for traders and speculators -- a private plaything for personal profiteering.

In just the past few years, trans-national conglomerates already have privatized all or parts of the water systems of Atlanta, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bolivia, Casablanca, Charleston, Chattanooga, Ghana, Houston, Jacksonville, Jersey City, Lexington, New Orleans, Peoria, Ontario, San Francisco, and many other places.

It amounts to a corporate "water rush." In our country, private control has rapidly become global control: The largest U.S. firm, American Water Works, was recently swallowed up by RWE of Germany (which also got Azurix in Enron's fire sale); Suez Lyonnaise of France took our second biggest company, United Water Resources; and Vivendi of France grabbed U.S. Filter.

Water gets hot

Two years ago, Fortune magazine exulted that water "will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th." And the magazine was thrilled that "the liquid everybody needs . . . is going private, creating one of the world's great business opportunities." Four factors are powering this rush to privatization: scarcity, greed, ideology, and political weaseliness.

The World Bank predicts that two-thirds of the world's population will run short of adequate water in the next 20 years. You might think that the sheer scariness of this scarcity would prompt policy makers to focus on such goals as protecting the purity of the aqua we have, pushing rational conservation, and promoting the long-term public interest in this irreplaceable resource.

Whoa there, Pollyanna! You forget greed. Speculators look at the looming scarcity of a substance that no one can do without and think: "Wow, if I could control that, I could make a killing." Suddenly, the unsexy task of piping in water and piping out sewage became a hot prospect.

This coincided nicely with the corporate right wing's ideological zealotry for the mumbo-jumbo of deregulation and privatization. Not only can conglomerates do everything better than a democratic government can, goes their religious mantra, but they firmly believe that today's global corporations are magical kingdoms run by new-economy wunderkinds.

In Fortune's paean to the corporatization of water, Suez Lyonnaise was lionized as being "more than a water company. It's a fresh invention." This is the same gibberish that, until only a year ago, was being heaped on Enron, Global Crossing, World Com, and other hucksters whose only invention was a new way to package the age-old shell game.

There's nothing fresh or inventive about global corporate greed thrusting its way throughout both the industrial and developing worlds to establish empire. Suez Lyonnaise knows a lot about that. It is the descendant of the corporation that built the Suez Canal in 1858 under the patronage of Emperor Napoleon III. Suez marches on, expanding its multibillion-dollar water empire by 10 percent a year.

As for picky concerns that cities, states, and entire nations ought not surrender control of their water supply to the whims of corporate empire builders, the CEO of Suez retorts: "We must rise above national egotism!"

This is where the political weasels come in. From the mid-seventies to the present, just about every politician from mayoral to presidential candidates of both major parties have caved in to the privatization ideologues, campaigning and governing as tight-fisted, no-more-taxes, business-minded conservatives.

So local pols have frittered away public funds on building flashy sports palaces for privately owned teams, and national pols have cooked up trillion-dollar tax giveaways to the richest people in the country -- and all of the pols have let America's crucial water systems fall apart. To fix decades-old leaking pipes, sputtering pumps, and the other faltering parts of the water infrastructure will require an estimated $11 billion a year more than governments now are spending.

Faced with this unpleasantness, weaseling politicians have simply escalated their weaseling. Rather than being straight with people by saying, "Look, we've got to get our public house in order," the pols at all levels have thrown open the doors of our house to any corporate flimflammer with a medicine wagon, a talking pony, and a bottle of that old magic elixir: Privatization!

Promises, promises

As Bob Dylan sang, "The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handle." In case after case where corporate water vandals have taken the handle to the public pump, folks have found themselves left with skyrocketing bills, foul water, lousy service, non-functioning fire hydrants -- and no control over the culprits.

Anyone thinking that a dose of good old corporate efficiency is just what their cranky, antiquated utility needs should check out the excellent reports that Public Citizen has written on the broken promises of water privatization.

Take the case of United Water Resources, which had humble origins as the Hackensack Water Co. In the mid-nineties, however, the company got ambition, dressing up in the sleeker corporate name of UWR Inc. and going on an expansionist binge that quickly made it the second-largest corporate water fiefdom in the U.S., before UWR itself was swallowed by Suez Lyonnaise last year.

The company and its executives have hauled in millions in profits and personal gains from its privatization adventures, but its customers have been soaked. In Atlanta, UWR promised dramatic cost savings, which it proceeded to get by whacking the city's water staff from 731 employees to only 327. Among the "savings" this produced:

-- Debris and rust started turning up in residents' water. At first, UWR honchos denied there was a problem. But, hey -- the tap water was brown! Even then, it was four months before the company did anything.

-- Fire hydrants started coming up dry or inoperative. Again, executives tried to deny that there was a problem. Then, when it was pointed out that this was life-and-death stuff, UWR tried to shift the blame (and the cost), saying that after the company repaired or replaced a hydrant, it was the city's responsibility to test it to see if it actually worked.

-- Complaints piled up about impossibly slow service on everything from repairing leaks to installing water meters.

Likewise, Jersey City has been hosed by UWR. The company is paid millions in annual fees to bring its corporate efficiency to this municipal water system, but instead it has produced a chorus of complaints about billing errors. It turns out that, as in Atlanta, UWR's "efficiency" is based on cutting staff -- in this case, it subcontracts meter reading to a low-wage firm. No problem, though, for when the complaints about misread and broken meters roll in, UWR service representatives have simply been directing irate citizens to municipal employees.

What a deal -- UWR privatizes the water revenue, but socializes the problems! Worse, the company is not required by its contract to open its books or justify its fees. It simply sends a bill, which is not subject to public review.

In Jacksonville, Florida, UWR's ownership and operation of the water system was so outlandish that citizens have taken it back in a $219 million buyout. In its brief, five-year stewardship, the corporation's chief efficiency was in getting rate increases from the Florida utility commission. Monthly bills shot up by an average of $9.44 in 1997; then the company went back to the trough a year later for another 12.5% rate hike. By instituting public control, residents of the Jacksonville area are expected to enjoy an average cut of 25 percent in their water and sewer bills.


While most media have gushed about the boundless promise of privatization, they have been practically mute about one of the most sweeping developments taking place in water management: deprivatization. As in Jacksonville, officials in many cities that have sipped the tainted waters of corporate control have been struggling mightily to regain public control. But it's not easy, for monopolization of a water market turns out to be a cash cow for corporations, and once they get it, they cling to it.

-- Chattanooga, Tennessee. American Water Works (now RWE) has owned Chattanooga's water for a long time, but Mayor Jim Kinsley led a 1998 move to buy the system, noting that public ownership could cut rates by 25 percent and save $100 million. There was also the matter of AWW gouging the city on fire-hydrant fees and a secret effort by corporate executives to export Chattanooga water to Atlanta. AWW refused to negotiate a sale, instead rushing to court, launching a massive multimillion-dollar PR campaign, and resorting to dirty tricks like hiring an agency to snoop on the mayor. Outspent, the city finally settled, allowing AWW to keep its ownership. But the corporation did agree to cut fire-hydrant fees from $300 a year per meter to $50, and to submit any water-exporting scheme to voters for approval.

-- Huber Heights, Ohio. In 1993, a Florida-based company decided to sell its water holdings, including the water system it owned in this suburb of Dayton. The city tried to buy it, but couldn't match the deep pockets of American Water Works. Local folks feared the worst -- and got it. As soon as AWW took control, it raised rates by a third. It also contracted to deliver two million gallons a day of Huber Heights' water to an industrial park outside the city. City officials initiated eminent-domain proceedings to buy back the system.

Once again, AWW ran to court and launched a massive PR campaign, but in a referendum voters overwhelmingly supported the effort to reclaim their water. Even after the 1995 buyback, however, AWW has kept the city tied up in legal knots, requiring that Huber Heights still keep piping its water to the industrial park.

-- Pekin, Illinois. When Citizens For Locally Owned Water (FLOW) began a buyout campaign here two years ago, our friends at American Water Works launched their usual PR blitz, spending a million bucks to assert that city officials don't have the expertise to run a water system. This was a bit ironic, since AWW had run the system into the ground, failing to keep up infrastructure, failing to maintain fire hydrants in working order, and providing slow service -- all while averaging rate hikes of more than 10 percent a year.

However, AWW's big-money PR hustle won in a narrow victory in a non-binding referendum, so the buyback is on hold. But FLOW is not going away, and it points out that at AWW's current rate of infrastructure upgrades, it'll take the company 268 years to replace Pekin's deteriorating water mains.

Water privatization doesn't work because its fundamental promises are lies. Far from bringing "market forces" to bear, these corporations are handed a monopoly and face no competition. Wielding monopoly power, they slash staff, lower wages, compromise service, cut corners on quality, skimp on long-term investment, raise rates -- and call this "efficiency." Any savings derived from these tactics are routed into extravagant executive-pay packages, luxurious corporate headquarters, bureaucracy for the parent conglomerate, lavish advertising and lobbying budgets, and profits. All of this is done behind closed doors, for these private empires are not subject to the open-access and disclosure rules of public agencies. Then, when the peasants rebel, the faraway CEO dispatches an army of PR flacks and lawyers, overwhelming the financial resources available to local citizens and governments.

Buying in bulk

Not content to control our water systems, corporate powers are now selling the water itself. Through court actions, lobbying, trade deals, and bribery (campaign contributions), the law is being perverted to turn public bodies of water into a tradable commodity, like pork bellies. Speculators and corporate hustlers are claiming a right to buy, sell, extract, and move massive amounts of fresh water:

-- Texas oilman and corporate raider T. Boone Pickens has just forced a state water district to authorize him to pump and sell up to 65 billion gallons of water a year from the Ogallala aquifer, sending it by pipeline to San Antonio, Dallas, or other water-short cities. The Ogallala, which underlies the Texas Panhandle and is the water source for the whole area, already is severely depleted and can't be replenished, but Pickens plans to poke holes into it, mine the water, and reap colossal profits by selling it to the highest bidder.

-- Keith Brackpool (I don't make up these names), a California corporate farmer and fat-cat contributor to Governor Gray Davis, also is trying to become a water baron. With the governor's backing, his Cadiz Inc. proposes to suck water out of the aquifer underlying federal land in the ecologically fragile Mojave Desert, then sell some 20 billion gallons of this public groundwater each year to Southern California cities, reaping up to a billion bucks for Cadiz.

-- Ric Davidge, an Alaskan water-preneur who previously was an aide to the infamous James Watt, has a deal for San Diego, which imports almost 100 percent of its water. Davidge wants to siphon some 65 billion gallons of fresh water a year out of two Northern California rivers, pipe it into inflatable bags bigger than three football fields, then tow these "bladders" by tugboat to thirsty San Diego. He says this will save fresh water that otherwise would "disappear" into the Pacific Ocean. (Hello, Ric -- river water running into the sea is an essential part of the ecological cycle.) Davidge admits that there are many questions he can't answer, but, he says, "We need new ideas." New, yes. Loopy, no.

I suppose it will not surprise you to learn that this global corporate rush for the "blue gold" of our public water resources is being ably aided and abetted by our own government.

Deep inside NAFTA, for example, is tucked a little nasty called Chapter 11, which water corporations already are using to force local governments to break the dam and turn loose their water for private exploitation. Also, with our government's blessing, the World Bank and IMF routinely pressure Third World nations to privatize their water systems.

Now, the White House and Congress are ratcheting up their privatization push here at home with a sneak attack called the Water Investment Act of 2002. Despite its boring title, S.1961 contains a stick of dynamite in Section 103(J)(1)(b). This proviso says that a local water project in your city cannot get federal financing unless the local government "has considered" privatizing your water system. Upgrading and expanding water systems is hugely expensive, and cities must have federal support to do the job -- but S.1961 would make this funding conditional on whether cities consider turning over their water to private corporations.

This boondoggle is pushed by a powerhouse lobbying outfit called the National Association of Water Companies, and it means that your local water board will have to spend your tax dollars offering your public water supply for sale -- knowing that Big Water corporations will sue the hell out of them if they don't get their way.

Substituting private interest for public interest has not exactly been serendipitous in the energy sector -- so why in hell should we give corporations (foreign-based ones, at that) our water? At least government entities are supposed to be legally and politically responsible to We the People. But corporations maintain (and the law agrees) that they are responsible solely to their big stockholders -- an elite group that invariably includes the CEO. In water, the stockholders' interests inevitably will conflict with the public's.

Plus, corporations are anti-democratic, used to making decisions in secret -- and, as Enron has taught us, hiding their financial shenanigans in a labyrinth of offshore accounts. Take the case of Azurix, a high-flying water privatizer that was not really a company but a convoluted consortium of more than 50 limited partnerships and interlocking subsidiaries created in the secretive tax haven of the Cayman Islands. Its creator was none other than Enron. Now it's owned by RWE.

Water is one of life's necessities, which is why we must treat it as part of our commons -- the wealth that we hold in trust so it will be there for all of us, not only for today, but for all of our tomorrows as well.

How Wal-Mart is Remaking our World

Bullying people from your town to China

Corporations rule. No other institution comes close to matching the power that the 500 biggest corporations have amassed over us. The clout of all 535 members of Congress is nothing compared to the individual and collective power of these predatory behemoths that now roam the globe, working their will over all competing interests.

The aloof and pampered executives who run today�s autocratic and secretive corporate states have effectively become our sovereigns. From who gets health care to who pays taxes, from what�s on the news to what�s in our food, they have usurped the people�s democratic authority and now make these broad social decisions in private, based solely on the interests of their corporations. Their attitude was forged back in 1882, when the villainous old robber baron William Henry Vanderbilt spat out: "The public be damned! I�m working for my stockholders."

The media and politicians won�t discuss this, for obvious reasons, but we must if we�re actually to be a self-governing people. That�s why the Lowdown is launching this occasional series of corporate profiles. And why not start with the biggest and one of the worst actors?

The beast from Bentonville

Wal-Mart is now the world�s biggest corporation, having passed ExxonMobil for the top slot. It hauls off a stunning $220 billion a year from We the People (more in revenues than the entire GDP of Israel and Ireland combined).

Wal-Mart cultivates an aw-shucks, we�re-just-folks-from-Arkansas image of neighborly small-town shopkeepers trying to sell stuff cheaply to you and yours. Behind its soft homespun ads, however, is what one union leader calls "this devouring beast" of a corporation that ruthlessly stomps on workers, neighborhoods, competitors, and suppliers.

Despite its claim that it slashes profits to the bone in order to deliver "Always Low Prices," Wal-Mart banks about $7 billion a year in profits, ranking it among the most profitable entities on the planet.

Of the 10 richest people in the world, five are Waltons�the ruling family of the Wal-Mart empire. S. Robson Walton is ranked by London�s "Rich List 2001" as the wealthiest human on the planet, having sacked up more than $65 billion (£45.3 billion) in personal wealth and topping Bill Gates as No. 1.

Wal-Mart and the Waltons got to the top the old-fashioned way�by roughing people up. The corporate ethos emanating from the Bentonville headquarters dictates two guiding principles for all managers: extract the very last penny possible from human toil, and squeeze the last dime from every supplier.

With more than one million employees (three times more than General Motors), this far-flung retailer is the country�s largest private employer, and it intends to remake the image of the American workplace in its image�which is not pretty.

Yes, there is the happy-faced "greeter" who welcomes shoppers into every store, and employees (or "associates," as the company grandiosely calls them) gather just before opening each morning for a pep rally, where they are all required to join in the Wal-Mart cheer: "Gimme a �W!�" shouts the cheerleader; "W!" the dutiful employees respond. "Gimme an A!�" And so on.

Behind this manufactured cheerfulness, however, is the fact that the average employee makes only $15,000 a year for full-time work. Most are denied even this poverty income, for they�re held to part-time work. While the company brags that 70% of its workers are full-time, at Wal-Mart "full time" is 28 hours a week, meaning they gross less than $11,000 a year.
Health-care benefits? Only if you�ve been there two years; then the plan hits you with such huge premiums that few can afford it�only 38% of Wal-Marters are covered.

Thinking union? Get outta here! "Wal-Mart is opposed to unionization," reads a company guidebook for supervisors. "You, as a manager, are expected to support the company�s position. . . . This may mean walking a tightrope between legitimate campaigning and improper conduct."
Wal-Mart is in fact rabidly anti-union, deploying teams of union-busters from Bentonville to any spot where there�s a whisper of organizing activity. "While unions might be appropriate for other companies, they have no place at Wal-Mart," a spokeswoman told a Texas Observer reporter who was covering an NLRB hearing on the company�s manhandling of 11 meat-cutters who worked at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas.

These derring-do employees were sick of working harder and longer for the same low pay. "We signed [union] cards, and all hell broke loose," says Sidney Smith, one of the Jacksonville meat-cutters who established the first-ever Wal-Mart union in the U.S., voting in February 2000 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. Eleven days later, Wal-Mart announced that it was closing the meat-cutting departments in all of its stores and would henceforth buy prepackaged meat elsewhere.
But the repressive company didn�t stop there. As the Observer reports: "Smith was fired for theft�after a manager agreed to let him buy a box of overripe bananas for 50 cents, Smith ate one banana before paying for the box, and was judged to have stolen that banana."

Wal-Mart is an unrepentant and recidivist violator of employee rights, drawing repeated convictions, fines, and the ire of judges from coast to coast. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has had to file more suits against the Bentonville billionaires club for cases of disability discrimination than any other corporation. A top EEOC lawyer told Business Week, "I have never seen this kind of blatant disregard for the law."

Likewise, a national class-action suit reveals an astonishing pattern of sexual discrimination at Wal-Mart (where 72% of the salespeople are women), charging that there is "a harsh, anti-woman culture in which complaints go unanswered and the women who make them are targeted for retaliation."

Workers� compensation laws, child-labor laws (1,400 violations in Maine alone), surveillance of employees�you name it, this corporation is a repeat offender. No wonder, then, that turnover in the stores is above 50% a year, with many stores having to replace 100% of their employees each year, and some reaching as high as a 300% turnover!

Worldwide wage-depressor

Then there�s China. For years, Wal-Mart saturated the airwaves with a "We Buy American" advertising campaign, but it was nothing more than a red-white-and-blue sham. All along, the vast majority of the products it sold were from cheap-labor hell-holes, especially China. In 1998, after several exposes of this sham, the company finally dropped its "patriotism" posture and by 2001 had even moved its worldwide purchasing headquarters to China. Today, it is the largest importer of Chinese-made products in the world, buying $10 billion worth of merchandise from several thousand Chinese factories.

As Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee reports, "In country after country, factories that produce for Wal-Mart are the worst," adding that the bottom-feeding labor policy of this one corporation "is actually lowering standards in China, slashing wages and benefits, imposing long mandatory-overtime shifts, while tolerating the arbitrary firing of workers who even dare to discuss factory conditions."

Wal-Mart does not want the U.S. buying public to know that its famous low prices are the product of human misery, so while it loudly proclaims that its global suppliers must comply with a corporate "code of conduct" to treat workers decently, it strictly prohibits the disclosure of any factory names and addresses, hoping to keep independent sources from witnessing the "code" in operation.

Kernaghan�s NLC, acclaimed for its fact-packed reports on global working conditions, found several Chinese factories that make the toys Americans buy for their children at Wal-Mart. Seventy-one percent of the toys sold in the U.S. come from China, and Wal-Mart now sells one out of five of the toys we buy.

NLC interviewed workers in China�s Guangdong Province who toil in factories making popular action figures, dolls, and other toys sold at Wal-Mart. In "Toys of Misery," a shocking 58-page report that the establishment media ignored, NLC describes:

  • 13- to 16-hour days molding, assembling, and spray-painting toys�8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or even midnight, seven days a week, with 20-hour shifts in peak season.

  • Even though China�s minimum wage is 31 cents an hour�which doesn�t begin to cover a person�s basic subsistence-level needs�these production workers are paid 13 cents an hour.

  • Workers typically live in squatter shacks, seven feet by seven feet, or jammed in company dorms, with more than a dozen sharing a cubicle costing $1.95 a week for rent. They pay about $5.50 a week for lousy food. They also must pay for their own medical treatment and are fired if they are too ill to work.

  • The work is literally sickening, since there�s no health and safety enforcement. Workers have constant headaches and nausea from paint-dust hanging in the air; the indoor temperature tops 100 degrees; protective clothing is a joke; repetitive stress disorders are rampant; and there�s no training on the health hazards of handling the plastics, glue, paint thinners, and other solvents in which these workers are immersed every day.

As for Wal-Mart�s highly vaunted "code of conduct," NLC could not find a single worker who had ever seen or heard of it.

These factories employ mostly young women and teenage girls. Wal-Mart, renowned for knowing every detail of its global business operations and for calculating every penny of a product�s cost, knows what goes on inside these places. Yet, when confronted with these facts, corporate honchos claim ignorance and wash their hands of the exploitation: "There will always be people who break the law," says CEO Lee Scott. "It is an issue of human greed among a few people."

Those "few people" include him, other top managers, and the Walton billionaires. Each of them not only knows about their company�s exploitation, but willingly prospers from a corporate culture that demands it. "Get costs down" is Wal-Mart�s mantra and modus operandi, and that translates into a crusade to stamp down the folks who produce its goods and services, shamelessly building its low-price strategy and profits on their backs.

The Wal-Mart gospel

Worse, Wal-Mart is on a messianic mission to extend its exploitative ethos to the entire business world. More than 65,000 companies supply the retailer with the stuff on its shelves, and it constantly hammers each supplier about cutting their production costs deeper and deeper in order to get cheaper wholesale prices. Some companies have to open their books so Bentonville executives can red-pencil what CEO Scott terms "unnecessary costs."

Of course, among the unnecessaries to him are the use of union labor and producing goods in America, and Scott is unabashed about pointing in the direction of China or other places for abysmally low production costs. He doesn�t even have to say "Move to China"�his purchasing executives demand such an impossible lowball price from suppliers that they can only meet it if they follow Wal-Mart�s labor example. With its dominance over its own 1.2 million workers and 65,000 suppliers, plus its alliances with ruthless labor abusers abroad, this one company is the world�s most powerful private force for lowering labor standards and stifling the middle-class aspirations of workers everywhere.

Using its sheer size, market clout, access to capital, and massive advertising budget, the company also is squeezing out competitors and forcing its remaining rivals to adopt its price-is-everything approach.
Even the big boys like Toys R Us and Kroger are daunted by the company�s brutish power, saying they�re compelled to slash wages and search the globe for sweatshop suppliers in order to compete in the downward race to match Wal-Mart�s prices.

How high a price are we willing to pay for Wal-Mart�s "low-price" model? This outfit operates with an avarice, arrogance, and ambition that would make Enron blush. It hits a town or city neighborhood like a retailing neutron bomb, sucking out the economic vitality and all of the local character. And Wal-Mart�s stores now have more kill-power than ever, with its Supercenters averaging 200,000 square feet�the size of more than four football fields under one roof! These things land splat on top of any community�s sense of itself and devour local business.

By slashing its retail prices way below cost when it enters a community, Wal-Mart can crush our groceries, pharmacies, hardware stores, and other retailers, then raise its prices once it has monopoly control over the market.

But, say apologists for these Big-Box megastores, at least they�re creating jobs. Wrong. By crushing local businesses, this giant eliminates three decent jobs for every two Wal-Mart jobs that it creates�and a store full of part-time, poorly paid employees hardly builds the family wealth necessary to sustain a community�s middle-class living standard.
Indeed, Wal-Mart operates as a massive wealth extractor. Instead of profits staying in town to be reinvested locally, the money is hauled off to Bentonville, either to be used as capital for conquering yet another town or simply to be stashed in the family vaults (the Waltons, by the way, just bought the biggest bank in Arkansas).

It�s our world

Why should we accept this? Is it our country, our communities, our economic destinies�or theirs? Wal-Mart�s radical remaking of our labor standards and our local economies is occurring mostly without our knowledge or consent. Poof�there goes another local business. Poof�there goes our middle-class wages. Poof�there goes another factory to China. No one voted for this . . . but there it is. While corporate ideologues might huffily assert that customers vote with their dollars, it�s an election without a campaign, conveniently ignoring that the public�s "vote" might change if we knew the real cost of Wal-Mart�s "cheap" goods�and if we actually had a chance to vote.

Much to the corporation�s consternation, more and more communities are learning about this voracious powerhouse, and there�s a rising civic rebellion against it. Tremendous victories have already been won as citizens from Maine to Arizona, from the Puget Sound to the Gulf of Mexico, have organized locally and even statewide to thwart the expansionist march of the Wal-Mart juggernaut.

Wal-Mart is huge, but it can be brought to heel by an aroused and organized citizenry willing to confront it in their communities, the workplace, the marketplace, the classrooms, the pulpits, the legislatures, and the voting booths. Just as the Founders rose up against the mighty British trading companies, so we can reassert our people�s sovereignty and our democratic principles over the autocratic ambitions of mighty Wal-Mart.

More of Jim Hightower's writing can be found in his monthly newletter, The Hightower Lowdown. For more information, see www.jimhightower.com.

Bush Incorporated is Open for Business

Greetings can be quite unique around the world. I'm told that New Zealand's Maori tribesmen rub noses when they meet, that Tibetans stick out their tongues to say hello, and that some East Africans might say howdy by spitting at your feet.

We the People have now been greeted by the full-fledged presidency of Bush the Second -- and while Little George didn't literally spit at us or stick his tongue out at us, he did rub our noses in the fact that Big Money got him into the White House and, by golly, Big Money is going to govern.

His new presidential cabinet has been hailed as rich in diversity for including four women, one Cuban-American, a couple of African-Americans, a Japanese-American, a Lebanese-American, a Chinese-American, and look! -- even a Democrat. But their diversity ends at ethnicity and gender, for the one constant among these new overseers of the federal machinery is that practically all of them have dedicated their careers to advancing corporate interests over working families, the environment, consumers, poor people, family farmers, ordinary taxpayers, and any other people's interests.

Using the smokescreen of multicultural diversity, George's handlers, led by VP Dick Cheney, have assembled a Bush Incorporated that includes four CEOs, several corporate board members, and a couple of corporate lobbyists. One business newsletter hails the cabinet as "an all-star boardroom." Swell, except that government ought to have an outlook far broader than that of a boardroom. The cabinet does not "reflect the diversity of America," as the establishment media has gushed, but the narrow experience, viewpoint, and agenda of Corporate America.

The Rogues' Gallery

Spencer Abraham. This one-term Republican senator from Michigan (defeated in November by Democrat Debbie Stabenow) has had such an undistinguished career, mostly as a political hack, that the highlight of his resume is that he was deputy chief of staff to Dan Quayle. He's now your Energy Secretary, which must be George W.'s idea of a joke, since as a senator, Abraham sponsored a bill to eliminate the very agency he'll now head.

He dislikes environmental regulation, preferring that oil companies and others be turned loose to do what they will to produce more gasoline, nuclear power and so forth. Among other favors to industry he led the Senate fight to kill regulations requiring greater fuel efficiency in gas-guzzling SUVs.

Taking such rock-headed positions earned him a rock-bottom zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters. He was, however, beloved by the industry he's now supposed to oversee -- in last year's senatorial elections, Abraham was tops in campaign contributions received from energy executives and lobbyists.

John Ashcroft. Bush's choice for Attorney General, this former senator from Missouri (defeated last November by a dead man) drew heat from Democrats, who argued that he will be a tool of the gun lobby, anti-choice forces, Christian extremists, and so forth. However, for obvious reasons, the Democrats chose not to assail Ashcroft for being a proven tool of big business.

For example, he sponsored an infamous bit of special-interest trash last year that would extend the patent on the super-profitable allergy pill Claritin, marketed by drug giant Schering-Plough. He then pocketed a $50,000 campaign donation from -- you guessed it -- Schering-Plough. The bill has yet to pass, but Schering's lobbyists are poised to ram it through Congress, a move that will ultimately cost consumers $9.6 billion more than if a generic version of the drug was available. Ashcroft has a long record of fund-raising from business interests with important matters before the Justice Department. One of those powerful interests is the pollution lobby, from which the senator took more than $1.7 million for his re-election bid, including such grateful donors as BP Amoco, DuPont, Exxon, Monsanto, Occidental Petroleum, Union Carbide, and Weyerhaeuser. They were grateful because the senator had opposed funding for environmental enforcement, voting for a roll-back of clean-water protections, and even voting to let mining companies dump cyanide and other wastes on public lands.

Elaine Chao. Bush beamed when he introduced Chao as his Labor Secretary, saying she epitomized "the values and dreams of hard-working Americans." She's the daughter of a family that fled to Taiwan from communist China, then emigrated to the Land of the Free, where by diligent effort she rose from poverty to the top, graduating from Harvard, becoming head of the United Way, gaining appointments in the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II administrations -- and along the way, marrying a U.S. senator!

It's classic Americana, but there are a couple of defining chapters in Chao's life that Bush conveniently left out, such as that her primary professional experience is not with working class folks, but as an investment banker and corporate director. She has held several positions in the banking industry, including vice president of Bank of America's capital markets group. Her board memberships include Northwest Airlines, Dole Food, Clorox, and Columbia/ HCA Healthcare. (The senator she married, by the way, is the odious Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican best known for crushing any reform of our corrupt campaign-finance system.)

Donald Evans. A Texas oilman and childhood chum of W., Evans is the moneyman who bagged a record $400 million for Bush's presidential campaign. Nearly all of it came from major corporate givers that are now in a position to receive from Evans, the new Secretary of Commerce. Like Ron Brown and Mickey Kantor in the Clinton years, Evans represents the continuing despicable practice of ensconcing the president's chief fundraiser at the Commerce Department, from which to dispense billions of dollars' worth of government largess.

While Bush might claim he has no idea who gave what to lift him to the presidency, Evans is keeper of the list, knowing to the dime who's in line for government favors -- and now, as Commerce Secretary, he'll keep a new list of who gets those favors, enabling him to keep dunning them for the Bush 2004 campaign.

Mel Martinez. As far as we can tell, Martinez is the one Bush appointee with no binding corporate connections. The new head of Housing and Urban Development essentially has spent his career up to his elbows in roads, airports, housing, urban sprawl, and other aspects of public administration. He's the top manager of Orange County, Florida (think: Orlando and Disney World) and was one of eight co-chairs of Bush's Florida campaign.

Norman Mineta. Here's Bush's token Democrat, named to head the Transportation Department. A 21-year veteran of Congress from San Jose, California, Mineta rose to the chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee. Can you guess which industry was his number-one contributor? Collect your cigar if you said transportation. His funders included the American Trucking Association, Boeing, General Electric, Greyhound, Lockheed, Northwest Airlines, UPS, Union Pacific, and United Airlines.

In 1995, Norman stepped down from Congress to take a higher position in Washington: corporate VP for Lockheed Martin. Can you guess which corporation is a major seeker of government contracts for transportation projects? Collect another cigar.

Gale Norton. This appointment puts the lie to Bush's "uniter-not-a-divider" claim. No selection could be more divisive than to put an ardent ally of environmental despoilers at the helm of the Interior Department.

"Chainsaw Gale" Norton worked in Colorado for a corporate front group called the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which was created and funded by the likes of Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, Ford, and Phillips 66. She has been a prominent member of several extremist "property-rights" groups that are financed by such concerned citizens as Boise Cascade, DuPont and Louisiana Pacific. At a 1991 conference sponsored by one of these outfits, she contended that property rights include the "right to pollute." She was the national chair of the Coalition for Republican Environmental Advocates, which has a steering committee that includes lobbyists for the auto, mining, and oil industries, and is funded by such environmental advocates as the American Forest Paper Association, Amoco, ARCO, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and Ford.

Backed by some of these same polluting interests, Norton was elected attorney general of Colorado in 1990, where she gave new depth to the term "lax enforcement" with respect to pollution regulations. Yet Bush defended her appointment by declaring she has a "good heart" -- so much so that she has shown a touching faith in big business, allowing Colorado utilities, chemical companies, and others to monitor their own compliance with pollution laws and voluntarily report any violations -- a policy Bush wants to apply nationally.

Paul O'Neill. Another appointee who comes to "public service" directly from the corporate suite, O'Neill was CEO of Alcoa, the world's biggest and richest aluminum maker. Previously, he was CEO of International Paper Company, and also on the boards of Eastman Kodak and Lucent Technologies.

As Treasury Secretary, the cabinet's top overseer of our nation's economy, O'Neill is charged with working on behalf of all Americans. But he has already announced his intentions to pursue wage-depressing policies and to push for a massive tax cut for America's wealthiest citizens -- an elite group that includes him. O'Neill doesn't even bother with the Bush party line that tax cuts will help buoy the economy. "I would not make a huge case that [tax relief] is the instrument to ensure that we don't go into recession," he told the Senate Finance Committee. But since he'll profit handsomely, it's good enough for him.

Rod Paige. Bush cites the new Education Secretary's accomplishments as Houston's school superintendent as the reason for his selection, but there is another achievement that makes Bush's money circle especially delighted with the choice: Paige has been a champion of corporatizing Houston's classrooms and privatizing everything from school payrolls to cafeteria food.

There's gold in them thar schools, if corporations can get service contracts or direct access to the children -- and Paige has been a pushover for companies wanting to do either. For example, he turned food service over to Aramark Inc., payroll over to PeopleSoft, and accounting over to SAP. In all three of these privatized areas, service is worse and costs are higher.

Paige is also big on selling school children to marketers. Last year, for example, he cut an exclusive marketing deal with Coca-Cola, letting the soft-drink giant fill the school system's hallways with Coke machines and aggressively promote its cans of empty calories to students.

Paige also waved in Primedia Corporation's Channel One, a 10-minute television broadcast that is beamed directly into classrooms each morning. Posing as an "educational tool," Channel One is really an advertiser's dream. Two of the 10 minutes consist of ads hawking goods from the like of M&M/Mars, PepsiCo, Reebok, and Nintendo. These companies get a captive audience and are allowed not only to peddle their products but also to teach the gospel of consumerism in the schools.

Colin Powell. The Secretary of State is the sparkliest star in this rather drab constellation. Since his Gulf War heyday (he has, by the way, never assumed any leadership responsibility for the more than 100,000 U.S. veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, but that's another story), Gen. Powell has cashed in on his fame by, among other ventures, becoming a corporate director and banquet speaker.

He hauled home $7 million in speaking fees last year alone, addressing the gatherings of such corporate empires as Credit Suisse, missile maker Lucent Technologies, and Petsmart Inc. Until his appointment, he was on the board of America Online, where he recieved stock worth more than $20 million tucked away in other corporate investments, including $1 million invested in weapons giant General Dynamics.

Anthony Principi. This Vietnam vet, who later became a lawyer and chief Republican counsel to the Senate Veterans Committee, returns to the Veterans Affairs Department, where he was acting secretary for a brief spell at the end of the reign of Bush I.

Heir to a family-owned real estate company, Principi is a millionaire veteran of the executive suite, too. He left government in 1992 to be president of QTC Medical Services Inc. He later was the ramrod of Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems, a high-tech subsidiary of the giant defense contractor, and most recently was president of a wireless technology firm called the Federal Network.

Donald Rumsfeld. Weapons makers are absolutely giddy with Bush's choice to head the Defense Department. Rumsfeld is a trusted member of the CEO brotherhood, and he never met a military boondoggle he wouldn't hug. A former Illinois congressman and holder of various appointments in the Nixon and Ford administrations, Rumsfeld has since been amassing a multimillion-dollar fortune for himself. He has served as CEO of General Instrument Corp. and of G.D. Searle & Co., the global drug maker now owned by Monsanto. He's on the board of directors of Asea Brown Boveri Ltd. (a huge Swedish-based engineering conglomerate), the Tribune Co. (the Chicago media conglomerate), Gilead Sciences Inc. (a biopharmaceutical company), and RAND Corporation (the corporate-funded think tank and tireless promoter of more Pentagon spending). He's also chairman of the international advisory board of the Wall Street firm of Salomon Smith Barney.

Rumsfeld's hallmark, however, is his relentless cheerleading for spending our tax dollars on weapons that don't work, aren't needed, or are grossly overpriced. Now he's positioned to produce his greatest-ever exercise in excess at our expense: Star Wars. This is the Reagan-era fantasy of having a system that can shoot down incoming missiles -- a trick that practically every independent scientist and military expert says is neither possible nor necessary -- yet in the pursuit of which billions have been frittered away on research contracts and failed tests. Rumsfeld, however, is part of a corporate clique demanding that another $60 billion be thrown at this folly. He chaired a 1998 commission appointed to hoke-up a PR rationalization for spending these bucks. For this, he was given the "Keeper of the Flame" award by the Center for Security Policy, a Star Wars front group financed by -- big surprise -- Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell International, TRW, and other contractors that would split the Star Wars loot.

Tommy Thompson. The longtime governor of Wisconsin, known nationally for his get-tough policy on welfare moms, has been a softie on welfare kings: corporations that have donated to his campaigns and -- in an amazing coincidence -- then received lucrative state contracts, subsidies, and regulatory favors.

Tapped by Bush to oversee health policy, he is quite experienced at tapping into the pocketbooks of the health-care industry. In his last gubernatorial race, he was showered with campaign contributions from HMOs, hospital chains, nursing homes, clinics, doctors, insurance companies, and lobbyists for all of the above. As head of the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services, Thompson's new domain includes the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- two agencies at the center of the national fight against tobacco addiction. As governor, Tommy was often AWOL in this battle with nicotine pushers, perhaps because he had a cozy relationship with one of the biggies, Philip Morris, Inc. The cigarette maker has put more than $72,000 in the governor's political pockets. Tommy did what he could for the company, including vetoing a bill that would let Wisconsin cities enact tobacco restrictions tougher than the meek state laws.

Ann Veneman. The White House spin is that Bush's choice for Agriculture Secretary is a "farmer's daughter" who is in tune with the Jeffersonian yeomen of America. Well, not quite. Her father was a farmer, with a spread of orchards and vineyards around Modesto, California, but he was also a Republican legislator and Nixon's Undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

There's no dirt under Veneman's fingernails, for she's spent her career in Washington and Sacramento, pushing for free-trade and biotech policies that rip off and displace our nation's real dirt farmers. She was deputy ag secretary for trade under Bush the First, supporting NAFTA and other acronyms of globaloney. She comes to the Bush cabinet directly from the Sacramento law firm of Nossaman, Guthner, where she specialized in serving the needs of agribusiness giants and biotech corporations seeking to implant their Frankenfoods in our diets. Indeed, Veneman was on the board of Calgene Inc. (now a subsidiary of Monsanto), which was the first firm to market a genetically altered food product in America -- a fresh-market tomato with a fish gene spliced in to give it longer shelf life. She's also a participant in the International Policy Council of Agriculture, Food and Trade, an agribusiness front group financed by Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Kraft, and Nestlé, among other global corporations.

Christie Whitman. Because she's the pro-choice governor of New Jersey, Whitman has been widely cited as proof of Bush's ideological flexibility. Do we look like we have sucker wrappers around our heads? As the new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Whitman has zero power over abortion policy -- and on matters where she does have power, she's no progressive.

Governor Whitman brought a laissez-faire approach to environmental regulation in her state, pledging in her first inaugural address to make New Jersey "open for business." Wide open: She slashed her state's environmental enforcement budget by 30%, which resulted in 80% fewer fines assessed on polluters. She weakened state oversight of pesticide use and removed more than 1,000 chemicals from the state's right-to-know program. She tried to eliminate the state's Clean Water Enforcement Act. She signed an order to roll back most state regulations that were tougher on polluters than federal regulations. She allowed polluters to monitor their own air and water emissions and to comply with regulations on a voluntary basis -- and instead of fining companies caught polluting, she gave them a "grace period" to stop doing it.

Crime in the Suites

There's a crime wave underway in America, but the Powers That Be are getting sore necks from looking the other way. I'm talking about corporate crime. When it comes to robbing us blind, the Armani-clad criminals in corporate boardrooms have it all over the hoods on the street. The FBI reckons that burglary and robbery cost U.S. taxpayers $3.8 billion annually. Securities traders alone cream four times that amount from their clients in fraudulent deals every year. And as far as white-collar crime goes, securities fraud is small potatoes. From oil spills to price-fixing to peddling defective or dangerous products, corporations are responsible for the costliest and deadliest crimes in this country.Yet when it comes to enforcing the law and meting out punishment, corporations get treated with kid gloves so soft only their CEOs could afford them. They're all but immune to the criminal penalties applied to regular citizens. Even when a corporation gets caught by its own egregiousness, committing acts so outrageous and heinous and on such a scale that the authorities grudgingly have to haul them into court, they're usually subject to no more than civil penalties and fines. (Can you imagine some CEO getting dragged through grimy precinct hallways, fingerprinted, and thrown into a cell to wait for a frantic loved one to scrape together bail?)Worse yet, they don't often get caught, because corporate crimes don't get investigated and prosecuted with thoroughness, let alone zeal. Why not? Because most politicians would rather try to sandpaper a bobcat's butt than crack down on corporations. Why would your average politico, who was elected with corporate campaign dollars -- and is looking forward to reelection with more where that came from -- hound his corporate sponsors for any of their misdeeds?How well does corporate crime pay?Fraud by healthcare corporations alone costs us between $100 and $400 billion a year. And the savings-and-loan debacle, which former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh called "the biggest white-collar swindle in history," cost between $300 and $500 billion. Each of these rip-offs --health care and the S&Ls -- cost us ten times as much as all the burglaries and robberies in America combined!"Hold on," you say. At least these suits aren't killing innocent people with handguns or stealing old ladies' purses at knifepoint. Not exactly -- but while 19,000 people are murdered in the U.S. every year (mostly by people they know), 56,000 Americans die at work! They get deadly diseases like black lung, asbestosis, or more insidious poisonings. They get crushed in accidents or killed by a badly made product.Twenty years ago, Ralph Nader started a magazine called Multinational Monitor, and here's what it said recently about crime in the corporate suites:* It's pervasive -- the dirty deals are done by even the largest and most well-established companies, like Alcoa, Borden, Bristol-Myers, Squibb, Chevron, Eastman Kodak, Exxon, General Electric, Hyundai, IBM, Mitsubishi, Royal Caribbean, Tyson Foods. All these companies were among the worst of the 1990s, judging by the size of the fines the courts made them pay (and these are just the few that didn't get away).* Any criminal prosecutions of corporate wrongdoers are almost invariably for "intentional or reckless acts" only, meaning that they get away with all sorts of things -- including murder -- because they "didn't mean to do it."* The penalties visited upon these multibillion-dollar entities are pocket change to them. The fact is, except in those rare cases where a corporation is caught setting up a cartel or overtly fixing prices, corporate crime pays.* Few violations lead to criminal prosecutions. Instead, many corporate crimes are improperly treated as civil violations, and many bad acts are just called "legal" -- as in, "it may be wrong to put out a poorly tested toy that chokes a toddler or two, but it's legal."Every year, in pursuit of what's really happening inside the boardrooms of global corporations, Multinational Monitor names the "Top 100 Corporate Criminals" based on the size of the fines the courts made them pay. Last year's top 100 break down into 14 categories, throwing a rare spotlight on the face of corporate criminality:Thirty-eight of the top 100 committed serious crimes against the environment; 20 ignored antitrust laws; 13 committed fraud; seven broke campaign-finance laws; six trampled food and drug laws; four were plain old financial crooks. The rest were caught doing such things as making false statements to the courts or the government, trafficking in illegal exports, running an illegal boycott, and causing workers' deaths, as well as bribery, obstruction of justice, public corruption, and tax evasion.But, remember, most crimes from the suites never go to a jury, partly because there are so many ways for those who own the system to beat it:* Guilty corporations can preemptively offer up some low-level exec to go to prison so that the real bosses stay free. (This guy is known as the Vice-President in Charge of Going to Jail.)* Companies that poison folks with nasty pesticides don't go to prison because their lobbyists work hard in Washington to keep such poisons legal.* Corporations that kill workers on the job -- for instance, by speeding up the production line or allowing deadly hazards on the shop floor -- get the deaths recorded as "accidents" so they aren't investigated as homicides.* And of course, businesses routinely hand out fat campaign contributions (what amounts to legislative bribery) to any political party or candidate looking for a fast buck, and this isn't even considered a crime. No surprise there, since corporate lobbyists work with elected officials to write the law in the first place.And even if they do get caught, the big guys have all the resources they need to defend themselves.When Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines were caught polluting the oceans, they hired two former heads of the U.S. Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section, two former U.S. Attorneys General, two former U.S. federal prosecutors, a handful of former government officials and law professors, and (count 'em) four retired admirals to show up in court on their behalf. Then they spent a fortune painting themselves green -- buying ads during the Super Bowl to tell us all how good the cruise shippers are for our environment, hiring ex-EPA officials to be on their board, and writing large checks to environmental groups.The big crimes of our timesLet's venture into the casebooks for some recent examples of crimes from the suites -- but don't hold your breath waiting to see any of these guys on the next episode of Cops.* We all buy vitamins from time to time. Maybe you go for vitamins in a bottle -- A, B2, B5, C, E, and Beta Carotene? Or perhaps you just buy vitamin-enriched breakfast cereal or some other processed food? In any event, for the last ten years we've all been paying more for these vitamins than we should have because the smart guys at the pharmaceutical company Hoffman-La Roche Ltd. organized an illegal cartel among manufacturers -- including fellow pharmaceutical giant BASF -- to jack up the prices and fix them at above-market rates. The feds managed to nail Hoffman-La Roche and get a $500 million fine out of them after they were convicted in a Dallas courtroom. BASF was fined $225 million.* Archer Daniels Midland, the grain company that purrs so reassuringly in its TV commercials and NPR spots, got caught in another antitrust swindle. These guys corralled all the companies that make citric acid -- you drink it in soda, eat it in food, and use it in soaps, cosmetics, and drugs -- as well as another acid that's added to cattle feed, and got everyone to fix the prices for these two items. They also got all the manufacturers to agree on divvying up the market among them, with no one under-selling anyone else. Ah, the wonders of competition, the magic of the free market.* Louisiana-Pacific Corp. is our nation's biggest manufacturer of laminated board, which is widely used in the construction business. The company's big mill in Montrose, Colorado, has monitoring gadgets placed at various points to measure pollution levels, as required by laws to protect the environment and the factory's neighbors. Yet pollution continued to pour out of Louisiana-Pacific's mill. Why didn't the monitors catch it? A year and a half ago, the company pled guilty to rigging the monitoring equipment with foil, pulling off protective lenses, changing the dials, and finally turning the damned things off! The company paid $37 million in fines and is on probation for 5 years.* Corning Inc. runs a medical laboratory called Damon Clinical Labs. The lab did blood tests for doctors, but they told docs with Medicare patients that three tests were always done as a package, and then they'd bill state and federal healthcare programs for the unnecessary tests, raking in about $40 million in fraudulent claims. U.S. Attorney Donald Stern quipped: "What was marketed as a LabScan was actually a massive lab scam."Some help is on the wayWhile an ever-growing horde of crime-busting politicians supports "Three strikes and you're out!" for scofflaws who happen to be human beings, big companies are allowed to flout one law after another on contracts paid for with our tax dollars -- and they not only get away close to scot-free, they also get more contracts and more of our tax dollars!The Clinton administration, having presided over fewer prosecutions of corporate crimes than even the Bush White House, has now been shamed into promoting a "responsible contractor" regulation to prevent companies with a record of "substantial noncompliance" with labor, environmental, tax, antitrust, consumer, or employment laws from getting federal contracts, which add up to about $200 billion a year.That's hitting these greed machines where they live -- but there's so much more we could do. How about making businesses pay fines with equity, making them hand over shares in the company thereby diminishing the value of the company and getting the attention of the shareholders? When companies are put on probation, judges could appoint a supervisor (a probation officer, if you will) to keep an eye on these convicted criminals so that they don't go and hurt someone else. And we ought to require corporations to advertise their crimes as a form of punishment (imagine the "ADM -- Super-Swindler of the World" TV spot).The critical need, though, is for We the People to reassert our sovereignty over these offending entities by altering or revoking their state charters. Ultimately, corporations only exist at the pleasure of you and me. The founders of our states and nation put strict limits on the corporate structure, establishing our right to set the terms of each corporation's existence. The authority to revoke corporate charters is still on the books of nearly every state, and it's time for us to reassert some of the passion of 1776 by using that authority.The issue is basic: Are the corporations going to rule, or are we? The defining battle of our era is to reestablish citizen rule over our government, our economy, our environment, and our society -- and this requires the defeat of today's corporate autocracy.

Where Have All the Issues Gone?

Well, there we have it: It's down to GoreBush. Dull vs. dullard. The political establishments of the two-party duopoly successfully rose up to surround, defend, and shove forward their chosen ones, both girded with tens of millions of dollars from the exact same sources of corrupt corporate money.

This means that the kitchen-table issues that actually matter to us will not even be up for discussion, since the money masters of the GoreBush travelling medicine show have decreed that their candidates must not disturb the populace with any questioning of the conventional wisdom and corporate order. Instead, GoreBush offers "Election 2000: A Space Odyssey" -- completely out of touch with the real life of our country's workaday majority. Here are a few examples of what the Democrat and Republican will NOT be discussing:

#1: The mugging of the middle class

Al and George are in perfect harmony on the prosperity theme, assuring voters that they will dutifully extend America's razzle-dazzle, Wall Street-driven "economic boom." Both are totally deaf to the chorus of America's majority asking: A boom for whom?

Real wages are lower today than when Nixon was president. Eight out of ten families have seen their incomes go flat or go down in this period of so-called prosperity. More than 90 percent of the gains in stock wealth have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of families. Farm bankruptcies, corporate downsizings, and family debt are setting new records. Why is this gritty reality not being raised -- at least by the nominal Democrat?

Rather than reaching out to the middle class, Gore and Bush have agreed to continue the mugging -- both support tax and trade programs that subsidize more downsizings and the exporting of U.S. jobs; both favor immigration policies that allow high-tech companies to import workers to fill the majority of our tech jobs and undermine the salary scale for the whole industry; and both fawn over Alan Greenspan, favoring his reappointment as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, from whence he pursues a relentless policy of depressing wages.

#2: The return of the robber barons

In a greed-grab more feverish than a gold rush, every industry in our country is being consolidated and conglomerated by huge corporations to form entities with names like Global Goliath MegaHuge Inc. The bottom line is a shrinking of competition and a radical rise in monopoly power affecting our jobs, health care, the news we're fed, and much, much more.

The CEOs, with wide, toothy grins, rationalize their mergers in the name of "consumer benefits." Do we look like we have sucker wrappers around our heads? Is your cable bill lower? Is your medical care better? Is the nightly news any newsier as the result of these consolidations?

A handful of corporate and investor elites enjoy a golden windfall from these mergers. Everyone else loses -- workers, consumers, taxpayers, small businesses, communities, small shareholders. Yet this destructive re-ordering of America's economy is being done with no public discussion, much less a challenge. Instead of Teddy Roosevelt or "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, we get Al and George taking millions of campaign dollars from the merging barons and seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil.

#3: Globaloney

Corporate globalization is nothing but Reagan trickle-down economics writ large -- if we simply unleash the Great Stallions of Global Corporate Power, we're told, these beneficent beasts will naturally produce enormous wealth, put a Lexus in every garage, turn every bloody dictatorship into a utopian democracy, cure genital herpes, and let everyone have a Nike swoosh on their clothing.

Only it hasn't quite worked out that way. Instead, the U.S. has lost hundreds of thousands of good jobs, as our corporate stallions have stampeded to poverty-stricken nations to take advantage of powerless and dirt-cheap labor. The secret, autocratic, corporate-controlled tribunals set up by NAFTA and the WTO to enforce this global rapaciousness have been empowered, without our knowledge or consent, to overrule our national, state, and local laws, thereby stealing our most fundamental right: self-government (see The Lowdown, March '99 and Jan. '00).

Neither Gore nor Bush will question this outrage. Au contraire, both worship at the holy altar of globaloney and insist on staying the course -- a course paved with the golden bricks of their corporate sponsors.

#4: The freakin' drug war

It doesn't get much stupider than this political boondoggle that wastes $50 billion of our tax money each year, that imprisons half a million of our fellow citizens for nothing but simple possession or low-level dealing, that allows police at all levels to seize the private property (cars, homes, cash, Tupperware, everything) even of innocent citizens, that results in unconstitutional racial profiling and searches, that prevents U.S. farmers from being able to grow profitable and environmentally sound fields of industrial hemp (see The Lowdown, May '99), that has our military spending nearly a billion bucks a year to intervene (on the wrong side) in a civil war in Colombia ... et cetera and ad nauseum.

Democrat Gore has not piped up in opposition to any of these absurdities, and Republican Bush says he wants to get more repressive and spend more on such madness. The presidential "debate" will ignore a failed drug policy that is doing deep damage to our people, our constitution, and what's left of the government's credibility.

#5: Real tax reform

Even though the corporate media is highlighting tax cuts as a big difference between Gore and Bush, their plans are like the difference between Bud Lite and Miller Lite -- weak beer all around.

Both talk only about federal income taxes, deliberately diverting any attention from the tax that most burdens the majority of working Americans: the payroll tax -- which takes 7 1/2 percent of the income of anyone making up to $76,000 a year (15 percent if you're self-employed). If you make more than this -- even if you're Bill Gates -- you're still taxed only on your first $76,000 in income. Why should 100 percent of a working stiff's income be taxed, but only 1 percent of a multimillionaire's? Why not start the payroll tax at $76,000, rather than capping it there, thus freeing working families from these regressive taxes and putting the burden on the most privileged citizens? Now there's a real tax-cut debate!

Other possibilities are an international currency-exchange tax on corporations and speculators, and a transactions tax on short-term stock sales. There are also good suggestions for a pollution and natural resources tax, applying a progressive rate that climbs according to the amount of pollution you cause and the resources you consume.

But these ideas would require a boldness and ingenuity that cannot come from candidates shackled to the very interests that profit from today's regressive tax policies, leaving the candidates to think small and pick nits.

#6: Universal health care

This was the big issue of '92 for Clinton-Gore, who decried the fact that 38 million Americans lacked any medical coverage at all. Eight years later, 44 million Americans are uncovered.

This time, Gore is a health-care minimalist, offering a plan that possibly-maybe-but-don't-hold-me-to-it would cover only about one-eighth of the citizens in need. And Bush wouldn't even go that far.

Missing entirely is the debate we ultimately must have, which is to create an American version of Canada's single-payer system -- the only way to provide care for all, cut costs, and improve both service and health. Big surprise: Both parties are butt-deep in campaign funds from profiteering HMOs and insurance giants, who would be the only losers in a single-payer plan.

#7: The money corruption of politics and government

Gore and Bush are shameless poseurs on campaign-finance reform. Neither they nor their parties want even the modest changes they're willing to talk about. Both are fixated on the matter of "soft money," the unlimited millions that corporations and unions give to the political parties (though overwhelmingly it's corporate cash in the soft-money game). Gore would ban soft money outright, and Bush would outlaw it for corporations and unions, while still allowing CEOs, fat cats, and other individuals to continue pumping millions through the soft-money loophole.

Not a whisper from either of these two frauds on public financing of elections, which is the one way we finally could get the corrupting private money out of the process. If we want public policy to reflect genuine public interest, rather than private interests, we've got to fund the democratic process publicly.

Doing this closes the loopholes for special-interest money, but -- even more important -- it allows regular people to run for office again, since a teacher, farmer, retail clerk, cab driver, or whomever could get access to the same pool of public campaign funds that incumbents and the elites would have. Already, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont have passed state laws for public financing, while Connecticut, Missouri, and Oregon will vote on it this year. Why not a national debate?

We're onto them!

The good news is that GoreBush can run, but they can't hide from these issues. Among other credible third-party candidates who will be actively raising some of them, Ralph Nader already is on the hustings talking about all of these and more as he campaigns for the Green Party presidential nomination. Ralph will be a contender -- he will have been in all 50 states by June 1, he will raise at least $5 million to finance a grassroots campaign, his volunteers will qualify the Greens for the ballot in 40 to 50 states, he has an experienced political staff on the job, he has top legal minds working to put him into this fall's debates with Gore and Bush ... and he's going to get right in the face of power as only Ralph can do, filling in what's been missing in Campaign 2000.

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