by Paul Rogat Loeb
August 30, 2003
If you run a lootocracy, you have no conception of sufficiency. You set up the rules to grab as much money as you can, as if you've won a supermarket shopping spree. You also concentrate power, the better to arrange the world for your benefit. Unchecked by modesty, satiety, or shame, you take all you can get away with. You loot until someone stops you.
The word lootocracy was originally coined to describe the corrupt cartels that have ruled and plundered countries like Nigeria, Kenya, and some of the former Soviet Republics. But with an amazingly small amount of national debate, George Bush is installing a more global and sophisticated version-one where those on top can do whatever they choose without the slightest constraints. Bush began his presidency by giving the wealthiest five percent of all Americans massive tax breaks of $75 billion a year. He paid for them in part by cutting child abuse prevention, community policing, Americorps, low-income childcare, health care, housing, and even support for military families. This spring he passed another round of cuts, $35 billion a year targeted overwhelmingly to the same lucky lootocrats.
You'd think these victories would leave the Bush administration and its core supporters satisfied that they'd transferred more than enough wealth to the very richest Americans. You'd also think they might have notice that the first tax cut neither created new jobs or stemmed the continuing loss of existing jobs. But no. House Republicans have now just voted to end the Estate Tax permanently. If the Senate goes along, this will transfer a trillion dollars more, over the coming two decades, to an even tinier group of individuals. And key Republican strategist Grover Norquist promises more cuts down the line, explaining, "My goal is to cut government...down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Conservatives once preached fiscal restraint. Now strategists like Norquist view massive deficits as a tool to strip away government's ability to affect public life. And the administration neglects practically every real need so they can shift as much money as possible away from communities that could use it to the most to those who already have more than they know what to do with.
As 2001 Nobel economics laureate George Akerlof said recently, in calling the administration "the worst government the US has ever had in its more than 200 years of history, "This is not normal government policy What we have here is a form of looting."
It's not just taxes. Previous administrations have certainly been corrupted by a coziness with the wealthy and powerful. That's why we need to follow the path of public election financing that's been pioneered by states like Arizona and Maine. But Bush's regime descends to new depths in institutionalizing an America (and indeed a world) that is there for the taking. Private HMOs craft health bills. Oil, coal, and nuclear industries create energy policy in secret meetings. Chemical companies write environmental regulations. Timber companies promote a "Healthy Forests Initiative" letting them cut just about at will. Credit card companies rewrite bankruptcy laws. Fresh from cozying up to Saddam Hussein, Halliburton and Bechtel get offered instant contracts for the new Iraqi occupation. Bush appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission let Enron manipulate West Coast energy prices, then stick California ratepayers with $12 billion of onerous long-term contracts after the company collapses. The administration is now pushing to cut back 70 years of extra pay for overtime and to sharply restrict ordinary citizens' ability to challenge gross abuses of corporate power through class action lawsuits.
Appropriately, one of the new key coordinators of these efforts is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose family controls the largest private health care company in the country, HCA Columbia. HCA profits bankrolled Frist's initial Senate run, and the company just paid the largest fine in American corporate history--$1.7 billion for defrauding Medicaid, Medicare, and the health program that serves the military services. You'd think Frist would be shy about eroding further public checks on corporate malfeasance. But in a lootocracy, Frist's background and approach are business as usual.
A lootocracy embodies power as its own end, overriding any challenges, criticisms, or constraints. Open markets and deregulation have long been core conservative principles, but this administration pushes them farther than ever. They treat environmental laws, even ones enacted by Republicans, as obstacles to be evaded or demolished, opening up every possible domain to be auctioned off to the highest (or best-connected) bidder. They also treat the government's own workforce as expendable, eroding longstanding union and civil service protections, outsourcing key tasks, and doing their best to muzzle employees who challenge the administration's priorities, whether staffers of the Environmental Protection Agency or generals opposing the Iraq war.
The notion that the world should be run at the discretion of the powerful also underpins Bush's foreign policy. We see the same lust for control, the same assumption that those in charge can do whatever they can get away with, the same sense that disagreement is forbidden. We see the same denial of long-term costs and consequences.
Not all empires become lootocracies, but the more unaccountable power is, the greater the temptation to plunder. With a weapons budget greater than every other nation combined, our massive technological might threatens to flatten any nation that challenges us. If the UN supports our actions, we hail this as a mandate. If the UN doesn't, we act anyway, ignoring all international rules, and assembling a "coalition of the willing" reminiscent of children parading their imaginary friends. Given that the real threats of terrorism fly no national flags, the administration can always manufacture some excuse for intervention, as some of its key officials did in overthrowing democracies and supporting dictatorships during the Cold War. Instead of acknowledging the prime lesson of Sept 11, the profound interconnectedness of our world, this administration asserts the raw rule of power, confident that it will always prevail.
Think about Bush's rejection of international treaties, whether on war crimes, land mines, child labor, women's rights, tobacco control, nuclear testing, small arms regulation, or biological weapons. To take the example of global warming, an international consensus of scientists agrees that it's a real and critical issue. If we fear Islamic terrorism, the desperation that feeds it will hardly be reduced by predicted outcomes like the flooding of Egypt's prime agricultural land, the Nile Valley. But Bush refuses to be bound by either the international scientific consensus or the most modest attempts, like the Kyoto protocol, to enact it into policy. His most recent EPA report on the state of the environment edited out real discussion of the issue entirely. To Bush, the powerful are exempt from any limits on their right to take what they want.
Having already enacted far too much of its agenda, this administration relentlessly pursues the rest. Now that they control the Senate and House, and have a largely sympathetic Supreme Court, those who embrace an ethic of unlimited greed seem to have more power than ever.
But this power is still subject to check by real-world consequences and by the activism through which we make the issues real to our fellow citizens. The Iraq occupation becomes more of a quagmire each day. Terrorist bombs explode in Morocco, Algeria, and a once seemingly pacified Afghanistan. In the wake of the Iraq war, the Pew Foundation's Global Attitudes Project finds majorities in Islamic countries like Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, and Pakistan saying they have "confidence in Bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs." That's a staggeringly troubling response, all the more since after 911 many of these same people were mourning in commiseration with our loss. Meanwhile, every community in this country has seen services for the poor and vulnerable--and much of the middle class--decimated by national budget cuts. We need to tell the buried stories that highlight the costs.
This administration's arrogance has begun to produce a major citizen response-potentially as broad as any since the height of the 1960s. We saw this most visibly before the Iraq War. Many who spoke out then are beginning to work toward the 2004 election. Those of us who marched and spoke out now need to reach out to friends, neighbors, and communities about the staggeringly destructive implications of a world where the powerful do whatever they choose.
There's a widespread temptation to identify with the winners. But in a lootocracy we all lose out. We lose our voice, our democracy, our confidence that we won't be bankrupted by medical bills or thrown into the street, our certainty that our air and drinking water are safe, our security against the bitter anger of new generations of terrorists. Ultimately, we lose our democracy. Those are the stakes, at home and abroad. We need to be clear about them. If we can give our fellow citizens sufficient context to reflect, most Americans will recognize that they don't want a world run by the Enrons and WorldComs. And that the administration's actions do not serve their interest, but only the interests of the small group that's on top. They don't want their communities plundered or abandoned. They don't want to cannibalize the earth. They want a relationship with the world that makes us more safe, not less.
Whatever particular issues we care about and take on, we also need to focus on the larger pattern-the destructiveness of a regime based on pillage. The very outrageousness of this administration's reach must inspire us to act for a vision based on connection, respect, and learning to live within our limits. For only by rejecting the ethic of relentless taking do we honor the common ties that bind us all.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, and board chair of Peace Action of Washington. See www.soulofacitizen.org for more information.