By Paul Rogat Loeb
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
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 Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction
in a Cynical Time. See www.soulofacitizen.org.