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A Thieves’ Thanksgiving

Senate Bosses.jpg
Joseph Keppler
Joseph Keppler: The Bosses of the Senate, 1889

It’s never been such a good time to be a crook. In what other country of laws does one enjoy so much freedom to defraud one’s government and fellow citizens without having to worry about cops showing at the door? Small-time crooks sooner or later end up in the slammer, but our big-time con artists, as we’ve come to learn, are now regarded as the untouchables, too well-heeled and powerful to lock up. Not only that, the most famous among them are widely admired, not just by their peers and politicians on the take, but even by our president, who, six years after the worst financial crisis since the Depression, calls them good businessmen (he said it at least once). No wonder the graduates of our most prestigious schools speak openly of emulating their ways, discarding those antiquated altruistic values university students in previous generations aspired to. Besides, where else in our weak economy are there so many good job opportunities as in racketeering?

What makes a career in white-collar crime so attractive is that there are so few risks anymore. Everyone knows about Wall Street bankers having their losses from various scams they concocted over the years covered by taxpayers. But now, even when bankers lose billions for their bank by making bad or reckless deals, or have to pay regulatory penalties, as Jamie Dimon, the current chairman, president, and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase did earlier this year, they are more likely to get a 74 percent raise, as he did, than to lose their jobs. As for the federal agencies that are supposed to watch over them and the Justice Department that is supposed to haul these hucksters into court, if they so much as bestir themselves to confront the banks, they simply ask them to pay fines, thereby avoiding a judge or a jury and making sure that the details of their swindles can remain secret from the public.

As dishonest as Wall Street is, it doesn’t compare to the kind of thievery that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once upon a time, war profiteers were looked at as the lowest of the low and condemned by presidents. “Worse than traitors in arms are the men who pretend loyalty to the flag, feast and fatten on the misfortunes of the Nation while patriotic blood is crimsoning the plains of the South and their countrymen mouldering in the dust,” warned Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster,” declared Franklin Roosevelt as the United States entered World War II.

Yet today, according to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, an independent, bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting, somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion of US government money has been lost through contract waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is now common knowledge that contractors were paid millions of dollars for projects that were never built, that the Defense Department gave more than $400 billion to companies that had previously been sanctioned in cases involving fraud, and that the beneficiaries of such past largesse have not only gotten fabulously wealthy, but continue to be invited to pursue lucrative business opportunities in the new homeland security–industrial complex.

However shocking, these revelations don’t really come as a surprise. Can anyone imagine a candidate for office talking about war profiteering and demanding accountability from both the military and civilian contractors and those who hired them? I cannot. Nor can I imagine a reporter asking Presidents Bush and Obama what happened to all that taxpayer money. The days when the subject could be raised are long gone. We now live in a country whose political system is too corrupt to defend itself from crooks. Should some senator or congressman have a sudden attack of conscience and blurt something out, “dark money” brings them to their senses and reminds them that their job is to facilitate the transfer of public funds into the pockets of the few and to not ask too many questions. Almost $4 billion was spent on this year’s midterm election and out of that $219 million on dark money, all with the blessing of the Supreme Court, which in its 2010 Citizens United decision made bribing men and women running for office legal and turned politicians who could not be bought into an extinct species.

“Rome’s liberties were not auctioned off in a day, but were bought slowly, gradually, furtively, little by little,” Mark Twain recalled being taught in school, while pondering by what process our own republic may turn into monarchy. It ought to be obvious by now that if we ever become a genuine police state, it will not arise from an authoritarian ideology necessarily, but as the end result of that insatiable greed for profit that has already affected every aspect of American life from health care to the way college students are forced into debt. Huge fortunes are also made from spying on us and coming to regard every American as a potential enemy. They are right to think that way. If we ever as a nation grasped that criminality on such an immense scale is bound to lead the country into ruin, there might be serious consequences for the perpetrators. At the present time, the only ones likely to get in trouble are the leakers who want to let the rest of us know what goes on behind our backs. No doubt about it, in the coming holiday season our crooks will have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to celebrate.