In the United States the top 1% of the population controls 24% of national income, up from 9% in 1976. (15) The top percentile of US “captured half of the overall economic growth for the period 1993-2007. And “during the economic expansion of 2002-2007, the top 1% captured two thirds of income growth.” (16) Reformed former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Steiglitz describes America as a society of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%, a damning indictment of American democratic pretense.
Like Canada, the United States is also a society characterized by vast inequalities of wealth. But does the concentration of wealth at the top also equate to a concentration of political power at the top?
The case which best illustrates the point is a brief explanation of the development of the current economic crisis in the United States.
As has been documented by journalists such as Matt Taibbi and others, the near monopolization of national income by the top 1% of US earners has been facilitated by an ongoing criminal fraud perpetrated jointly by government regulators, US lawmakers and Wall Street. The appropriation of ever more of the nation’s wealth by the top 1% is the goal of US economic policy.
In brief, the US banks lobbied the US government to allow them to act like brokerage houses, and to merge. Two US banks, Cit and Travelers merged illegally, before the merger was retroactively legalized by pliant lawmakers. Banks have a product they sell – debt. The debtor pays interest to the bank, (the banks don’t lend the money to pay interest, you have to find that somewhere else) yet the banks lend money they don’t actually have. The money is created the moment it’s loaned out. For more on this fraud (which is the central organizing pillar of both the US and world economy) see here, and here, and here.
US banks developed new mortgage loan “products” specifically designed to be sold to poor Americans who could not pay. No down payment was required. Mortgages contained hidden clauses in the fine-print which dramatically increased payment amounts unexpectedly. Loan officers regularly faked data on loan applications to please hard driving superiors only interested to draw in ever more suckers, that is debtors. The loan officers were afraid of loosing their own jobs. Many debtors didn’t read the fine print, and many loan officers deliberately misrepresented loan terms, and so the debtors found they could not pay. When the housing market and the economy went into crisis, they lost their jobs. Most of these people have lost their homes and their life savings. Automated systems were also used to fraudulently rush through foreclosure procedures bypassing the legal requirements for transferring property between owners. (17)
These dodgy mortgages were then bundled together and sold to both foreign and domestic investors as “securities” when in fact they were “toxic waste” – worthless because the debtors could not pay, and because the underlying value of the assets – the houses – were themselves overestimated. The bankers knew it, and they referred among themselves in their private correspondence to the fact that their products were garbage. That didn’t stop them from actively promoting them as “golden” to their clients. Junk bonds were sold as AAA investment grade. But it doesn’t stop there. After selling this junk to their clients, the Banks then actively traded against the investment positions of their own clients. They told their clients to “go long” while they “went short.” The banks also developed insurance “products” called Credit Default Swaps based on these junk mortgage bundles which could be spun off and re-sold, spreading the risk everywhere in the global financial system, with catastrophic results for everyone – but not for the bankers at the heart of the scheme.
When the US housing market began to decline, the entire system exploded. Major investment banks such as Lehman Brothers and insurers such as AIG collapsed overnight, taking with them the savings and investments of millions of small time savers. More than five million families have lost their homes with many living in tent cities. (18)
The bankers went straight to the US government, the “democratically elected representatives of the people”, hat in hand. They demanded to be bailed out from the catastrophic results of their criminal conspiracy. They threatened “martial law” and financial collapse if they didn’t get their way. (19) Thus intimidated, the representatives gave the banks $16 trillion dollars. (20)
And the bankers proceeded to pay themselves a $70 billion dollar bonus, for “performance.” (21)
But the US Congress, democratically elected by the people, has done nothing to help the many millions of homeless. Houses sit empty, or are stripped of their valuable copper and left to rot into the ground.
The American system, which can devote endless resources to delivering a lethal weapon to a pinpoint target on the other side of the planet, is unable to organize a method whereby a homeless American citizen might live in an abandoned house and maintain it. To maintain the principle of private property, the homeless man must sleep on the street in front of the empty house. Grassroots campaigns to reoccupy derelict housing by homeless citizens are either ruthlessly repressed by the American state and by local law enforcement, or are else starved of funding. The American system seems to be willing to sacrifice every human ethical value to the “principle” of the private ownership of property, and the rule of money over society.
And it doesn’t stop there. Because of the collapse of the bond market, and because the pension funds of many American unions and State employee funds invested in these toxic mortgage products, they are now threatened with bankruptcy. (22) So state governors, with the Tea Party’s Scott Walker in the lead, are now attacking the collective bargaining rights of their unionized workers, to make up for budgetary shortfalls caused by the banks, who seem to have collapsed the US economy in a reckless scheme to line their own pockets. Emboldened by the anti-democratic tenor of much of mainstream American media discourse, and urged on by the neo-fascistic Koch brothers, Governor Walker declared that Democratic Party legislators no longer have the right to vote on legislation in Wisconsin state legislative committees! He has since backed off from that position, but we have been warned.
To date, not a single CEO of one of the banks behind the financial scandal and crisis has been prosecuted. It’s not difficult to see why.
The US financial “industry” lobby spent $3.7 billion dollars on lobbying from 1998 to 2009. During the period 1990 to 2008, it donated more than $2.2 billion to US politicians. (23) It’s the largest lobby group in the country. Wall Street was the largest campaign contributor to the current US President, Barak Obama.
It takes big money to influence US politics.
The average political campaign for a US Congressional seat costs $1.1 million, a Senate seat $6 million. (24) Running for the US Presidency cost Barak Obama $532 million, or $7.39 per vote. (25) The notion that “anybody can be president” or even a member of Congress is patently absurd, contradicted by the basic facts of US economic and political life.
The group Open Secrets, which tracks the influence of money in US politics, finds consistently that US House and Senate seats are won, nine times out of ten, by the candidate who spends the most money. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, “The cost of winning a seat in Congress–more than $1 million in the House and millions more in the Senate–is prohibitive for most people. Many politicians get elected and re-elected to Congress simply because no one can afford to take them on.” (26) Incumbency has become a sinecure in American politics. More than 97 percent of Congressmen, and 86 percent of Senators won re-election in 2008. The situation resembles the unreformed British Parliament of the late 18th century, when most country seats went uncontested because they were monopolized by the landed gentry, and MPs could not be elected without their patronage.
The 2008 US election cost more than $5 billion dollars. Barak Obama ran his campaign with promises of “Change we can believe in” and declared that he would do things the people wanted, like stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to close down Guantanamo Bay Concentration Camp. Two years later, and President Obama has not only not stopped the wars, he has extended the wars into Pakistan and now Libya, and has declared that the President has the right to assassinate US citizens. His financial administration is made up of veterans of Goldman Sachs and other big banks at the centre of the criminal conspiracy of Wall Street. Obama raised more money from Wall Street than did John McCain.
Many Americans and others have observed that business corporations, with the legal status of immortal persons under law, (though the legitimacy of that claim is suspect, it is conventionally observed) now control American politics.
There are more than twelve thousand lobbyists in Washington, working on behalf of private interests, mostly US and international business corporations and banks, using the power of money to manipulate the laws of the United States so as to favour them. (27) Lobby groups employ teams of lawyers who present draft bills to Congressmen and Senators. The best-connected lobbyists are former Congressmen. (28) Many bills are so complicated and so long, and the time given to Congress to review them so short, that they are often passed without being read. (29)
What good is it to elect a “representative” who won’t even read the legislation she is voting on? Is this not merely a token representation? Is not this representative merely a cipher?
Why do lawmakers keep on renewing the USA Patriot Act even though a majority of Americans have long been opposed to the Act?
The USA Patriot Act, which strips Americans of many of their civil liberties, was on the desk of the President on September 24th, only 13 days after September 11th 2001. The bill was drafted well before September 11th the date of the incident that allegedly occasioned its necessity.
Introduced into the US House of Representatives on October 2nd, two Senators, Russ Feingold and Tom Daschle attempted to slow the passage of the Bill. On October 9th, Daschle’s office received envelopes containing weaponized anthrax spores, as did an NBC and New York Post office, in an attack that remains a taboo subject in US media. (30) What’s certain is that the kind of anthrax received by the Senators is of the type that is only manufactured by the US Military, at Fort Derrick. Five people were killed and 17 became ill after handling the infected letters. The Patriot Act was then passed on October 23rd, with Feingold the only US Senator to vote against it. According to US Congressman Ron Paul, most congressmen passed this Bill without first reading it, largely because the full text was deliberately withheld from legislators by the Bush government. (31)
In the intervening decade, government encroachment on the rights of Americans has only increased, legally justified by a legal theory supporting a kind of “royal prerogative” called “the unitary executive” advanced by the Federalist Society. This doctrine holds that the President of the United States is all-powerful and immune from legal restraints, much like a monarch who holds the power of life and death over his subjects. The US President can now simply declare that a person is a terrorist, and one’s rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are forfeit, without any due process of law. US President Barak Obama has recently asserted the “right” of the President to order the extra-judicial execution of suspected terrorists, and is busy carrying out targeted drone strikes against suspects in Yemen and Pakistan under this legal cover. These strikes often kill women and children.
The Patriot Act flows out of the legal philosophy of the unitary executive. The Act makes it a crime to “give material support to terrorists.” The terms of reference are deliberately vague, and allow the government to go after political activists doing solidarity work with oppressed groups in Colombia and Palestine, which is exactly what the US government is doing. (32) So the Patriot Act thus negates the First Amendment protecting free speech and the right to freedom of association.
The Act allows the US government to spy on its own citizens without any evidence of wrongdoing. The government had erected a vast electronic eavesdropping system which records every phone call, every email, fax and text message sent not only by every American, but which also vacuums up the private conversations of many people in foreign countries. Spy cameras mounted in urban centres, ATMs and other public places are used to track the movements of citizens. Massive amounts of private information are available to government bureaucrats, corporations and state security agencies. Yet citizens who want information on what their government is doing, on what the corporations connected to the government are doing must submit Freedom of Information Requests and endure a labyrinthine bureaucracy. What information they might obtain might be heavily or completely redacted, in the “interest of national security.” The right to privacy is gone. The right to know is gone along with it.
The Act also authorizes so-called “sneak and peak” searches of people’s private homes. Combined with the groping, prodding and “enhanced pat downs” (sexual assault) conducted by Transportation Safety Agency staff on everyone at airports and now train stations, Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights which protect people from unwarranted search and seizure have gone too. People who will passively let strangers grope them between the legs have been bled of just about all of their democratic instincts, behaving in a manner more akin to that of trained dogs.
Can such people be said to have any power in the American system? Could such a group of pacified sheep mount any kind of serious resistance, when they are content to be followed, filmed, searched and groped? It seems unlikely.
The US Constitution guarantees a right to trial by jury, in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments. This has not stopped both Republican and Democratic US governments from holding people merely suspected of “terrorism” for years, incommunicado and without trial or due process of law. American government lawyers such as Viet Dinh have asserted that the US President has the unlimited right to detain people indefinitely during war time. Since the US government has been at war constantly since 1942, this is a right asserted in perpetuity.
The people whose rights are stripped from them then become the victims of torture.
In 2005 photographs from Iraq’s Abu Graib prison documented the perverted psycho-sexual torture and the murder of Iraqi detainees by US armed forces. The torture had been specifically authorized by President Bush. A few underlings such as Lyndie England were punished. Those who gave the orders got away with it. Most recently the magazine Rolling Stone exposed previously censored trophy photographs taken by a US military “Kill Team” in which the US soldiers posed with the bound bodies of Afghans they had killed for sport. The Kill Team would toss candy to Afghan children, then run them over with their vehicles. They cut off heads, fingers, and then these sadistic animals posed for more than one thousand photographs with their human victims. So far one low ranking soldier has been punished, in what is surely a whitewash covering up what is a regular practice in the US Army: the murder of innocent civilians as standard operating procedure. This has been documented in every US armed conflict to date.
The US government’s use of torture against American citizens such as Jose Padilla and Bradley Manning tells us what the US government thinks of the Eighth Amendment, which bans torture, and which declares one’s right to a speedy trial (by jury). The US executive’s insistence on its countervailing right to unilaterally deny Eighth Amendment rights reduces them to a privilege, a boon granted by the sovereign. US government lawyer John Yoo has publicly argued that no law can stop the US President from ordering the torture of an innocent child (specifically crushing that child’s testicles) if such torture forces a terrorist suspect to reveal useful intelligence. (33) This is the mindset of the caste of political specialists which runs the United States of America.
One might ask whether or not the concept of the “rule of law” in American politics was a mere fiction covering up the arbitrary rule of lawyers, legislators and police?
The USA is a republic with a president, who is not directly elected by the people. US voters actually vote for members of the Electoral College, which elects the President. The founders of the USA did not trust the common people to directly elect the president or to directly run their own affairs. They were to be “totally excluded in their collective capacity” from “any share” in the constitution, according to the Federalist Paper #63. The fear of democracy, based on an elite interpretation of classical scholarship, runs throughout the Federalist Papers.
In the most recent 2008 election, Barak Obama won with 52% of the popular vote, and 365 votes in the Electoral College. John McCain took 45% of the popular vote, and 173 votes in the Electoral College. America also uses a “first past the post” system, as opposed to a system of proportional representation, under which the results in the Electoral College would have been far closer. No third party candidate won a single seat in the Electoral College. Voter participation in the 2008 election was 61.7%, so we can state that President Obama secured the support of a minority of the total US electorate, 32%. Voter participation in 2008 was up slightly from the 60% participation rate recorded in 2004.
In the two previous elections there was widespread voting fraud carried out by Republican Party operatives.
In 2001, the election was decided by the US Supreme Court, which declared George Bush the President after an unprecedented battle in the State of Florida, which was at that time governed by Bush’s brother Jeb. Jeb had previously hired a private company called Choice Point to remove voters, mostly blacks who vote Democratic, from the voter rolls. Some 36,000 people were turned away from polling stations in Florida on November 4th, 2000 because of the actions of Choice Point and Kathleen Harris, who presided over Florida’s voters’ lists while at the same time being a member of the Committee to Elect George Bush, a blatant conflict of interest.
Police were stationed outside of polling places to intimidate voters and check for photo IDs, which many people did not possess. This turned even more people away.
Despite these efforts, the Democratic candidate, Al Gore won a majority of the vote. But this outcome was to be challenged and ultimately overturned.
On the evening of November 4th, exit polls (which are usually very accurate predictors of election outcomes) were calling a Gore victory. Despite this, Fox News, owned by right-wing billionaire Ruppert Murdoch called the Florida vote for Bush, which if true, would have tipped the vote in the Electoral College towards Bush. The problem is that it wasn’t true, and the man who made the call on Fox News was John Ellis, George Bush’s first cousin and a member of his campaign team planted within the news agency.
After lobbying by the Bush team, TV networks reversed their calls for Gore, saying now that the election was “too close to call.” Despite poling returns during the night of November 4th and morning of the 5th which showed any lead by Bush in Florida to be dwindling, Fox’s John Ellis called the election for Bush at 2:00 AM on the 5th.
The Gore campaign was not going to concede defeat, but neither were they prepared to mobilize ordinary Americans in the streets to defend US electoral “democracy.” They confined themselves to legal means, while their opponents observed no such restraint.
A manual recount was demanded by court order in Miami’s Dade County. The Republicans responded by flying in a small gang of operatives into Miami. These men then staged what has become known to history as the “Brooks Brothers Riot” in which they physically attacked the members of the County’s elections commission, posing as “outraged citizens.” The Board was intimidated into not re-counting the ballots.
Team Gore’s half-hearted efforts also played a role in throwing the election to Bush. The Gore campaign only demanded partial-recounts in selected Florida counties. The organization, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, writing subsequent to a review of ALL of the uncounted ballots, notes that if all ballots had been recounted, Al Gore would have won the election.
“The study’s key result: When the consortium tried to simulate a recount of all uncounted ballots statewide using six different standards for what constituted a vote, under each scenario they found enough new votes to have narrowly given the Florida election–and by extension the presidency–to Al Gore. Under three models that attempted to duplicate the various partial recounts that were asked for by Gore or ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, however, Bush maintained a slight margin of victory.” (34)
Team Gore took the case to the US Supreme Court, which ordered that the Florida re-count of votes be abandoned, and in a byzantine decision, handed the Presidency of the United States to George W. Bush. So in a very real sense, the people of the United States did not pick its 43rd President. The 2000 “election” was voided by a series of extra-legal stunts and legal tricks.
The 2004 election was likewise fraudulent. (35)
In control of the state apparatus, the Republican Party used it to throw the US Presidency to Bush once again.
The scheme was conducted on multiple fronts, and nearly all observers point to Karl Rove, Bush’s Senior Advisor. (36) In brief, some of its highlights were:
– the undersupply of voting machines and staff to largely black and or democratic voting precincts, resulting in long line ups, with many people either abandoning their attempt to vote or being unable to vote (37)
– Democratic voters were mailed warnings by the Republican Party that people with unpaid parking tickets or other misdemeanors would be arrested at the polling place. (38)
– absentee ballots to US citizens living abroad, who vote largely for Democrats, were mailed out by the Pentagon in 2004, instead of the State Department. Approximately half of US overseas residents either received their ballots too late, or not at all. (39)
– a private nexus between the owners and managers of voting machine companies (ES&S, Diebold, Sequoia, and Hart Intercivic) and the Republican political machine. The CEO of Diebold, Wally O’Dell was a key Bush fundraiser in 2004. Voters who indicated a vote for Kerry on an electronic voting machine instead ended up voting for Bush. Virtually all of the voting machine errors ended up favouring Bush, and in many places more votes were reported for Bush than were recorded as even being cast for both candidates combined. (40)
The actual results of the 2004 Presidential election defied previous opinion and exit poll results, which showed that John Kerry would have won the election, were one carried out fairly and freely. Exit polls showed Kerry beating Bush 50.8% to 48.2%. But the actual result of the vote was 50.9% for Bush vs 48.9% for Kerry. (41) Even if we refuse to examine the prima fasciae evidence of massive vote fraud, the 2004 voter participation rate of 60% would mean the Bush only ever had the support of 30.48% of the US electorate.
How much support to American government policies enjoy? Can they be changed once a policy direction is taken, in response to public opinion in this putative democracy? Taking the issue of the US wars in the Middle East as a touchstone, we remember that support for these wars was engendered by a massive propaganda campaign, the opening shot for which was the attack of September 11th. The US public was whipped into support for the Iraq war via a massive propaganda campaign involving phony claims about “weapons of mass destruction” amplified by the multi-billion dollar corporate media. Despite this enormous effort, polling during the lead up to the invasion was only able to measure support at between 54 and 60%. This support began to erode rapidly as the dead and injured soldiers began to come home. By 2005 60% of Americans thought the war should not have been fought in the first place. (42) By 2010, 60% of Americans opposed the war in Afghanistan. (43)
Clearly opposition to the war has been long standing. But this does not stop the US administration. Questioned about the unpopularity of American wars, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that he “could not let US public opinion sway American commitment to Afghanistan.” (44) Do the Afghans support the US war? Opinion polls can find only 6% who do. (45)
If the USA is a democracy, how can the government maintain a “commitment” to a tremendously costly policy which the public has opposed for years, and despite a change of government? The answer can only be that the change of government is merely cosmetic, carried out for effect only. The USA is actually governed by a single party, the party of money. Its deliberations are private, and cannot be affected by the opposition of the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” or by the “swinish multitude.”
That said, the American ruling class do need to maintain the pretense of public support, and to increase their capability to manipulate public opinion. This is a strong indicator of ongoing mass public opposition to their policies. If the US ruling class enjoyed popular support, such techniques would be superfluous. The latest one is the Pentagon’s creation of fake online personalities on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The Pentagon has contracted a software developer to create a system whereby a Psy Ops officer can control up to ten phony online personae, which can be made to spout “tweets” and other messages in support of Pentagon war objectives. The name of the program? Operation Sock Puppet. (46)
In poll after poll, substantial majorities of Americans support “the need for government investment in education, infrastructure and science, the need for a transition to clean energy, the need for government regulation to protect workers and consumers and the need to provide financial support for the poor, the sick and the elderly.” (47) If Americans live in a democracy, why does their government combat every single one of these policies?
For the purposes of length, we will omit any substantial reference to the long standing US government practice of subverting and overthrowing democratically elected governments all over the world, save to remind the gentle reader that it has recently successfully overthrown the government of Honduras, and has for the last eight years prevented the Haitian people from enjoying a popularly elected President, Mr. Aristide, because his policies would have raised costs for American corporations in the country with the lowest wages in the western hemisphere, and generally set a “bad example” for others. In the recent, US sponsored Haitian elections, less than 10% of the electorate voted. The rest abstained in protest of Aristide’s exclusion.
The United States is clearly a “special case.” The form of “democratic” elections is followed, even fetishized, perhaps precisely because its proponents know it to be a complete sham. But what sort of results does it produce? (48)
(15) New York Times, Kristof, Nicholas. Our Banana Republic, November 7th, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/opinion/07kristof.html?_r=1
(16) Striking it Richer. The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States. Emmanuel Saez, 2009. University of California at Berkeley.
(17) ) http://exiledonline.com/bushs-treasury-secretary-hank-paulson-considered-declaring-marshal-law-calling-army-into-streets-after-bailout-paulson-was-goldman-sachs-chief-before-treasury-in-1972-3-paulson-worked-for-joh/
(20) US Bank Bailout Details: http://www.usfederalbailout.com/program_details
(26) Op cit (14)
(29) (John Conyers to Michael Moore, Farrenheit 911
(35) See the books of Harvey Wasserman on the subject at : http://www.harveywasserman.com/
(36) How & why we have filed racketeering charges against Karl Rove’s election operations by Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman October 29, 2010 http://www.freepress.org/departments/display/19/2010/3981
(37) See Mark Crispin Miller’s comments on Democracy Now at http://www.democracynow.org/2005/11/4/was_the_2004_election_stolen_a
(38) GOP Challenging Voter Registrations, Washington Post, October 28th, 2004 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A7422-2004Oct28.html
(39) Hurdles Remain for American Voters Who Live Overseas, New York Times, September 29th, 2004 http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/29/politics/campaign/29military.html?pagewanted=all&position=
(40) The 2004 Presidential Election: Who won the popular vote? An Examination of the Comparative Validity of Exit Poll and Vote Count Data, by Jonathan D. Simon, J.D. and Ron P. Baiman, PhD, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Chicago, at http://www.freepress.org/departments/display/19/2004/1054
(48) Graphic depiction of inequality in America: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph