Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blagojevich is innocent(ish)

Ian Williams: Strings attached and change for which we must all pay
Tribune December 21, 2008

THE world greeted Barack Obama’s election with understandable jubilation. However, while there will be some change, there may be somewhat less than some of his fervent supporters expect. One augury of that was last week’s arrest on corruption charges of Rod Blagojevich, Governor of Obama’s home state of Illinois. Blagojevich was charged with trying to trade his right as Governor to nominate Obama’s replacement in the Senate for a position or profit for himself or his wife. He was also shaking down state contractors for campaign contributions.

Chicago politics are notorious: it is the city where if dead men only voted twice, they would be exhumed to go to the polls for a third time. The media were filled with shock-horror stories and replayings of the phone taps of the Governor’s conversations with the frequent expletives bleeped out. Despite diehard Republican efforts to tie in Obama, the FBI prosecutor specifically cleared the President-elect, not least because the Governor directed some of his obscenities at Obama for not playing the game. But while Blagojevich was crude and indiscreet, the tone of pious horror with which commentators reported the charges is amazing. There was none of the irony with which Claude Raines discovered that customers were gambling in Rick’s café in Casablanca: it was fervent outrage.

But the Governor was only doing what almost everyone else in American politics does. Does anyone really think that Hillary Clinton did not engage in hard bargaining for the Secretary of State job? Even the squeaky-clean Obama raised around a billion dollars from contributors for his election campaign – the most ever for a candidate. Yes, he did establish an unprecedented network of small contributors, but most of his money came from rich people who want to stay that way. Everyone would like to pretend those donations had no strings attached, but that is nonsensical. If Obama does not deliver, then in four years times, those cheques from the financial institutions will be going to someone else. It is more than strings attached. In the American political system, it is as difficult for a poor man to enter office as it is for a camel to get through a needle’s eye, unless some passing billionaires throw a rope down.

Exxon-Mobil has been a major financial supporter of George Bush and Republican causes, but of course it is only its power of intellectual persuasion that has kept the administration in a state of denial about global warming and the need to rein in oil use.

Does anyone really think that Halliburton did not benefit when its former chief executive, Dick Cheney, became Vice President? Can it be just a coincidence that the finance industry in the United States has been the biggest political contributor for several decades over which restrictions and oversight have been progressively lifted?

When Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, his team did their best not to chortle in the faces of denials from Bill Clinton’s team that the donation from United Fruit had anything to do with the case the US started at the World Trade organisation against European Union preferences for Caribbean bananas. The US does not grow bananas, but United Fruit does, in vast low-wage plantations across Central America.

And one would have to believe in the power of Dianetics not to see a connection between the huge Hollywood donations to Clinton from the L Ron Hubbard school of acting (prop: John Travolta) and the administration’s almost immediate acceptance that Scientology was a bona fide religion.

The difference is that all such deals are traditionally clinched with the equivalent of a Masonic nudge and handshake rather than blurted out expletively on tapped phone lines. Blagovejich’s only real crime was crudeness, but he will pay for it dearly – unlike Scooter Libby, nailed by the same prosecutor, whose sentence was promptly commuted by the President for whom he had so loyally lied.

Meanwhile, the attention given to the Governor from Chicago diverts attention from the Chicago School, the cabal of monetarists whose intellectual depredations brought dictatorship in Chile, kleptocracy in Russia and financial chaos in the US – and Margaret Thatcher’s trashing of British manufacturing.

Far from facing prison time like Blagojevich, the serried ranks of Congresspersons, bankers and chief executives, who under cover of the Chicago School’s licence to loot have reduced the world’s greatest financial power to relative bankruptcy, are sentenced to be force-fed untold billions of taxpayers’ money. As Bertolt Brecht pointed out in The Threepenny Opera, small crooks rob banks, big ones start them.

Obama has a window of opportunity. There is less tolerance for corporate greed in the electorate than ever before. The lobbyists will be hard at work, but simply flushing them into the daylight will have a salutary effect for a short period, while they will be like flies on a cowpat trying to gorge on the stimulus package dollars. But, in the long run, if Obama wants to produce credible and long-lasting change, he will have to do something about campaign finance or else he will just be marking time until the next big scandal.

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