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Kleptocrat Nation

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The following in an excerpt from Jim Hightower's new book Thieves in High Places. Click here for info on the book and to view Hightower's tour schedule, which includes stops in New York; Boston; Washington, DC; San Francisco; Seattle; Portland; Los Angeles; Chicago; Minneapolis; Kansas City; Philadelphia and Austin.

About the Author

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

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This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

klep·to·crat na·tion

(klep'te krat na'shen), n. 1. a body of people ruled by thieves. 2. a government characterized by the practice of transfering money and power from the many to the few. 3. a ruling class of moneyed elites that usurps liberty, justice, sovereignty and other democratic rights from the people. 4. the USA in 2003.

The kleptocrats have taken over. Look at America's leadership today--not just political, but corporate, too. Tell me you wouldn't trade the whole mess of them for one good kindergarten teacher.

Forget George W for a moment (we'll get to him soon enough) and sneak a peek at practically any big-deal CEO, Congressional heavy, media baron, talk-show yakker, pompadoured TV preacher and the other pushers of America's new ethic of grab-it-and-go greed. Sheesh! In a crunch, would you want to be tied at the waist to any of these people? When I look at any one of them, I can't help mumbling to myself: 100,000 sperm and you were the fastest?

Yet, they're in charge! Here we are, living in the wealthiest country in history, a country of boundless possibilities, a country made up of a people deeply committed to democratic ideals, a country with the potential for spectacular human achievement--but we find ourselves ruled (politically, economically, culturally and ethically) by a confederacy of kleptocrats.

When did you first realize or at least begin to suspect that America was lost? Not physically, of course--we're right here.

Lost its way, is what I mean, having wandered from the brave and true path first pointed out by Tom Paine, T.J., Jimmy Madison and several other good thinkers back around 1776--a path toward a society focused not on empire, but on enlightenment and egalitarianism.

We've never reached that glorious place, of course, but the important thing is that in our two-century sojourn we've been steadily striving to get there...and making progress. If any one thing really characterizes this big, boiling pot of diversity dubbed "America" it is that we're a nation of strivers. Unfortunately, the cultural elites want to minimalize this powerful virtue by reducing it to nothing more than individuals striving for material gain--"Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" "How To Get Rich In the Next Half Hour!" "You Might Already Be A Winner."

Then they wonder why there's such a gaping hole in America, an emptiness that can't be filled by nonstop shopping, prepaid elections, more bunting and reality TV. When the Powers That Be started defining a person's value by the value of their stock portfolio, they lost America, for that's not who we are. These Powers are as clueless as the doomed husband in this divorce case:

Attorney: "What was the first thing your husband said to you when you woke up that morning?"
Witness: "He said, 'Where Am I, Cathy?'"
Attorney: "And why did that upset you?"
Witness: "My name is Susan."

Don't go calling us names like "consumer" or "stakeholder" when who we are is full-fledged, dyed-in-the-wool, unbridled, rambunctious citizens--indeed, we're the ultimate sovereigns of this great land. We don't merely strive for material gain, but also for the satisfaction of building community and reaping the deeper richness of the common good.

The idea of belonging to something larger than our own egos and bank accounts, the idea of caring, sharing and participating as a public is the big idea of America itself. As a boy growing up in Denison, Texas, I was taught this unifying, moral concept by hard-working, Depression-era parents who ran a small business in our small town. They knew from experience and from their hearts what America is all about: "Everybody does better when everybody does better," is how my old daddy used to put it.

The unforgivable transgression of today's leaders is that they've abandoned this common wisdom of the common good and quit striving for that world of enlightenment and egalitarianism that the founders envisioned, and that so many have struggled to build. Instead, whether from the top executive suites or from the White House, the people in charge today are aggressively pushing a soulless ethic that shouts: "Everyone on your own, grab all you can and, if you've got enough money, secure yourself in a gated compound."

Whoa there, greedbreath. That's not a society, it's a cockfight! And it's damned sure not the proud country that we thought we were living in--the land of Liberty and Justice for All.

Not only are the Kleptocrats stealing our country from us, they're stealing our democratic ideals--the very idea of America. And it's time to take it back.

Sapsuckers

How far have the elites moved from us? So far that even the moderates have lost their way. Take Sherwood Boehlert. He's a Republican congressman, but despite that, not a bad guy. Sherwood thinks of himself as "part of the enlightened middle." From central New York, he's been in the House of Representatives for twenty-one years now. A long time. Maybe a tad too long. He says he loves the job, calling it the "ultimate aphrodisiac." Hmmmm. OK, I understand that people who shovel muck for a living come to love the smell, so everyone to their own. But Sherwood said something not long ago that made me think that maybe he's been sniffing the perfumes of high office longer than is good for him: "It's the people's House," he gushed about his side of the Capitol: "The one institution in the whole wide world that's the personification of this great democracy of ours."

Uh-oh. Quick, someone dial 911. We need to rush an EMS reality crew over to Congress, grab Sherwood, strap him down and jolt his head with the defibrillator pads to try shocking the poor delusional fellow back to earth.

Think about it: Congress, democracy. Do these two words fit together in your mind?

America is a nation of nurses, office workers, cab drivers, schoolteachers, pharmacists, shopkeepers, middle managers, truck drivers, shift workers, librarians, cleaning people, electricians, fruit pickers, struggling artists--how many of our ilk are sitting next to Sherwood in "the people's House"?

The great majority of Americans make less than $50,000 a year--half make under $32,000. How many members of Congress come from such modest backgrounds? Today's Congress is made up of business executives, lawyers and former political operatives (which Boehlert was). The Public Interest Research Group reports that nearly half of the people newly elected to Congress last year are millionaires. This is the personification of democracy?

"It's time to play: "Who Wants to Be a Congress Critter?" There are 280 million Americans. To win today's top prize, tell me how many of us are millionaires? BLAAAAAAAHT. Time's up. The answer is: 2.1 million. We'll do the math for you. That's about seven-tenths of one percent of the people.

Not only do the members tend to descend into Congress from the economic heights, but they also spend practically all of their substantive and social time with others from the heights. Congress's real constituency is no longer you and me, but the people who "matter." These are your top-floor corporate executives and the moneyed elites who have full-time lobbyists and who make the $1,000-and-higher campaign donations (only 0.05 percent of Americans are in this class) that grease the wheels of Congressional incumbency. They are the privileged few who know members by their first names, who get every one of their phone calls returned--and who get their agenda adopted.

Perhaps this gaping economic chasm between those on the inside and all the rest of us on the outside explains why our strumpets of state never get around to dealing with little matters like assuring healthcare for all families, passing living-wage legislation and making sure everyone gets a decent retirement. Members of the Congressional club feel no urgency because, hey, it's not them--they have no personal anxiety about such matters, because (1) they're well off and (2) they're covered on all this by us taxpayers. Yes, even the multimillionaires in Congress get:

§ Full platinum-level health coverage for them and their families, including choosing their own docs, seeing the specialists they need, dental care and cosmetic surgery for their pets. (Just kidding about that last one--but don't put it past them!)

§ A rosy retirement, with pensions that can rise higher than the pay they got while in office. Just the starting pensions are sweet--Phil Gramm, who finally did something for the people of Texas by leaving the Senate last year, starts out drawing retirement pay of $78,534 a year. He'll be paid more for doing nothing than 80-plus percent of us Americans are paid for working full time.

§ Regular cost-of-living pay raises. While Congress has not seen fit to increase the minimum wage (still $5.15 an hour) since 1996, the members did give themselves four $5,000 pay raises during the past five years. This $20,000 "adjustment" in each of their own annual pay packets is $8,000 more than the gross pay that a full-time minimum-wage worker would get if Congress ever gets around to the $1 wage hike they've been "talking" about for years.

§ Excellent job security. Did you know that a member of Congress is four times more likely to die in office than to lose an election? This is not only because of the special-interest money they're stuffed with, but also because the GOP and Democrats conspire to divide the turf in each state, gerrymandering districts to assure that 96 percent of them are "safe" for the incumbents. There's not much democracy in a rigged system that now allows only twenty of the 435 House seats to be competitive.

As a bunch (and, yes, there are important exceptions within the bunch), I think of today's Congress as a colony of cicadas. These are interesting insects with powerful survivalist genes. After hatching from eggs laid in tree limbs, cicadas drop to the ground, immediately burrow deep and attach themselves to tree roots, where they suck the sap for thirteen years. The major difference is that Congress critters suck the sap much longer.

Onward to Reclaim America!

A couple of years ago, Japanese police discovered more than 400 pieces of women's underwear in the home of Sadao Ushimura, a fellow who was a prominent official in Japan's finance ministry at the time. Urshimura proclaimed total innocence of any possible scandal or perversion, explaining: "I picked up all lingerie on the streets by pure chance."

We still have our underwear in America, but we've been stripped of a garment far more delicate and precious: our democracy. On this sprawling continent with its cacophony of voices and unprecedented crash of cultures, we've been able to hold it all together through the years because of our people's instinctive and tenacious belief in the sanctity of democratic principles.

But something has gone terribly wrong in our country. The essence of democracy--our power to control decisions that affect us--has steadily and quietly been pilfered by corporate kleptocrats. They have collected up our democratic powers piece by piece, hoarding them in the privacy of their own fiefdoms. These elites (fully abetted by the governmental elites they have bought), now effectively control the decisions that affect We the People--everything from public spending priorities to environmental degradation, from wages to war and from what's on the "news" to who gets elected.

This has not taken place "by pure chance," but through deliberate filching, and the filching now has reached the level of wholesale looting. We can no longer avoid the reality in front of us: The elites have pulled off a slow-motion coup, radically wrenching America's power balance from a people's democracy to Kleptocrat Nation.

This would be terribly depressing except for one thing, which is that one basic has definitely not changed in our land: The people (you rascals!) still have that instinctive and tenacious belief in our historic democratic principles. The antidote to kleptocracy is the age-old medicine of democratic struggle, agitation and organization--and all across our country, the rebellion is on!

As happened in the rebellion of 1776, as happened in the populist revolt against the robber barons of the nineteenth century, and as is already happening in community after community today, America's historic democratic yearnings will not be long suppressed. Despite our present leadership (with their autocratic, plutocratic and imperialistic ambitions), this is a nation of irrepressible democrats, and their spirit will out.

I think of my country like a rose bush. Many people say roses are fundamentally flawed because they have thorns. But I see it differently--I think it's wonderful that thorns have roses.

America is a thorny bush, for sure, but the ordinary people are its roses, and they are the beautiful story of this book.

Excerpted from Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country And It's Time To Take It Back (Viking, 2003) by Jim Hightower.

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