By Paul Rogat Loeb
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 noticed 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
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
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 Iraq war.
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
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 so since after 9/11 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.
For the best long-term alternative to the politics of lootocracy,