Democratic Underground

The Enemy Within

September 24, 2005
By Patricia Goldsmith

In 1973, in a court case involving General Motors, documents showed that a GM engineer had created a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether or not to correct a serious defect in the company's Malibu model. The analyst calculated that GM would pay $200,000 in legal costs for each of the projected 500 lives lost each year due to the defect. Fixing the defect, the study showed, would be more expensive than paying the costs of litigation. [1] So they didn't fix it.

GM had repositioned the fuel tank to cut costs. In most accidents, it didn't matter. But when the car was hit in a certain way, fuel-fed fires resulted. The plaintiffs in the case in question suffered "horrible and disfiguring second- and third-degree burns. . . . Three of the children were burned over 60 percent of their bodies, and one of them had to have her hand amputated."

The jury was understandably horrified.

The Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, saw a terrible danger in big court awards to wronged consumers. They wrote an amicus curiae brief disagreeing with the jury in the strongest possible terms. They argued that the "traditional public sense of the sanctity of life" caused jurors to wrongly identify "risk-utility balancing as unspeakable callousness," when, in fact, "the logic underlying it is impeachable." Far from being monstrous, cost-benefit analysis—even when applied to human life—is the "hallmark of corporate good behavior."

GM's behavior doesn't surprise me, but I am shocked that the Chamber of Commerce was making such cold-blooded arguments in public documents in1973. 1973! The year the Heritage Foundation was born. Four years before the Cato Institute and seven before Ronald Reagan. Before media consolidation. Before the fairness doctrine and equal time provision were abandoned, paving the way for Fox News. Before five media giants dominated our access to information and the press became a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States of America, Inc., a decidedly multinational corporation.

We are living in the age of the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against, the corporate sector with guns.

The Bush Administration response to the attacks of September 11 and now Hurricane Katrina can be understood if we follow the same unimpeachable logic GM used—just think in dollars and cents; ask yourself who benefits. Hint: White House political guru Karl Rove has been put in charge of the massive post-Katrina reconstruction effort, and already it is clear that the same folks who got all those sweetheart, no-bid contracts in Iraq will be inking the really big deals.

Halliburton is first in line, of course. Junior has already seen to it that they'll get a nice leg up by canceling the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that federal contractors pay prevailing local rates or better. Halliburton really needs the money. Whereas their potential employees, men and women who've just lost everything they own and their means of making a living, can easily afford to take a cut.

The Republican National Committee actually sent out an action alert in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina calling on their members to make a big push to repeal the inheritance tax. Nothing is more important to the continuing contraction and concentration of wealth. Just their way of saying you can take it with you.

There was a very ugly mood brewing out there for a bit, but Junior took care of it in a speech on Thursday night, "reassur[ing] many Americans," to quote the NYT, "that he understands the enormity of the event." [2] The man wouldn't interrupt his golf game while people were dying awaiting his authorization for aid! If the Times understood the enormity of the event, they could hardly be reassured by Bush's chilling vision of a "broader role for the armed forces" in future disaster situations. There is a reason we have a law, posse comitatus, prohibiting the deployment of regular army domestically—namely, to guard against a coup by greedy, power-hungry scum like George Bush and his neocons.

I have been hearing the words of Ron Suskind's anonymous source rolling around in my head this whole past week, a philosophical Deep Throat identified only as "a senior advisor to George Bush," who spoke off the record before the election: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too . . . We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Sheila Samples says she recognizes Cheney's cadences, and I hear it now too. The bloated syntax—"judiciously, as you will"—the unctuous pomposity.

We should all be aware that empires, unlike republics, are built on slave labor.

When Geraldo, on assignment for Fox News, held up a black baby and sobbed about letting the hurricane detainees out of their Super Dome death camp, I felt a spasm of hope that the media levees might actually hold out against the spin this time. But no. Hate is at the flood. Clear Channel Radio host Glenn Beck:

. . . you know it took me about a year to start hating the 9-11 victims' families? Took me about a year. . . . But . . . when I saw these people [in Louisiana] and they had to shut down the Astrodome and lock it down, I thought: I didn't think I could hate victims faster than the 9-11 victims.

Turns out Glenn can, indeed, hate faster.

For the more high-brow hater (i.e., those who still read), there's conservative columnist George F. Will. Criticizing Barack Obama's "banalities" about connections between race and poverty, Will writes,

The senator is called a "new kind of Democrat," which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash—much of it spent through liberalism's "caring professions"—to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don't have a baby until you are married, don't marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey these rules, poverty is minimal.

The reference to "cultural collapse" shows Will working up-wind in the exact same heavily-fertilized field as his colleague Mr. Beck.

Will cuts down Obama's charge of "malicious neglect" on the part of the Bush government by citing "6.6 trillion (emphasis his) in spending since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty 40 years ago." Golly, Mr. Will, did you say $6.6 trillion? Spread over 40 years. And exactly how many trillions of dollars did corporations and wealthy individuals receive in tax "relief" in the last year alone? And why is it that corporations are never expected to get off government welfare and stand on their own two feet (so to speak)?

I think Cheney talked to Suskind because he wanted to boast to someone smart enough to appreciate his artistry, who could really see—and therefore fear—what they are doing. Consider this statement in the second paragraph of Bush's speech: "fellow Americans calling out for food and water, vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy . . ." Do I hear a confession buried deep inside that twisted reference to black looting?

And what about the Biblical reference? Those are always fun. This one, aptly enough, describes the Great Flood, "along this coast, for mile after mile," George said, talking directly to his base, "the wind and water swept the land clean." Since Hurricane Katrina polluted the land, with millions of barrels of spilt oil and broken sewers and dead bodies and submerged toxic landfills, the passage must be metaphorical: just like the Great Flood, which came upon the earth to wipe out a sinful race, we've had a warning.

I agree.

George Lakoff believes that Katrina is a watershed moment, that now is the time for liberals to assert the necessity of a government that cares about and protects people, to frame the philosophical discussion in human terms before the neocons can bury it under tons of mud. Only problem is, many Democrats can't do that. They derive their financing from the same corporate masters as the Republicans. Which is also the reason Democrats as a whole are not and will never be a peace party.

But Katrina is a threshold event, on many levels. Most important, it is perhaps the first widely recognized harbinger of catastrophic climate change, the last in a line of unusual occurrences—the Indian Ocean tsunami, drunken forests in Alaska, a snowless Mt. Fuji—that have been subliminally but steadily dripping into public awareness.

I believe we are one ecological catastrophe away from a mass consciousness that there just might be something more important than money. Like life.

We need to take a page from the enemy's book and put ourselves in a position to exploit the next, inevitable disaster. Instead of wasting our time learning to speak the so-called language of faith, we need to start preaching science, informing people that even now it may be too late, that climate change may be sudden and irreversible, preparing ourselves to channel the outrage that is coming, an unimaginable tsunami.

1. The Corporation, Joel Bakan, pgs. 62-64.

2. The New York Times, editorial, 9-16-05.

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