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Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn

Posted March 5, 2009 | 11:32 AM (EST)

The Battle Between Ocracies


We may have elected Barack Obama president, but make no mistake about it: there is a fierce contest underway to decide who will rule the United States of America -- corporations or the people.

In a plutocracy, the wealthy rule. In a democracy, the people have the power. And in the history of the United States, while Team Democracy has always been larger and paraded as the champs, in truth the Plutocrats have been better financed and sneaking steroids in the forms of government bailouts and deregulatory favors. (And in the convenient space where metaphor meets real life, A-Rod, raking in $28 million a year, in fact plays for the Plutocrats.)

Since the founding of America, Plutocrats have generally been in the lead (see, e.g., the Constitutional establishment of the Senate in 1776 giving disproportionate power to Southern slave owners, and the gouging of progressive income and estate taxes from the 1980s through the present handing greater sums to the already-wealthy than ever before). Team Democracy, however, has had its triumphs (see, e.g., the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements of the 1800s, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and every major progressive victory in between or since). The forty-hour workweek, public transportation, integrated schools, Social Security -- these were not things handed to the public as gifts from the benevolent ruling class but always victories wrested by active citizens from the opposing status quo. The many standing up to the monied.

So how is Team Democracy fairing today? Let's go to the scoreboard.

On the one hand, President Obama's economic stimulus package was a big victory for we, the people. Over $87 billion for Medicaid, $66 billion for public schools, $35 billion to extend unemployment, $20 billion for food stamps, $4 billion to extend the tax credits to poor families. While corporate America certainly benefits from a more economically stable, educated and healthy population of workers, the clear priority of the stimulus package was first and foremost to help the American people. Similarly, Obama's plan to help struggling homeowners refinance their mortgages will certainly help banks keep getting payments but primarily helps working families stay in their homes.

On the other hand, we have TARP, the $700 billion (and thanks to AIG, still growing) Taxpayer Assisted Recovery Plan for the financial industry. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, publisher of the Nation, calls TARP "The Act Rewarding Plutocrats". John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch, spent $1.2 million redecorating his office and pleaded for a $10 million bonus at the end of 2008, the year in which Merrill posted $11 billion in losses and received $10 billion in government TARP funds. (After Bank of America bought Merrill in a fire sale, BofA chief Kenneth D. Lewis flew in his private jet from North Carolina to New York to let Thain know that his new team could only have one star player). Northern Trust of Chicago got $1.5 billion in bailout funds and immediately laid off 450 workers and paid for a lavish series of parties for managers, including a $50,000 private concert with Sheryl Crow.

These and other horror stories have surfaced despite a lack of transparency. The Associated Press contacted the 21 banks that received at least $1 billion in public TARP money and asked four questions: How much has been spent? What was it spent on? How much is being held in savings? What's the plan for the rest?

According to the AP, "None of the banks provided specific answers and most refused to explain why they are keeping the information secret."

Score for Plutocracy! Not only have they been fleecing us for years by hocking sub-prime mortgages, gutting employee pensions and lobbying to oppose every decent public policy that crosses Congress' desk. Now they're doing it with taxpayer money and not even telling us about it.

With Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers heading Obama's economic team, both season ticket holders to Plutocracy's every game, the bases are loaded and Plutocracy is up at bat.

Yet the irony is that there's really no contest at all. Regardless of any persistent evidence to the contrary, by design the United States is a democracy. Supposedly, the game is rigged in our favor. But we repeatedly cede our power to Plutocracy. As the current debate over bank nationalization illustrates, we presume that private enterprise and profit are best and only path to prosperity for our nation, no matter the costs to equal opportunity let alone our national purse.

The American public may be fed up with corporate excess, extreme inequality and the daily struggle to make ends meet while the ending just gets happier for the super-rich. But we've been fed up before and still succumbed to the conspicuous consumption, race-baited scapegoating and general political apathy that allows Plutocracy to triumph. At a time when all of us---corporate America included---risk plummeting into a profound and prolonged depression if we continue business as usual, it's time to make our economy and our country finally work for all of us, including average Americans---investing in our social safety net, strengthening employee bargaining power, securing universal health care, reviving our public schools and universities, making sure every family has a roof over their head. But we're not going to get there without organizing to demand the change the people need.

There has never been a better time to root for Democracy.

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