Best Money Can Buy

Will Rogers once said that "we have the best Congress money can buy." Now Greg Palast convinces us that we have The Best Democracy Money Can Buy [Penguin, New York, 2002.) Palast, who Jim Hightower says is "a cross between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes," is a great investigative reporter. As a student at the University of Chicago, Palast worked for a labor union, then turned to journalism. He was published first in Europe and says he early decided to apply the techniques of inquiry in government racketeering cases to news reporting. The copy of the book I have he calls "the expanded election edition," appropriate for the elections coming in November.

The strange election of 2000 is an excellent place to start as we recall the depressing, half-hidden story of the Gore-Bush debacle in Florida. Palast says that Katherine Harris purged many potential Gore supporters, over 57,000 of them, mostly Democrats, half of them black. He estimated from his investigations that Gore lost 22,000 votes this way. He is not supportive of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which moves the corrections on voter rolls from the county to the state level. He is also mistrusting of the "Motor Voter" forms for new voters. He says they often are not added to the rolls at all. Finally, Palast holds that going digital is not the answer either and thinks that computer votes compared to paper ones would increase the number of ruined ballots.

In the background of most of the Palast analysis is money at the top, flowing downward to influence all sorts of national policies. Again I quote Hightower that businesses "don't have to lobby the government any more. They are the government." He used to worry about Monsanto's lobbying the Secretary of Agriculture. Now Monsanto executive, Ann Veneman, is the secretary of agriculture.

And about the tremendous gap in American incomes, indeed in the world, Palast gives some figures we ought to remember: The world's 300 richest people have more money than the world's poorest 3 billion people. Much of the blame falls on the capitalistic system. And he adds, "I recognize the selling of America is a bipartisan business." Despite its TV ads about how much Wal-Mart cares about its "associates," it is deeply anti-labor. It has invented "the disposable workforce." It proclaims, "Buy America!" But Palast reminds us that much of its merchandise is made by child laborers in places like Bangladesh.

Palast provides an especially painful look at another unfortunate business which he calls "a free market in human misery." That is the private prison industry or, as he puts it, "Hotels without doorknobs." He investigated the Wackenhut prison in Santa Rosa, N.M., that pleasant little town on Interstate 40, or at least I used to think it was pleasant. He found a prison guard there who said something you would expect to hear from an inmate: "My fifteen months in the prison were hell on earth. I'll never go back to Wackenhut." Palast found the guards were not just poorly paid, making just $7.95 an hour, but there were poorly trained, too. The AFLCIO says Wackenhut is one of the nation's top "union-busting firms." One time in 1999 a hundred New Mexico state police were called in when a Wackenhut guard could not handle a disturbance. They had "to smother two hundred prisoners with tear gas and arrest one Wackenhut guard who himself became violent." The state threatened to bill the prison.

There is more in this book, much more, like a short course on the problems of globalization. At the end is a list of resources for action. And then there is this delightful suggestion -- "Even our president's caught the spirit, asking every American to volunteer and turn in the names of suspicious people requiring closer scrutiny. Okay. Let's all write in 'Dick Cheney.'"

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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