Friday, May 06, 2005

Book review--Cronies

Robert Bryce's Cronies is a sickening and sordid tale of the decline of honest government free of corruption. Bryce focuses on how energy companies' money and desires have taken over our national vision, while its executives have become our leading politicians. The crux of the matter is that these companies and their leaders did not gain their money, positions, and power by hard work, necessarily, but rather because they had great connections.
The story begins in the early years of the 20th century when oil was first discovered in Texas, as first the state government and then Texan representatives in Congress passed laws overly favorable to the oil bidness. The key piece of legislation was the "depletion allowance", which reduced the taxes oil businesses paid immensely, allowing companies to make tons of cash quickly. Big oilmen would then use part of this cash to procure support among national political leaders to continue legislating on their behalf. This vicious cycle of good 'ol boy corruption and influence peddling created an atmosphere of exclusion and cronyism among the "Big Rich" as Bryce puts it, including, most importantly of course, the Bushes, who have repaid their political debts with an unholy largesse. The central figure is James A. Baker III, who functions as a Mephistophelian guru--whenever the Bushes need something, they turn to Baker, who has always come through for them. Since most of the key players in this disgusting story are either lawyers (with their accompanying legal claims of privilege) or high government officials (who are able to utilize the power of the Presidency or Congress to claim "national security" or "executive privilege" exemptions to hide their actions), the true extent of this corruption may never be known.
What we do see is frightening enough, of course, and is a familiar tale to those of us who keep score. Halliburton, all of Big Oil, Baker Botts, and the team of Bush, Rove, Cheney, and a host of less popularly cited names like Clements and Hunt form a crow's nest of interconnectedness as they cackle over the dying carcass of the American political system. Even though this cronyism has its roots in the Democratic regimes of Rayburn and LBJ, Bryce points out that both of those Texans used their power for good as well, passing some of the most socially progressive legislation of the 20th century. This stands in distinct opposition to what the Republicans are doing, which is entirely selfish; the Bushes et al are only concerned with themselves and their cronies, and use their power without regard to any larger vision of social justice or fairness.
In business, earning money is the core value, and any steps to that end are considered "fair". The severe problem is that what they consider "fair" is only sometimes consonant with what is "legal", and rarely in line with what is "right". The role of our government since the late 19th century has been to rein in business practices to follow some legal definition of ethics. When businessmen control the government, however, and deliberately choose to blur the lines between the two, our entire record as a country dedicated to real fairness and opportunity is jeopardized. Killing people is not "fair", and it most certainly is not "right", and that is what these men have become proficient at lately, all in the name of keeping their pockets lines--even though they are already so rich they couldn't begin to spend it all anyway. Government should not be run like a business; it is not a profit-driven enterprise, but instead is supposed to be our bulwark against the profit motive in favor of more enlightened pursuits. That we are being ruled over by these black souls is a nightmare from which we'll be lucky to awaken.


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