Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bill Clinton, Influence Peddler in the 21st Century

by Norman Markowitz

When I teach the history of the rise of industrial capitalism in the U.S., which I am doing in one of my courses right now, I deal with industrialists and bankers whose enemies called them Robber Barons; their bribing of politicians; use of prominent figures on their corporate boards for window dressing;and decisions in some cases to run for major office themselves in order to protect their investments and save money on bribes.

I also mention that they used military and political names for themselves, "captains of industry is" and "industrial statesmen." My favorite historical anecdote of their activities concerns a meeting in Albany, the New York State capital, in which Cornelius Vanderbilt and his bitter rival Jay Gould put what was in effect a dollar cap on bribes, since their competition to bribe New York State legislators had inflated the cost of an average bribe, which of course cut into profits.

But that was the nineteenth century and this is the 21st. The Robber Barons have promoted themselves from Captains of Industry to Chief Executive Officers. And they are more generous with politicians who serve their interest, especially with former presidents. Jay Gould for example,who bribed President Grant's brother -in-law in 1969 to get inside information in order to corner the gold market (which caused a stock market panic) never bribed General Grant. Grant, who administration is connected by many with the rise of the Robber Barons was not that well off after his presidency, since he could no longer do so much for the Goulds and Rockefeller's, and actually ended up writing his memoirs (still in many respects the most remarkable of presidential memoirs) to earn money.

Bill Clinton, who like Grant didn't come from any wealth, doesn't have that problem. He has a foundation, which the Robber Barons and or their estates began to establish in the early 20th century to both counter the attacks on them by progressives and socialists and also to evade the potential new income tax and other tax reformers that progressives were fighting for to make the corporations and the rich pay taxes.

And Bill Clinton is the former president of a world empire, which is a little bit like being Queen Victoria in the late 19th century. A good word from him in the right place at the right time can facilitate big business deals. So the story today about a big Canadian mining capitalist and Clinton buddy traveling to former Soviet Kazakhstan in 2005, having Clinton make a rah rah speech for the local "leader" (whom Russians whom I know have for years denounced as a corrupt petty tyrant, of the bloc of former Soviet official who betrayed the Soviet Union in order to increase their personal wealth and power as hand maidens to foreign capitalists) as someone who deserved to be a leader of an international body to monitor elections. Lo and Behold. The Canadian Mining Baron got a big piece of uranium land to exploit and the Clinton foundation got millions as a sort of fee for services rendered (at least one can infer that if one cannot prove it legally).

The corruption that this represents is systemic and pervasive. Conservative politicians like John McCain or billionaires like Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg have no answer to this because they are in no way asking any serious questions about why it is pervasive--no more than our mind numbing media who speak endlessly about "broken government" as this is really different from the past in a qualitative way, not a quantitative way.

Let's get real. When we have had progressive government actively seeking to regulate business and protect workers, we have had far less corruption. The 1920s saw an explosion of corruption as did the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush II era, as deregulation saw the number of lobbyists in Washington multiply along with the U.S. permanent "fiscal stimulus" policy, the military budget.

The only new wrinkle in these events is that this Canadian mining baron used a former American president to gain control of a natural resource that formerly belonged to the Soviet people and, in so far as it had been developed, was developed by socialist labor (even that isn't necessarily so knew, tens of millions of acres of valuable public lands, including mineral lands, were granted to U.S. corporations by state and federal governments or in some classic cases (the Morgan-Guggenheim mining syndicate illegally gaining control of large tracts of public coal lands in Alaska, which progressives exposed and began a great scandal in the Taft administration).

Bill Clinton isn't really the point any more. He will be out on the hustings, charming people with his rogue backslapping good ole boy personality, the way American politicians have since the 1840s--pretending that by electing him they will be electing themselves and he will then by cutting the deals behind the scenes to enrich the interests who fund his campaigns.

The point is to realize how dysfunctional and destructive these institutional political relations are to the U.S. and global economy and society. At the national level progressive must fight for a politics that provides public funding and equal air time to parties and candidates; an economy that is regulated in the interests of the working people, with labor protections. Globally, the U.S., should begin to think of developing international regulatory agencies through the United Nations to deal with the sort of events that took place in Kazakhstan and are taking place routinely through the world.

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