Loot on in the name of reforms the many masks of PM Najib
Najib is only PM for his cronies not for all Malaysians.He uses all places to unfairly bash Pakatan as if they are criminals.Sayonara Najib,this is definitely your last budget reading.
UMNO leaders’ recent statements clearly show that they have given up all hopes of regaining non-Malay votes. It is going to the next polls solely relying on 60-65 percent Malay votes and hoping their ‘fixed deposit’ in Sabah and Sarawak remains intact. must do better than Abdullah Badawi’s record in 2008 or else risk being booted out as UMNO president in the party election that was delayed to pave way for 13th GE.It looks like the BN’s past excesses have finally caught up with their leaders, who are now left with little financial room to maneuver. Prime Minister Najib Razak was forced to announce a slightly smaller spending plan for 2013 of RM249.7 bil, down 1.1% versus the previous year, despite a looming general election.
Nonetheless, disregarding the clear signs of a shrinking trend in revenues due mainly to not having made sufficient productive investments in the past, loss of funds from corruption and leakages, Najib did not hesitate to unleash a host of short-term one-off election goodies to win the hearts and minds of voters.
The center piece of his Budget 2013 was the slew of cash handouts totaling at least RM3bil to families earning RM3,000 per month and a 1.5 month bonus to some 1.4 million civil servants.
The PM began his speech at 4pm amid expectations he would propose measures to stop spiraling home prices as well match the Opposition’s alternative budget in raising disposable income and lowering car taxes. But while Najib raised the capital gains tax slightly to douse speculation, he left car taxes untouched. He is expected to call for the 13th general election by June 2013 at the latest.
“The goodies are not unexpected given that the next general election is very near. We congratulate those who qualify for the aid as well as the civil servants for their bonus windfall. But the lower income groups should not have to rely on election gifts for relief,””Budget 2013 signals the end of an era of record budgets with a slow down in Government revenues. Over the past few years, the Government has been able to increase its budget tremendously to achieve record expenditures annually. This has allowed the Government to prop up the economy as we faced challenges in attracting private investments, as well as a drop in our trade contributions,Goodies
As expected, Najib repeated the distribution of 1 Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) and also extended the cash assistance to cover payment of RM250 to single unmarried individuals aged 21 and above and earning not more than RM2,000 a month.
BR1M was first given out under Budget 2012, involving a payment of RM500 to households earning less than RM3,000 per month.
Schoolchildren would get RM100 each from the government next year, while RM1.2 billion has been allocated for senior citizens, children, disabled workers and those with chronic illnesses under the 1 Malaysia Welfare Programme.
Armed forces personnel would receive RM200 a month incentives while the allowance for reserve corp and territorial army was nearly doubled to RM7.80 an hour from R4.00. A one-off payment of RM1,000 was also announced for some 224,000 army veterans who have served for at least 21 years.
The PM cut one percentage point in income tax for the first RM50,000 of chargeable income, providing minor relief to the 1.2 million taxpayers in the country of 28 million.
However, he reduced the sugar subsidy by 20 sen/kg, leaving the subsidy now at 34 sen/kg, bringing down the sugar subsidy bill to RM278 million at current prices.
Najib also said the government would also spend RM1.9 billion to build 123,000 housing units for those earning between RM3,000 and RM5,000.
He forecast economic growth of 4.5 to 5.5% in 2013, slightly more optimistic than the official estimate for this year of 4.5 to 5%.
In 2011, Malaysia recorded GDP growth of 5.1%, but given the Eurozone crisis and slower pace of business in East Asia, many private forecasters are anticipating a more modest 4.5% clip.
On the other hand, his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin’s declaration of ‘Malay First, Malaysian Second’ and recent strong stand in support of Section 114A if the Evidence Act have won support of UMNO members.
Many in UMNO felt Najib had been giving in too much to public pressure, which they believed was due to Pakatan Rakyat’s campaign. Muhyiddin’s firmness in not negotiating and not being apologetic to BN leaders who questioned the Evidence Act’s amendment boded well with such sentiments.
PR should take note of this and make sure Najib continues to lead UMNO into 13th GE.
Together with his wife Rosmah Mansor, a Najib-led UMNO-BN will be much easier prey for PR and Anwar Ibrahim.
Leadership is not about pandering to mass opinion. That is populism. Leadership is about getting the masses behind what is right. Who wouldn’t want everything cheap? By jumping at that issue at the expense of corruption, which is more important from governance point of view, Najib has only succeeded in showing himtself as opportunistic and lacking in any sort of conviction. If elections were held today, it certainly is not getting my vote.The road to Putrajaya for Pakatan is certainly easier with Najib at the helm.
The government over the last couple of years has been accused of suffering from policy paralysis. Maybe so. But the moment it decided to shake it off and carry out so-called big bang reforms, it exposed what is perhaps a bigger malady: the opposition’s response paralysis. Events of last fortnight point to some brilliant strategizing by Anwar. Pakatan has had Barisan eating out of its hands. The political discourse has changed completely and has the The government over the last couple of years has been accused of suffering from policy paralysis. Maybe so. But the moment it decided to shake it off and carry out so-called big bang reforms, it exposed what is perhaps a bigger malady: the opposition’s response paralysis. Events of last fortnight point to some brilliant strategizing by the Congress party. It has had opposition eating out of its hands. The political discourse has changed completely and has the government setting the agenda once more with everyone else reacting to it.akatan government setting the agenda once more with everyone else reacting to it.As a voter, until before Prime Minister Najib Razak turned his Budget 2013 speech into a Pakatan-bashing session in a pre-election campaign oratorio, saying BN has never promised “the moon and stars”, unlike the opposition.I would have seriously considered opting forBARISAN in spite of my reservations about its often bigoted politics. It would have been just to jettison an utterly corrupt and inept bARISAN government. Now, however, I am not so sure. If the party I put in power promises to lead the country back in the era of closed markets and wasteful fuel subsidies, I’d rather stick with Pakatan reform minded. More so because Barisan fares no better in the honesty department.Najib bashes Pakatan Rakyat during the Budget 2013 presentation but the Malaysian voters are eagerly waiting to bash up Najib and UMNO-BN at the 13th GE. Make No Mistake Desperation is all written on the corridors of power, that the PM Najib has to resort to name calling during his Budget presentation. This Budget is a doll out budget conceived to garner votes then to strengthen the country’s economy. There wast anything to create more jobs. Pakatan has promised the stars and galaxy, however we will only know if they can deliver once in PUTRAJAYA.”We recognize that the BN government is not without fault, but what differentiates us from others is that they do not have the courage to accept mistakes”. What an interesting statement. So we have it from the horse’s mouth that what differentiates BN is their courage and willingness to accept mistakes. PKFZ, NFC, Scorpene purchases, C4 murder, abuse of judiciary system to harrass opposition leaders, Teoh Beng Hock’s death, guidelines to discriminate against the LGBT community, prawn farm, Perwaja steel and MAS bailouts, and other endemic corruption matters can easily be accepted as mistakes and swept under the carpet.Public can’t have the moon and sky, it’s only for UMNO/BN elites.government getting over its paralysis but would still want it to answer all questions Keeping the focus relentlessly on corruption would have kept the government on the defensive. The prime minister, instead of having to explain FDI and budget deficits, should have been called upon to explain his role in Scorpene purchases allocation.Najib could have played it so much better. Government’s reform package was clearly a diversionary tactic.
And if they really wish for help from the government, they should begin by asking the right questions. Such as, why does almost every small and mid-size business faces a daunting shortage of skilled manpower and managers & technicians with the right skills & attitude. PTPTN discount is only benefitting the rich who can pay off lump sum. This goes to show the PM is not too concerned for the poor. Only for getting money backand most of the PTPTN money is already in the hands of the many half baked university and colleges owned and run by BN cronies. It’s the rakyat that is in debt thanks to these get rich quick scams. Responsible government won’t have a murderer as its leader
How do we get rid of this frame of mind, paradigm?
Najib’s running down of the Opposition at such an occasion is as uncouth as his claims are mere figments of his imagination to praise himself and the BN. Doubtless his fellow peasants were in accord with him. “As a responsible government, we continue to speak the truth, even though it may be unpleasant” Podah dei… Scorpene, NFC, LRT, Talam. IDEAS and REFSA are shocked that the federal government subsidy bill for 2012 is now expected to hit RM42 billion, a massive RM9 billion or 27% above the RM33 billion originally forecast for the year.
Dato’ Sri Najib’s administration has quadrupled subsidies from RM10 billon in 2007 to over RM42 billion today. The massive 4-fold increase has clearly been wasteful. Properly channeled, the RM42 billion of subsidies in 2012 is sufficient to give RM1,560 per month to the poorest 1/3rd of Malaysian households.
This would more than double their current incomes which average just RM1,500 per month, and is in stark contrast to the RM500 one-off BR1M payments which are still necessary despite the huge subsidies elsewhere.
Blanket subsidies such as for cheap petrol and sugar 1) encourage excessive and wasteful consumption; 2) discourage investments in improving productivity and efficiency; and 3) benefit upper class Malaysians who consume much more than their poorer cousins.
I wish I knew – and I wish it was easy.
In the meantime, I am trying.
Trying by sharing with them thoughts on regulation, subsidies, licenses, permits and quotas.
By reminding them that someone always has to pay for everything the government does.
By telling them that a disproportionate share of the expenses by government usually falls on people who can least afford it – such as youngsters like them who wish to start a business.
IN paper it is a rakyat friendly budget but it will not get Ah Jib Kor the votes he want. For the past two years, the budget is all rakyat friendly with lots of handout and still fail to deliver the votes. Why?. Simple, what the rakyat want is a clean ans accountable government. If the corruption and cronyism issue is addressed, Najib will win hands down.
And by emphasising that the “burden” of government can be very heavy
appears to me that a large number of youngsters, instead of relying on their zeal, their energy and their creativity to carve their future, are now beginning to expect the government to help them – even when they are trying to do something entrepreneurial – and something different.
And this mentality – or dependency – appears so deep that I (and fellow activists striving for a smaller, less stifling government) now face the uphill task of convincing an entire generation that a government that does least is probably the best – and most effective government; Not a govt that interferes and tells you what to do (via tax benefits and subsidies) and what not to do (via permits and regulations); Not a government that tries to uneven the playing field by allowing you access to cheap capital (thus making you inefficient) or that stifles your ability to be nimble and agile by not allowing you to hire and fire workers as your business environment demands.
Najib knew his capability..dont hope him to come closer to Anwar. No match with Anwar leadership.He is just a circus tiger, raised due to his father and with great help from his god father MahathirNajib was born and lived all his life with a golden spoon in his mouth.So he got no “balls” or “guts” to debate with anwar the maverick.Najib does not feel the suffering of the poor rakyat so he tries to bribe them to vote for him.Crook mentality.Santa Claus can’t debate. Its not his culture.His job is to deliver goodies to all that suck up to him. That is why he got a submarine.
Our PM can’t differentiate between his governmental function as the Finance Minister and his responsibility as the Chairman of BN, you should not do the same. In your rebuttal, please be very professional. Please concentrate on policies and programmes and highlight, one point by point, why those policies and programmes are inadequate. You must also elaborate and provide solid examples why monopolies and cronyism is killing this country so that ordinary people will get to understand the extent of damage that has been inflicted on them all these years.
“Najib’s Budget 2013 speech has been roundly criticised not just for delivering what is said to be a vote-canvassing exercise lacking in real structural solutions for the country’s economy, but for being more of a campaign speech.” Right ! We all agree ! LACKING IN REAL STRUCTURAL SOLUTIONS ! Its more like vote buying campaign ….. The country’s debt is rising SO HIGH yet what Solid Practical Solution has been done to reduce the debts ??? Will by giving money solve the poverty problem ? Solve the Low income problem ??? MUST CHANGE ! If not then the rakyat will suffer in the next 5 years…… People who can’t make ends meet will end up robbing, hijacking, stealing etc which we are seeing now in many places. 2 days ago a Honda service center rob of 5 New cars, a person’s house rob early morning by 4 men with parang,.
It’s a foregone conclusion that DSAI is more competent and intelligent than Najib.Najib politic is talking bad about opposition without substance.This immature politic is the brand that he display all along.To make it sound a little intelligent,he come up with all kind of acronym,which impressed the kampong folks. Lets give the airtime similar to Najib,we will see that DSAI will brutally lynch Najib,point on point…….It will be a big embaressement to Najib.Malaysian in general will than know what a stupid PM is leading the country now!
Najib could have played it so much better. Government’s reform package was clearly a diversionary tactic. BJP could have said it welcomed government getting over its paralysis but would still want it to answer all questions on coalgate. Keeping the focus relentlessly on corruption would have kept the government on the defensive. The prime minister, instead of having to explain FDI and budget deficits, should have been called upon to explain his role in coal blocks allocation.
Leadership is not about pandering to mass opinion. That is populism. Leadership is about getting the masses behind what is right. Who wouldn’t want everything cheap? By jumping at that issue at the expense of corruption, which is more important from governance point of view, Najib has only succeeded in showing himtself as opportunistic and lacking in any sort of conviction. If elections were held today, it certainly is not getting my vote.
Politics in Singapore has moved from collective consensus to — disturbingly for the government — a divisive, intolerant and quarrelsome phase.
It is erasing some of the political values implanted on the population by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew over a long period.
A year after the political icon left the Cabinet, his successors are struggling with a new environment that has brought a spate of criticisms on them on many things they do.
Nevertheless, may Singaporeans remain as they always have been — a compliant, law-abiding lot concerned with earning a living and avoiding politics.
But a fast-growing minority, particularly the young, view their future with pessimism and blame the government for it.
There is mounting concern, even anger, not against allowing in foreigners but over the large numbers allowed in and the impact it has on jobs.
In the 47 years since independence, Singaporeans have been brought up under the political tutelage of Lee.
The founding leader, now an ailing 89-year-old Member of Parliament, had led the country until 1990 with a mixture of good logic and instilled fear.
Some of the values which cynics believed had helped him keep a firm grip on power, included the following:
– National Consensus: Lee often advocated Singaporeans stay united and focused on economy-building, and avoid the confrontational politics of the West. In America, we were told, if you had 10 people in a room, they would argue over 10 different viewpoints.
– Asian Values: He praised this Asian philosophy of obedience to authority and collectivism (including Confucianism), saying it was superior to the West’s individualistic interests. Interest in the subject waned in the 90s.
– Social Compact: An unwritten concept declaring that it is the government’s duty to provide for its people (jobs, housing, healthcare, etc), and if it does well, it is their duty to vote for it. But if it fails, then the people are no longer duty bound to support it.
As a result of mindset changes among the new generation and the arrival of the global economy, these became impractical and slid into history, unlikely to return.
Currently, young Singaporeans are becoming less compliant to someone just because of his office or age.
In fact, while many still feel grateful for Lee’s early contributions, not many really follow his political teachings.
Armed with a better education and higher expectations, they are becoming increasingly critical of the perceived wrongdoings of his People’s Action Party (PAP).
Ironically, the criticism is not only confined to the PAP but also to the opposition Workers Party (WP) for being “too soft” on the government.
If PAP MPs are head-butted over the Internet, those belonging to WP, who were elected in a hail of support, are now facing similar straits, albeit in a lighter level.
What has emerged is a new brand of Internet politics in which words like consensus and compliance are becoming outdated, replaced by an unending stream of debates and arguments.
If this trend continues, any government — whether by the PAP or Opposition — may face similar straits in future.
In an apparent coordinated series, government leaders have made a series of speeches condemning querulous politics that divide Singapore.
In his National Day Rally address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the rising frequency and viciousness some Singaporeans had resorted to attack “foreigners” and their fellow beings.
This selfishness and rancour towards each other and foreigners, he added, “reflects badly on us and damages our reputation. People think that Singapore is anti-foreigner and xenophobic.”
Another PAP leader, Lawrence Wong, said he was disappointed with Singaporeans who wanted to politicise everything.
“Surely we do not want to end up in a situation where every activity or conversation becomes politicised…where Singaporeans are set against Singaporeans based on creed or political affiliation,” said the senior minister of state for education and information.
Observers see this as an effort to regain the political initiative by going into attack mode.
Predictably, it has been met by strong rebuttals.
Critics called it one-sided and unfair judgment, saying it was a number of poor government policies — and poorer implementation — that had raised public anger in the first place.
By ignoring its own faults or addressing them head-on, the government appeared to want to put the blame on its critics.
Recent weeks have seen PM Lee working in a hectic swing of activities generally not seen since he recovered from cancer in 1992.
Faced with intense public pressure, he apologised to his people twice during that campaign for mistakes his government made, including public housing and transport.
Since then, the level of criticism has not declined. If anything, it has increased.
By organising a National Conversation (NatCon), he is apparently moving to not only to reassert his personal leadership but also regain his right to set the national agenda.
His “get-touch” strategy may work or lose him a whole lot more votes come 2016. — TR Emeritus
BUDGET 2013: The array of goodies dished out in Budget 2013 is seen as a clear move of the BN government in reaching out to its vote banks in different sectors in the run-up to the 13th general election.
However, analysts feel that the Najib administration has, yet again, left out the middle class, despite a slight one percent cut in the income tax, which is seen as little relief. Here are some of their observations:
Ibrahim Suffian, Director of Merdeka Centre:
It’s an election budget, mainly due to the sheer size of dash payments to different sections of the population, including the focus on agriculture, where the BN has its support base.
It might make some people unhappy, especially the tax-paying middle class who are not getting much from the budget. The tax reduction does not cover many people, who will continue to pay tax without getting much relief.
However, the government did address key issues such as transportation in major cities. But it’s surprising that Johor Baru was not mentioned for this, given its size. Maybe the BN feels it’s a safe area (in terms of votes) – or it is a strategy to make people vote for them.
No doubt the focus on crime reduction and the expansion of the home owner scheme is a positive development, but it will take time for the policy to have a political impact. It’s also spotty, for there are only a few places earmarked for this programme.
I am also not sure if providing grants to residents’ associations for crime prevention is the way to go. It is admitting that the crime rate is up and the Police are not able to handle it.
Dr (h.c) Ramon Navaratnam, Economist:
The projected growth rate of 4.5 to five percent is too optimistic, given the world economic situation, and so the projection of revenue is also optimistic. I am concerned that the target on deficit and debt cannot be met.
In terms of revenue, there are no new taxes, such as the GST, so there is nothing to raise the tax base. We are also not cutting subsidies, except for sugar, so it is almost like business as usual, with a greater spread of goodies.
If the world economy slows down further, we will be hopeful in getting the growth projected. Our exports will be down, forex will be down and earnings will go down.
We have to really monitor the budget to make sure that it hits the estimates, or else we have to be prepared for a mini budget after the election to adjust for shortages.
Dr. Yeah Kim Leng, Chief Economist, Ratings Agency Malaysia:
We were initially concerned that the budget will be expansionary, given the impending election, but our fears were allayed as the spending has been kept at about the same rate.
However, there is uncertainty on the fiscal deficit side because it will depend on world demand and oil prices, which will affect GDP growth.
Overall, it’s a responsible, responsive and realistic budget, but the middle class has been left out, just as in the previous budgets.
The cash handouts are targeted at consumers, but importantly, there is a need to ensure business is well supported because this is (the government’s) main source of revenue. The spending on small and medium enterprises is well targeted.
Dr.Lim Teck Ghee, CEO, Centre for Policy Initiatives:
I am dismayed by the budget. The BN government is scraping the bottom of the barrel. It tries to use cash handouts to influence the voters, but I feel it might backfire as people will realise that it was given purely for the elections and this may even make people more anti-establishment.
The government missed an opportunity to show the people that it is a prudent, responsible and reformist government. By my calculations, the government can cut operating expenditure by 20 to 25 percent without harming efficiency.
There is no clear policy direction, except that each ministry is wanting to spend as much as possible. It’s the same old story, leaving little left for subsidies. Subsidies should not go without proper analyses.
There is also greater spending on crime prevention, but what actually needs to happen is for the police to be better managed and focus less on political matters. They are throwing money in the wrong direction.
Thomas Paine’s ideas were trod upon after the Americans won their war of independence [CC-Flickr/porteous]
|All power corrupts but some must govern. – John le CarréThe ritual performance of the legend of democracy in the autumn of 2012 promises the conspicuous consumption of $5.8 billion, enough money, thank God, to prove that our flag is still there. Forbidden the use of words apt to depress a Q Score or disturb a Gallup poll, the candidates stand as product placements meant to be seen instead of heard, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. The sponsors of the event, generous to a fault but careful to remain anonymous, dress it up with the bursting in air of star-spangled photo ops, abundant assortments of multiflavoured sound bites, and the candidates so well-contrived that they can be played for jokes, presented as game-show contestants, or posed as noble knights-at-arms setting forth on vision quests, enduring the trials by klieg light, until on election night they come to judgment before the throne of cameras by whom and for whom they were produced.
Best of all, at least from the point of view of the commercial oligarchy paying for both the politicians and the press coverage, the issue is never about the why of who owes what to whom, only about the how much and when, or if, the check is in the mail. No loose talk about what is meant by the word democracy or in what ways it refers to the cherished hope of liberty embodied in the history of a courageous people.
The campaigns don’t favour the voters with the gratitude and respect owed to their standing as valuable citizens participant in the making of such a thing as a common good. They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.
The sales pitch bends down to the electorate as if to a crowd of restless children, deems the body politic incapable of generous impulse, selfless motive, or creative thought, delivers the insult with a headwaiter’s condescending smile. How then expect the people to trust a government that invests no trust in them? Why the surprise that over the last 30 years the voting public has been giving ever-louder voice to its contempt for any and all politicians, no matter what their colour, creed, prior arrest record, or sexual affiliation? The congressional disapproval rating (78 per cent earlier this year) correlates with the estimates of low attendance among young voters (down 20 per cent from 2008) at the November polls.
Democracy as an ATM
If democracy means anything at all (if it isn’t what the late Gore Vidal called “the national nonsense-word”), it is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens. Republican democracy is a shared work of the imagination among people of myriad talents, interests, voices, and generations that proceeds on the premise that the labour never ends, entails a ceaseless making and remaking of its laws and customs, ie, a sentient organism as opposed to an ATM, the government an us, not a them.
Contrary to the contemporary view of politics as a rat’s nest of paltry swindling, Niccolò Machiavelli, the fifteenth-century courtier and political theorist, rates it as the most worthy of human endeavours when supported by a citizenry possessed of the will to act rather than the wish to be cared for. Without the “affection of peoples for self-government… cities have never increased either in dominion or wealth”.
Thomas Paine in the opening chapter of Common Sense finds “the strength of government and the happiness of the governed” in the freedom of the common people to “mutually and naturally support each other”. He envisions a bringing together of representatives from every quarter of society – carpenters and shipwrights as well as lawyers and saloonkeepers – and his thinking about the mongrel splendors of democracy echoes that of Plato in The Republic: “Like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every kind of character, would seem to be the most beautiful.”
Published in January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet ran through printings of 500,000 copies in a few months and served as the founding document of the American Revolution, its line of reasoning implicit in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The wealthy and well-educated gentlemen who gathered 11 years later in Philadelphia to frame the Constitution shared Paine’s distrust of monarchy but not his faith in the abilities of the common people, whom they were inclined to look upon as the clear and present danger seen by the delegate Gouverneur Morris as an ignorant rabble and a “riotous mob”.
From Aristotle the founders borrowed the theorem that all government, no matter what its name or form, incorporates the means by which the privileged few arrange the distribution of law and property for the less-fortunate many. Recognising in themselves the sort of people to whom James Madison assigned “the most wisdom to discern, and the most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society”, they undertook to draft a constitution that employed an aristocratic means to achieve a democratic end.
Accepting of the fact that whereas a democratic society puts a premium on equality, a capitalist economy does not, the contrivance was designed to nurture both the private and the public good, accommodate the motions of the heart as well as the movement of the market, the institutions of government meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. By combining the elements of an organism with those of a mechanism, the Constitution offered as warranty for the meeting of its objectives the character of the men charged with its conduct and deportment, ie, the enlightened tinkering of what both Jefferson and Hamilton conceived as a class of patrician landlords presumably relieved of the necessity to cheat and steal and lie.
Good intentions, like mother’s milk, are a perishable commodity. As wealth accumulates, men decay, and sooner or later an aristocracy that once might have aspired to an ideal of wisdom and virtue goes rancid in the sun, becomes an oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” – its members so besotted by their faith in money that “they therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy”.
Postponing the feast of fools
The making of America’s politics over the last 236 years can be said to consist of the attempt to ward off, or at least postpone, the feast of fools. Some historians note that what the framers of the Constitution hoped to establish in 1787 (“a republic”, according to Benjamin Franklin, “if you can keep it”) didn’t survive the War of 1812. Others suggest that the republic was gutted by the spoils system introduced by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. None of the informed sources doubt that it perished during the prolonged heyday of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age.
Mark Twain coined the phrase to represent his further observation that a society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a state of war. In the event that anybody missed Twain’s meaning, President Grover Cleveland in 1887 set forth the rules of engagement while explaining his veto of a bill offering financial aid to the poor: “The lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
Twenty years later, Arthur T Hadley, the president of Yale, provided an academic gloss: “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other. The forces of democracy on the one side… and the forces of property on the other side.”
In the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the forces of democracy pushed forward civil-service reform in the 1880s, the populist rising in the 1890s, the progressive movement in the 1910s, President Teddy Roosevelt’s preservation of the nation’s wilderness and his harassment of the Wall Street trusts – but it was the stock-market collapse in 1929 that equipped the strength of the country’s democratic convictions with the power of the law. What Paine had meant by the community of common interest found voice and form in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the fighting of World War II by a citizen army willing and able to perform what Machiavelli would have recognised as acts of public conscience.
During the middle years of the twentieth century, America at times showed itself deserving of what Albert Camus named as a place “where the single word liberty makes hearts beat faster”, the emotion present and accounted for in the passage of the Social Security Act, in the mounting of the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements, in the promise of LBJ’s Great Society. But that was long ago and in another country, and instead of making hearts beat faster, the word liberty in America’s currently reactionary scheme of things slows the pulse and chills the blood.
Ronald Reagan’s new Morning in America brought with it in the early 1980s the second coming of a gilded age more swinish than the first, and as the country continues to divide ever more obviously into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor, the fictions of unity and democratic intent lose their capacity to command belief. If by the time Bill Clinton had settled comfortably into the White House it was no longer possible to pretend that everybody was as equal as everybody else, it was clear that all things bright and beautiful were to be associated with the word private, terminal squalor and toxic waste with the word public.
The shaping of the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a privilege reserved to the country’s equestrian classes, aka the 20 per cent of the population that holds 93 per cent of the wealth, the happy few who run the corporations and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, compose the laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the policy institutes, the casinos, and the sports arenas. Their anxious and spendthrift company bears the mark of oligarchy ridden with the disease diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as pleonexia, the appetite for more of everything – more McMansions, more defence contracts, more beachfront, more tax subsidy, more prosperous fools. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially reactionary oligarchs in ancient Athens who took a vow of selfishness not unlike the anti-tax pledge administered by Grover Norquist to Republican stalwarts in modern Washington: “I will be an enemy to the people and will devise all the harm against them which I can.”
A government that sets itself above the law
The hostile intent has been conscientiously sustained over the last 30 years, no matter which party is in control of Congress or the White House, and no matter what the issue immediately at hand – the environment or the debt, defence spending or campaign-finance reform. The concentrations of wealth and power express their fear and suspicion of the American people with a concerted effort to restrict their liberties, letting fall into disrepair nearly all of the infrastructure – roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges, hospitals – that provides the country with the foundation of its common enterprise.
The domestic legislative measures accord with the formulation of a national-security state backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war that arms the government with police powers more repressive than those available to the agents of the eighteenth-century British crown. The Justice Department reserves the right to tap anybody’s phone, open anybody’s mail, decide who is, and who is not, an un-American. The various government security agencies now publish 50,000 intelligence reports a year, monitoring the world’s internet traffic and sifting the footage from surveillance cameras as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way. President Barack Obama elaborates President George W Bush’s notions of preemptive strike by claiming the further privilege to order the killing of any American citizen overseas who is believed to be a terrorist or a friend of terrorists, to act the part of jury, judge, and executioner whenever and however it suits his exalted fancy.
Troubled op-ed columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that sets itself above the law.
The upper servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.
Paine had in mind a representative assembly that asked as many questions as possible from as many different sorts of people as possible. The ensuing debate was expected to be loud, forthright, and informative. James Fenimore Cooper seconded the motion in 1838, arguing that the strength of the American democracy rests on the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant. “By candor we are not to understand trifling and uncalled-for expositions of truth… but a sentiment that proves the conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality… the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.”
Oligarchy prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. The preference accounts for the current absence of honest or intelligible debate on Capitol Hill. The members of Congress embody the characteristics of only one turn of mind – that of the obliging publicist. They leave it to staff assistants to write the legislation and the speeches, spend 50 per cent of their time soliciting campaign funds. When standing in a hotel ballroom or when seated in a television studio, it is the duty of the tribunes of the people to insist that the drug traffic be stopped, the budget balanced, the schools improved, paradise regained. Off camera, they bootleg the distribution of the nation’s wealth to the gentry at whose feet they dance for coins.
A media enabling and codependent
As with the Congress, so also with the major news media that serve at the pleasure of a commercial oligarchy that pays them, and pays them handsomely, for their pretense of speaking truth to power. On network television, the giving voice to what Cooper would have regarded as real opinions doesn’t set up a tasteful lead-in to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V or the US Marine Corps. The prominent figures in our contemporary Washington press corps regard themselves as government functionaries, enabling and codependent. Their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock market touts as “securitising the junk”.
The time allowed on Face the Nation or Meet the Press facilitates the transmission of sound-bite spin and the swallowing of welcome lies. Explain to us, my general, why the United States must continue the war in Afghanistan, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of two syllables. Instruct us, Mr Chairman, in the reasons why the oil companies and the banks produce the paper that Congress doesn’t read but passes into law, and we will show the reasons to be sound. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be scornful or suspicious. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your stupidity and greed in plain sight, in the rose bushes of inside-the-beltway gossip.
The cable-news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly labelled as pasteurised ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hold each other responsible for stirring up class warfare between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent; each of them can be counted upon to mourn the passing of America’s once-upon-a-time egalitarian state of grace. They deliver the message to fund-raising dinners that charge up to $40,000 for the poached salmon, but the only thing worth noting in the ballroom or the hospitality tent is the absence among the invited bank accounts (prospective donor, showcase celebrity, attending journalist) of anybody intimately acquainted with – seriously angry about, other than rhetorically interested in – the fact of being poor.
When intended to draw blood instead of laughs, speaking truth to power doesn’t lead to a secure retirement on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard. Paine was the most famous political thinker of his day, his books in the late eighteenth century selling more copies than the Bible, but after the Americans had won their War of Independence, his notions of democracy were deemed unsuitable to the work of dividing up the spoils. The proprietors of their newfound estate claimed the privilege of apportioning its freedoms, and they remembered that Paine opposed the holding of slaves and the denial to women of the same sort of rights awarded to men. A man too much given to plain speaking, on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore not to be trusted.
His opinions having become both suspect and irrelevant in Philadelphia, Paine sailed in 1787 for Europe, where he was soon charged with seditious treason in Britain (for publishing part two of The Rights of Man), imprisoned and sentenced to death in France (for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI on the ground that it was an unprincipled act of murder). In 1794, Paine fell from grace as an American patriot as a consequence of his publishing The Age of Reason, the pamphlet in which he ridiculed the authority of an established church and remarked on “the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled”. The American congregation found him guilty of the crime of blasphemy, and on his return to America in 1802, he was met at the dock in Baltimore with newspaper headlines damning him as a “loathsome reptile”, a “lying, drunken, brutal infidel”. When he died in poverty in 1809, he was buried, as unceremoniously as a dog in a ditch, in unhallowed ground on his farm in New Rochelle.
Paine’s misfortunes speak to the difference between politics as a passing around of handsome platitudes and politics as a sowing of the bitter seeds of social change. The speaking of truth to power when the doing so threatens to lend to words the force of deeds is as rare as it is brave. The signers of the Declaration of Independence accepted the prospect of being hanged in the event that America lost the war.
Our own contemporary political discourse lacks force and meaning because it is a commodity engineered, like baby formula and Broadway musicals, to dispose of any and all unwonted risk. The forces of property occupying both the government and the news media don’t rate politics as a serious enterprise, certainly not as one worth the trouble to suppress.
It is the wisdom of the age – shared by Democrat and Republican, by forlorn idealist and anxious realist – that money rules the world, transcends the boundaries of sovereign states, serves as the light unto the nations, and waters the tree of liberty. What need of statesmen, much less politicians, when it isn’t really necessary to know their names or remember what they say? The future is a product to be bought, not a fortune to be told.
Happily, at least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production – the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop for the 150,000 balloons – reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.