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(DV) Street: Empire, Inequality, and the Arrogance of Power







Empire, Inequality, and the Arrogance Of Power  
by Paul Street
April 14, 2006

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One of the great privileges of power is the right to attack others for doing -- or allegedly doing (see below) -- exactly what you do without anybody who matters calling you on your hypocrisy. 


Think of the affluent white Americans who criticize the alleged personal irresponsibility, cultural inadequacy, and welfare dependency of the inner city poor. Never mind that these wealthy Americans engage in an ongoing orgy of conspicuous and ecologically toxic consumption. Forget that they typically invest in and/or receive generous salaries from corporations that receive massive public subsidies while cheating customers, subverting regulations, deepening inequality, slashing wages and benefits, abandoning communities, discriminating against women and minorities, and/or otherwise contributing to human misery at home and abroad. Such blatant hypocrisy generally proceeds without public notice or exposure. 


The White House, to give another example, declares that any state harboring terrorists is a terrorist state and is therefore subject to just invasion and attack by “the civilized world,” led of course, by Washington. It is left to the lunatic fringe to point out that the leader of civilization would be justly bombed by this standard since the U.S. happens to host such known terrorists as Orlando Bosch, who collaborated in blowing up a civilian Cuban airliner as part of a U.S. directed campaign against the Castro government (see Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy [New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2006], p. 6) 


It is left to the leftist denizens of the radical nuthouse to point out that U.S. foreign policy has long used (state-) terrorist methods to slaughter masses of innocent people in places like Vietnam (where American forces killed more than two million people between 1962 and 1975) and Iraq, where more than a million died from US-imposed economic sanctions during the 1990s. The current US-led invasion of Iraq has killed more than 100,000 civilians. 


Do the savage U.S. torture camps and brutal state-terrorist “interrogation” techniques maintained and conducted in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Force base, among other locations help the U.S. qualify as a fitting candidate for punitive attack by “the civilized world?” 


How about the role that John Negroponte, current U.S. Director of National Intelligence, played as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s?  Negroponte ran interference for the Honduran security forces in the U.S. Congress, making sure that U.S. military assistance kept flowing to Honduras while those forces conducted a brutal campaign of torture and massacre against that nation's civilian populace. Negroponte’s main job in Honduras, however, was to oversee the terrorist contra camps in Honduras, from which a C.I.A.-equipped mercenary force launched repeated murderous attacks that killed masses of Nicaraguan civilians (see Chomsky, Failed States, p. 151) 
These are relevant questions only for the aforementioned nutcases. 




Speaking of Negroponte, he takes the powerful pot-calling-the-not-so-powerful kettle-black game to a new level. A recent front-page New York Times article on Venezuela’s foreign policy contains some very interesting reflections from the United States' blood-soaked über-snoop. By Negroponte’s observation, respectfully reported without properly stunned amazement or derision by the Times, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez is "spending considerable sums involving himself in the political and economic life of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere, this despite the very real economic development and social needs of his own country.  It’s clear,” Negroponte told a Congressional hearing last month, “he is spending hundreds of millions, if note more, for his very extravagant foreign policy.” Negroponte’s tone of concern over Chavez's "extravagance" was loyally repeated in the Times’ article, which bore the ominous title “CHAVEZ SEEKING FOREIGN ALLIES, SPENDING BILLIONS: Oil! Used in Rivalry With U.S. for Influence in the Americas” (April 4, 1968). 


Forget for a moment, as the Times dutifully did, that the Chavez government has been “using its oil revenues for the public good” by “doing what previous elite-dominated [Venezuelan] governments failed to do: providing for the basic political, social, and economic needs of the population. Oil revenue,” Maria Paez Victor recently noted, “is now used for universal health services, education at all levels, clean water, food security, micro credits, support for small and middle range industry, land distribution and deeds for de-facto owners, worker cooperatives, infrastructure, such as roads and railways and support for independent community radio,” leading to significant ongoing improvements in the social health of Venezuela (Maria Paez Victor, “Mr. Danger and the Socialism for the New Millennium,” Speech to the University of Toronto Walter Gordon/Massey Symposium, March 15, 2006). 


And forget also that Chavez’s supposedly “extravagant” and power mad (Donald Rumsfeld recently likened Chavez to Adolph Hitler) foreign policy appears to alleviate and counter economic and social problems and abroad and thus stands in sharp contrast to the regressive dictates and outcomes of U.S. foreign policy. Chavez, by the Times’ own account, has “been subsidizing… eye surgery for poor Mexicans and even heating fuel for poor families from Maine to the Bronx to Philadelphia.” He has helped Argentina overcome its foreign debt and given $3.8 million in foreign aid to four African nations. In the Bronx last winter, the Times reports, Venezuela’s oil corporation Citgo “provided heating fuel at a 40 percent discount to some 8,000 low-income residents of 75 apartment buildings.” 




Put all that aside and reflect upon the curious fact, naturally not mentioned by the Times, that the U.S. is a great perpetrator when it comes to the crime of sacrificing domestic social and economic health and development to the pursuit of an "extravagant foreign policy" involving massive interference in the internal affairs of other nations. 


The U.S. spends more than $500 billion each year on an imperial defense budget that maintains more than 720 military bases located in nearly every country on the planet, including many in Central and Southern America. 


But this is only one way in which Uncle Sam “involv[es] himself in the political and economic life of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere.” Other forms of such involvement include the powerful and regressive neoliberal economic interventions of the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the vast reach of American corporate media and consumer culture, the ubiquitous political pressure of  U.S. “diplomacy,” the  placement of explicitly propagandistic “news” stories in foreign newspaper and television,  and the flooding of Central American markets with highly subsidized U.S. agricultural exports. 


The U.S. government has even been known to invade and occupy other, formerly sovereign states, smashing their existing nation-state and insisting that the occupied nations develop in accord with U.S. imposed politico-economic dictates. 


How "extravagant" (and expensive) is all that? 


All of this global extravagance transpires while: 


* More than 37 million residents of the United States (which US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson [R-Texas] calls "the beacon to the world of the way life should be") languish beneath the federal government's notoriously low poverty level ($15,219 for a family of three in 2004). 



* More than 13 million or 18 percent of US children live below that sorry measure, and the US child poverty rate is substantially higher than that of other industrialized nations. 


* 15.6 million Americans live at LESS THAN HALF the inadequate U.S. poverty level, comprising 42 percent of the nation's giant poverty population. 


* More than one in three US children live in or near poverty and more than 8 million Americans live in homes that frequently skip meals or eat too little. 


* More than 45 million Americans lack health coverage, making up 16 percent of the U.S. population. The U.S. is still the only modern industrialized state without a universal, socially inclusive health insurance plan. 


* The top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth in the U.S. 


* The top 10 percent owns two-thirds of US wealth, leaving the rest of us -- 90 percent of the population -- to fight it out for one third of the nation's assets. 


* The net worth (all assets minus all liabilities) of the typical black family in the U.S. is around $8000, roughly 7 percent of the typical white family's net worth -- that’s seven black cents on the white dollar. 


* As the Times acknowledged in a front-page story last May, “Life at the Top Isn't Just Better, It's Longer” because "class is a potent force in health and longevity in the United States. The more education and income people have, the less likely they are to have and die of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and many types of cancer. Upper-middle-class Americans live longer and in better health than middle-class Americans, who live longer and better than those at the bottom. And the gaps are widening, say people who have researched social factors in health. As advances in medicine and disease prevention have increased life expectancy in the United States," Times reporter J. Scott elaborated, "the benefits have disproportionately gone to people with education, money, good jobs and connections. They are almost invariably in the best position to learn new information early, modify their behavior, take advantage of the latest treatments and have the cost covered by insurance." 


* Unequal health care contributes to more than 100,000 black Americans dying earlier than whites each year. Middle-aged black men die at nearly twice the rate as white men of a similar age. 


I could go on and on. The list of the “very real” but all-too unmet “economic development and social needs” and savage racial and related class disparities in the imperial “homeland” is practically endless. It is also getting bigger with time. As the Times reported (along with the rest of "mainstream" media) earlier this year, the Bush II administration has seen the U.S. poverty rate rise during every single year of its existence.  That terrible measure has never gone up each year for five straight years until now. 


This remarkable record of worsening misery at the bottom of the United States’ steep socioeconomic pyramid partly reflects the deliberate bankrupting of social programs through a militantly plutocratic program of massive tax cutting that primarily benefits the already super-wealthy. 


It also reflects the huge social and democratic opportunity cost of the imperial state’s addiction to an extravagantly expensive militarism. The U.S. spends nearly as much on what it deceptively calls “defense” as the rest of the world. In 2002, the U.S. military budget was 30 times bigger than the combined spending of the seven official U.S. "rogue" states -- Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria (when will Venezuela be added to the list?) -- who together spent $14.4 billion. The seven "rogue" enemies plus Russia and (long-term Pentagon obsession) China together spent $116.2 billion, equal to just 27.6% of the U.S. military budget. 




Meanwhile, here’s how the National Priorities Project (NPP) breaks down the tax bill American paid for 2005, by the end of which the invasion of Iraq had cost more than $270 billion.  Let's say you paid Uncle Sam $1,000 last April. Your patriotic investment in the American public sector was used as follows: 


* $285 went to the military, what the federal government likes to call “defense" and what would more accurately be called "empire." 


* $200 went to "health care":  all health spending by the federal government, including federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid. 
* $180 went to pay interest on the debt (which costs the nation $317.3 billion each year) that is to pay off domestic and international bond holders/global finance capital. 


* $60 went to "income security," including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplementary Security Income, and various programs for families and kids. 


* $40 went to education: all federal expenditures on elementary, secondary, higher education and federal research and general education assistance. 


* $37 went to benefits for veterans (which some analysts would include under “military”). 


* $27 went to nutrition spending, including Food Stamps and all child nutrition programs. 


* $20 went to housing: all federal housing assistance. 


* $14 went to environmental protection.  


* $ 3 went to job training. 


"Defense" (empire) outweighed education by more than 7to 1; income security (for the poor) by more than 4 to 1; nutrition by more than 10 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; environmental protection by 20 to 1; and job training by 95 to 1. The military accounts for more than half of all discretionary -- not previously obligated -- federal spending. 


And don't be fooled by the number two ranking for health care. Most of that $200 is a transfer payment to the corporate-medical-industrial complex, just as much of the “defense” budget is a transfer payment to such giant corporate masters of war as Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, and Boeing. US governmental per-capita health expenditures are higher than those of some nations with national health insurance plans (including France and Germany) because of America's inordinately high doctor salaries, skyrocketing drug prices in the US (where consumers flex little countervailing bargaining power against the market-setting capacity of leading pharmaceutical corporations), and the flood of paper work and bureaucratic bloat in the private (corporate) "health" sector. 


The NPP also breaks down the social costs of the Iraq occupation. As of April 6, 2006 at 5:30 PM, the NPP reported, Washington’s imperial war of choice on Mesopotamia had cost more than $271 billion. With that same sum of money, the NPP calculated, the United States could have: enrolled 30,923,096 U.S. children in Head Start for one year; provided health insurance for one year to 162,406,756 children; built 2,442,073 additional housing units; hired 4,700,260 additional public school teachers for one year; and given 13,148,101 Americans a four-year college scholarship at a public university. 




The day on which the New York Times story about Chavez’s “extravagant foreign policy” (Negroponte) appeared -- April fourth -- happened to mark the 38th anniversary of the assassination (or perhaps state execution) of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. King, it is haunting to recall, was killed exactly one year after he delivered his famous “Time to Break the Silence” speech denouncing the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church in New York City. 


By the time of that famous oration, King was regularly speaking and writing against what he called "the triple evils that are interrelated": militarism, poverty, and racism. "I [can] never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes," King said, "without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." He was moved to speak out on Vietnam, he said, by "allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism." His Christian-humanist values meant that he could not watch passively as "as we poison" the Vietnamese peoples' "water, as we kill a million acres of their crops," and "send them into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one 'Vietcong'-inflicted injury." The people of Indochina, King mused, must find Americans to be "strange liberators" as "we destroy... their... famil[ies], village[s],... land and... crops." 


But focusing back on the imperial homeland, King also noted that many young black Americans and poor whites were in Vietnam because their poverty was so high and their job prospects so low that enlistment looked like a step up. He observed that the American government's resort to mass bloodshed in Southeast Asia was undermining his ability to argue effectively for nonviolent resistance to inequality and racism in American ghettoes. And he passionately decried the fact that the U.S. government's decision to pour tens of millions of dollars into the "crucifixion of Southeast Asia" (as Noam Chomsky once aptly described an American military assault that killed 3 million residents of that region) was undercutting its ability to deliver on the "promissory note" of social justice it had started to write with its briefly declared "War on Poverty." "With the resources accruing from the termination of the war, arms race, and excessive space races," King told the US Senate in 1966, "the elimination of all poverty could become an immediate national reality. At present," he bitterly observed, "the war on poverty is not even a battle, it is scarcely a skirmish." "Defense" expenditures in Vietnam, King knew, were strangling the anti-poverty "war" in its cradle. 


Struggling against the toxic, interrelated logics of empire, inequality, and racism, King called for "a radical reordering of the nation's priorities." By 1967, he went public with his determination that that "reordering" required "restructuring the whole of American society." "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift," King warned, "is approaching spiritual death." 


Nearly four decades after King's death, the U.S. government dishonors the now officially iconicized civil rights leader's officially forgotten anti-imperialist and social-justice legacy by prioritizing militarism over social provision and health like no time in memory. It is once again sacrificing domestic social and economic needs to the extravagant costs of waging an imperial war for “so-called freedom” (King on the Vietnam War) abroad. 


Adding Orwellian insult to injury, the leading imperial terror manager Negroponte has the unmitigated gall to falsely accuse a relatively small and populist Latin American state of sacrificing its domestic social health to an expensive, expansionist, and “extravagant foreign policy.” And the United States' leading “liberal” newspaper, which guards the leftmost boundary of the narrow moral-ideological spectrum in a spiritually dead “mainstream” media, naturally refuses to call the imperial functionary on his astonishing and odious hypocrisy. 


Paul Louis Street is a writer, activist, teacher, and public speaker based in DeKalb, IL, and Iowa City, IA. His many publications include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004). He can be reached at: pstreet@niu.edu.

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