Saturday, February 17, 2018

Christopher Hitchens' Banana Republic of America- Revisited

by Nomad

KLEPTOCRACY  Christopher Hitchens

The term "banana republic" can be traced back to a collection of short stories by O.Henry a called "Cabbages and Kings." In that book, he described his observations based on the time he lived in Honduras when he was on the run for bank embezzlement. The portrait O. Henry drew was not a flattering one.

The bare-bones definition of a "banana republic" is a politically-unstable nation with an economy dependent on a chief export controlled by a single corporation, usually in foreign hands.
But there's more to it than that.

In most cases, social and economic development are brought to a halt. The will and consent of the people are subjugated as elections are rigged in favor of the ruling party. Infrastructure projects are merely sources of illicit funds to friends of the government. The press is muzzled either by purchase or intimidation and the rule of law bows to the whims of the permanent ruling class.
Among the community of nations, a banana republic is one of the least creditable. Not quite as cruel as an outright fascist state, but every bit as hopeless.

All in all, it's a pretty ugly state of affairs. It's not the kind of governance that most people would choose to live under if they have any choice in the matter.

Socialism for the Rich 

Back in October 2008, the late author Christopher Hitchens penned a brief commentary for Vanity Fair entitled "America, the Banana Republic."

At the time of Hitchens' writing, the Republicans were in a quandary about Bush's decision to bail-out banks- a move that old guard Republicans called "socialistic." There were many in Congress from both parties that felt it was forcing taxpayers to reward bad banking decisions.
They had a good point too.

And yet even steadfast free-market conservatives howled that the $700 billion rescue package was as the only thing that could save the nation for an economic meltdown. (In the end, President Bush stampeded a terrified, ashen-faced Congress into the bail-out and Republicans then- with the help of Disinformation Central, Fox News- blamed Obama for it.)

Quoting either Gore Vidal or Milton Friedman, Hitchens pointed out that, despite the outcry from the Grand Old Prostitute, the actual situation was much more like “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the rest.”

The American Republic had become, he said, little more than
a collusion between the overweening state and certain favored monopolistic concerns, whereby the profits can be privatized and the debts conveniently socialized.
In this respect, he explained, America had become every bit as corrupt and non-functional as your run-of-the-mill “banana republic.”

To argue his case, Hitchens reviewed the main socio-economic principles of a banana republic. Namely, kleptocracy,
whereby those in positions of influence use their time in office to maximize their own gains, always ensuring that any shortfall is made up by those unfortunates whose daily life involves earning money rather than making it. At all costs, therefore, the one principle that must not operate is the principle of accountability.
Had Hitchens survived his battle with cancer, he would surely have died of laughing at the last chapter of the kleptocratic saga. 

Banking Regulations

Reform, Accountability vs Kleptocracy

In July 2010, President Obama signed into law comprehensive reforms which at the time were called "the most historic shake-up of the regulation of U.S. banks since the Great Depression." That law, known as the  Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, was a result of bipartisan legislation following the white-knuckle terror on Wall Street a couple of years before.

By February 2017, it was back to business as usual when President Trump signed a directive targeting Dodd-Frank. In less than a decade, we witnessed with gaping mouths banks that were too big to fail transform into ones that had to be unregulated in order to compete.
The executive order affecting Dodd-Frank is vague in its wording and expansive in its reach. It never mentions the law by name, instead laying out “core principles” for regulations that include empowering American investors and enhancing the competitiveness of American companies. Even so, it gives the Treasury the authority to restructure major provisions of Dodd-Frank, and it directs the Treasury secretary to make sure existing laws align with administration goals.
The goals of the administration were clear enough. How can one enjoy the lucrative benefits of a keptocracy when regulations stand in your way? Accountability sucks.   

This effort to deflect accountability taints everything it touches. When it comes to corporations, nobody in government talks about standing on their own two feet, or to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
In a banana republic, the members of the national legislature will be (a) largely for sale and (b) consulted only for ceremonial and rubber-stamp purposes some time after all the truly important decisions have already been made elsewhere.
If anything, time has shown exactly how accurate Hitchens' assessment actually was. The Republican-dominated Congress has demonstrated this in spades with Donald Trump's only real legislative success, his tax bail-out for the super-wealthy class.

The majority of Americans sat back and watched in horror as the full extent of corruption became apparent. In the dead of night, the tax "reform" law was passed, much in the same way gangsters conduct their own dirty deeds. It was as if they believed things done in the midnight hours are somehow less dishonorable and shameful.

Just the other day, the Huffington Post reported that Paul Ryan, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives received $500,000 in campaign contributions from one of the Koch brothers after the House passed the federal tax bill.
The Koch brothers have spent millions of dollars lobbying to get the tax bill passed, and are currently spending millions more on a PR campaign to boost public support for the bill.
Payment for services rendered.

And according to news from two days ago, the Koch brothers, bent on destroying what's left of the Republic, are planning on spending up to $400 million for the midterm election cycle. That's an increase of 60 percent from the network's spending during the 2016 election cycle.

Trump's Tribalism

Hitchens remarked that there was another feature of a banana republic that is becoming more and more obvious, especially in the Trump era: "a tendency for tribal and cultish elements to flourish at the expense of reason and good order." We have seen it time and time again in the Trump administration.  

In another post, we discussed the slow and painful rise of partisanship which has become, in a sense, a political tribalism. It reduces every debate into an "us-against-them" argument instead of an e pluribus unum national purpose and a common respect for all citizens.

An Atlantic Monthly article from late last year pointed out that Trump has
operated in a uniquely tribal fashion that has ominously, and even deliberately, widened those divides. In office, he has abandoned any pretense of seeking to represent the entire country. How deep a crevice he digs may turn on how much, if at all, the Republican congressional majorities resist his divisive tendencies.
When it comes to his supporters, there may be no limits to how far Trump can go. A Monmouth poll, taken last year found that 61 percent of Trump supporters say there’s nothing he could do to make them change their minds about him. Imagine that for a moment. There's nothing he could do.

Fear not.
According to a more recent poll result, in his first year in office, Trump lost much of his political base and dragged the Republican Party down with him. That hasn't stopped Republicans in Congress from support the president despite his many controversies and fumbles.
As Trump's tribalism shudders and shakes, his Republican allies in Congress now have no alternative but to follow the course to its disastrous conclusion. 

The Lawless Leader

There's one further thing that every banana republic cannot do without: a self-serving leader who plays the role of a dictator but who is really little more than a pawn and puppet for private interests.
Given the people he has publicly admired, (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jin ping, and others) Trump doesn't appear to be very much enamored with democratic leadership and respect for the rule of law.

In an article in Foreign Policy magazine just a few weeks after the election, Harvard Professor Stephan M. Walt examined the man and his manner in detail and had no good news to report.   
Public accountability is inherent to America’s constitutional system, but that doesn’t mean Trump won’t try to escape it... [I]t’s entirely possible that Trump will uphold his oath to defend the Constitution and stay within legal lines. But given his past conduct, expressed attitudes, and bomb-throwing advisors, I think there are valid reasons to think the constitutional order that has prevailed in the United States for more than two centuries could be in jeopardy.
In almost every way, Trump has lived up to that chilling assessment, reveling in his role as an arrogant autocrat. As the Daily Beast remarked:
Donald Trump is a lawless president. It’s obvious to anyone who’s watching and isn’t in a state of contemptible denial that he feels constrained by no law. He cares nothing about the Constitution and he’ll lie about anything to anyone at anytime.
It is, the writer says, "hard to accept and believe that this is happening in the United States of America." Perhaps, but Hitchens warned us that the nation was heading in this direction nonetheless.  

From Banana Republic to Shithole

In 2013, five years after Hitchens wrote his Vanity Fair article (and two years after his death), Alex Henderson wrote a piece for Alternet entitled "Ten Ways America has Come to Resemble a Banana Republic."

The classic banana republics lacked an "upward mobility for most of the population and were plagued by blatant income equality, a corrupt alliance of government and corporate interests, rampant human rights abuses, police corruption and extensive use of torture on political dissidents."

As reported in April 2017, social mobility is fine in the US, it just isn't upward. According to a study led by American economist Prof. Raj Chetty of Stanford University:
""Children's prospects of earning more than their parents have faded over the past half century in the United States. Absolute income mobility has fallen across the entire income distribution, with the largest declines for families in the middle class."
And Henderson lists the other ways in which that America has gone from bad to worse:

  • Rising Income Inequality and Shrinking Middle Class
  • Unchecked Police Corruption and an Ever-Expanding Police State 
  • Torture and Neglect of Internationally-recognized Human Rights
  • Corrupt Alliance of Big Business and Big Government
  • High Unemployment
  • Inadequate Access to Healthcare
  • Dramatic Gaps in Life Expectancy
  • Hunger and Malnutrition
  • High Infant Mortality
That was five years ago.
Since that time, under a Republican-dominated Congress, things have hardly improved. We have seen in the last year that the overall trend is backward, away from rational long-term solutions.

In an administration already crammed with nasty ironies, Trump was reportedly heard during a meeting on immigration, asking why is the US taking in "all these people from shithole countries" and not from more successful countries like Norway.

Despite his denials that he ever said such a thing, Trump's derogatory xenophobia and racist comment fits a bit too well with what he has said in the past. Trump is apparently incapable of seeing that he is the primary driving force behind America's downward slide into shithole- banana republic status.

The battle between special counsel Robert Mueller and the Trump administration is a test of the rule of law. If that effort fails, all bets are off.
From all we have seen, Republicans in Congress simply cannot be trusted to put an end to this farce. Ultimately it may be left up to the people themselves, either by mass protests, by mid-term elections, or by national strikes to settle the matter. That would be instability and strife that Americans haven't seen since for a half-century.

If that also fails, Americans will find themselves, as Hitchens noted back in 2008, in the same sad situation as countries like Guatemala, Nigeria or Honduras- the nations Trump has labeled "shitholes."