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March 19, 2009

Imitating a Junta…

Tony Soltero

Back when I was a child, my parents once took a long, ambitious vacation to South America. When they got home they brought back countless little treasures from the countries they visited, an album's worth of beautiful photographs, and plenty of gripping stories to share. My brothers and I couldn't get enough of them.


One particular story made a permanent impression on me. My parents had spent a few days in Peru, visiting with acquaintances. At that time Peru was chafing under a repressive military junta. The hosts recounted a story typical of the time and place: there had been a popular nationally-broadcast children's TV show featuring a host with a studio audience of kids. The host would interview some of the children between cartoons and games. One time he spoke to an unusually big and strong young boy, and the exchange went as such:


"You're a healthy, well-built young boy. What do you eat at home?"


"Oh, a bit of everything. Fish, poultry, beef, vegetables...all that stuff."


"Beef? How can you be eating beef? It's being rationed!"


"Oh, my dad's in the military. We eat whatever we want."


Oops. Not long after that little conversation, the junta ordered the show canceled. The rank elitism of the Peruvian ruling class had been exposed, and they didn't appreciate that one bit.


I remember hearing that story, and feeling so thankful that in America we didn't operate that way. That we were all equal before the law, and that one didn't get special privileges based on one's wealth or position. And maybe it was true back then – around that time, a sitting president was forced to resign from office due to lawbreaking. Our Constitution seemed to be working.


But today, America is much, much closer to what Peru was back then. Our government is all but broken, and on those occasions when it does function, it only serves the interests of economic elites. The rest of us are being thrown under a steamroller.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way the endless financial bailouts have been handled. We have thrown hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars at a bevy of failed Wall Street financial institutions.


Now, one can argue that the bailouts might have been necessary to prevent the economy from going into complete collapse, but that does not explain why the government – embodied by both the previous and current administrations – never saw fit to provide any oversight or regulation on how the banks would use our money. Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson, Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner all need to hang their heads in shame.


So, when these failed financial institutions unsurprisingly splurge on obscene executive bonuses (as a reward for driving their companies into the ground), the feds just shrug and claim there's nothing they can do because of "contracts." That's passivity we can believe in.


Meanwhile, autoworkers for the struggling Big Three are being leaned upon heavily to back out of their contracts as conditions for receiving bailout money – which amounts to a tiny fraction of what Wall Street has bilked from taxpayers. So, contracts are sacrosanct and enforceable when it comes to high-living AIG executives, but malleable and breakable when we're talking about hardworking UAW laborers.


The Peruvian military junta would be proud.


And as the unemployment rate spirals upwards and more and more Americans are in danger of losing their homes, the elites, represented by the likes of Rick Santelli (CNBC correspondent), bristle at any kind of government action so that the newly jobless can remain in their neighborhoods – but don't bat an eye at the far more massive amounts of money thrown at the financial sector. With the money the taxpayers have thrown at Wall Street, we could have paid off every outstanding mortgage in the country. In full.


But that would help the little people. And the Peruvian junta would not approve.


President Barack Obama remains exceptionally popular in his young administration, but the longer he and his advisers dither in rectifying these and other gross imbalances, the more precarious his position will become, and the less able he will be to enact the much-needed changes he promised. And as long as he clings to the economic advisers who put the interests of elites over the interests of regular Americans, he risks undermining his own plans for the nation's future.


Let's not be like the Peruvian junta. It's time to put people first. The elites are doing quite well enough, thank you.


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