Placemen, Sinecurists, and Fundholders

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Thomas, Lord Cochrane — radical politician, inventor, liberator of Greece and South America, and perhaps the finest of ALL Britain’s long line of sea dogs, fighting sailors, and government-licensed pirates — knew a thing or two about state hypocrisy when it came to those who sought personal credit for outwardly charitable activities.

In the post-Napoleonic depression which ravaged Britain after Waterloo, the elite had thought to forestall popular unrest with an ostentatious display of giving, setting up the "Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor" — a body to be sponsored by no less than the royal Dukes of York, Cambridge, Rutland and Kent.

At the Association’s major meeting of 29th July, in the City of London Tavern, the Dukes themselves were present, supported by the Bishop of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to name but a few of the other notables in attendance.

There, after a few tear-jerking phrases and a display of feigned aristocratic piety, the Duke of Kent moved the motion that:

"The transition from a state of extensive warfare to a system of peace has occasioned a stagnation of unemployment and a revulsion of trade, deeply affecting the situation of many parts of the community and producing many instances of great local distress"

[So end all inflationary booms, especially those of the military kind, modern day readers might do well to note.]

Cochrane, however, was there precisely so that such humbug would not go unremarked and promptly rose to denounce their noble lords, saying:

"I came here with the expectation of seeing the Duke of Rutland in the chair and with some hopes that, as he takes the lead on this occasion, it is his intention to surrender that sinecure of 9,000 [anything upwards of $600,000 in today's money] which he is now in the habit of putting in his pocket.

"I still trust that all who are present and are also holders of sinecures have it in their intention to sacrifice them to their liberality and their justice and that they do NOT come here to aid the distresses of their country by paying half-a-crown per cent out of the hundreds they take from it.

"If they do not, all I can say is that, to me, their pretended charity is little better than a fraud!"

An uproar naturally followed such a blunt pronouncement, during which Cochrane calmly moved an amendment to the motion, in which he — correctly — blamed the prevailing distress squarely on excess government expenditure.

At this, the red-faced Dukes hastily expunged mention of the war from the original preamble and Cochrane duly obliged them by withdrawing his amendment.

Starting again, Rutland proposed that the Association should begin taking donations and the Earl of Manvers next suggested that anyone donating at least 100 would be elected to the committee, whereupon the Bishop of London promptly proposed a vote of thanks.

This self-congratulation was too much for Cochrane who immediately interjected that this was wholly inadequate and that the true source of aid was rather to be found in the hands of the "placemen, the sinecurists, and the fundholders (i.e., the government debt holders, waxing rich on bloated war revenues) who must give up at least half of their ill-gotten gains."

Another brouhaha erupted, during the course of which the Dukes made their exeunt, crestfallen and bemused, their carefully-crafted PR campaign reduced to ruins by the blunt Scots mariner.

Cochrane was triumphant and felt wholly vindicated for having made it clear that a man who received thousands of pounds a year from the public purse could not expect to buy his way on to the committee of a high-profile charity by returning a small fraction of it without first being held up to a well-deserved public opprobrium.

Moving on a couple of centuries, has anything materially changed?

Not when the official US defence budget runs at around $560 billion a year. Not when defence stocks are up a cool 350% in the last four years — outpacing the broader S&P by more than 5:1 along the way. Not when bank and brokerage equities trade at record highs, as easy money and profligate government swell their owners’ coffers and strain their executives’ pay-packets.

No, it is surely not too hard to find where today’s "placemen," "sinecurists," and "fundholders" reside.

O, for a Cochrane to demand that the $350 million so loudly pledged to tsunami relief should be compared to the exponentially larger outlays routinely made on the Merchants of Death in the MI complex — or that the promised donation be reckoned alongside the vast sums disbursed to all the apparatchiks and siloviki so busily at work dismantling our freedoms.

Would Cochrane have failed to point out the irony that the US government will raise these funds, not at any direct personal sacrifice, but simply by issuing yet more deficit-covering bonds — bonds whose main buyers, for some time, have been the less affluent Asians themselves, whether through private or official channels?

Would he not have noted that the thrifty Indonesian factory worker may thus see his voluntary savings converted into an aid payment to his less fortunate compatriots, all to the glory of the US state instead; or that an Indian pensioner may have the value of her meagre allowance forcibly reduced by means of the Reserve Banks’ inflationary dollar-buying — just so that President Bush will be able to take the credit when some other poor Indian receives a rice hand-out from the gun platform of a US military chopper?

One suspects not and nor would Cochrane’s righteous indignation fail to be aroused were he to ponder upon the report of a group of British doctors which estimated that the invasion’s Iraqi civilian death toll could stretch to a tsunami-like 100,000-plus — a ghastly and unnecessary roll call to add to all the Afghanis already deprived of life and limb to the supposed honour of our flag.

In all, Cochrane might have found it difficult — as do we — to resist the nautical metaphor that the undeniably horrific inundations of Dec 26th have been more than matched in volume by the floods of crocodile tears of the Anglo-American war party — to whose gruesome members the death of so-many other innocents in the region matters not one whit, so long as their strategic imperatives are served and their base political calculations are advanced amid the carnage.

[The tale of Cochrane is wonderfully told in Donald Thomas's swashbuckling autobiography Cochrane — Britannia's Sea Wolf published by Cassell.]

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] is an investment analyst in Switzerland.

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