Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
~ George Orwell
Whenever I drive east of Los Angeles toward Palm Springs, I encounter the untold hundreds of gigantic propellers whose stated purpose is to transform wind into electrical power. I wonder about the efficiency of these devices: does the enormous cost of constructing and maintaining them generate a sufficient amount of electricity to make them a profitable investment? Or, as I often suspect, do these towers serve a more secular religious purpose; a modern ziggurat expressing a commitment to a new sacred orthodoxy? Having grown up in farm country, I am aware of the beneficial use farmers have made of windmills to pump water. On the other hand, if the output from these modern wind machines exceeds their costs, why do they not appear across the country, wherever strong winds prevail? Whenever I hear people preach of the importance of some costly technological program they want the state to undertake, my economic understanding always asks the question: if this is such a worthwhile and productive project, why have profit-seeking entrepreneurs not already entered the field?
These and other related thoughts are with me whenever I watch C-SPAN coverage of congressional hearings on the Federal Reserve policies and practices or, of late, inquiries into the government expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to benefit the major corporate interests who are the de facto owners of American society. I have watched Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner perform his Professor Harold Hill act before an increasingly unimpressed body of Republican and Democratic representatives. ("Oh yeah, we got troubles; that’s trouble with a capital u2018t’ and that rhymes with u2018b’ and that stands for the u2018billions’ we gave to AIG!")
In his own way, Geithner — along with his predecessor, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, et al. — has been generating his own form of wind power in an effort to disguise the corporate-state self-serving ends that have, for decades, underlain government economic policies. There is an increased public consciousness of the realpolitik at work in the halls of state that makes it difficult for intelligent minds to any longer indulge the establishment-serving media’s explanations of governmental behavior. Hollywood film studios would, today, be unable to produce a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a straight face.
The giggling must have commenced even in the congressional hearing room when Mr. Geithner began his public catechisms about how the conferral of hundreds of billions of dollars on AIG was undertaken for the benefit of American taxpayers. Nor was his self-contradiction more evident than when he first declared that trust in the financial system required disclosure and transparency, but later warned that it would be a grave mistake to make public the machinations of the Federal Reserve Board. Such actions (i.e., exposure to the American people about how the Fed actually operates) would destroy this agency’s "independence." There was even some suggestion that the cause of "national security" had been invoked early on when the AIG bailout was being considered! Such are the consequences whenever hot air is disguised as cool reasoning.
Mr. Geithner need not have spent so much time rehearsing his lines to be used in these hearings. The lyrics had been written for him, decades ago, in the musical Li’l Abner: "He makes the rules and he intends to keep it thataway; What’s good for General Bullmoose, is good for the U.S.A."
Geithner — along with his boss, Mr. Obama — added to the gross domestic product of pure wind in declaring that they "took responsibility" for their respective actions. I am forever annoyed by people who make such empty statements; what do they mean? What cost does each intend to incur in taking such "responsibility"? If I accidentally run you over with my car, and then claim "responsibility" for having done so, it would be expected that I would compensate you in some manner for my actions. Will either man resign his office in atonement? This is what the president of Japan Air Lines did, a number of years ago, when one of their planes crashed, killing many passengers. Such statements by Geithner and Obama unencumbered by personal costs, are gestures as meaningless as Abraham Lincoln’s "emancipation proclamation" which, by its very terms, declared slavery to be abolished in those states that were "in rebellion" (i.e., those regions not under federal control). A modern edict of comparable impact could be expressed by President Obama declaring Tibet to be independent of Chinese authority!
When I used to teach students on their first day in law school, I would begin with the following exercise: "you are passengers on a cruise ship that has just sunk, and are afloat in the water with a lifeboat that will only hold half of your numbers [there might be forty students in this class]. If twenty of you get into the boat, you will survive; if more than twenty of you try to do so, the boat will capsize and all of you will drown. You have thirty minutes to make a decision. Good luck!" I left the classroom, later returning to hear their decision. I was always less interested in what they decided, than in the question of how they decided to decide. Invariably, I would get one or two students — almost always males — who announced that they volunteered to stay in the water and let the others survive. Their answers as to why they made such choices gave me the opportunity to discuss how we often say things of an abstract nature, in order to look good in the eyes of others. "But would you make this self-sacrificing decision if there were real-world consequences associated with it? Oh, by the way, did I tell you that the twenty people who managed to stay in the boat would each have ten points added to their final exam grades?"
But we have learned to expect meaningless gesturing from Washington. Many of us have even learned to regard government officials as personal grantors of benefits ("the president gave us" some stated amount of money), as though they were distributing their own resources to us. But those who scramble for coins tossed from the speeding carriages by the ruling elite will never be in the same league as those favored few — members of the establishment — who have mastered the art of investing in the industry of wind that is Washington, D.C. If you are content to obtain a meager government contract, or a sinecure in this setting, you can compete with your fellow humans for the paltry dregs remaining after the trough has been emptied by the well-connected hogs.
But if it is your purpose to be a big-time player in this environment, you must be prepared to help empower the wind industry with your very sense of being; to commit yourself to a life of bromides, contradictory thinking, and the ability to tell lies with a straight face. Political capitals have always been the factory-towns where hyperbole, fraud, deceit, lies, and empty promises provide the necessary foundation for statism. As I write this article, I have been informed that the Pentagon is proposing the establishment of what it calls an "Office of Strategic Deception." (Who do you suppose is to be the target of such falseness?)
But beyond consigning your soul to a life of corruption, you must be willing to invest vast sums of money in the effort, being mindful that the secret of understanding realpolitik in this country is to be found in the phrase "follow the money." Don’t bother asking your stock-broker for investment details or strategies: the chances are he is either too honest or too far out of the loop to be able to inform you. Nor will you find "balloon-juice futures" listed on any of the commodities markets. Ownership shares in this industry are bought and sold not in the open market, but behind closed doors in the hallowed halls of state; with the currency of exchange consisting of government-issued decorated paper rather than more substantive values.
If you want more evidence of how success is obtained in this multi-trillion dollar racket, continue to watch the politicians and government officials as they twist and squirm in their efforts to convince you that their nakedness is really the latest fashion; watch and read the mainstream media, and then reverse whatever they tell you; and pay attention to the Internet and the alternative voices who may provide you with the kinds of questions you have been trained not to ask.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.