Ochenski: Fatal flaws 

In our current tragedy, the primary culprit is greed

In Greek tragedies, some fatal character flaw inevitably leads to the downfall of the protagonists. As both our state and nation are rocked by severe economic impacts, one trait stands out as being responsible for much of the suffering currently being experienced by a large segment of the population. Avarice, defined as “an excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain,” more commonly known as plain old greed, continues to be the fatal flaw in Republican political ideology. As a result, Montana and America are now experiencing our own version of the classic Greek tragedy.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the very top, where Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and the host of corporate CEOs now running the nation are heading for their political bomb shelters to avoid the severe fallout from the billions in continuing stock market losses. As “the little people” watch their life savings and 401(k) retirement portfolios evaporate, Bush and company continue to blame “a few bad apples” for the mounting disaster. Given the extravagant lifestyles and “compensation” these guys enjoy, it’s easy to see why they can’t bring themselves to blame the greed-driven system that they supported and from which they have profited immensely.

Insider trading, cooked books, crooked deals, and bailouts litter the trails of their lives. Invariably, the goal of these actions has been amassing more and more wealth for a select few, regardless of the “collateral damage” inflicted on the public treasury, public trust, or the greater good of the nation as a whole. The president dumped his Harken stocks before they fell, despite signing an agreement not to do so. While he cashed out high, the poor saps who owned the stock took it in the shorts when the paper they held became worthless. Our vice president, now mostly hiding in “undisclosed locations,” was Halliburton’s CEO when the giant energy company “cooked the books” through what is now called “aggressive accounting.” Cheney took home some $35 million in one year for his performance—a performance he now tries to deny in the face of an SEC investigation.

Closer to home, the tragedy is no less poignant. Montana has been firmly in control of the Republican Party for a decade, with Republicans occupying the governor’s office since 1988. Republican politicians would like to point fingers at the Democrats and say that this is their fault, but the truth won’t support that contention. The Democrats, with only one out of every three legislators, have been largely incapable of stopping or even influencing most of what the Repubs have done to our state in the last 10 years. But to their credit, and thanks to the Constitution’s requirement of a three-fourths vote of each house of the Legislature to do so, they have held tough in the face of continuous Republican efforts to bust the Coal Tax Trust Fund, the state’s financial backbone. For this, we should be grateful. Without their commitment to the future, the $700 million in the Trust would long ago have vanished into corporate tax breaks and we would still be exactly where we are now…which is deep in a very dark, very cold, fiscal hole.

Like their counterparts in Washington, D.C., our state Republicans seem just as incapable of understanding, much less admitting, the error of their ways. Thanks to their logic—and the policies that grew from their twisted thinking—the state’s environmental health, institutional stability, and revenue base have been severely eroded.

In the Republican dream world, if you just give big business everything it wants, big business will give you what you want. And so, in a sickening splurge of what we now call “deregulation,” Republican politicians gave away our environment, lowered our water standards from the highest in the nation to some of the worst; exempted open pit mines from reclamation; and “streamlined” permitting, which basically means cutting corners on environmental impact analysis and limiting public input to the process.

In one of the greatest blunders of modern Montana history, Gov. Marc Racicot and the Republican-dominated Legislature deregulated electricity, making it possible for a greedy Montana Power Company to “divest” itself of the hydroelectric dams paid for by Montana consumers. Those facilities are now owned by an East Coast energy conglomerate, but may soon be the property of a German conglomerate. No longer “our” resources, these basic necessities of life have become trading cards in the global energy game in which we are now the lowliest of pawns.

But big business wanted more—and the Republicans gave it to them. In a reckless shifting of the tax burden, the largest corporations in Montana received significant tax reductions in an effort to make Montana more “business friendly.” Even now, in spite of the state’s dire fiscal condition, our “lap dog for industry” governor wants to give the greedy wealthy another big tax break, while loading a new “tourist tax” on the backs of ordinary Montanans.

History, if it recalls this dim era at all, will rightfully label it “shameful” that these benighted politicians would favor the wealthy few over the mass of citizens scraping by on the lowest wages, incomes, and pensions in the nation.

It would be one thing if all these economic experiments had worked out, if Montanans were enjoying livable wages and the increased economic activity had produced the promised increases in revenue to cover the costs of running government and education. But the sad truth is that there has been no vast increase to offset our societal, environmental, and revenue losses. Instead, the state has gone downhill, the citizens suffer, and our government infrastructure and educational institutions are in crisis.

In the end, the fatal Republican ideological flaws of avarice and greed, have brought us to tragic ruin. Sad as it may be, as Montana heads into a “not so special” session and the nation slips back into deficit spending, those fatal flaws show no sign of abating.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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