Mendacity 101 

David Sirota on the motives of big, bad money

Following last week’s conviction of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan on 18 counts of political corruption, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who oversaw the prosecution, served notice that strong circumstantial cases of politicians doing favors for their backers will be prosecuted, saying, “I think people now know if you are part of a corrupt conduct where one hand is taking care of the other…you don’t need to say the word ‘bribe’ out loud.”

Elected officials in the federal government had better hope that mind-set doesn’t take hold in Washington. Or, at least, they better hope that no one gets a hold of David Sirota’s new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government—and How We Can Take It Back, because the Helena resident's book systematically documents collusion between wealthy interests and politicians who speak on their behalf.

Consider, for instance, the case of 18 senators who voted in 1991 to cap credit card interest rates at 14 percent. The same 18 senators later voted against a 2005 proposal to cap those same rates at 30 percent. What changed in the meantime? At the very least, the 18 legislators, whose ranks include Montana senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns, received an aggregate $2.3 million from the commercial banking and finance/credit industry.

That particular case of correlating campaign contributions and an industry’s position on legislation is but one of scores of similar incidents that Sirota compiles in his assiduously documented book, which features roughly 1,300 footnotes annotating just over 300 pages of text. Taken together, Sirota said in a recent interview, “The book makes the case that corruption, and the worst kinds of corruption, go far beyond vote-buying or the high-profile scandals with one or two different members of Congress. Corruption really happens every day throughout American politics because American politics has largely become a system of legalized bribery.”

Sirota focuses on the operation of that system through an economic lens, he says, because it is in monetary issues that politicians most clearly “represent their big-money donors against the interests of their constituents.” And, while the book addresses economic theory—a topic usually reserved for coverage in the business press—Sirota pitches his take to “the ordinary human being,” writing in plain language about what he calls “10 really big issues that the average person probably deals with…if not on a daily basis then pretty regularly.” Each issue gets a chapter, beginning with taxes and wages, continuing through debt and pensions, health care and prescription drugs and concluding with treatments of energy, unions and legal rights. In each, Sirota says, “I looked at not the little lies or myths or half-truths but the big ones, because I’m fascinated with the dishonesty that we as a culture are taught to accept as fact, as assumed fact.”

In Chapter 2, addressing wages, Sirota demonstrates his method by attacking the notion that raising the minimum wage hurts low-income workers. To establish the factual basis of his position, Sirota cites a 2004 study by the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) which determined that states that raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum set in 1997 created jobs faster than those that did not, contradicting the traditional conservative contention that raising the minimum wage hurts the people the move is meant to help most. To demonstrate the calculated mendacity that underlies opposition to raising the minimum wage, Sirota sources the discredited argument about worker well-being to a group called the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), which, of course, had access to the same FPI data as anyone else with a web browser, but which was also funded, according to the Los Angeles Times, “mostly by low-wage companies such as hotels and restaurants”—businesses, Sirota’s book points out, that “have a big stake in keeping wages as low as possible.”

By marshalling his facts and exposing the motivations of those who forward discredited arguments, Sirota says he “tries to show that all these lies, myths and half-truths are not just because politicians are uninformed; they’re not just one or two lies. It’s a system, it’s a system designed to marginalize the facts that are inconvenient to big-money interests.”

So what? An industry-funded think-tank forwards a discredited argument; that doesn’t mean elected officials need to give it any credence. But they do; 2005 legislation that would have raised the federally mandated minimum wage never made it out of the Senate. Sirota attributes politicians’ willingness to listen to what it takes to get elected. “We have a system right now that ensures that politicians are corporate spokespeople…There is no alternative for somebody who wants to run for a major office other than raising huge amounts of money…and we have a system by which the only way to get those resources that you need is to go shake down big-money interests.”

The result, Sirota says, is “a political debate that deliberately marginalizes any policy prescriptions that challenge big money interests and which would make our government and our economy start working for ordinary people”—essentially, a hostile takeover of government by monied power.

In response, Sirota proposes “a massive public education campaign…People need to get to a place where they do not accept [the hostile takeover] as the natural way of things.” Sirota’s book aims to facilitate that transformation: “I wrote this book,” he says, “for a movement.”

David Sirota conducts a Q & A and book signing at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts from 7 to 9 PM on Wednesday, May 3. Free.

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