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Corporate Earmarks: Free Market, Indeed!

In all the partisan jockeying around whether or not to ban some or all Congressional earmarks, a small detail has been overlooked—the fact that Congress gives away some $1.7 billion per year in completely unaccountable, uncompetitive, sweetheart deals to private industry. Here we are still bickering about the $100 billion-over-10-years price tag to give health care to over 30 million uninsured Americans and fix our ailing system, but pols on both sides of the aisle have nary blinked an eye in handing out a tenth of that, without public debate, to defense contractors and developers.

With families across the country suffering from the downturn and tightening their belts—and pleading for even the most meager of unemployment benefits and other aid programs to be extended—Congress handed bags of cash to for-profit businesses in contracts based not on, say, comparative estimates about how many jobs would be created versus other potential projects but, blatantly, based on personal friendships, payback for campaign contributions and promises to base some work in the Congressperson’s home state or district.

When you really look at how the legislative sausage gets made in our United States Congress, it’s enough to turn you into an anarcho-vegan…

Is it really any wonder that the supposedly superiorly efficient and cost-effective for-profit health insurance companies are whining like babies about the prospect of actually having to compete with a publicly-funded health insurance option? Of course they prefer non-competitive handouts and monopolies. What smart businessperson wouldn’t?

In February, the Justice Department launched an investigation into five members (Dems and Reps) of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee for allegedly accepting $840,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for funneling $2.4 million in federal monies to just one defense contractor, 21st Century Systems. The charges were dropped, but the specter (and evidence) lingers. It’s too bad that all those poor folks without health insurance can’t scrape together a few hundred grand to line the pockets of those Members of Congress who are holding back health care reform.


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In the mid-20th century, as New Deal economic investments in public spending and, well, the public in general were making Americans happier, healthier, better-educated and generally better off, and as surging social movements were starting to question even more deeply the pro-corporate economic policies of the past that had ruined regular people and ruptured the common good, Milton Friedman and his band of pro-corporate economists quickly stopped using the phrase laissez faire capitalism and switched to free market capitalism. Genius! Free market, after all, sounds like we’re taking the cuffs off the lean and mean market machine to let it fairly compete in the economic ring. Laissez faire, on the other hand, sounds… um… lazy. Lazy capitalists. And Freedman would be damned if that image of greedy robber barons who sit and get fat off the hard work of others would be permanently sealed in the public imagination. As long as you call it the free market, the illusion of fair effort masks the reality of backroom deals and biased handouts.

The reality is the free in free markets stands for free money. From our pockets.

Americans got angry about the bank bailouts, but not angry enough. There’s a deeper problem afoot in our nation, a problem cemented in our economic policies, defended by our politicians, exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to even further open the floodgates of corporate money into politics. We are a nation by, of and for corporations.

In 1816, Thomas Jefferson prayed, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” Almost 200 years later, our work is still cut out for us.

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Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.

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