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Pirates Threaten Washington

As US warships approached, on February 22nd four American hostages were killed by Somali pirates. It was an ominous harbinger of the crisis in Washington, where Republican pirates are holding hostage the legislative process and threatening to kill the American dream unless their ransom demands are met.

The root cause of Somali piracy is the collapse of that impoverished nation’s central government. The genesis of Republican piracy is more complex but can be traced to the rise of a predatory ethic that preaches winning is worth any price; that it’s permissible to say and do anything to ensure political victory – because of the billions of dollars involved. As a consequence, Republicans care more about wealth and power than they do the health of the US economy or the viability of democracy.

Republican pirates are holding the Federal Budget hostage until the Obama Administration agrees to egregious cuts in Federal programs. On March 2nd Congress approved a stop-gap spending bill that would fund the government until March 18. Few expect the next round of negotiations to be easy and it’s increasingly likely that Federal government will shut down and millions of Americans will suffer.

Somali piracy is a business that offers employment to thousands of Somalis and hundreds of millions in profits. Currently 51 vessels and at least 819 people are held hostage – the average tab to ransom a ship is $5 million.

Republican piracy employs thousands of GOP politicians, political operatives, and lobbyists, not to mention the media personnel at the Fox “News” Channel and conservative radio programs. But just as the main recipients of Somali piracy are shadowy financiers – many rumored to be part of International organized crime – so the primary beneficiaries of Republican piracy are America’s uber-rich, those in the top one tenth of one percent who each year control more of America’s wealth. These individuals – such as the notorious Koch brothers or Wall Street hedge fund managers – don’t care about the plight of American workers or the size of the deficit; their entire focus is to keep the government off their backs so they can make even more billions.

It’s far easier to understand the motivation of Somali pirates than it is to prevent their attacks. Their East African piracy operation has become increasingly sophisticated and now covers more than one million squares miles of the Indian Ocean – from Somalia to Oman to India to the Maldives to Madagascar.


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Since the 1971 Powell Manifesto Republican pirates have also broadened their reach. They elected Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush and, more recently, sponsored the Tea “Party” insurrection. More to the point, they shifted the Federal tax burden from the rich onto working Americans, as economist Richard Wolff pointed out in a recent article.

The Somali pirates have a broad base of support because the Somali economy is in shambles and they’re the only game in town. It’s harder to understand the appeal of Republican piracy. In his classic political analysis, What’s the Matter With Kansas? journalist Thomas Frank analyzed politics in his native state and concluded that Republican (pirates) had successfully diverted working-class Americans from populist anger by throwing them red-meat cultural issues (abortion) or blatant lies (Obama caused the recession). Republicans have waged a decades-long propaganda campaign that’s blinded most Americans to the astonishing increase in inequality, the fact that over the past thirty years average worker income has increased by a paltry $280 while the income of the uber-rich has tripled.

Republican pirates now control the House of Representatives. They’ve convinced many Americans that “pirates are your friends” and launched an attack on “law enforcement” at all levels: Federal regulators, IRS agents, not to mention public safety officials. Republicans control the dominant narrative, arguing that “government is the problem.” Pirates want to enact savage budget cuts, insisting that the best way to a healthy economy is to let the market do whatever it feels like. And now Republicans want to eliminate labor unions, make it impossible for American workers to stand up to their corporate bosses.

It’s clear that there’s a two-fold solution to Somali piracy: come down hard on the pirates while simultaneously rebuilding civil society, giving average Somalis viable economic alternatives.

It’s also clear what to do about Republican pirates. The long-term solution is to rebuild populism and place the interests of average Americans over those of the uber-Rich. That means taxing wealthy Americans and corporations; increasing Federal expenditures to help educate and employ Americans; protecting the rights of workers to organize; and ensuring the requirements for effective democracy override those of a “free” market.

But what needs to be done first is to call Republicans by their true name: pirates. The American people must deal with Republicans as we do the Somali pirates: refuse to buckle to their hostage demands – even if that means shutting down the Federal government. After all, freedom is worth fighting for.

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley Quaker, activist, and writer.  In other life he was a Silicon Valley executive — co-founder of Cisco Systems.

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