Tuesday, July 20, 2004


When the Law becomes an Ass....

I live in Chicago, where the annals of relatively petty corruption are full of juicy stories. And a quick glance at Mayor Jimmy Walker's record of shocking maladministration of NYC reinforces the conventional view of machine hacks and ward heelers as scummy little criminals - perhaps somewhat laughable, but scummy. But a closer look at New York's Tammany Hall in the teens and twenties, and its production of Alfred Smith and the proto-New Deal, and then the subsequent transformation of NYC from Al Smith's NYC to Robert Moses' - gives rise to another thought: at their best, big city machines may have been pettily corrupt, but they served a real function - a social welfare function. The really big corruption which replaced the old machines is both much more damaging, and doesn't really serve anyone except the large beneficiaries. At least you got a free turkey or a job from Tammany. What did regular people get from Moses and his Authorities and bond-floating power? Lots of bridges, roads and parks, whether you wanted them or not, and whether it destroyed your neighborhood or not. Who really made out in those deals? It goes without saying that banks LOVE bond issues like Moses'....

Oligarchy-minded folks have probably always known the really smart, effective way to snatch more and more money and power: make it legal to do so. Just as it's much easier to dupe people who presume themselves to be 'free' - nobody believed anything they read in Pravda - the best way to steal is, and has always been, to make it legal. It's the trump card-argument that can be used over and over again, in almost any situation. "Of course the impeachment of Clinton wasn't about sex, it was the perjury; yes, marijuana is not as dangerous as cocaine and heroin, but it's a DRUG, it's illegal; yes, it makes little sense to give corporations a tax break to move their businesses off-shore, but those who've done it haven't done anything illegal". You hear it over and over in right wing talking points: when all else fails, ask the question 'Were any laws broken?'. This knee-jerk is provided an 'intellectual' underpinning by Federalist Society types - 'originalists' ('see, here's the constitution right here - it's the Law, you know - and I don't see anything in it about the right to privacy..').

From our horrendous tax code, to our outrageous drug policy and mandatory minimum sentencing - resulting in prisons becoming a for-profit-growth-industry, to our Rube Goldberg campaign finance laws, it's clearly time to stand up and say that, in some cases, the law, sir, is an ass.

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