Get back in the fight

The twin towers of the World Trade Center are still gone from the Lower Manhattan skyline a year after the disaster. Where those office towers once stood as a symbol of capitalism there is now a big pit. Where the Bill of Rights once defined the liberties essential to US democracy, there is now the USA PATRIOT Act and Navy brigs for US citizens declared by the president to be enemies of the state.

George W. Bush says we are at war with terrorism, and that war is going to last for a long time. But al Qaeda isn't Japan in December 1941. Nineteen Muslim fanatics with boxcutters managed to take down four airliners and knocked out the heart of capitalism and one side of the Pentagon because our air defense was nonexistent last September, despite repeated warnings that al Qaeda was up to something. But in retaliation the US military helped the Afghan Northern Alliance overcome the Taliban and run al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. If Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are still at large, they are on the run and the US Air Force demonstrated what the cost would be for any renegade government that provides another haven for al Qaeda.

Ultimately terrorists are not a threat to a United States that remains confident. Al Qaeda killed 3,000 of us, but their real achievement was in scaring the rest of us, because when we're scared we may hurt ourselves. That's the terrorists' goal, and Congress took the bait with the abridgement of civil liberties in the USA PATRIOT Act. Federal agents questioned thousands of Muslims and swept up at least 1,200, most of them otherwise law-abiding, for additional questioning and indefinite detainment. The detainees not only were refused constitutional rights, such as a lawyer or a hearing; the Feds also refused to release their names. As the White House became more high-handed, worldwide support for the USA evaporated.

A year later, the only apparent member of al Qaeda heading for trial is one who was in jail weeks before 9/11. A young American pled guilty to aiding the Taliban. And the government is claiming the right to imprison US citizens suspected of conspiring with terrorists, citing precedents from the Civil War and World War II. The writs of a few federal district judges notwithstanding, the Powers that Used to Be seem inclined to let Dubya and Ashcroft take whatever authority they claim.

Now Bush wants a new war with Iraq to clean up the mess left by his dad, but the threat isn't serious enough for him to gain the support of Iraq's neighbors. Nor does he seem interested in intervening in the most serious threat to stability in the Mideast &emdash; the continuing and seemingly implacable conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the meantime, unless you know or are related to a victim of the 9/11 attacks, or worked in Lower Manhattan or the Pentagon, your daily life probably has been little affected by those terrible attacks. You must show up at airports at least two hours ahead of your flight or risk being delayed in the security inspection line when your flight departs. You can no longer carry a penknife or a fingernail clipper or other items that might be imagined as a weapon on board a commercial aircraft, despite the fact that under new protocols and with an armored cabin a hijacker no longer could reasonably expect to commandeer an airliner with such modest weapons as a boxcutter.

Still, Bush says we're at war, but it's not serious enough for him to roll back the tax cuts he gained for the nation's wealthiest class shortly after he took office in January 2001. We're at war, but there's no need to trouble us to trade in our gas-guzzling SUVs for smaller cars or hybrid gas-electric vehicles so we didn't have to depend upon Persian Gulf oil. We're at war, but as long as you still have a job &emdash; and as long as you weren't planning to retire soon on your Enron 401(k) &emdash; there's no need for us to make economic sacrifices.

Bush squandered the bipartisan spirit in Congress after 9/11 by choosing to pursue a partisan domestic agenda wrapped in the bunting of wartime rhetoric. Now we have a national economic recession that has cost 1.6 million American jobs, renewed and growing federal deficits and a stock market in turmoil as corporate bosses are caught doing what comes naturally when the watchdogs are called off.

The US military is capable of keeping terrorists on the run abroad and our regular police can keep the peace at home without dismantling civil liberties. But with the collapse of Enron, WorldCom and other former darlings of Wall Street more members of the middle are justifiably questioning the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism. Progressive populists should enlist them in the war on corporate terrorists.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Accounting Reform Act, signed into law July 30, was a good start towards restoring the trust of investors, consumers and the broader public in corporate accounting. But the reforms are only begun. Citizen Works at www.citizenworks.org has a good list of steps the government can take to enforce existing laws and enact new ones to punish corporate lawbreakers and protect the interests of investors and working people.

First, the government should expand the budget and the staff for prosecuting white-collar crime. President Bush proposed a new task force without proposing new staff or funding. Instead, federal prosecutors already have been taken off the corporate crime beat to fight his "war on terrorism." Additional prosecutors could enforce the 1934 Securities Exchange Act, which contains prohibitions on insider trading and nondisclosure, and give corporate criminals real jail time.

The government could revoke professional licenses for lawyers and accountants who aid in fraud. It should ban firms that commit fraud from receiving government contracts. An anti-scofflaw regulation was introduced during the Clinton administration (and reversed after Bush took power).

Congress should double the Securities and Exchange Commission's budget of $467 million. There was a bipartisan move in Congress to increase the SEC budget by 75% earlier this year. Bush proposed a $100 million increase that Citizen Works said would be "wholly inadequate," given the current understaffing and the SEC's responsibility to investigate the many "bad apples" in the corporate bushel.

Now is the time to press for aggressive new reforms, starting with a commission to study corporate power, modeled on the Temporary National Economic Committee of 1938-1941. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has called for the creation of such a national commission for corporate reform.

Congress should establish full federal funding of elections to remove the corrupting influence of corporate cash once and for all. It should repeal laws that shield lawyers, accountants and bankers from being sued for collusion in securities fraud and other corporate crimes. It should close the loophole that allows corporations to avoid paying US taxes by reincorporating in an offshore tax haven; or at least ban those who do it from getting government contracts.

Congress should roll back the devastating effects of electricity deregulation by forcing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to revoke market-based rates and order cost-based pricing in all wholesale electricity markets. It should regulate the trading of derivatives, including energy futures. It should repeal the Taft-Hartley Act that unfairly obstructs tens of millions of American workers in companies like Wal-Mart from organizing trade unions to bargain for living wages.

Finally, we should amend the Constitution to define only natural people as "persons," denying corporations those constitutional rights designed to protect human beings.

When the House and Senate got pressured by business interests into approving "fast track" trade authority for George W. Bush, which will enable his minions to negotiate trade deals without regard for labor or environmental standards, Congress showed it fears multinational corporations more than the people who overwhelmingly want to put a brake on globalization. It's time for progressive populists to urge Congress to get back in the fight and start protecting the interests of working people. &emdash; JMC

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