UPDATED: Are We Rome? Yes, Only Bigger and Badder

Debt,Democracy,Fascism,Media,Taxation,The State,War,Welfare

A 2010 column I wrote highlighted “the unflattering parallels between the imperial rule of ancient Rome and that of modern America,” as illustrated in Cullen Murphy’s book, “Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of Rome.”

The federal payroll in Washington Murphy pegs at 360,000 (BO: Before Obama), calling this estimate a “convenient deceit,” as an “even larger number of people in the Washington area — about 400,000 — work for private companies that are doing government work.” Add to the above a quarter million people who live in the vicinity and feed off the government directly or indirectly; the lawyers and lobbyist, the wonks and accountants, the reporters and caterers and limousine drivers and panegyrists, and all the aides and associates whose job it is to functions as someone else’s brain.”
Don’t forget that the D.C. hood is home to your favorite oh-so gritty media personalities, who gather inside or near the Bubble to reap “the benefits of being at the center of the Imperium.” Back to their role model, Rome:
The biggest component of [Rome’s] prodigious intake was something called the annona, an in-kind tax levied by Rome on everyplace else, and collected in the form of grain, which was used to provide free bread for most of Rome’s inhabitants. … Eventually, the annona was expanded beyond grain to include olive oil and wine. If you think of the annona as tax revenue, which it was, then the revenue not only accomplished its stated purpose of feeding the city; it also supported large swaths of private-sector activity, from shipping to baking to crime. Some of this activity was encouraged with tax breaks and grants of citizenship. There was great wealth to be had off government contracts. … the annona remained [the Empire’s] essential lifeline, preserved at all costs.
“All life in Washington today derives ultimately from the capitals’ own version of Rome’s annona — the continuous infusion not of grain and olive oil but of tax revenue and borrowed money. Instead of ships and barges there are banks, 10,000 of them designated for this purpose, which funnel the nations’ tax payments to the city. This ‘never-ending flow of revenue creates a broad level of affluence that has no real counterpart anywhere in America.” Says Murphy: “Washington simply doesn’t look like the rest of America.” But its residents “fail to view this as bizarre.”

Fox News’ Sean Hannity is catching up, and has featured a documentary about how Washington works and how we all work for DC. (Transcripts should be available here, in a day or two.)

In the “one-hour special, ‘Boomtown,’” writes Wynton Hall at Breitbart.com, “the host, Sean Hannity; Peter Schweizer, the president and co-founder of the Government Accountability Institute; and Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News and co-founder of the Government Accountability Institute, investigate what they call crony capitalism among the city’s power elite and the tactics used by lobbyists, bureaucrats and legislators to finance their lifestyles with taxpayer money. ‘Boomtown’ will reportedly provide a bipartisan look at Washington’s wealth explosion and uncover how the culture of cronyism has created a life of luxury for insiders at taxpayer expense.”

[SNIP]

Conveniently and predictably, Mr. Hannity has awoken to American fascism now that a Democrat is in office. To their credit, the two documentary makers made the point over and over again, and it is: There is not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Their members and family members over generations partake in the spoils system with equal energy.

“Two Wings of the Same Bird of Prey”

Lest you forget the privileged members of the media and the political punditry; they are friends of fascism too. The D.C. hood is home to your favorite oh-so gritty media personalities, who gather inside or near the Bubble to reap “the benefits of being at the center of the Imperium.”

UPDATE (8/1/2013): “Welcome to ‘BoomTown': Washington, D.C.
By Sean Hannity
:

SEAN HANNITY, HOST: And welcome to the special edition of “Hannity.” Now for the next hour, we are going to be taking a close look at the business of government in Washington, D.C. and how it is making a lot of people very rich with your hard-earned money.

Now, we sent author Peter Schweizer to our nation’s capitol to take us inside this new American boom town. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER SCHWEIZER, GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY INSTITUTE: Washington, D.C., the nation’s capitol. The seat of federal power. And increasingly a town that is very rich. The local Native Americans named the river Potomac which means where goods are offloaded or where tribute is paid.

Today that tribute comes in the form of trillions of dollars of taxpayer money that floods into this city every year.

While one out of every six Americans worries about where their next meal is coming from, Washington, D.C. has the highest rate of fine wine consumption in the United States.

While one out of four Americans has a mortgage that is underwater, seven of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States are counties around this region. Washington, D.C. now has the highest per capita income in the entire United States. They just passed Silicon Valley.

You are going to discover that Washington, D.C., a town that used to be a town of sleepy bureaucrats is now a town of Maserati Dealerships, fine wines, luxurious homes and luxurious shops. It’s the Washington, D.C. that a lot of people never seen when they take their tours or they go to the museums. But if the Washington, D.C. that reflects the reality of our country today.

The great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the rich are different from you and me. America’s previous boom towns became wealthy because they produced something. San Francisco during the gold rush, Abilene Texas, cattle. And, of course, Detroit during the hay day of the American automobile. All of those boom towns became very wealthy in their time because they created something, they created something new.

This boom town comes, its wealth come from extracting it from the rest of the country. Boom town is something that no one in Washington wants to talk about. When they do they tend to blame the other side. But the reality is today that in Washington, D.C., the business is not politics. The business is money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HANNITY: And joining us now Peter Schweizer and filmmaker Steve Bannon. Great work. Good to see you. We are going to really open up a can of worms here tonight.

SCHWEIZER: Yes.

STEVE BANNON, FILMMAKER: Yes.

HANNITY: All right. So, Washington, D.C., three of the wealthiest, what, counties in the country, seven of the top ten?

SCHWEIZER: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. And this is the thing that people don’t realize about Washington, D.C. We think of it as a seat of federal power. Politics reign supreme. There is a business. There is a business model there. And really what exists is what we call the permanent political class. We think of Republicans and Democrats and there are philosophical differences. At the end of the day, they are all primarily looking for way to make money. And you don’t make money by shrinking government. You make money by growing government.

HANNITY: You know, you made some comparisons. One in six Americans in poverty. One in four Americans, their mortgages are under water.

Meaning, they can’t even get their way out of their house without losing.

BANNON: It’s the great unreported story of our time right now. Because, you have got — this is extraction. The rest of the country is in a financial and economic crisis. Much of the country is almost in a depression. And, yet, you have Washington with the three richest counties bordering it seven out of top 10, the big number, per capita income is now higher than Silicon Valley. The great technology engine in the United States.

HANNITY: That’s amazing.

BANNON: It’s the fourth biggest city generating millionaires. Fourth fastest.

(CROSSTALK)

If you look at every statistic about people and incomes, Washington, D.C. And the reason is is because you have a massive federal budget that gets allocated through there.

HANNITY: And it goes a little but deeper, Steve. And you’re right on all of these points, no statistics should wake people up. But a lot of this is built in. It’s like a pyramid scheme. Because they have baseline budgeting, every budget, every area of government goes up six, seven, eight percent a year. Even though still borrowing nearly 50 cents of every dollar they spend.

BANNON: That’s right. And Sean, what’s interesting is not only the allocation of federal dollars but there is a lot of money that comes into Washington to determine how that money is going to be allocated. So you have got taxpayer money. You have got special interest putting money in Washington, D.C. to influence the process. To steer money in their way it is a town awash with cash. And the sad reality is that it’s only going to get worse, it’s not going to get better.

HANNITY: One of the arguments that I have made is the president has so successfully used the class warfare arguments that he has. It’s interesting. It seems that the politicians are the ones that are greedy.

Selfish, power hungry. They built up their power by granting people government programs. Spending other people’s money. How come they have never got tagged as being greedy and selfish as they now steal from our kids’ piggy banks.

BANNON: I think no one has ever turned the camera on them. I think that’s what we intended to do. We are going to look at this. And this is a bipartisan problem, this is not just beat down on Democrats although they have the party of big government. This is a permanent — class that is now kind of form an aristocracy. And that aristocracy, that’s why nothing changes in Washington, that’s why you have these budget debates. And like you said, you’re talking about cuts and growth rates of budgets, not cut in the budgets. It’s not a downside.

HANNITY: Yes.

BANNON: They never cut it. And the reason as you can tell, they’ve really extracted money through taxes in ability to borrow for their lifestyles. In addition, there is no pressure on them to really cut. They really control Wall Street. It’s not that money controls Washington. Washington controls the money. They have an industrial logic to this business model just like any other business model. And that is to extract power from the rest of the country in money into centralized location which is Washington.

HANNITY: You know, you mentioned in your piece, Peter about Maserati Dealership and fine wines and expensive restaurants and the home prices, et cetera.

SCHWEIZER: Yes.

HANNITY: Are these government employees that buy the Maseratis?

SCHWEIZER: It’s probably not government employees. It’s people that influence government policies. So, it’s people like lobbyists. People that are in government relations, people that won contracting firms who really their businesses whose only clients or only customer is the federal government. So, it’s money that gets sloshed around in all those different ways.

And the reality is that, you know, I lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s, it was really kind of a middle class town with some wealthy areas.

It’s a completely different place now. And part of it is the size of the federal budget has grown enormously. And, of course, they take the cut of everything that comes out.

HANNITY: And what are they producing? You are right. We talked about an oil boom. A gold rush. Cattle, et cetera, and all these other — they have produced something. What is Washington producing except record debts, record deficits and telling old people we are going to means test your Social Security, we’re going to raise the retirement age about one hour before you die. So, you get at least an hour’s word of what you paid into your whole life.

BANNON: Well, that’s it. They have a business model. That business model is government. And it’s bigger government. And as long as you have the ability to borrow, right? As long as they can take tax receipts and borrow, they’re going to continue to do that. And so, that’s why you are seeing now. We are trying to put the camera on this business model. Let you see the lifestyles of the rich and powerful.

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Boomtown 2: The Business of Food Stamps:

This is a rush transcript from “Hannity,” April 5, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

SEAN HANNITY, HOST: Welcome to the special edition of “Hannity.” Now this is the second part of our Boomtown series where we have been taking a close look at the business of Washington, D.C., and how it’s making a lot of people very rich all with your money.

Now we’ve seen how nation’s capitol and the surrounding suburbs have become a new American boomtown with government contractors, lobbyists and all those connected with all aspects of politics, making the region almost immune to our country’s financial woes. Now Peter Schweizer heads back out to look at another aspect of the business of government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETER SCHWEIZER, GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY INSTITUTE: Washington, D.C., America’s new boomtown. Tonight we’re going to find out how this city has become so fabulously wealthy, the wealthiest in the United States today.

When we think of the federal government, we think about programs, the most well-known perhaps is the food stamp program.

(voice-over): How to pay for America’s welfare programs is a hot topic in Washington, and food stamps are at the center of that debate. Now the left see these programs as pillars of a generous and caring nation, a sign of our commitment to the poor. It injects a lot of cash into our economy.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: It pays salaries for grocery clerks, truckers who haul the food. The USDA estimates 16 cents go right back to the farmer. Food stamps are such a good investment into our economy, for every dollar that you put into food stamps you get a $1.71 back into the economy!

SCHWEIZER: Conservatives, on the other hand, see these programs out of control, wasteful, riddled with abuse, and they harm economic growth.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-ALA.: Why don’t we provide everybody’s clothes, shoes? When you take money from the economy or borrow it as we’re doing today to provide food stamps for somebody, you don’t get a net gain to the economy.

SCHWEIZER: The food stamp program is only one of a huge number of antipoverty programs offered by the federal government. The current tally, 126. The current cost? Over a trillion dollars a year. But what if Washington’s most vested interests in the country’s biggest corporations are profiting from the explosive growth of these programs designed for the poor?

Welfare in America is supposed to be a safety net for those in need, but instead, it’s become an insider’s game of power and profit.

(on camera): Tonight, you’re going to learn that food stamps are not just a program, it’s an industry. It begins here at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the tentacles of this industry extend to Wall Street and Madison Avenue and includes some of the largest corporations in America. It’s an industry that has lobbyists, advertisements and promotions and an increasing market share.

(voice-over): It started as a way to get farm fresh produce onto the tables of the hungry and give a boost to struggling farmers along the way. But the program has grown enormously. Big corporations and their lobbyists spend millions to try to get their hands on a piece of this $75 billion pie.

Food stamps have become big business in America. They were originally intended for things like cheese, eggs, meat and vegetables. But thanks to the aggressive lobbying of large corporations, they can be used for everything from soft drinks to in some cases, fast food.

Chains like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have fought with mixed results to get a cut of the money with only some states green-lighting the use in certain locations. At the same time, corporations like Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods have successfully lobbied against bills that would block soda and junk food from being food stamp eligible.

With the program experiencing explosive growth, it shows no signs of slowing down, because the politicians argue that the bigger the program gets, the better it is for America.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-CALIF., HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: If you want to create jobs, the quickest way to do it is to provide more funding for food stamps. Nothing creates jobs faster than the injecting demand into the economy, and that demand is created when people use the food stamps.

SCHWEIZER: During the sequester debate, food stamps were deemed off limits for any cuts. In fact, the program is undergoing explosive growth. Through the lens of D.C., a bigger program is good for America, and it’s great for boomtown.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HANNITY: Joining us now, Peter Schweizer and Steve Bannon of the Government Accountability Institute, and also Karen Hanretty is back with us, the vice president of Public Affairs for the American Beverage Association. Good to see you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

HANNITY: Let’s go to — nothing creates jobs faster than food stamps, Nancy Pelosi’s comments. And Senator Gillibrand, 16 cents goes right back to the farmers, and you get $1.71 back into the economy for every dollar spent, so

SCHWEIZER: Yes, that’s the traditional Keynesian argument, that you spend government money and somehow it multiplies. The simple fact is there is no economic evidence of that. What we’re talking about here is a program that is a nutrition program. That’s what it was designed to do, to provide supplemental nutrition to people having a hard time make ends meet.

But as you saw in the clip, you see a lot of politicians who are now trying to turn this into some kind of economic program or jobs program. That’s not what this is about. It’s about meeting the basic nutritional needs of people.

HANNITY: Karen, what Peter is saying, to use the term food stamps, big business, an industry goes from Wall Street to Madison Avenue, $75 billion he’s talking about. You disagree with that? Because you’re generally conservative but —

KAREN HANRETTY, AMERICAN BEVERAGE ASSOCIATION: Here is where we don’t see eye to eye on this, which is this notion that the food companies and of course, you know, I represent the nonalcoholic beverage industry, Coke, Dr. Pepper —

HANNITY: That’s a shame. I’m sorry, nonalcoholic.

HANRETTY: I know, I know.

HANNITY: My attempt at humor. Go.

HANRETTY: You know, this notion that they are spending millions of dollars lobbying in order to get their hands on this money, which is just simply not the case, because the USDA has never had a list of excluded foods. They’ve never had a list of good foods versus bad foods, healthy foods versus unhealthy foods.

That’s the way we should want it. As a conservative, you do not want the federal government getting in the business of saying you’re on the good list, you’re on the bad list. That’s a very slippery slope to go down.

SCHWEIZER: Karen, with all due respect, the program was set up initially to provide basic nutritional needs. So it was cheese and it was meat —

HANRETTY: In the 30s, right.

SCHWEIZER: — it was originally set up. What you had is the expansion of it. So now you have snack foods and soft drinks —

HANRETTY: You had that for decades. You had that going back in the ’60s, they passed the stamp act in 1964.

SCHWEIZER: Right. How did that act get implemented? It didn’t get implemented because you had food stamp recipients coming to Washington asking for it. It happened because industries saw and recognized that government money puts money on the table and they were looking to make that money. I have no problem —

HANRETTY: Actually, that’s not entirely accurate either, because if you look at the congressional record in 1977, Congress — there has been a lot of debate. How do you insure that your taxpayer dollars are going toward only — I think what commonly would be referred to as healthy foods, right? In 1977, Congress said listen, trying to sort through the good versus the bad is a cure worse than the disease of so called junk food.

SCHWEIZER: That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about sorting between good and bad.

HANRETTY: You would have to sort between good and bad. You have over 300,000 food products that government bureaucrats will have to go through.

STEVE BANNON, BREITBART NEWS: It’s pretty simple. You make this argument of like a libertarian argument that’s about freedom. This is a $75 billion industry that’s metastasizing. It’s doubled in the last four years. In an age of austerity, tough measures have to be taken. This is an assistance program that’s taxpayer funded.

HANRETTY: Yes.

BANNON: The beverage industry, the soda industry I think gets $4 billion of that 75 today. At 20 percent margin, that’s a $1 billion cash benefit to the soda industry underwritten by people making $50,000 a year. That’s just not — in an age of austerity, that cannot go on.

HANRETTY: So the answer then is to go to the USDA and say, listen, we would like you to expand the size and scope of your bureaucracy —

BANNON: No, not at all.

HANRETTY: That’s what the USDA says they would have to do if you’re going to start picking and choosing, based on — I don’t know how you define nutritional foods. There are 15,000, for instance, 15,000 savory snacks with bar codes. You’re going to sort through 15,000 savory snacks and say what’s good, what’s bad?

SCHWEIZER: No. But Karen, the bottom line is this is not a lifestyle program. This is a nutrition assistance program. There are all kinds of limitations —

HANRETTY: How should the federal government go about determining if your private company is on the good list or the bad list? Fat, sugar, sodium —

SCHWEIZER: Right now in the state of New York, there is a debate going on because it was found out welfare money has been used at strip clubs, to buy cigarettes, all sorts of things.

HANRETTY: That’s waste, fraud and abuse.

SCHWEIZER: No, it’s not, because it’s legal. What’s happening is the same argument —

HANNITY: In fairness to Karen, that’s not the same —

(CROSSTALK)

HANRETTY: You can’t put food and beverage —

SCHWEIZER: What I’m saying is this, that there is a debate going on right now in Albany, New York, about restricting that. The argument that those defendants are making is that we should let them choose.

HANRETTY: That is not our argument.

HANNITY: Hang on a second. The biggest problem we have are the sheared numbers, and Steve touched on this a little bit. We now have 50 million Americans on food stamps. It’s doubled under Obama and we have 14 million Americans on disability. That’s one in five Americans getting almost their life sustenance from the government.

HANRETTY: That’s 47 percent of people on SNAP are children, eight percent are senior citizens.

HANNITY: Karen, good to see you. Thank you.


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