Bestselling author and investigative journalist Greg Palast is no stranger to electoral shenanigans. Through an extensive investigation of the elimination of tens of thousands of largely low-income and voters of color from the electoral rolls in Florida prior to the 2000 presidential elections, Palast uncovered the ways in which electoral outcomes — and democracy itself — are increasingly manipulated by powerful interests in the United States.
Palast is also no stranger to neoliberal shenanigans, having investigated the actions of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and the destructive effects of the austerity policies that they have promoted. In this exclusive interview, Palast discusses both of the above issues, including his upcoming crowdfunded documentary on election theft in the US, and the destructive effects of neoliberalism in Latin America, Puerto Rico and Greece.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
Michael Nevradakis: Tell us about your investigation into election fraud in the United States, and how the presidential elections in 2000 set the stage for what is happening today.
Greg Palast: In 2000, George W. Bush was first elected, but he really wasn’t elected. He lost the vote. The nasty secret of American democracy is that we don’t count all the votes. By all modern measures, we have one of the most corrupt and least trustworthy voting systems in the Western world. For example, in 2000, I discovered that the person in charge of counting the votes in Florida [Katherine Harris] was a Republican official who was also the chairwoman of Bush’s election campaign. Before the election, she removed 56,000 African Americans from the voter rolls. She said they were convicted of crimes and therefore they couldn’t vote. In fact, none of these people were criminals. But they all lost their right to vote. Almost none of them were going to vote for Bush, so that’s how Bush became president. People have to understand, out of over 100 million votes, Bush won by just 537 votes.
Today, I’ve uncovered a brand new gimmick called “cross-check.” Another million people are literally being removed from the voter rolls. The Electoral College system makes vote theft fairly easy, and makes it profitable, because if you win a single state, you get all of its electoral votes. When they remove 1 million voters from such states as Ohio and North Carolina and Florida, these are the states that determine who becomes president. They have a new gimmick to remove people from the voter rolls secretly, quietly, people don’t even know they’ve been removed.
About one-third of Americans mail in their ballots, and if their vote isn’t counted, they don’t know it. We know officially that about 6 million votes never get counted. Almost all the votes removed are votes of poor people, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans. These are all basically Democratic voters. And it is not only the presidency, but the Senate which is up for grabs. Even though the Republican Party does not like Donald Trump, the problem is that they still have to control the election and steal votes, because they need to control the Senate.
This leads us to your new film project, a crowdsourced documentary titled The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which is also the name of one of your books. Tell us about the project.
The book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, was about the theft of these elections in America — how it just doesn’t stop and it’s gotten worse. The film, even though it’s about a grim subject … is a lot of fun. [It] is following me around as an investigative reporter from state to state, seeing how many votes they’re stealing, and you get to meet the guys who are stealing the votes, plus their victims.
The subtitle is “A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.” Billionaires and Ballot Bandits is another book I wrote, and the important thing is who is buying these elections. It’s very expensive to get elected, but it’s even more expensive to steal votes.
It’s very expensive to get elected, but it’s even more expensive to steal votes.
We hunt down those behind the vote theft — billionaires like David and Charles Koch and their brother Billy Koch, who is often forgotten. We go after Paul Singer, known as “The Vulture.” He’s funding efforts to block Black and Latino and poor voters from voting. These billionaires have an agenda — to help Republicans get elected, but they don’t really care about the Republican Party, they care about their own bank accounts. They’re going to support the theft of the election by the Republicans, especially for the Senate.
In Latin America, we’ve seen the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef in Brazil, the electoral loss of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and the continued instability in Venezuela. What’s your take on these developments?
The answer is oil. Venezuela was rebuilding its nation by spreading its oil wealth. Hugo Chavez, before he died, directed a massive shift in the nation’s wealth from the small group of the white elite — they didn’t call themselves Venezuelans, but Spaniards — and spread the money amongst the poor. With the collapse of oil prices, there was no way to continue this program of redistributing wealth, unless you started taking it away from the rich. Now you have a revolution of the rich in Venezuela, and there’s no money left in the treasury with oil prices destroyed. Any government would have a tough time surviving that.
Same thing in Brazil. Brazil was becoming a major oil producer, but suffered not only the collapse of oil prices, but also the collapse of its commodities, which it sold to China. As China’s economy has slowed, Brazil’s economy has died. The leftist government came under attack. They’ve impeached president Rousseff, but I can tell you, the problem with Rousseff is that she never held public office until she was elected president, and she literally does not know how to speak to the people. I see that in Venezuela. [Nicolás] Maduro, he’s a wonderful guy, but he’s not a politician, and he has no idea how to speak to his nation. You’ve got two non-politicians who are running governments in crisis mode.
In Argentina, this is a situation that is very close to the Greek situation. We had the Kirchner governments, two presidents — Cristina and Néstor Kirchner. They fought very hard not to pay the vultures that took over the debt, and they took a very different route from Greece. When [Argentina] bought the entire neoliberal program of austerity and privatization and liberalization and open markets, just like Greece, its economy collapsed. But then the leftist governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner took over. They rejected the neoliberal programs and austerity, tightened regulations, re-nationalized critical industries, and suddenly the nation thrived! In fact, the banks that were owed money ended up getting back their money, because the economy grew.
What’s happened in Argentina is that a few “vulture investors” purchased some of the old debts of Argentina. [Paul] Singer paid about $50 million for Argentine bonds, then demanded $3 billion. The Kirchner government refused, and Singer used US law to strangle Argentina, to prevent the nation from borrowing, to seize the assets of the nation, including its navy ships on the high seas! Remember, the vultures never lent to Argentina or Greece. These guys buy old debts at a discount and then hold nations economically hostage. Unfortunately, in the case of Argentina, it worked. The leftist government which said “we will never pay these vultures” ended up getting thrown out of office, and a new right-wing government just wrote a check to the vultures for $6 billion, a 3,000 percent profit.
A similar crisis has unfolded in Puerto Rico. What’s been happening there and how have the “vulture funds” been involved?
Puerto Rico is one of America’s last colonies. Puerto Rico, as a semi-independent state, got into trouble because just like Greece is stuck to the euro, Puerto Rico is stuck to the US dollar. It’s a Caribbean nation, so Puerto Rico has to compete with Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, but it has the US dollar. The Puerto Rican economy has been dying, and people are fleeing. Probably nearly half of the population of Puerto Rico now lives in the United States proper.
The difference is that there’s a real debate in the United States between paying off not only the banks, but the same vulture investors that have gotten involved. Singer’s vulture partner, Mark Brodsky, is now the big vulture holding the bonds and debts of Puerto Rico. Many American politicians — President Obama and the Democratic Party — have called for allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy … and agree not to pay most of its debts, and to refinance its debts with help from the US government. And this is not like the IMF, where they are demanding all kinds of cuts and austerity. However, that’s the Obama administration’s position. The position of the Republican Party, for the most part, is to basically do what the Germans are doing to Greece: demand massive austerity, massive layoffs of public employees, privatization of the electric company, cutting the pensions. Though there’s many Democrats who are anti-Puerto Rico and many Republicans who support helping Puerto Rico. The problem is that the vultures support the Republicans, and even with a Democratic president, we have a Republican Congress, and they’re holding up a solution for Puerto Rico, just like the Germans are holding up a solution for Greece.
In Greece, the Syriza-led government recently passed further austerity bills, targeting the country’s pension and tax systems and mortgaging the country’s public assets to foreign lenders for 99 years. What is your reaction to the actions of the Syriza-led government and the continued insistence on remaining in the eurozone?
Syriza lied to the Greek people. It ran on a platform of saying, “We’ll get a good deal from Europe or we will leave the euro.” They had a lot of power and leverage when they came in. There was a great deal of panic about Greece leaving the euro that could have been used to squeeze concessions. But concessions are somewhat meaningless. As long as you’re in the eurozone, you are chained to the German economy, chained to Germany’s need for higher interest, chained to Germany’s need to maintain high [domestic] employment at a cost to the rest of the eurozone.
I think now, the whole idea of leaving the eurozone, it’s one of those things where you say, “We should have done it a year ago” — every year you say you should have done it a year ago. It is very late, a high price has already been paid, but it’s still not the end of the price that Greece will be paying, because if Greece doesn’t leave the eurozone, it will be stuck! And unlike the United States [and] Puerto Rico, there’s no sense of responsibility to Greece by the European Union. The EU is not anything close to a union in any manner. It is an occupation, and I don’t say that lightly. You’re constantly being told that austerity would save you, and it hasn’t.
Austerity is an idea that is dangerous and failed. It really is completely medieval. The idea of bleeding an economy, cutting your pensions and wages, selling off more, is going to improve your economy, is insane! It doesn’t work for a simple reason: When you cut people’s pensions and wages and you eliminate government employment, you end up with people who don’t have money to spend, and if people don’t spend, your economy dies.
What happened in Greece was not a mistake, it was not a problem of the euro, it was the program of the euro, it’s the purpose of the euro.
And now, these past weeks, the Greek government decided to go along with more austerity, but still it’s not good enough for the Germans! And the Germans aren’t demanding austerity because it’s good for Greece or the eurozone. They know that this will drag down Greece further. Even the IMF, which is infamous for its cruelty, says that this is too cruel! It’s as if [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet said “I can’t watch this torture anymore!” This will make it impossible for Greece to recover.
If you look at the program that [the lenders] have in mind for Greece, they’re not even promising recovery anymore. They’re saying Greece will be in austerity mode for the next 20 years. That’s not true. Greece will be in austerity mode forever. This is a permanent change in Greece’s wages, a permanent change in control, in ownership, unless Greece gets the hell out of the eurozone! Yes it’s too late, but it’s not too late. It should have been done before, but it’s got to be done now.
You have interviewed the “founding father” of the euro, economist Robert Mundell. What did he have to say about the European common currency and its true objectives?
The man who invented the euro is the economist Robert Mundell, whom I’ve had long discussions with. Mundell said that the creation of the euro was a way to bring the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to Europe. By creating the euro, he said, you take away fiscal power, monetary power from governments, so if you’re ever in trouble, you can’t use stimulus spending or change the value of your currency. The only option left is to cut government employment, cut wages, eliminate union power and privatize industry. What happened in Greece was not a mistake, it was not a problem of the euro, it was the program of the euro, it’s the purpose of the euro. And Mundell is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, he was the man that created supply-side economics for Reagan, and he actually believed in the long run this would be better for Europe and for Greece — to get rid of unions and public employment and eliminate regulations which he thought were strangling the economy. This is an old, right-wing, Reagan and Thatcher view of economics which is long discredited. But while supply-side economics is now roundly considered a failed economic philosophy, you’re still stuck with the supply-side prison known as the eurozone. The euro is a tool to enforce supply-side, right-wing economics, and everyone is getting hurt by this except the Germans, who have reorganized their economy to be an export machine, because for them, the currency is priced too low.