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Why Our Government Isn’t Listening: How Greed Is at the Root of US Suffering

Why doesn’t the government of a country as wealthy as the US provide for its people? Oppression is a profitable business.

(Photo: US Currency via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

In the United States, children go hungry.

Human beings endure poverty so deep “many people don’t believe [it] exists here.” US residents pay far more for health care than the people of any other wealthy country, yet their bodies are sicker and more broken. The public school system is unfairly funded and racist. Workers go abused and underpaid. The government throws more people behind bars than any other nation in the world. More than one in four Black and Brown Americans are living in poverty, further undermined by institutional racism and murderous police forces. Hispanic and Latina women are making 54 cents on the dollar compared to white men. More people are buried here because of gun violence than in any other industrialized country.

The American people are suffering.

Yet this is not a poor country. While kids’ stomachs rumble and Native families struggle to survive, the top 0.1 percent of Americans are sitting on as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined.

The workers of this country see scraps from the tables they set and serve.

Oppression is a highly profitable business.

So why is it that the government of such a fabulously wealthy country does not provide for its people, in fairness or equality? Why are the individuals who make the laws and rule the land allowing this oppression and abuse to persist? Why do they not voice the needs of the people, as is their sole responsibility?

Follow. The. Money.

Long have the powerful few profited from the poor majority’s struggle, and the United States in 2016 is no different.

Through complex and convoluted public policy, the politicians in Congress and the executives of large corporations are capitalizing, as humans have for millennia, on an inequitable system to make off with millions.

Oppression is a highly profitable business.

As Johns Hopkins associate professor of political science Steven Teles says, the structure of this system makes “it difficult for us to understand just what the [US] government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized.”

By perpetuating a government that has not served, represented or answered to its people throughout the majority of its entire existence, these two elite groups are profiting handsomely.

As scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page have found, “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

This political system – the organization that dictates the rules that control people’s lives – is, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren says, “rigged.”

There is a reason corporate profits are at an 85-year high, while workers’ pay is at a 65-year low.

There is a reason Congress is a millionaires’ club.

US legislators and corporate executives are tied together in a reciprocal, remunerative relationship.

A handful of individuals and their corporations openly spend millions in political campaign contributions (and millions more anonymously in dark money), as well as $2.6 billion every year to lobby Congress (more than the Senate and House budget combined).

Corporate executives profit from this investment in corporate welfare (subsidies, grants, incentives, tax breaks and tax loopholes), the preservation of the destructive status quo, and beneficial (or the lack of detrimental) legislation that their lobbyists actually help to write.

Corporations are concerned with their bottom line, not people, and so are the bills for which they lobby.

Politicians equally benefit in information and legislative support (like policy writing); campaign donations (through loopholes in the law, politicians actually personally profit “from the hundreds of millions of dollars in political contributions that have poured into the system“); company stocks; and the “revolving-door” phenomenon (in which former government officials receive “handsome compensation” to work as corporate lobbyists).

As the Harvard University Center for Ethics reports, “Institutional corruption is, sadly, alive and well in Congress.”

This lucrative symbiosis between Congress and corporations is starkly evident in the new 2016 spending bill that gives $400 billion in tax favors to big business.

As Philip Mattera, research director of Goods Jobs First and director of the Corporate Research Project, told Truthout, “It’s not surprising … There are always these kinds of Christmas tree tax bills that politicians like to award their allies in the business world.”

Corporations have an inordinate amount of control over what legislation gets passed, and since, as one survey shows, big business is only concerned with protecting “the company against changes in government policy,” and improving their “ability to compete by seeking favorable changes in government policy,” the laws that CEOs want are often terrible for the rest of the country.

Corporations are concerned with their bottom line, not people, and so are the bills for which they lobby. This stranglehold on Congress sheds light on the reason behind the American people’s suffering: Someone is making money off it.

Walmart is the largest employer in the United States, with 2.2 million individuals on its payroll, yet the company only pays a (brand-new) minimum wage of $10 per hour. If you work 40 hours every week of the year (12 months of nonstop full-time work) that wage adds up to a paltry $20,800, a salary below the poverty line for a family of three. You cannot earn a living off this.

In 2014 alone, Walmart gave $2,366,629 in political campaign contributions, and spent $7 million on lobbying. Twenty-seven members of Congress hold investments in the company, and 84 out of 103 (81 percent) of Walmart lobbyists have previously held government jobs.

The company is also freely evading $19 billion in taxes, and receiving $23 million a year (or $1 billion throughout its 42-year history) in government tax breaks, free land, infrastructure assistance, low-cost financing and outright grants – a figure Good Jobs First notes might “very well be the tip of the iceberg.”

Walmart pays its workers abysmally, abuses its employees and hurts small businesses – but it has close ties with Congress, and that makes all the difference.

Private Prison Corporations

Since 1989, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, have given nearly $10 million in political donations and spent almost $25 million on lobbying. In 2013-14, 78 percent of GEO Group lobbyists and 63 percent of CCA lobbyists previously held government jobs.

These private prison companies are for-profit in the cruelest sense of the phrase: They lobby for harsher sentencing on nonviolent crimes through three-strikes laws, mandatory sentencing and truth-in-sentencing laws (the abolishment or reduction of parole), and push for new anti-immigrant laws to put more immigrants behind bars.

The effects of this lobbying, donating and revolving are clear.

GEO Group and CCA receive millions in government subsidies each year, adding up to a gigantic bill for taxpayers.Congress now has a quota for how many human beings must be locked in a tiny room per day: at least 34,000 immigrants, a number that continues to grow each year, eventhough the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has leveled off. If the beds are not filled, the government still must pay the corporation, to the further detriment of the taxpayer.

In Arizona, 30 of the 36 state legislators who co-sponsored an (unsuccessful) immigration law to put even more people in detention received campaign donations from private prison corporations like GEO Group and CCA.

When Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, GEO Group got a $110 million government contract to build another private prison; GEO has donated almost $40,000 to Rubio’s campaigns throughout his political career, the highest amount in career money the company has ever donated to any US senator.

Such “parasitic relationships” have allowed the private prison industry to pull in $2 billion in yearly profits.

Big Pharma

In 2014, pharmaceutical giant Amgen Inc. gave $1.83 million in political campaign contributions, and, in 2013, spent $9.12 million on lobbying. Twelve members of Congress hold company shares, and 78 out of 93 Amgen lobbyists have previously held government jobs.

In 2013, Amgen received a $500 million financial gift from Congress when a handful of legislative aides slipped a provision into the final fiscal bill, allowing Amgen to evade Medicare cost-cutting controls for two more years. The change was supported by Senators Max Baucus (D-Montana), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), all of whom have political and financial ties to Amgen, receiving $68,000, $59,000 and $73,000, from 2007 to 2013, respectively.

Another pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, spent $10,140,000 on lobbying in 2013, and gave $2,217,066 in political campaign contributions in 2014, while 40 members of Congress hold shares in the company, and 48 out of 84 Pfizer lobbyists in 2013-14 previously held government jobs.

This company has been allowed to evade $69 billion in taxes.

Americans are paying more for their prescription drugs than any other wealthy country on earth (helping to keep us sicker and dying younger than people of other wealthy nations) to the further profit of large pharmaceutical corporations.


Because, unlike any other rich country’s body of legislators, Congress – while receiving campaign contributions from, being lobbied by and investing in Big Pharma – does not regulate predatory pricing practices.

Wall Street

In 2014, through PACs and individuals, JPMorgan Chase gave $1.4 million in campaign donations to lawmakers, TPG Capital gave $1.3 million, Wells Fargo gave $2.6 million ($6 million on lobbying), Citigroup spent $2.5 million ($5 million on lobbying), Bank of America gave almost $3 million ($2.7 million on lobbying), Goldman Sachs gave $4.7 million ($3.4 million on lobbying) etc.

Wells Fargo is the fourth-most popular stock in Congress, and JPMorgan Chase is the ninth.

Congress has yet to pass true Wall Street reform.

General Electric, the company that paid zero taxes in 2010 and helped crash the economy in 2007, is the most popular stockholding in Congress, with $967,038 being the minimum Democratic investment and $1,392,475, the minimum Republican investment in 2014, the last year data is available. GE spent nearly $4 million in political campaign contributions during the 2014 election cycle, and over $15 million in political lobbying.

The company has $110 billion stashed offshore, and is taxed at an effective rate of 4 percent – 31 points lower than what it actually owes the IRS.

Wall Street CEOs are collecting millions while threatening to crash our economy yet again (JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs are all on the Financial Stability Board’s 2015 “too-big-to-fail” list). Meanwhile, Americans are still suffering from the last crash – and Congress, while receiving campaign donations from and investing in Wall Street, is doing nothing to curb their growth.

How the United States Could Be

Taken altogether, these billions of dollars, lost on tax breaks and subsidies for wealthy corporations, could be used to fund the impoverished schools serving the United States’ impoverished children, job programs to employ the jobless youth, universal health care for the country’s sick and dying people, reformation of a racist criminal legal system, higher education for broke young people, nutrition programs for hungry children – the possibilities of using these resources to create a thriving, blooming society and nation are limitless.

Only a corrupt Congress and the lucrative, symbiotic relationship between Democrats, Republicans and rich, corporate individuals stand in the way.

So the next time you hear a politician say change is too hard, or that the real world doesn’t include transforming this oligarchy into a democracy, take a closer look at who is padding his or her pockets. If the person benefiting from the status quo is trying to convince you it should stay the same, doubt to high heaven and beyond what he or she is telling you.

After all, a shark won’t smile and shake your hand before biting you in the back.

But a politician will.

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