The Hightower Lowdown
Bush likes democracy, except when he doesn't; business is a poor model for government; The Book Thing gives reading material to the needy.
Bush's Anti-Democratic Pals
There's an old saying in Chicago politics: Before you dance on someone's grave, be sure he's dead.
George W. and the global corporate empire builders in his administration forgot this basic rule when they exultantly tried to dance on the political grave of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez. On April 11, a cabal of wealthy Venezuelan elites and the military staged a coup against Chavez, putting him in an island prison and installing the head of Venezuela's chamber of commerce as their hand-picked president.
Whatever you think of Chavez, he was the duly-elected president, and it's considered bad manners and totally anti-democratic to impose an unelected oligarchy on the country. But the Bushites hate Chavez, who won't go along with their model of a world run by corporate power, so they had been meeting with the coup plotters and now cheered his demise. At first, they claimed that he had resigned because no one in Venezuela supported him any more. Neither was true -- indeed, an explosion of popular protest swept the country within hours of the coup.
Worse, the business elites who took over had delusions of grandeur -- they dissolved the congress, fired the supreme court and all state governors, and suspended the constitution, declaring that they would rule by popular decree. But they were not at all popular with the great majority of Venezuelans, who live in grinding poverty. To its credit, the military decided to back the people in a counter-coup ... and Chavez was returned to the presidency only 48 hours after being deposed.
Meanwhile, Bush & Company were caught completely on the wrong side of democracy. While all Latin American countries had immediately condemned the coup, our nation did not join in the condemnation and publicly gloated about Chavez's ouster by the business oligarchy. Now, Chavez has more support than ever, and Bush looks like an arrogant bully.
"We need to run government like a business," screech the corporate lobbyists, politicians, and media, insisting that America should corporatize everything from our schoolrooms to social security. One wonders -- can they spell E-n-r-o-n?
"Balderdash and jabberwocky" they exclaim, Enron was just a little ol' case of corruption, which doesn't negate the bottom-line genius and financial know-how of big business executives, so let's put them in charge.
Before we bet the farm on these pinstripe "geniuses," however, we might want to consider two recent reports from the corporate world itself. One is by the respected telecommunications consulting firm, Adventis, which for some time has been warning against the corporate rush to lay thousands of miles of fiber-optic networks under and between our cities. Companies like Qwest, WorldCom, Williams, and Global Crossing poured gabillions of bucks into digging up our streets and laying the cables that they said would power the limitless growth they saw for internet traffic.
Only ... it was a pipe dream. Adventis reports that corporate America was "collectively hallucinating" about the demand for fiber-optics, and that they wasted at least $70 billion in building networks that either will never be used or will be obsolete before there's a market demand for them. "A lot of this stuff will just rot in the ground," concludes Adventis.
Running government like a business can mean running it into the ground.
The Book Thing
In a culture that refers to sports figures as "heroes" and treats movie stars as "role models," I occasionally like to call attention to "Hightower's Heroes" -- some of the ordinary folks who do the most extraordinary things and are the true role models for our democracy.
Today's hero is Russell Wattenberg, founder and chief scrounger of a Baltimore store called the Book Thing. The unique thing about the Book Thing is that its books are absolutely free -- indeed, adamantly free. "THIS IS A FREE BOOK," Wattenberg gleefully rubber-stamps into each volume, adding emphatically: "Not for Resale."
His determinedly anti-commercial approach to book dealing started some six years ago when he was tending bar at Dougherty's Pub. Some schoolteachers who frequented Dougherty's told him about students too poor to afford books, which led Wattenberg on his first foray to find freebies. He was surprised at how easy it was to get a batch of books for the students ... and thus was born the Book Thing.
Now he's a full-time scrounger, operating out of a basement store down the street from Dougherty's. The Book Thing is open only on weekends, with Wattenberg spending the rest of his week either gathering books or driving his book van to schools, homeless shelters, and any other place where people might welcome free reading materials. He gives away hundreds of thousands of discarded books each year, ranging from mint-condition coffeetable volumes to tattered classics. The enterprise is guided by a neighborhood board of directors who are regulars at the pub, and some 30 volunteers help him run it.
He says people are not only eager readers, but eager donors as well. He particularly relishes the subversiveness of Baltimore's librarians -- while city regulators officially prohibit them form donating their used books, he says he get "anonymous calls telling me 50 boxes will be in an alleyway at five o'clock."
To join this joyous subversion -- and maybe to start one in your own town -- you can reach Russell Wattenberg at www.bookthing.org.
Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit www.jimhightower.com. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, call toll-free 866/271-4900.