ABC News's political blog, "The Note," points out this week that Paris Hilton is issuing policy statements while John McCain nominates his wife for a topless beauty contest. The world's turned upside down. Who could blame a person for thinking that chronicling such oddness is beyond the skills of simple journalists? This is a job for the novelists.
Here, for example, is something straight out of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities." Are you ready for this? The Wall Street Journal reports that, "At a time when scores of companies are freezing pensions for their workers, some are quietly converting those pension plans into resources to finance their executives' retirement benefits and pay. In recent years, companies from Intel Corporation to CenturyTel Inc. collectively have moved hundreds of millions of dollars of obligations for executive benefits into rank-and-file pension plans. This lets companies capture tax breaks intended for pensions of regular workers and use them to pay for executives' supplemental benefits and compensation." Everyone knows we've been living through one of the great redistributions of wealth in American history - from the bottom up. But this takes the cake, because our tax dollars are subsidizing this spectacular round of robbing the poor to pay off the rich. Sad to say, it's not fiction.
And how about this: On the campaign trail, John McCain has been sounding like Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, preaching the gospel of oil drilling. Sure enough, like all other evangelists, who promise heaven and pass the collection plate, the offerings roll in. The web site Campaign Money Watch reports that companies lusting to drill offshore have been raining dollars on McCain ever since he saw the light. Earlier this summer, John B. Hess, of Hess Oil, no less, convened his cronies at the ritzy 2l Club here in New York City and collected $285,000 for McCain and the Republican National Committee. And you thought those rallies recently staged in Washington for more oil drilling were just spontaneous gushers of affection from politicians who give billions in subsidies to ... big oil companies. Edna Ferber, those strike-it-rich Texas tycoons in your novel "Giant" would feel right at home.
Barack Obama's more the Horatio Alger dime novel type, with his rags-to-riches backstory and his emphasis on the little people who've funded his campaign. But not so fast. This is one little David who's got a lot of corporate Goliaths on his side, too. Big oil has greased the wheels of his campaign machine - albeit far less than John McCain's - and a third of his contributions have come from donations of $1,000 or more. That translates into 112 million bucks - more, in fact, than John McCain has raised from his rich pals. And although he boasts that he won't take cash from lobbyists or political action committees registered with the feds, two-thirds of Obama's high rollers come from sectors with a keen interest in what government can giveth and taketh away - entertainment, real estate, law and securities and investments. Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers; Obama's been ringing some platinum-plated doorbells.
Finally, here's one to send Ayn Rand spinning: The White House projects next year's federal budget deficit at a record $482 billion, and that's not counting a possible $25 billion bailout of mortgage banks Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Or the total costs of fighting in the Middle East, largely kept in the bottom drawer where they're hard to find. Yet this week, our Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that by year's end, the Iraqi government - the regime in power because we put them there - may have a budget surplus as high as $79 billion.
Iraq, as in "war-torn" Iraq. A surplus! Seventy-nine billion after we've poured $100 billion a year into that country and more than 4,100 American lives - so far.
Seventy-nine billion based on the record prices we're paying at the gas pumps, and they're not spending it on rebuilding, on getting their electrical systems back on the grid, constructing schools and hospitals and housing, making sure everyone has food and clean water. Between 2005 and 2007, the GAO report says, only 10 percent of the Iraqi budget went toward reconstruction of their own country, which means that, once again, American taxpayers have been picking up the slack - $48 billion US allocated for reconstruction costs since we rolled into Baghdad more than five years ago.
By the way, that includes $33 million for a new hotel, office complex and shopping mall at the Baghdad airport. Admittedly, a lot of those billions doubtless line the pockets of American contractors who've done little if any of what they were hired to do - and endangered Iraqis and our own troops with shoddy, dangerous workmanship. But remember what former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress back in 2003, before the war? "We're dealing with a county that can really finance its own reconstruction," he said, "and relatively soon."
Remember, too, what Colin Powell told President Bush before we invaded Iraq - you break it, you buy it. Julius Caesar came, saw and conquered. George W. Bush broke and bought, and we just keep paying, in money and blood, while billions of oil profits pile up in Iraq as "surplus."
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.