The last refuge of scoundrels 

Samuel Johnson said it over 200 years ago: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." While the rest of us are being admonished to band together and make the necessary adjustments in the days after 9/11, the scoundrels of corporate America and their armies of well-paid lobbyists remain seemingly untouched by any notion of shared sacrifice or noble intent. Nothing -- not even the fact that their country is at war -- diminishes the greed and isolated self-interest of the corporate moguls who sit atop the engine of our economy, hands outstretched at the public till. Regardless of their ads on TV, their patriotism is a front and a fraud.

And these days -- like always -- they have all the friends they need in their paid lackeys in Congress. Because there, too, patriotism is a cynical screen to hide behind, while the so-called "people's representatives" forge yet another shameless giveaway to our nation's richest citizens and most profitable companies. Oh yes, it's scoun-drel time again in America!

Consider the so-called "economic stimulus" package passed recently by the House of Representatives. The grim details include a 15-year retroactive elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax paid by America's richest businesses, and employed since 1986 to keep profitable companies from using loopholes to eliminate paying any income taxes at all.

Purportedly passed to get our economy moving again in the wake of a looming recession (exacerbated but not caused by the shocks of 9/11), this legislation would return all the corporate taxes paid by big businesses for the past decade and a half: $1.4 billion for IBM; $833 million for General Motors; $2 billion for Ford Motor Co.; $671 million for General Electric; $572 million for Chevron/Texaco; $254 million for energy giant Enron, and on and on and on.

Even in times of prosperity, this massive rebate would be scurrilous. In times of national crisis, it is criminal. What makes the House bill even more perverse is the fact that the money given to corporate America is without conditions -- there is no requirement that it be used for jobs or investment. More likely, it will go to executive bonuses and shoring up stock prices. In addition, the legislation would allow international corporations to store their profits overseas as tax shelters -- actually taking even more money out of the U.S. economy. Some stimulus!

But the Senate has its share of scoundrels as well. There, patriotism extends to a proposal that would accelerate the reduction of all top-bracket tax rates (formerly scheduled to phase in several years up the road) and a return of that old favorite, the fully tax-deductible three-martini lunch! Now that's a stimulus package everyone can relate to.

What have the scoundrels in Congress proposed for the working men and women of America; the ones who have been, or will be, laid off in massive numbers and who actually are more responsible for keeping the economy from heading deeper into recession? Fourteen billion dollars to poor and moderate-income families in the form of tax rebates and unemployment benefits. And unlike the $115 billion of corporate goodies and tax breaks for the wealthy, which are perpetual, these sloppy seconds are only good for one year. Let's just cross our fingers and hope this recession logs in under 12 months.

What else have the scoundrels been up to? Again, in the Senate, the pro-oil faction is pressuring its colleagues to pass legislation that would open the Arctic National Refuge, and perhaps other protected areas, to oil drilling. Dropping the pretense of an immediate energy crisis, the faction now wishes to convince us that, in this time of peril, national-security interests are at stake and that it is our patriotic duty to grant leases to recover about six months' worth of oil -- oil that won't even be online for another 10 years. Thank goodness for patriotism that is so far-sighted.

And speaking of sightings, we're told that Vice President Dick Cheney has been kept under wraps for security reasons. Know, then, that our No. 2 Patriot has been very busy making sure that all the energy, mining and drilling interests from Texas who gave heavily to the Bush/Cheney ticket in 2000 are included in any "economic stimulus" package considered by Congress. Isn't it amazing how the scoundrels ... I mean patriots ... all hang together in times of trial and tribulation?

No, Johnson had it right. What's happening in Washington these days isn't about patriotism. It's about using the shield of war and economic hard times as a cover for funneling the people's money into the coffers of the rich and well-connected. It's scoundrel time again, and it's a dirty shame.

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