Profiles in economic scourges

There's so much going on in the world today, it's easy to overlook the lovable rogues who are ripping us off. Let's lift a glass to them!

By Joyce McGreevy

Published May 17, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

These are tough times for predators. Between all the concern being directed toward Iraq on the one hand, and most of America on the other, scant interest has been paid to those fine citizens who are steadfastly serving special interests.

Why should the tortured and humiliated get all the attention? We owe one hell of a debt, each and every one of us, and your little dog Toto, too, to those who -- through thick and spin, right and wrong, and outrage about outrage - have kept their eyes fixated, laser-like, on America's fortunes. Never wavering, never deviating -- OK, deviating, but consistently deviating in the relentless pursuit of the money -- they have become the funding fathers of a whole new brand of democracy.

Now, with the people of America so distracted by the terrible aftermath of the "Friends" finale, the demise of "Frasier," and a bunch of other stuff, it is left to a few of us to remember those great, and as yet un-hung explorers of the economic underside that truly supports this nation. So without further ado, here are this year's winners of the coveted Brass Ball for Economic Audacity.

Most Fascinating Economic Analysis:

Betsy DeVos, chair of the Michigan Republican Party. "Many, if not most, of the economic problems in Michigan are a result of high wages and a tax-and-regulatory structure that makes this state uncompetitive," DeVos told the Grand Rapids Press recently. DeVos, who has little choice but to get by on a billionaire's savings, later praised South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama for being more "hospitable" to the global economy.

Yes, bending over and taking whatever they get has brought new opportunities to these states uncluttered by pesky unions -- places where workers enjoy the right to work without the added burden of a living wage. We haven't been this proud since 1998, when DeVos wrote an Op-Ed piece in Roll Call setting forth what she and her family expected in return for being major influence buyers.

Most Marketable Concern for the Environment:

The New York City Parks Dept., for denying the group United for Peace and Justice a permit to hold a rally for 250,000 demonstrators in Central Park during the Republican National Convention this August. By boldly trampling on the rights of grass-roots democracy, the city protected grass from the ravages of free assembly. Thanks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others who showed their concern for the Green Stuff, Central Park will remain a habitat for its rightful species -- those corporations that sponsor ticketed events for the more well-heeled and the less vocal.

Thriftiest Solution to a World Health Crisis:

George W. Bush, for spending only a fraction of the $15 billion that, in his 2003 State of the Union address, he pledged to spend fighting AIDS in Africa. By combining this with a refusal to fund AIDS programs using cheaper generic drugs, and promoting abstinence (as in "I was abstinent from the Alabama National Guard"), the White House has achieved some startling results. As new reports show, some areas of Africa have yielded as much as a 15-year reduction in suffering as life expectancies dropped from age 60 into the mid-40s.

This just in: In a blatant attempt to disrupt the award ceremony, a rogue element known as the United Nations World Health Organization has announced that unless nations cooperate to defeat it, AIDS will destroy any hope of a better life for tens of millions of people, blah, blah, blah, something about abject poverty, but campaign donors will not be affected.

The White House has retalia- responded by naming Carol "I Got Nothin'" Thompson as head of the Office of National AIDS Policy. The appointment of Thompson, who is not a doctor but may get to play one in a Medicare ad, has been hailed by several humanitarian organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, as "meaningless" and "irrelevant." Keep up the good-for-nothing work, Carol!

Most Comedic Consequences of Providing Worthless Choices:

The American Pharmaceutical Industry. As reported by John Leland in the New York Times, the new prescription drug cards -- all 73 of them -- have ushered in a whole new roster of amusements for seniors and their families. By ensuring that the choices are incomprehensible, overwhelming and ultimately rapacious, drug companies are adding a whole new dementia to our lives as stressed-out Americans.

Leland interviewed retirees and others in their late 70s through 80s about the fun of spending endless hours hunched over a computer searching government Web sites in order to evaluate mystifying answers to life-and-death questions. For many, the thrill of finding an elusive clue to the drug card mystery is heightened by such challenges as not owning a computer, loss of vision, chronic back pain, and, in a dramatic twist the government never saw coming, seniors having better things to do with their time than log on to "Medicare, She Wrote."

To keep the stakes high and the merriment never-ending, not even the people charged with clarifying the drug discounts for seniors will be given the answers. What a hoot!

"Even the person who came to explain it to us didn't understand it," said Mary Shen, 77, at the Whittaker Senior Center on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "It's not fair to expect seniors, who have enough difficulties already, to have to figure this out." Oh, come on, Mare, be a sport. It's just a card game anyway. It's not like you're playing for real savings.

Jolliest Budget Mix-up During a Time of Senseless War:

The U.S. Defense Department. Shortly before Bush administration officials presented Republican congressional leaders with a request for $25 billion in Iraq funding this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell was telling members of the Congressional Black Caucus that no such request would be forthcoming.

The request itself has tired old eyes crinkling with laughter. Many folks want to know why those lovable scamps in the Defense Department are requesting only $25 billion more for a war that has already racked up $300 billion in costs at a rate of $4.7 billion per month and counting. This would put costs for 2005 alone at more than $50 billion minimum, says the Center for American Progress. That's even before factoring in little things like the Pentagon's plan to station at least 135,000 troops in Iraq for all of that same year.

We haven't been so deliciously punked since the administration helped itself to funding for dozens of projects in Kuwait that cleared the way for war in Iraq while keeping Congress in the dark. Wolfie, Rummy -- superb job, you guys. Here, buy yourselves some credibility and a shred of decency. It's on us.

An additional lifetime "Low Point in Service" award goes to Rumsfeld in Iraq last Thursday for dodging penetrating budget questions from troops who dodge bullets: Will the military pay for soldiers' airfare home? Will the military stop refusing coverage for the physical therapy of one soldier's handicapped child? Will Rumsfeld explain how his plan to reduce the number of troops in Iraq is served by increasing the number of troops in Iraq? Did you fend off these questions? Yes. Will you do so again? Sure.

Well, folks, that's our show for now. Expect many more Brass Ball awards to be handed out to America's funniest moneymen and women, as they boldly grub where few have grubbed before. We'd like to thank our sponsors, the American taxpayers and the Society for the Preservation of Nonvoters for making this spectacle possible. G'night!

Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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