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Bought and Sold

Steve Hillson
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Greg Palast
Pluto Press 2002

Packed into this slim volume of only 199 pages is some of the hardest hitting investigative journalism you'll never read in this country. If it weren't for the internet, Palast would be almost completely unknown outside England.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is made up of reprinted articles mixed with commentary and documentation to back up its near libelous revelations. Palast's skill as a journalist is reinforced by his training as an economist; literally at the feet of neo-liberal guru Milton Friedman. Sponsored by far-seeing union leaders, Palast became one of Friedmans' Chicago Boys (later to become the brains behind Pinochet's Chile). During the mid-70's, he spent his time decoding corporate financial reports and negotiating union contracts. Frustrated by the absence of serious news coverage in the US press, Palast took up his pen.

The first section of the book is his now-famous exposure of the Florida election scandal. While most reporters were focusing on hanging chads and questioning the intelligence of Florida residents, Palast was busy unearthing an old fashioned Jim Crow conspiracy to undo the success of the 1993 "motor-voter" law which had swelled the ranks of primarily Democratic minority voters. Million dollar contracts were awarded by Jeb Bush's administration to companies willing to create false "scrub" lists of convicted felons who would be denied the right to vote. These lists, involving tens of thousands of people, purposely targeted Black voters. Palast reveals that in the wake of the scandal, nine other states are taking steps to copy Florida's methods of "cleansing" their voter rolls of imaginary felons. This would not have been so easy if the corporate media had not drowned the story with a snowstorm of chads and butterfly ballots.

Four steps

The other major story of in the book comes from Palast's interviews with dissident World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz. What emerges is a clear picture of how the IMF and other organs of capitalism operate in the developing world. This makes for some of the most eye-opening and at the same time, infuriating, reading. There are four steps identified as characteristic of the neo-liberal project. Step 1 is called Privatization. Step 2 is labeled Capital Market Liberalization, otherwise known capital flight. Step 3 involves the raising of prices for daily necessities such as food and fuel in an effort to squeeze new capital from the working poor. At this point, Stiglitz inserts what he calls Step 3 1/2, the IMF riot (i.e., peaceful protests crushed by robo-cops). Step 4, Free Trade, is enacted once the smoke has cleared and everything not nailed down has been claimed by American and British capitalists.

The general pattern is familiar to many readers, but the sordid details of how IMF "loans", for instance, end up in low yielding American bank accounts while the interest owed builds up at much higher rates may be news to many.

Palast closes this densely packed analysis with the revelation that Chile, the neo-liberal miracle economy, only survived by returning to the same policies of state intervention that cost the lives of Allende and countless thousands of Chileans struggling for a better world. The irony is too tragic to comment on.