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Tom Engelhardt: A Subprime Education in a Subprime World

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What goes up must come down, and the money that went up is now coming down big time.  If you want to understand American politics today, just look at the two presidential candidates zipping around like wind-up toys, hustling from one fundraiser to the next, begging the rich and powerful to pour money into their campaigns.  What time could they have left for whatever else matters, including you, once they've done the necessary due diligence?

And the money?  Wow!  The predictions are that this will be by far the most expensive presidential campaign in history, with an estimated price tag of $2 billion or more.  Just consider that the other day a single casino mogul wrote a check to one of Mitt Romney's Super PACs for $10 million -- and that was just an appetizer.  Or consider that, in 2010 in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court guaranteed the future of 1% elections (as did Barack Obama by rejecting the public financing of the last election).

So as those of you who would like to change our political system for the better leave this campus and venture into the "dark money" universe of American politics, don't forget to bring your $10 million checks with you.  Then again, no one promised you a rose garden.

For four decades, money -- in the form of your parents' tax dollars -- has also been migrating upward into an ever-expanding national security complex, now so large it staggers the imagination.  It doesn't matter how you measure it -- in new office space for the U.S. Intelligence Community (the equivalent of at least 22 U.S. Capitol buildings), in the number of people with top-secret clearances (heading for one million, with 4.2 million having security clearances of some sort), in the number of government documents classified annually (92 million in 2011), in the 30,000 people tasked with monitoring private American conversations of various sorts, in... well, really and truly, it doesn't matter.  Whatever your yardstick may be, the Complex now dwarfs its previous Cold War iteration, when the U.S. was at least facing a major imperial power armed with nuclear weapons, not a couple of minority insurgencies and small numbers of stateless jihadis, and jihadi wannabes.

It is now so much more powerful, so much farther above the law, so much less accountable, and so much more dedicated to perpetual war abroad and a perpetual national security lockdown at home than at any previous moment in your -- or even my -- lifetime.  And of course, even a Pentagon and intelligence bureaucracy engorged on your tax dollars wasn't enough. 

In 2002, a second Department of Defense called the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was set up and, with more than 230,000 employees (who says there are no jobs?), like the Pentagon but in a smaller way, it was quickly embedded in its own mini-homeland-security complex, surrounded by crony corporations and the usual set of former officials and politicians as lobbyists.

And on that same up-down principle, across the country, often with the help of the DHS, specialized military-style training and weaponry are raining down on local police forces, which are being "weaponized" in ways previously unknown here.  Some now have robot subs, tanks or armored personnel carriers, airborne drones, or super-sophisticated surveillance systems, the sorts of things with which you might normally go to war.  Like the Pentagon and the DHS, they, too, are increasingly surrounded by sets of crony corporations ready to sell them more of the same.

And speaking of what goes up and comes down in the world of weaponry, for the last four decades, money's been heading upward by the barrelful into the coffers of giant arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and various crony corporations like KBR and various mercenary outfits like Academi (formerly Xe, ne'e Blackwater) through which American-style war has been so profitably privatized.

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Their CEOs now tend to be in the top .001% of income earners who make more than $9 million a year (often way more).  Whatever may be on the decline here, however much manufacturing has headed offshore, however much the middle class is going underwater, we Americans still turn out to be great at making things that go boom in the night (whether on screen or on the battlefield).

Just recently, for instance, in the worst of times, the U.S. arms business has experienced a bonanza.  With the help of the State Department, it set a 2011 record of $44.28 billion in arms sales to 173 nations (including some that State denounces as human rights violators).  This was a rise of $10 billion over the already staggering 2010 figures (and keep in mind that they don't include arms sales to other governments funneled through the Pentagon, which reached $34.8 billion in 2011). And 2012 has started off -- excuse the phrase -- with a bang.  Those State Department-sponsored sales are already at $50 billion with three months to go in the fiscal year.

Betting on the Future

In other words, you're about to head off campus into a world in which the concentration of wealth, power, and war-making capability is unprecedented, at least in our time, and yet here's the counterintuitive thing: at a moment when it looks like all of you couldn't do less, this planet never needed you more.  This country never needed you more.  American politics never needed you more.  We never needed you more.  But it won't be easy.

In societies organized in such a top-heavy way, who can be surprised when a bunch of kids head for Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park to protest and the powers-that-be strike back devastatingly?  Who can be surprised when demands, even requests, are twisted and shredded, when the world doesn't turn on a dime the way it turns on $10 million dollars?

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Think of it this way, class of 2012: for 40 years, they've been busily rigging the game, stacking the deck.  Now, with their power at the ready and regularly on display, they would like you to think that you've got nothing going for you, that your only choice is to accept the world they have on tap for you on their terms.

What they don't bother to mention is that you have the biggest thing of all going for you, the one thing their money can't buy, their lobbyists can't win over, their lawyers can't negotiate out of existence, their politicians can't legislate into passivity, their policemen and hire-a-guns can't pepper spray or bludgeon into submission.  I'm talking about the future, the one thing they haven't a hope in hell of controlling.  It's yours at least as much as theirs, if not more so, no matter what they do.

Time and again, the future turns out to have its unexpected surprises, and no matter how our rulers prepare, they are invariably caught off guard.  That explains the remarkable initial successes of both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.  However much money the powers-that-be can put out, the future's surprises are their hell on earth.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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