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[whitespace] Pinochet & the GOP--Surprising champions of central planning

By Bob Harris

SHOULD REPORTERS at national newspapers bother to read their own stories? Or is that too much to ask? As you probably know by now, as a source of news I consider the Murdoch press one notch above bathroom graffiti, and USA Today just a few levels down from the Teletubbie Songbook.

Even so, sometimes I'm still shocked.

The Dec. 14 issue of USA Today carried an instructively bizarre and self-contradictory piece. Written by Daniela Deane, it hailed the "free market" imposed in Chile by Augusto Pinochet, that Grinchy-looking Eichmanna-be dictator dude who's about to go down for the small matter of killing off his opponents, which, let's face it, is rude.

You could conceivably argue that creating one of the world's most inequitable economies is worth the dismantling of a democratic society, the creation of death squads, decades of terror, thousands of disappearances, and the odd car bombing here and there. Of course, that would make you scum, but it's your call.

And make no mistake, the business press thinks that's a fair trade.

Anyhow, let's leave that argument aside. I'm cranky and I could use a hug.

Let's just get back to the USA Today thing.

The story in question offered these illustrations of Chile's Pinochet-inspired free-market success: (a) strict government control over banking, including constant audits and fines to keep bankers from getting greedy and making bad loans and going out of business; (b) a social security system where a 10 percent investment is mandatory for all; and (c) laws requiring all investors to hold 30 percent of their assets in Chile for a year.

Excuse me? We can argue about whether these are good ideas. But one thing you can't argue: Not one of these examples has anything to do with a free market.

In fact, they're all the exact opposite--government limitations and regulations precisely to prevent the abuses inherent in free markets. What Ms. Deane has done here is like pointing to Baywatch babe Pam Anderson as an example of natural beauty. It just ain't so.

Did the reporter even bother to think about what she was writing? It's hard to say. But for most business writers, it's a matter of faith that free markets are always good, that Chile's economy is good, and that Chile's economy is good because it has a free market.

All of which are ludicrous oversimplifications.

Most Wall Street reporting is thickly dusted with similarly unhealthy bromides. But you don't have to be a University of Chicago economist to see the blatant contradictions in a lot of business news. You just have to be able to read and think for yourself.

Which are two traits apparently not essential to writing for USA Today.

IT SEEMS like the only thing Congress members do these days is frown about oral sex and denounce one another. That's because these days that is all they do. But only because nobody believes in witches anymore. Then they'd really be busy.

Surprisingly, however, a couple months ago, they actually passed a federal budget. How they accomplished this when there are still 10 minutes of Monica Lewinsky's preteen years that haven't yet been broadcast to Fiji we'll never know.

But somehow they managed.

You remember this Congress was elected largely on a platform of streamlining government and eliminating waste, right? Well, as the Los Angeles Times, much to its credit, recently pointed out, this year's budget includes literally hundreds of millions of dollars for things that are, to put it gently, psychotic.

There's stuff here the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe wouldn't try to make up.

A few examples:

$700,000 of your money is building a pedestrian overpass in a town with a population of 306.

$15 million of your money is renovating a gravel airstrip in a town with a population of 451. (Yes, I said $15 million. It's in Alaska. There's oil.)

$1 million of your money is even going to something called the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center. Which is at Mississippi State University. Where they grow catfish.

And who is Thad Cochran, you ask? He's a senator from Mississippi who sits on the Appropriations Committee that approved the funding for the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center at Mississippi State.

Oh. Of course.

How did this happen? Simple: by the time all the pork was added on, the final budget was over 4,000 pages long. Few, if any, of the congressmembers who signed it even read the whole thing. But (just asking):

How many of these same congresspeople do you suppose can recite much of the Linda Tripp tapes by heart?

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From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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