Civics Lesson 

Or a reincarnation horror story

I stopped differentiating between Republicans and Democrats during Barack Obama's first term, when it became clear that George W. Bush's economic team was still running the country instead of being thrown in jail for selling the middle class down the river. And while Obama was smarter than Bush, better spoken, younger, a better writer, a better athlete, was married to a better driver, was less damaged by alcohol, was less loudly cynical about the Constitution and less inclined to petty bullying in cabinet meetings--he was still George W. Bush in essence.

Nobody among Obama's cabinet has convinced me that his administration is more honest or moral or empathetic than Bush's was, and he needed an honest, moral and empathetic administration if he was going to bring America's financial industry under control.

That's not going to happen, Elizabeth Warren notwithstanding. Obama is the bankers' current guy in the White House. Eric Holder is the bankers' guy in the Justice Department. John Kerry, who lip-synced populist hits before he married John Heinz's widow, is now the banker running the State Department.

Contrast the influence of these policy makers with the vertigo occasioned in the financial markets by a single Ben Bernanke fart. You can see that what passes for party politics in is more or less a sideshow to the real national drama. Who knew debt could be used not just as a form of wealth, but as the basis for an entire through-the-looking-glass economy? Who knew generations of American children could be turned into serfs, simply by making them pay and pay for their college educations?

The high priests of Mammon, that's who. America has, in these latter days, gone from republic to theocracy. Baptism into the Church of Mammon has become an American ritual, involving not immersion in water but the issuance of debt and a credit score. Whether you're a college student whose parents have mortgaged the house for your tuition or a congressman walking out of a Washington, D.C., lunch with his first bundle of PAC money, you're bought and paid for, a new convert to a religion that worships the stuff you can buy and the credit you can buy it with, one whose heaven is here on earth if not beneath it.

It's notable that America switched to Mammon while its elected representatives were loudly worshipping Christ, even though Christ seems to have been contemptuous of the financial industry and its Holy Ghost, Usury. Christ also elevated forgiveness to the highest of virtues, and Mammon hates forgiveness.

Put another way, if Christ can forgive Dick Cheney for sending young Americans off to die for oil, He probably can forgive your college loans and the remainder of what you owe on that no-money-down home furnishings package--and maybe your mortgage and whatever it's been leveraged into, unto the seventh generation of leverage. That's not going to happen, Christ notwithstanding.

Laws against debt forgiveness are a product of the U.S. Congress, which is the Church of Mammon's equivalent of the College of Cardinals or the Council of 70. Election and re-election to this body depends on money, lots of it. Our representatives and senators spend much of their time raising cash from the sociopathic wealthy and demonic corporations, whose lobbyists then write laws favoring the sociopathic wealthy and demonic corporations, which are then passed and sent to Larry Summers for his signature. There's a circular quality to law-making these days, a get-money-to-get-elected-so-I-can-get-more-money-to-get-re-elected solipsism, one that gets smaller and tighter as time goes by.

The effect of thinking about money and how to get it for a substantial portion of each day isn't limited to members of Congress, but it explains their fascination with wealth and who-owes-what-to-whom. There must come a point in a congressional career when money becomes the world. The purple mountains, the amber waves of grain, the fruited plain and spacious skies disappear and are replaced by a Quicken spreadsheet, and behind it, somewhere in the deep folds of the hard drive, is the shadowy smile of Mammon Himself.

Apostates are subject to a long and tortuous auto-da-fe. No Such Thing As A Free Lunch is Mammon's version of the Golden Rule, and it explains congressional Mammonites' resistance to Medicare and food stamps and unemployment insurance and merciful bankruptcy laws. There is nothing that will bring you around to seeing Money as the Supreme Being more than an uninsured trip to the hospital after a layoff and an unplanned pregnancy, with college loans eternally due and a car that won't start. Get to that point, and believe me, no matter what your personal principles, you can be bought. So can the people who shudder at your example.

Now for the good news. The Church of Mammon can't promise eternal life in a celestial heaven, but it does guarantee reincarnation if you get elected to Congress. People start as one person, but with the addition of boatloads of campaign money, they become different.

It's the source of our fascination with zombies and vampires. Anthony Weiner morphs into an underwear photographer. Larry Craig goes from do-gooder to sexual hypocrite. Bob Filner decides he's attractive to women. Mother Teresa goes to Washington, D.C., and comes back as a twerking Miley Cyrus.

I made that last one up. But there have been more extreme congressional reincarnations. It hasn't mattered whether the transformee was a Democrat or a Republican. They end as the same distasteful substance. Mammon sticks His snout into the souls of those who invite Him in, and He begins to feed, and after a few years of divine metabolic processes, the transformation is complete.

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