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David Sirota
David Sirota
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A Government of Men, Not Laws


United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard likes to say that Washington policymakers "treat the people who take a shower after work much differently than they treat the people who shower before they go to work." In the 21st century Gilded Age, the blue-collar shower-after-work crowd is given the tough, while the white-collar shower-before-work gang gets the love, and never before this week was that doctrine made so clear.

Following news that government-owned American International Group (AIG) devoted $165 million of its $170 billion taxpayer bailout to employee bonuses, the White House insisted nothing could be done to halt the robbery. On ABC's Sunday chat show, Obama adviser Larry Summers couched his passive-aggressive defense of AIG's thieves in the saccharine argot of jurisprudence. "We are a country of law — there are contracts (and) the government cannot just abrogate contracts," he said.

The rhetoric echoed John Adams' two-century-old fairy tale about an impartial "government of laws, and not of men." Only now, the reassuring platitudes can't hide the uncomfortable truth.

Last month, the same government that says it "cannot just abrogate" executives' bonus contracts used its leverage to cancel unions' wage contracts. As the Wall Street Journal reported, federal loans to GM and Chrysler were made contingent on those manufacturers shredding their existing labor pacts and "extract(ing) financial concessions from workers." In other words, our government asks us to believe that it possesses total authority to adjust contracts at car companies it lends to, and yet has zero power to modify contracts at financial firms it owns. This, even though the latter set of covenants might be easily abolished.

According to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, these allegedly inviolate AIG agreements promised bonus money the company didn't have and were crafted by executives who knew the firm was collapsing, meaning there is a decent chance these pacts could be invalidated under "fraudulent conveyance" statutes.

They also might be cancelled via "force majeure" clauses allowing one party to rescind a pact in the event of extraordinary circumstances — like, perhaps, the collapse of the world economy. (Note: BusinessWeek reports that corporations are already citing the recession as reason to invoke such clauses and nix their business-to-business contracts.)

But, then, those legal cases require a government that treats AIG's shower-before-work employees with the same firmness that it treats the auto industry's shower-after-work employees, not the government we currently have — the one that believes "the supreme sanctity of employment contracts applies only to some types of employees but not others," as's Glenn Greenwald says.

Mind you, this double standard works the other way, too.

Congressional Republicans have long supported the laws letting bankruptcy courts annul mortgage contracts for vacation homes. Those statutes help the shower-before-work clique at least retain their beachside villas, no matter how many of their speculative Ponzi schemes go bad. But for those who shower after work, it's Adams-esque bromides against "absolving borrowers of their personal responsibility," as the GOP announced it will oppose legislation permitting bankruptcy judges to revise mortgage contracts for primary residences.

Certainly, for all the connotations of fairness inherent in American politics' "country of law" catchphrases, most of us know that the selective application of legal principles is as old as the Republic. However, lots of us are only now discovering that inequality is so pronounced that the time of day we bathe determines the enforcement and reliability (or lack thereof) of even the most basic contracts.

We are just realizing that for all the parroting of America's second president, we are ruled by a government of men, and not of laws.

David Sirota is the bestselling author of the books "Hostile Takeover" (2006) and “The Uprising” (2008). He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future. Find his blog at or e-mail him at



5 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;....All of these people in Washington and Wall Street have demonstrated a desire to justify what is immoral so long as it is legal... I am certain they have trampled all over that last restraint, and went beyond legal and moral....You hint around at the truth: That a Nation of Laws is a farce...Look at the facts...Law is a form, as a nation is a form, which is to say: an idea... But as with all forms in fact, nation and law are forms of relationship; and that is where the people come in...As much as we say: Nation of Laws, there is no way to prevent people from changing the laws, distorting their purpose, enforcing them as they see fit, or piling more on to old until the whole becomes a loophole, or a death trap likely too fall on all...The problem, as with all forms is not just their absolute resistence to change, but the fact that in spite of resistence, people with some power turn the form to their own benefit.... Friendship is a form of relationship, and that does not stop friends from some times using friends....Marriage is a form too, and a formal form at that, and people still learn to suck the trust out of marriages from time to time, which makes them meaningless...Our form of Government, which is expressed as laws which are supposed to give the people protection, does not protect the people... The form is old, and it has been turned to a private purpose over time... It protects parasites, and comforts thieves... Is there some reason our government of laws should be a government of capital??? As forms go, the goal of our government is clearly stated.... It has nothing on the face of it suggesting support for the economy as such, or property as fact... It says commmon defense, but the defense has clearly been specific to property and capital... Once; wealth was taxed and supported the whole federal government...Now that tax has been laid on labor, which in all societies already supports wealth and government...And look at our founding document... The Declaration not only talks of forms, but it also of inalienable rights... What is that???All Feudal property was once inalienable, and rights to the commons upon which every farmer depended were inalienable too... That did not stop the state from making Feudal property alienable, and selling it off from under the peasants who had inalienable rights to that land... It did not stop the rich from closing the commons to the common man, and making poverty a fact throughout Europe... The notion of inalienablity is old and much trod upon, but we cannot expect protection for our rights through a form that is so easily turned to the support of megawealth... We have to give up the idea that good for the rich is good for the country... We have to turn government as a form back to the goals for which it was formed, as clearly stated in the preamble of the constitution..... I think it clear, that where property has rights, rights will be seen as property and sold off from under the people if the people will not themselves sell them...There are no inalinable rights..Everything is for sale if you have enough money and some people have it all.... And this government is not an immutable form, and if it were, it would be all but useless... But, The form of our government, and the form of our economy does not serve this people, and they have become our enemy...We have no choice but to reform them....Much as we think some superficial change will help us, the fact is clear that People, the President, the Supreme Court, the Congress all have the power to do as they please regardless of the goals of the constitution... The idea of a Nation of Laws is a Joke... They write the laws to do as they please...We need to have a government of people... We need people friendly government...We need government that will consider the life of the people as the preamble clearly did...Let us begin the long process of reform of government before society grows violent and without patience.....Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Mar 21, 2009 7:07 AM
Ben points out something I've been saying for months now. Obama grabs up all this power, but someday the republicans will be back in power and whoever is president will have no problem exploiting that power. We need to keep the governments power, especailly the executive branches power, limited. Government should fear the people, the people should not fear government.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Jun 27, 2012 9:28 AM
Opps, wrong article. How did I wind up here. Oh well, Davids articles are still good too.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Jun 27, 2012 9:30 AM
No wait, this is the right article. Something screwy happened.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Jun 29, 2012 6:29 AM
Liberals are for illegal power grabs by Democrats but vehemently against if done by Republicans while the rest of us are vehemently against illegal power grabs by anyone regardless of the party. Just another example of the hypocrisy of liberals.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Thetruth
Sat Jun 30, 2012 4:32 PM
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