Bicontinental muckraker Greg Palast says his first undercover investigation was at the University of Chicago, spying on economists Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. In 1975 Palast was a graduate student in the business school and investigating machine hacks and utilities for labor unions. His aim was to learn the business better than the businessmen, and pass the knowledge on to shop stewards and activists.
Palast thought the left was on a roll, but his boss--Frank Rosen, of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America--had taken heed of stirrings in the economics department in Hyde Park. Before winning the Nobel Prize in 1976, Friedman and his laissez-faire theories were considered wacky by the mainstream, but the free-marketeer was steadily winning converts, among them former governor of California Ronald Reagan. Harberger's Latin American finance workshops had attracted protests when his "Chicago boys"--a group of Chilean economists trained at the U. of C.--graduated into Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship and began implementing free market reforms in Chile. "When I started in the business school," says Palast, "I'd go to class wearing yellow overalls and Mao buttons, and Frank Rosen would say, 'Cut the crap. Get a briefcase, put on a suit, and stop playing.'"
Rosen wanted the scoop. "Keep in mind that Friedman was considered a freak," says Palast. "He was off-the-wall. He was nuts. On the other hand he seemed to be connected to a new wave. So the question was to do two things: to find out what they were doing, but also to learn the shit better than they knew it."
Palast weaseled his way into Friedman's money and banking workshop, impressing the professor with a paper he'd written positing the impossibility of government control of multinational corporations. "I called it 'Financial Colonization' or something like that, but I didn't tell Friedman the title. He just thought, 'Cool. How do we do this? This is great!'" Lying low, he says that he witnessed the genesis of the deregulated new world order.
"Friedman was a little tyrant," says Palast. "He treated the other students like absolute stone garbage because they were so concerned about licking his ass and getting recommendations for posts. You had to prove that you were more free market than anyone, and any indication that the free market was anything but an absolute fucking miracle was apostate language. It almost felt like they were a religious cult."
Harberger's class was even weirder, he says. "It was like a scene out of V. These guys wore white turtleneck sweaters and black sunglasses. But it was very specific stuff, like 'How do we eliminate overtime pay for night shifts in Brazil? Well, we got a problem with the unions there.' I mean, it was detailed policy of how to take apart the democratic powers of Latin America."
How could Palast have known that dozens of Harberger's students would go on to head Latin American central banks and government finance ministries? Who could have guessed that Friedman would become the guru of Thatcherism and Reaganomics? "I'm watching this stuff and saying, 'Nah, this isn't gonna last. No one's gonna buy this.'"
After graduation Palast negotiated labor contracts and continued to investigate utilities like ComEd and Peoples Gas. "I loved going through reams and reams of documents at the Illinois Commerce Commission," he says. "I must be some sick puppy, but I really enjoyed that stuff; making stories out of a bunch of accounting documents and inside memos and stuff." On behalf of consumer groups, unions, and government, he also started investigating the corporations benefiting from the economic reforms pushed by his former professors.
But from the beginning Palast was frustrated with mainstream media, which he believed too craven and cheap to investigate the tips he was passing along. His investigation into the Exxon Valdez oil spill convinced him to take up the pen himself. "There was billions of miles of ink on the Exxon Valdez and all of it was complete, bogus bullshit," he says. Palast filed a few op-ed pieces on Exxon, "but it was clear in the U.S. people writing anything of value were being sidetracked into things like Mother Jones magazine and the Nation."
Five years ago he hired on with London's Guardian and Observer, and with the BBC, for which he's since scored a string of astonishing scoops, many of them never making it into American papers. He sniffed out Enron before it was cool, went undercover exposing the cash-for-access scandal in Tony Blair's cabinet, and collected piles of secret documents from whistle-blowers in the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO.
Al Gore was still contesting the 2000 election when Palast says he offered CBS what ought to have been the biggest story in American history--that Florida election officials purged 57,700 voters from the rolls months before November, most of them likely Democrats. The story made page one in Great Britain, but Palast says he couldn't get any U.S. media outlet to bite until it was too late. His report ran in Salon the following month. The Washington Post didn't pick it up until June.
He chalks "the silence of the media lambs" up to three discouraging requirements of solid investigative reporting: time, money, and risk. Plus, he says, "most reporters are lazy fucks."
Many of Palast's stories not fit to print in the American press have been compiled in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which he'll flog Friday, April 5, at 3 PM at Healing Earth Resources, 3111 N. Ashland, 773-327-8459. He'll also lecture at 7 at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago, 1567 Maple in Evanston. The $13 admission ($8 for students and seniors) benefits the group Buy Back Our Government; call 312-697-0887 for info. On Saturday, April 6, he'll sign books at 1 PM at Borders Books & Music, 1500 16th, suite D, in Oak Brook (630-574-0800), and appear at 7 PM at UIC in the Behavioral Sciences Building, 1007 W. Harrison, room 145, as part of a free panel entitled "War and Resistance: Another World Is Possible" (312-458-9920).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.