America. (n) a·mer·i·ca 1. A country where the largest companies sit on billions of dollars in cash without creating jobs; 2. A gilded land where multinational corporations like General Electric get away with paying zero taxes; 3. A cowardly place where the greatest financial criminals of our lifetime are granted blanket immunity from justice by a neutered government; 4. A nation where somebody like Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey can get elected to office despite possessing the reading comprehension skills of a jelly donut.
Indeed, in a note titled "The Criminalization of Free Enterprise," the cognitively dissonant and factually challenged Ramsey opines that the most recent federal raid on Gibson Guitar Corporation's Tennessee facilities is in defiance of constitutional principles. What's more, Ramsey suggests the Obama administration is miffed that CEO Henry Juszkiewicz gives more to Republicans than Democrats — socialist tactics that apparently move jobs overseas and further erode the freedoms of capitalist enterprises.
These talking points aren't new in the ongoing Gibson saga. But the fact that Ramsey is now parroting them shows just how popular they've become with subscribers to extremist right-wing rhetoric. All of this is to be expected (unfortunately), but Ramsey, a lawmaker, certainly has trouble understanding the law that spurred the raid in the first place.
Basically, the federal government is suggesting that Gibson Guitar has violated the Lacey Act. It charges that Gibson imported wood from India that was illegal because it was “unfinished.” The wood is allegedly illegal not because of any law passed by Congress or any state legislature but because of an interpretation of Indian law.
Actually, the wood is allegedly illegal because of a specific law passed by Congress: It's called the Lacey Act, and as it turns out, it was passed in 1900 by a Republican congressman named John Lacey. Before his party was infested by the religious right and big-business interests, Lacey was allowed to have misgivings about free enterprise — so much so that he successfully passed legislation that prevented the invisible hand of the market from bludgeoning game species into extinction.
Nearly a century later, in 2008, the protections under Lacey's act were expanded to include plants imported from foreign countries, and used U.S. law as a buttress to the forestry codes of other nations. Even Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who recently flaunted Juszkiewicz like a flag pin on her lapel, voted to override Bush's veto of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, aka the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill, which includes an amendment expanding the powers of federal government to enforce the Lacey Act — the very thing that made the Gibson raid possible.
The confusion between U.S. law and the oftentimes murky laws of, say, India, is where much of the confusion over the Lacey Act originates. An Oct. 6, 2008 article in The New Yorker explains it so:
[The amendment] would prohibit taking any plant or plant product out of any country in violation of its natural-resource laws. There would be no “innocent owner” defense, which meant that importers who claimed not to know they had bought illegal wood, or items made from it, would still be subject to penalties. This provision generated strong opposition from some industry groups, but it was central to the bill’s design...
But the bill’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness: while it used the American legal system to reinforce the laws of other countries, forestry codes in some countries are so vague and contradictory that they are hard to follow, even for loggers with good intentions, and even more difficult for American judges to interpret.
While the author, Raffi Khatchadourian, does a great job of explaining the legal implications of the act, he outdoes himself by detailing the lengths to which large corporations like Monsanto (which donates heavily to Republicans) went to gain exemption:
Just before the amendment was up for a vote in the House, lobbyists from Monsanto and a trade group called the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or bio, suddenly expressed their unease about it. “It was late in the game,” [environmental activist Alexander] von Bismarck told me. “Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to kill this thing.’ ” It turned out that bio and Monsanto had only one major request: to be exempted from the law. At a meeting convened in the Capitol to discuss their concerns, Jen Daulby, Monsanto’s representative, argued that the amendment would prevent companies from using genetic samples it acquired overseas. She said that foreign laws could be unreasonable. A timber lobbyist who was there recalled, “It looked pretty bad. We all thought the same thing: Did they just say that they wanted to take plants out regardless of whether the particular country wants them to?”
Daulby told me she was concerned that Monsanto “would be violating the Lacey Act” if the amendment covered all plants and plant products, and that the bill would “prohibit the research materials that were coming back.” She said these things on a conference call with two other Monsanto officials listening in, and only a bit later, after a reminder from the company’s press officer, did she add, “As Brad mentioned, we are following other countries’ laws, but having a bill in the United States that endorses those is a totally different thing.”
Ultimately, the biotech industry obtained its exemption. Von Bismarck told me, “They are arguably stealing the intellectual property of poor countries, and there exists the whole debate about that, which is an interesting debate, because they will try to claim the high ground and say, ‘We all happily benefit from some of those medicines.’ ” But the bill’s supporters did not want to risk getting the amendment killed over an exemption that, as Monsanto pointed out, was unrelated to the timber trade. Still, von Bismarck said, when the biotech lobbyists joined in, “it was a big, eye-opening moment in terms of how government works.”
If you're Ron Ramsey, you're inclined to overlook Monsanto's supra-legal privilege and instead accuse the Obama administration of showing favoritism to Gibson rival C.F. Martin & Co.
"In fact, the only beef the Obama administration could really have with Gibson Guitars is the political habits of its CEO," Ramsey writes. "Apparently, the head of Gibson has been very generous in his donations to Republican candidates and causes such as Congressman Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Lamar Alexander. One of Gibson’s chief competitors on the other hand prefers Democrat candidates. I hope this is simple coincidence and not something more sinister."
Never mind that the wood in question, East Indian rosewood, grows on three separate continents, and that C.F. Martin & Co. might actually be following the law. 'Tis a conspiracy!