Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Corrupt Interest Networks Have Become America's Operating System...,

ineteconomics  |  Sarah Chayes: When I was writing my 2015 book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, I realized we are on the same spectrum as those other countries. I just did not yet realize exactly how relevant that analysis was to the U.S., and how swiftly the calamities would come.

On Corruption in America begins with the 2016 decision in McDonnell v U.S., in which the corruption conviction of a former Virginia governor was overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court. What stunned me was the divergence between ordinary people’s understanding of corruption — basically, if it quacks like a duck… — and the unanimous view of elites across the political divide that corruption is something of minor consequence, beneath notice. The opinion, accepted by all eight justices, including the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, warned that America was in more danger from the fight against corruption than from corruption itself.

I knew we were in for very serious trouble.

LP: What kind of trouble, exactly?

SC: I had been looking at countries with systemic corruption and no civic means of redress. These kinds of conditions led to violent explosions, ideological insurgencies, a massive movement that erupted across the Arab world, peaceful civic protests that in a couple of cases spiraled into world-shaking civil wars, mass migrations out of those regions, and what have you.

In the places I’ve studied, there tended to be not so much a veer toward the extreme, but a jolt. That’s the kind of trouble I saw ahead for the U.S. I think we already experienced it to some extent in 2016, and I suspect it’s not over.

LP: Your book looks at networks of people who exploit political and economic systems to increase their wealth by working across private and public sectors. Help us understand this in a historical context. What is new or distinct with corruption in America today? What are some of its features?

SC: I looked at the Gilded Age in particular — understood broadly, from about 1870-1935 — and here’s the shocker: almost nothing is different today. Then, as now, intertwined, even intermarried, networks of billionaire-equivalents seized the main levers of power and bent them to their own objectives.

They wove themselves into incredibly resilient webs, which included business magnates, top government officials (or sometimes people serving in the two capacities at once), and even outright criminals. Often, they traded places in these various sectors, working in business for a while, then government, then back in business, and so on. They bent and distorted public institutions and laws, or eviscerated them. They physically crushed resistance. They brilliantly divided the egalitarian coalition against itself, across class and especially racial lines. They veiled themselves in secrecy. They bought people off.

Then, as now, their chief revenue streams were public procurement, finance, energy, and high-end real estate. Pharma/processed foods and the tech sector might be today’s most significant additions.

LP: You note that both political parties are intertwined with corrupt networks. How does this manifest in the current election cycle? Some hope a Biden presidency would be a blow to corruption. What’s your take?

SC: This is one of the most difficult aspects of this book — for me, and doubtless for readers. Americans so crave a good-guy-bad-guy story, now more than ever. We’re desperate for some sense of redemption. In the broad “blue” camp, what people want to hear is unadulterated Trump-loathing, and almost nothing else. But in the Biden-Harris ticket, I’m afraid I see a bit of a fantasy: that we can just wake up from this nightmare and it’s 2015, and none of this ever happened. But this book asks readers to see how 2015 and the prior two decades or so delivered the nightmare. And it highlights the role of many Democrats in creating the conditions. That is, Trump is not the lone villain in these pages, and all other sins are not wiped away before the sole objective of removing him from the office he is unfit to hold.

The next problem here, of course, is false equivalency. I do not mean and am not saying that all sides are equally corrupt. There is a small coalition of uberwealthy Americans that, since the late 1970s, has been systematically working to dismantle the institutions and practices that promote citizens’ well-being. Few if any of them are Democrats. But, on the “blue” side of the house, we have witnessed mass infection with what I call the “Midas disease” (see below) and consequently, an opportunistic validation of the radical moves made by that coalition of the rich.

Biden and many of those around him are among those validators. Among Democrats, we’ve seen the glorification of the “financial industry,” the avid participation not just in pay-to-play politics but in the influence-peddling economy that delivered us Joe Biden’s son Hunter serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. There was the Clinton Foundation before that.

We’ve also witnessed the wanton sabotage of regulatory safeguards that protected Americans from the worst abuses of profit-seeking corporations. All this has ratified the program of the largely Republican cabal I just mentioned. That is, what could have been isolated after the Reagan Administration as a radical project that violated every American principle of government to benefit the governed has instead been turned into bipartisan orthodoxy. No wonder half the American electorate doesn’t vote.