It seems daily that we watch our “so called” democracy make overt mockery of that very concept. We find ourselves wondering how this can be. What have we become? We thought we were the scale to which other democracies were measured. American Exceptionalism seems to be a complete fabrication? There must have been some good, so what happened? How does our government invariably do the exact opposite of what its people want and need? How does it consistently promise one thing and deliver another, with little if any consequences? The answer is really quite simple, corruption, but understanding how this has become the norm is what is difficult.
I recently stumbled on an interview on MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow show. with Sarah Chayes who gave one of the most comprehensive explanations on corruption I have heard. Chayes says:
“For the past decade, I’ve worked on the issue of corruption around the world. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that people who live in structurally corrupt political and economic systems are sometimes driven to extremes. I have always understood that the analysis was relevant in the United States — just maybe not how relevant … (around the world) populations have rejected ‘rigged systems’ … or they have fallen in behind self-proclaimed Robin Hoods … With Trump’s election, the United States just joined this list” (while seeking a quick fix to avert its real fears).
Americans think we, as a country, are far more sophisticated than simpler places like “Kandahar, Afghanistan, who re-embraced the Taliban in their disgust at the corruption of Hamid Karzai’s government”. But in reality, we may not be all that different. Chayse says we might be amazed “to consider the degree to which the United States has come to resemble that regime or those of other corrupt countries (she’s) been studying”. Yes there are differences. Chayes emphasizes blunt realities like:
- “Networks that weave together public officials and business magnates (think the food or energy industries, pharmaceuticals, or Wall Street) have rewritten our legislation to serve their own interests.
- Institutions that have retained some independence, such as oversight bodies and courts, have been deliberately disabled — starved of operating funds or left understaffed.
- Practices that, while perhaps not technically illegal, clearly cross the line to the unethical, the inappropriate, or the objectively corrupt have been defended by those who cast themselves as bulwarks of reason and integrity.”
These are all ingredients in any recipe for corruption, the securing of power and of course the hording of wealth. Here I would point to ALEC, which exemplifies all of these finer skills of corruption. But Chayes emphasizes that we are all guilty, asking the tough question: “How many of us have said — in any meaningful way — ‘That’s a red line!’? Who among us refused, in the end, to take the money or make the excuses?” Surely not many of our leaders, and yet they usually retain their positions of influence while covertly filling their pockets. Chayes found her red line in the sand and describes it for us, but what about the rest of us? After all, “these are moral issues. And the very laws we depend on to enforce what should be bedrock standards have sometimes undermined them. Do we reject corruption?” Business leaders in other parts of the world often say “That’s part of the brilliance of corruption … they make it legal!” Have we now accepted this very low bar as the norm?
Although the word “corruption” was bantered about during the 2016 election, “to use this word to describe America remains almost taboo in polite circles”. We just can’t go there. Is it American Exceptionalism once again, or maybe just the never ending worship of the dollar? When JPMorgan was criticized after the 2008 financial crisis the guest was told “Should we talk about the financial strength of JPMorgan, at this point? … Even with all of these losses, the company continues to churn out tens of billions of dollars in earnings and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. How do you criticize that?” We are now at the point where pinning the corruption tag on any corporation is almost unheard of, if even possible.
Chayes asks many questions regarding our understanding of corruption and ethics. For these read her article, but also watch the Rachael Maddow interview and read Chayes book if you get a chance. It is on my list. Chayes’ article leaves us with a statement and a question that I quote verbetum:
- Here is where we are. “Already, President-elect Trump’s questionable affiliations and potential conflicts of interest — as genteel vocabulary would have it — are making headlines. The issue is not one of technical legality or poor vetting. His actions and associations are deliberate. While tweeting out distractions to disguise the fact, he will unleash a feeding frenzy. Our laws and institutions will be bent to the purposes of personal enrichment. Industry lobbyists will draft the bills. He will negotiate business deals with foreign counterparts, confusing his personal interests for the good of the nation. Agencies that try to hold the line will see their budgets slashed, their officials belittled in public. Law enforcement will be even more selective than it is today. The labor of human beings, the land, and what’s on it or under it will be converted to cash as efficiently as possible. And what can’t be converted will be bulldozed out of the way.”
- Where do we go from here? “What will Americans do in the face of this exacerbation of our own brand of corruption. Will we further relax our standards, shrugging our shoulders and referring to the letter of ever-changing laws? Or will we reach for a definition of corruption that is in line with common sense and rebuild our foundations upon that bedrock?
Guess we will just have to wait to see! Wish I could say I feel optimistic.