Skip to main content
court

Sarah Chayes' On Corruption in America, and what is at stake.

Former NPR reporter and advisor to the U.S. military has turned her attention to America's domestic corruption which she finds eerily familiar with her experience in third world countries like Afghanistan.

Chayes begins her book with an account of a U.S. Supreme Court case prosecuting a former Virginia governor named McDonnell. Governor McDonnell had been convicted of accepting bribes by a lower court, whose verdict had been affirmed by an appeals court.

Among other things, McDonnell had been treated to free private plane rides, his wife had gone shopping with the briber, receiving $75,000 worth of goods, and many other items, all to persuade the Governor to purchase and endorse the briber's products with Virginia's state money. And McDonnell had repeatedly requested those purchases and endorsements happen.

Both lower courts were persuaded this was a clear case of bribery, but the Supreme Court acquitted McDonnell unanimously, saying this is how America conducts its public policy business, and any inhibition of this behavior would be unreasonable. Remember: unanimously.

Ms. Chayes expresses her distress that the highest court in the land legitimized bribery as business as usual. She had been in those "shithole" countries where she might have expected this, but seeing it in the U.S. was unfamiliar to her. She adds that in her experience in the Muslim Middle East, the population was not so much persuaded by the religious extremism of terrorists as by their honesty. The corruption of the Afghan government installed by the U.S. is what drove the Afghan population into the arms of the Taliban.

Both lower courts were persuaded this was a clear case of bribery, but the Supreme Court acquitted McDonnell unanimously.

She also examines the historical context of corruption, often referring us to the post-Civil-War "Gilded Age" as a model for the corruption that afflicts the U.S. now. A few excerpts:

p.81 "For, if this plunge into the history of the Gilded Age delivers one certainty, it is this: there is no way to access infinite wealth without rigging the system. No one becomes a billionaire honestly.

p. 102 "Given [the repetition of criminal acts] across the years, such practices must be understood as part of Goldman [Sach]'s business model. It is for all intents and purposes a criminal entity."

Historian Thomas Ferguson has discovered [p128] "Elections don't really reflect a clash between voters with different visions for improving American's lives. elections boil down to 'conflicts within the business community'--or, framed another way, to rivalry among kleptocratic networks."

p. 132 In a pipeline dispute, Louisiana state probation and parole officers "acted, as in the Gilded Age Strike Commission report would have put it, in the double capacity of pipeline employees and state officers."

p.134 In corrupt militaries, paychecks and equipment are siphoned off by corrupt officers. "When a unit is attacked and [overrun , in this case, by Nigeria's Boko Haram, it is] not because the soldiers are unable to fight, but lack weapons, ammunitions and communications equipment, the soldiers on many occasions will [run] away." Chayes adds "Such men were being court-martialed for cowardice."

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

p. 135 "The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a glaring example of the abusive transfer of public wealth into the hands of private individuals, and of the consequences. But the methodds used were old. They have continued largely unchanged for decades--across administrations of both political parties."

p. 136 "…shortly after taking the presidential oath in 1993, Bill Clinton put Vice President Al Gore in charge of a grand initiative 'to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire National Government.' With the stated goal of increasing efficiency, says [muckraking reporter] Rasor, 'the Pentagon was able to get rid of those pesky investigators and auditors' and loosen contracting standards. Efficiency became the new morality.

"Sick at the sight of years of effort undone, Rasor turned to health care for some years. Now, she says, the situation 'is worse than I've ever seen it.'"

p. 139 "The networks [of corruption] woven by such relationships get thicker every time people switch places, landing jobs in the private sector in return for ignoring contract terms, or going back inside government after a stint with a contractor." It's the "revolving door."

p. 164 "Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan--a Reagan appointee, reappointed twice by Clinton--flatly opposed government supervision of the banking sector. Despite the criminality that had caused the S&L crisis…it was Greenspan's view that fraud should not even be prohibited by law."

p.174 Studies demonstrate "when different aspects of our identity join within a liberal or conservative affiliation, as ours increasingly do, we grow more tolerant of the gap between the policies we were hoping to see and what our favored leaders actually do in office. We ignore--or make excuses for--their deviations….That is a wonderful state of affairs for kleptocrats." Note: more broadly, this could include racism, xenophobia, etc. as methods kleptocrats use to divide and rule.

defunding the police is a start

Ironically, Ms. Chayes observes that big crises tend to encourage even the kleptocrats to abandon their obsession with adding zeroes to their bank accounts. Sad to say, we've certainly had that (more died from COVID-19 than in World War II and Vietnam combined), but I'm not sure it's been big enough.

Mark Dempsey

It's Simpler Than It Looks

The highest court in the land legitimized bribery