Age of New Corruption

The second half of the Eighteen Century is a time of particular interest to us because it was the time when classical American thinking on government was formed, first in the revolution when American republicanism was thought out and then during the constitutional ferment when governmental organization was considered. At that time, the advanced segment of British political thinkers (from progressive Whigs to radicals) all fixed on one feature of the prevailing mechanics of British government as the predominant evil, and they called it “Old Corruption.” Identifying and then rooting out that corruption was particularly difficult, because freedom of speech or press was not a feature of the British constitution. So the first rumblings had to come from an anonymous insider, and the Letters of Junius from 1769 to 1772, which detailed in language like a rapier the corruption of the ministry of the Duke of Grafton, became hugely popular (in both Britain and the colonies) and spurred radical thinking on the evils of corruption, how it distorted British constitutional order, and how it could be eliminated.

British corruption was not simply pay-offs to government officials. It was the traffic in patronage, office, pensions, monopolies, licenses and in fact everything that could be bought and sold. And the way government looked at the sum of goods and services was that everything could be bought and sold. It was not just that ministers or members of parliament could be bought. It was that the entire mechanism of government operated on the basis of mutual advantage. On top of the incestuous relationship between Crown, ministers and MPs (and the “voting” for MPs was profoundly corrupt itself), the government appointed clerics (there was an official church, you remember) and gave out substantial advertising and other emoluments to the press, so that both God and public opinion were reliably bought. Most American thinkers believed that it was the fault of a monarchical government. Thomas Paine in Common Sense attributed the failure of the British government to the fact that “the corrupt influence of the crown, by having all the places in its disposal, hath so effectually swallowed up the power, and eaten out the virtue of the house of commons (the republican part in the constitution) that the government of England is nearly as monarchical as that of France or Spain.” The authors of the Federalist Papers thought the evil was to be found in “faction” and tried to devise a system where self-interests would be played against each other so that no one interest could gain control of the government. William Cobbett, once a rabid monarchist but radicalized during the corruption of the Napoleonic wars, attributed the problem to a corrupt press (among other things):

“What can be the cause of this perverseness? It is not perverseness: it is roguerycorruption, and tyranny. The tyrant, the unfeeling tyrant, squeezes the labourers for gain’s sake; and the corrupt politician and literary or tub rogue find an excuse for him by pretending that it is not want of food and clothing, but want of education, that makes the poor, starving wretches thieves and robbers. If the press, if only the press, were to do its duty, or but a tenth part of its duty, this hellish system could not go on. But it favours the system by ascribing the misery to wrong causes.” Rural Rides (T. Nelson & Sons: [?1934] (originally published in 1830)), p 274.

I took you on this little trip to quainter times when corruption merely kept substantial numbers in dire poverty because the 2010 edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Barometer is now available. It’s conclusion, no surprise: The world is becoming more corrupt. (This apparently is not the illusion of us old fogies who remember a mythical past of honor and respect.) And while the usual suspects top the list (and once again our clients, Iraq and Afghanistan, have front row seats in the corruption slop fest), what it has to say about us is particularly interesting. Here in what we like to call the “West” the largest threat of corruption perceived is not from the police or the judiciary (the seats of corruption in petty dictatorships), or even corporations (rated particularly low on the corruption scale in the US), but rather in political parties. This may be one of those instances where Lincoln was absolutely right about not being able to fool all the people all the time. In our country in particular, business need not rip off customers directly; they need only to pay off politicians to get exactly what they need for their bottom line. The same is true of every other “interest” that has what is the currency of corruption–that is, currency. Of course in our wealthy country it takes a lot more currency to effect a good bribe than in two-bit tyrannies. In places like Afghanistan, as the Wikileaks cables have shown us, the entire establishment can be floated essentially on the money that our military loses and thinks so little of it doesn’t even worry about it–with, of course, the occasional gratuities from Iran and the hard-working opium growers and smugglers. In our country, in order to bring big business to the table with big checkbooks you have to organize on a large scale. And fortunately that’s why we have political parties.

Now, the parties take a different approach to corruption. It is really not true that all politicians are the same. If that were true we’d have more of the likes of Jeff Sessions, Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman. (There’s a scary thought, no?) There are indeed fundamental differences in the approach to corruption

As for the New GOP, corruption is the purpose of the party. They make no pretense of standing for anything except policy for the highest bidder. This has been evident since the charming days of Jack Abramoff, when Corruption was King. The combination of big money, big money facilitators, the “professionalization” of lobbyists and the unabashed corruption of a “leader” like the recently convicted Tom DeLay made it a perfect storm for corruption. As the Washington Post put it in the 2005 article entitled “The Road to Riches Is Called K Street“:

The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to more than 34,750 while the amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by as much as 100 percent. Only a few other businesses have enjoyed greater prosperity in an otherwise fitful economy.

The lobbying boom has been caused by three factors, experts say: rapid growth in government, Republican control of both the White House and Congress, and wide acceptance among corporations that they need to hire professional lobbyists to secure their share of federal benefits.

“There’s unlimited business out there for us,” said Robert L. Livingston, a Republican former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and now president of a thriving six-year-old lobbying firm. “Companies need lobbying help.”

Lobbying firms can’t hire people fast enough. Starting salaries have risen to about $300,000 a year for the best-connected aides eager to “move downtown” from Capitol Hill or the Bush administration. Once considered a distasteful post-government vocation, big-bucks lobbying is luring nearly half of all lawmakers who return to the private sector when they leave Congress, according to a forthcoming study by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

Ah, the good old days of new corruption! It was so unabashed that like the pigs entering the farmer’s house at the beginning of the revolt in Animal Farm, lobbyists were invited on the floor of Congress to draft and mark-up bills. John Boehner handed out tobacco company checks to Republicans before a vote on a subsidy for tobacco growers. Jack Abramoff flew Congressmen to golf in Scotland. And Tom DeLay told lobbyists the rules: only hire Republicans and pay the amount determined by the schedule in his “book.” The GOP pioneered organized New Corruption.

The GOP remains true to its new creed even up to today. We learn that its single-minded obsession with ensuring that the filthy rich continue to bleed this country dry trumps all other concerns. Of course it would trump issues of social justice and the country’s welfare, that goes without saying for a Republican. But we learn today that they won’t even let a vote on DADT to go through until they get the vigorish for rich people, dead rich people and corporations they demand. Imagine how the GOP has changed. They used to jump at the chance of voting against gays, women, minorities, science, etc. to shore up their Neanderthal base (the ones who are too poor to vote for them for self-interest, so must be motivated by hate). But stakes are high. The GOP rejects an opportunity of throwing red meat to its confederate base, just to make sure a day doesn’t unnecessarily go by which could bring concern to the accountants of the plutocrats.

The New Democrat (that phoenix that has risen from the party of FDR, Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey) treats corruption not as something that they can squeeze from economic actors (but, hey, if a few crumbs land in their personal campaign chests, no harm in that, right?) but rather as the currency of good government. Bill Clinton’s administration, and the Democratic Leadership Council which is behind this New Democratic Party, saw this as “triangulation.” You give the GOP just about everything they want, and you can dry up their cash. The problem with that approach was that it made Republicans mad. And you can just imagine what they’ll resort to if they are driven by the kind of rage that Republicans fall into when deprived of big money: they will even seek your impeachment.

Barack Obama is much more cool than Bill Clinton. It’s like the difference between late 40s Count Basie and late 50s Miles Davis. Barack Obama is so cool, he may actually have less affect than David Duchovny. So his way of dealing with big money is simply to give them what they want so they don’t interfere with the policies he wants. So in the health care debate, he simply gave Big Pharma the assurance that he wouldn’t allow the country to get cheaper drugs from abroad and he told them that the government would not use its bargaining power to drive the price down. In other words, he gave them a monopoly. All he requested was they not attack the bill. Simple, no? This is the “genius” of his government: Just pre-emptively cave to get part of what you want. Or at least to get to fight (tooth and nail, but that’s done by others) for part of what you want. We saw that this week with his “compromise” with the GOP. No fighting, just pre-emptive caving. He gave them the upper-income tax breaks, AND a deal on federal estate taxes, AND included all the tax breaks he used as a “sweetener” for GOP support for his stimulus (which they unanimously voted against). In exchange he got a shorter extension of unemployment benefits than the extension for the tax cuts. And even before “negotiating” he announced a relatively meaningless (for the deficit) freeze on federal salaries.

And yesterday he did the same thing in the Middle East negotiation. He dropped US insistence on a short-term settlement freeze. In exchange he got kind words from the Israeli government that this would in fact “help” negotiations. Before finally caving, the Administration tried to buy the Israeli government off with 20 F-35 stealth airplanes and some assurances of UN votes. When that failed, the Administration just caved altogether.

This strategy of buying off the parties opponents has some good government types (i.e., hopelessly out-of-date Democrats and liberals) enraged. In turn, the rage has the Obama people upset. Didn’t the Democrats know what they were buying? It surely wasn’t political experience or reliable ideology, because, frankly, he just hadn’t been around long enough to establish any credentials. What they were buying was a flavor of the month. After George W. Bush we were so desperate for anybody who said he wasn’t George W. Bush that we took the freshest thing to come along. We picked a rock star, not a statesman. We should have known. After all he was the “rock star” that Rupert Murdoch put his money on. And Rupert Murdoch is certainly not someone who spends his money and influence unwisely. He knows how New Corruption works.

It’s time to go back to square one. Junius, where are you?

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