Don’t tell the global South how corrupt they are for taking a few petty bribes. Americans are not seen as corrupt because we only deal in the big denominations. Steal $2 trillion and you aren’t corrupt, you’re respectable.
Those ratings that castigate Afghanistan and some other poor countries as hopelessly “corrupt” always imply that the United States is not corrupt. This year’s report from Transparency International puts the US on a par with Austria, which is ridiculous. All kinds of people from politicians to businessmen would go to jail in Austria today if they engaged in practices that are quite common in the US.
While it is true that you don’t typically have to bribe your postman to deliver the mail in the US, in many key ways America’s political and financial practices make it in absolute terms far more corrupt than the usual global South suspects. After all, the US economy is worth over $18 trillion a year, so in our corruption, a lot more money changes hands.
1. A sure sign of corruption is an electoral outcome like 2016. An addled nonentity like Donald Trump got filthy rich via tax loopholes a predatory behavior in his casinos and other businesses, and then was permitted to buy the presidency with his own money. He was given billions of dollars in free campaign time every evening on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and other channels that should have been more even-handed, because they were in search of advertising dollars and Trump was a good draw. Then, too, the way the Supreme Court got rid of campaign finance reform and allowed open, unlimited secret buying of elections is the height of corruption. The permitting of massive black money in our elections was taken advantage of by the Russian Federation, which, having hopelessly corrupted its own presidential elections, managed to further corrupt the American ones, as well. Once ensconced in power, Trump Inc. has taken advantage of the power of White House to engage in a wide range of corrupt practices, including an attempt to sell visas to wealthy Chinese and the promotion of the Trump brand as part of diplomacy.
2. The rich are well placed to bribe our politicians to reduce taxes on the rich. The Koch brothers and other mega-rich troglodytes explicitly told Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan in 2017 that if the Republican Party, controlling all three branches of government, could not lower taxes on its main sponsors, there would be no billionaire backing of the party in the 2018 midterms. This threat of an electoral firing squad made the hundreds of bribe-takers in Congress sit up and take notice, and they duly gave away to the billionaire class $1.5 trillion in government services (that’s what Federal taxes are, folks, services–roads, schools, health inspections, implementation of anti-pollution laws–things that everyone benefits from and which won’t be there anymore. To the extent that the government will try to continue to provide those slashed services despite assessing no taxes on the people with the money to pay for them, it will run up an enormous budget deficit and weaken the dollar, which is a form of inflation in the imported goods sector. Inflation hits the poor the worst. As it stands, 3 American billionaires are worth, as much as the bottom 150 million Americans. That kind of wealth inequality hasn’t been seen in the US since the age of the robber barons in the nineteenth century. Both eras are marked by extreme corruption.
One sign of American corruption is the rapidity with which American society has become more unequal since the 1980s Reagan destruction of the progressive income tax. The wealthier the top 1 percent is, the more politicians it can buy to gather up even more of the country’s wealth. In my lifetime the top one percent has gone from holding 25% of the privately held wealth under Eisenhower to 38% today.
3. Instead of having short, publicly-funded political campaigns with limited and/or free advertising (as a number of Western European countries do), the US has long political campaigns in which candidates are dunned big bucks for advertising. They are therefore forced to spend much of their time fundraising, which is to say, seeking bribes. All American politicians are basically on the take, though many are honorable people. They are forced into it by the system. The campaign season should be shortened to 3 months (did we really need 2 years to get an outcome in which a fool like Trump is president?), and Congress should pass a law that winners of primaries don’t have to pay for political ads on tv and radio.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in 2012, soon thereafter French police actually went into his private residence searching for an alleged $50,000 in illicit campaign contributions from the L’Oreale heiress. I thought to myself, seriously? $50,000 in a presidential campaign? Our presidential campaigns cost a billion dollars each! $50,000 is a rounding error, not a basis for police action. Why, George W. Bush took millions from arms manufacturers and then ginned up a war for them, and the police haven’t been anywhere near his house.
American politicians don’t represent “the people.” With a few honorable exceptions, they represent the 1%. American democracy is being corrupted out of existence.
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4. Money and corruption have seeped so far into our media system that people can with a straight face assert that scientists aren’t sure human carbon emissions are causing global warming. Fox Cable News is among the more corrupt institutions in American society, purveying outright lies for the benefit of the fossil fuels billionaire class. The US is so corrupt that it is resisting the obvious urgency to slash carbon production. Virtually the entire Republican Party resists the firm consensus of all respected scientists in the world and the firm consensus of everybody else in the world save for a few denialists in English-speaking countries. This resistance to an urgent and dangerous reality comes about because they are bribed to take this stance. Even Qatar, its economy based on natural gas, freely admits the challenge of human-induced climate change. American politicians like Jim Inhofe are openly ridiculed when they travel to Europe for their know-nothingism on climate.
4. That politicians can be bribed to reduce regulation of industries like banking (what is called “regulatory capture”) means that they will be so bribed. Scott Pruitt, a Manchurian candidate from Big Oil, has single-handedly demolished the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of polluting industry. This assault on the health of American citizens on behalf of vampirical corporations is the height of corruption.
6. The US military budget is bloated and enormous, bigger than the military budgets of the next twelve major states. What isn’t usually realized is that perhaps half of it is spent on outsourced services, not on the military. It is corporate welfare on a cosmic scale. I’ve seen with my own eyes how officers in the military get out and then form companies to sell things to their former colleagues still on the inside. Precisely because it is a cesspool of large-scale corruption, Trump’s budget will throw over $100 billion extra taxpayer dollars at it.
7. The US has a vast gulag of 2.2 million prisoners in jail and penitentiary. There is an increasing tendency for prisons to be privatized, and this tendency is corrupting the system. It is wrong for people to profit from putting and keeping human beings behind bars. This troubling trend is made all the more troubling by the move to give extra-long sentences for minor crimes, to deny parole and to imprison people for life for e,g, three small thefts.
8. The National Security Agency’s domestic spying was a form of corruption in itself, and lends itself to corruption. With some 4 million government employees and private contractors engaged in this surveillance, it is highly unlikely that various forms of insider trading and other corrupt practices are not being committed. If you knew who Warren Buffett and George Soros were calling every day, that alone could make you a killing. The American political class wouldn’t have defended this indefensible invasion of citizens’ privacy so vigorously if someone somewhere weren’t making money on it.
9. As for insider trading, it turns out Congress undid much of the law it hastily passed forbidding members, rather belatedly, to engage in insider trading (buying and selling stock based on their privileged knowledge of future government policy). That this practice only became an issue recently is another sign of how corrupt the system is.
10. Asset forfeiture in the ‘drug war’ is corrupting police departments and the judiciary. Although some state legislatures are dialing this corrupt practice back, it is widespread and a danger to the constitution.
So don’t tell the global South how corrupt they are for taking a few petty bribes. Americans are not seen as corrupt because we only deal in the big denominations. Steal $2 trillion and you aren’t corrupt, you’re respectable.
Watch | Corruption Perceptions Index 2017
Top Photo | Rit Picone of Newpaltz, N.Y., carries an American flag upside down as a symbol of protest against the influence of money in politics. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, his new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st; he is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan)l He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon; he has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles; His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.