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Stephen Gottlieb: Kleptocracy's Consequences

America, until recently, was one of the world’s cleanest places to do business. You didn’t have to pay people off to do what you wanted – indeed you couldn’t. Regulation was not about having a handout – it was about protecting the public. Public servants weren’t allowed to take anything for doing their jobs – from the president on down. Your job was your job. Taking anything was corrupt.

That’s changed. The power of campaign contributions helped undermine the moral spine of the American economy. Lobbyists and campaign contributors who spent enough on campaigns got huge perks for their companies and stuck the costs to you. The gains are enormous. You and I would be happy with 5-20% returns on investments. Kevin Philips calculated returns to investments on large campaign contributions ranging from 5 thousand percent to 1.4 million percent.[1] Pretty good for a day’s work.

Trump compounded that. He made it clear that everything was up for sale, up to and including American foreign policy. Americans didn’t understand the two-century old language of the Constitution and had no understanding of the significance of the emoluments clauses. Those clauses said simply that America is not up for sale. Corruption is a crime and presidents must be above it. Yet Trump was ready to bend American foreign policy to reward the Russians – so grateful was he for their illegal help in the campaign that he virtually took apart the free world that had been a thorn in Putin’s side. Trump has also been prepared to ignore all sorts of damage to public health from toxins in the air, water, food and drugs in order to please his contributors. Just please keep the money flowing. And stay in Trump properties. Anything to publicize Trump properties.

The consequences are visible all around the world. People live well where government stays on the up and up.[2] People live in poverty where the government is corrupt. Democracy does not survive corruption.[3] When everyone is on the take, no institutions are reliable.

It was obvious in Iran. They had very well-trained people but never mind trying to get anything done. You need what they called parti, what we call influence. Projects that were supposed to be built waited years or decades until someone who cared and had the necessary connections demanded its completion. Sometimes, in the years I was there, projects awaited the Shah’s imminent arrival when they would suddenly be done so he could see it. But how many projects could the Shah check on himself.

Corruption is the beginning of the end. When everything is up for grabs, nothing important to the country’s welfare gets done. Some people call that capitalism, but when capitalism lives without boundaries, the people live without, and the country flounders. It loses all the sinews, infrastructure, education, training and research that make the country strong. Conservatives once understood that. But Trump’s people aren’t principled – thieves couldn’t care less.

Conservatives kept yelling “Love it or leave it” in the sixties and seventies, meaning don’t try to fix it. But if we don’t fix the corruption you can say good-by to America as number one anything. We’re on the downward slide, where the slope is very steep, and when you hit bottom there are no handholds left to climb back out. That America is not great or number one; that America is a third world laughingstock – you thought you were so great, but look at you now.[4] And none of us will live well except maybe the tenth of the one percent.

[1] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy 326 (2002).

[2] Adam Przeworski, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being (2000).

[3] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (2003).

[4] Let me recommend Rex Smith, “Is this what our collapse looks like?” Albany Times Union, Sept. 5, 2020, A7 for an excellent discussion from a complementary perspective.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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