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"On Corruption In America And What Is At Stake" By Sarah Chayes

book cover for "On Corruption in America"

Joe Donahue: From the prize-winning journalist Sarah Chayes, internationally recognized as an expert on government corruption throughout the world, the new book, "On Corruption in America," offers an unflinching look at how corruption has taken hold in our own country and how the corrupt operate: through sophisticated networks in which government officials, key private-sector interests, and out-and-out criminals interweave. Their main objective: not to serve the public, but to maximize returns for network members.

Bringing to bear all of her knowledge, grasp, sense of history and observation, Sarah Chayes writes in her new book, that the United States is showing signs similar to some of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Sarah Chayes’ remarkable trajectory has led her from reporting from Paris for National Public Radio, to working on the ground in Kandahar, Afghanistan in the midst of a burgeoning insurgency, to serving as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

And it's a great pleasure to welcome Sarah Chayes to The Roundtable. Sarah, thank you so much for being with us.

Sarah Chayes: The pleasure is mine. I've got deep family roots in the area. So it's really terrific to be on WAMC.

Very, very nice to have you back here. I must say that this book is fascinating, and it seems to me so timely. And yet, I guess we could probably pick this up anytime throughout our history and corruption would be something that we should be interested in reading about. What led you to want to explore it in such detail?

Corruption is something we should be interested in all the time. I do think, however, that there are periods in history where corruption is no longer just the work of one, or a few, or even a lot of venal individuals with their hands in the cookie jar. Unfortunately, that's how it's almost always presented. But there are periods in history where these people who are addicted to money, who measure themselves not by what they offer to their communities, but rather by how much wealth they have accumulated. They gather together in networks that basically capture the political and economic systems of their communities, their countries- Often transnationally. And we're in that kind of a situation. It's a qualitatively different type of situation than when corruption is something that of course exists at some sort of low level and you've got a couple of bad apples and you've got decent institutions that are able to keep it more or less in check. That is not where we are today. We are in a situation not just in the United States, but also in the United States, where corrupt networks are running the show. And oh, by the way, they don't all just reside on one side of the political divide.

I want to get into this idea of networks in, in just a moment. You mentioned, ‘addicted to’ you used that phrase. And there's a line in the book, where you say: "Like a drug, money can make its addicts betray almost anyone". That's, that's time honored, but it does give you- This is really all about money, isn't it?

Yes. And that's why I start "On Corruption in America", not- I mean, there's a prologue that's in America. But the first chapter of the book doesn't take place in America, it takes place, you know, basically in western Anatolia in 600 BC. And that may come as a surprise to people but that is very deliberate. There are insights about humans and money and their relationship that were laid down then, in myth. You know? And we discard, now we use the word myth to mean, you know, just something that's not true- Wrong. Myths or sacred stories are a really priceless storehouse of wisdom about ourselves. And so I looked at the myth of Midas, remember that guy? The one who you know was-

Sure, the Midas touch.

The Midas touch. Well, isn't it interesting that in current American English, the Midas touch is seen as a positive, right? Like we're supposed to be jealous of it?


That's not the sense of the myth at all. In the myth, Midas asks that everything he touch "turn to gold". And the god is not happy, thinks that was a really dumb wish. And boy in about 30 seconds Midas does too, because he realizes he's about to starve to death, because everything he puts his hand on, be at a flower, be it a peach, be it, you know, a sheaf of wheat, be it water, turns to gold. Well he can take that stuff to market, but he can't live on it. And live in the fullest sense of the word. And so it turns out there was a Midas he lived when and where money was invented- Money is a different way of storing and transferring wealth, and that is a myth about money. And it's a myth about how this adoration of money above everything else leads people to convert everything of intrinsic and irreplaceable value into coins, right? Except today it's not even coins, it's zeros in bank accounts. It's zeros, it's electronic signals.

Right. Sarah Chayes is our guest. The name of the new book is "On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake". I teased a moment ago that we would talk about networks. This is a big part of the book, which is about and I mentioned it in the introduction, about this very sophisticated network and networks that are created. So how did you start thinking of them in that, in that, in those terms of these being networks?

If you take the people who adore money as basically suffering from the Midas disease, right? The next phase, once you're in a race with no finish line for zeros in bank accounts, what you start doing is connecting- You know, because most people, regular people don't particularly like that way of running the world, to benefit the very, very wealthy, right? So in order to keep the rest of us down, they organize themselves into very sophisticated networks. That are minorities, right, but they're very, they're powerful minorities in- And what's difficult about them is they cross all of the different barriers in our society that we think of as separating different sectors: be it the public and private sector, be it even the criminal sector, be it the various identity divides, and so on. And, and therefore, these, these networks have a grasp on all kinds of different capabilities and talents and ways of getting around stuff that, you know, we may overlook, because we think of the public and private sector, for example, as being separate. Whereas, I mean, take a look at our government today. It's almost entirely run by the private sector at the top, private sector- I mean, by a very specific subset of the business world, which is to say, in particular vulture capitalists and, and mega-billionaires. That's not the broad cross section of our private sector. But what it is, is people who have made wealth maximization, their primary objective in life. I'm not sure they're the right people to be, you know, in charge of the public interest, but they are today. And that's what these networks do. If they're always cycling their members back and forth, and through, and around into all of these different sectors: public sector, business, business sector, nonprofit sector- You always find some kind of a foundation or a so-called charity always in these systems. I've seen it all around the world and you see it here today. And as I say, the out-and-out criminal sector in particular trafficking of various kinds, because you need people who can cross borders. But also what in kind of wonky talk, I might call "informal instruments of force", that is to say, unauthorized violence. You, you have that all over the place in Nigeria with the Area boys, in, in Honduras, you have basically armed assassins, who are very often former members of security services who do sort of plausible, plausibly deniable assassinations, on behalf of these networks. You also have in Honduras, alliances with the gangs, the city gangs, I mean, the police and the gangs are in alliance. And so this is a classic feature of these networks is to have both a formal instrument of force, either a police unit or an army unit, or something like that. And these kind of un-uniformed thugs.

I'm fascinated by what you were saying a moment ago about how much of our public sector has turned to the private sector. And let us just for a moment pause and look at what we're seeing now with the post office. So this is a public entity, that by, it by this design now seems to be putting it in the hands of someone who will try to privatize it. So what are we seeing? Number one. And number two: Many of us are fully aware of what is happening and yet it's still happening.

Great questions. So the first point is that the gentleman who has been put in charge of the post office is himself from the private sector.


He is deeply invested in private delivery companies. Okay, so you move someone from that sector over into the public sector. Now what is he doing? He's taking a public institution that is beloved by Americans, that is a service. And he's essentially hollowing it out. That's what you see, all over the place, in this country and elsewhere, when, when these kleptocratic or corrupt networks get ahold of government, they do- Their job is to- The people who hold government office, their job is to do one of two- One of three things: One is pillage, literally turn the government institution into a revenue stream for the network. And you can see that happening in our DOD, Department of Defense.


Instrumentalize, weaponize the public agency to serve the purposes of the network, and you see that with the Justice branch. Or if you can't do that, you hollow it out, you render it incapable. And that's what we see happening with the post office, is a deliberate effort to vandalize, frankly, a public institution. And this, again, I mean, these are behaviors that I have charted over the years in countries like Honduras or Afghanistan or Nigeria or Serbia or Uzbekistan. And I have to tell you that it was distressing to confirm how far along these practices are already in the United States and let me reinforce, this is not just the Trump administration.


That's a really important and unpleasant to many, element of this book is the degree to which, "On Corruption in America", points to this scourge as not just the doing of one political party. And so all of us, whomever we vote for, need to sharpen our eyesight a little bit. We all seem to have 20/20 vision when we're looking at the other camp, and we're, you know, uncovering and highlighting corruption in the other camp. And boy do we all get really near sighted when it comes to looking at our friends and allies.

I'm so glad you brought that up because the final section of the book is entitled "The Pattern," and it goes from 1980 to today. Just the, the chapter headings "The Turning", "The Validation", "Courting Calamity". But that gives us the sense, as you write beautifully in this book, that this is all been we're- We build a foundation, and now, the, the erection of this corruption, has, is almost, "We're seeing what we built now."

Yes. And the other thing, "On Corruption in America," does is take a look at the last time. As I said before, although corruption always exists, just like sort of violence always exists. There's a qualitative difference between kind of ordinary level corruption and when corrupt networks have entirely captured the system. The last time that was the case in the United States was roughly between about 1870 and about 1935, late 1930s, like that. We had a bit of a respite between about 1940 and 1980. And then it starts again. And so I look at that earlier period to give us some insight into what we're living through today and that's why I called that chapter "The Pattern". Because the pattern I'm talking about is the pattern from that earlier period which we are now mimicking, almost exactly, and the problem is that that earlier period delivered us into World War, World War Two, and the Great Depression. That is to say anyone who thinks we're in a crisis now, take a look at where this led us last century: two World Wars, two genocides, mass starvation in Europe, the nuclear bomb, a pandemic that dwarfs this one and a global economic meltdown. I mean, that's what could be in store for us. If we don't really get serious about this.

I want to get to that serious part in a moment because you, you do write in the epilogue about the things that, that you believe we need to do and to take action on this. You said earlier that this did not be with the Trump administration, as you outlined beautifully in the book, but they certainly have taken advantage of what has, has been, as I said, as has been these building blocks over, over time. And I'm curious as to getting back to this, something that I mentioned earlier about how we witness it, and are aware of it, many of us, and yet feel powerless and doing anything about it. Which will eventually get us into how we can take care of it.

Let me dwell on the Trump administration for just a moment to say that, and, and that will bring us back to myths.


One of the reasons that I was so taken by mythology, and what it has to teach us is, I almost feel as though- I mean, mythology is, of course, I mean, its symbolic communication, but it's a little bit of caricature, right? I mean, the, the evildoers in mythology are really evil, right? You know, and the, and the heroes, of course, are giants and, you know, all of this kind of thing. You look at some of the people walking the stages of our reality today, and they are caricatures, you know? And so I was struck by this feeling that, wow, we are being slapped in the face with this, we're almost being forced to live our mythology, because we're not capable of drawing the lessons from the, you know, from the stories that had been passed down. And that's in a way how I see the Trump administration. It is an exaggeration of the phenomenon that has been building as you put it since at least 1980. And, you know, this is a pretty extreme version of it. And if this isn't enough to shake us into some kind of action- Well, there's always worse, it can always get worse. And so, as for the feeling of helplessness, of course, these networks are sophisticated. They're very wealthy, they control all kinds of levers of power and influence. But you know what? They're a tiny minority. Our power isn't material, we don't have the money they do. But we have the numbers, and they're terrified of the numbers. And that's why they work very hard to keep us divided. So the first thing- That is why I'm so committed to not falling into the trap of the identity divides, be they inborn, or be they chosen, such as our political affiliations. The other point to make which is a sobering one is in order to address your question, I looked at that in the Gilded Age also. What People do then? Well, I found they did a heck of a lot. There were massive and repeated strikes across the really dire landscape of early industrial labor conditions. I mean, it was, you know, 12 hour shifts and no safety measures and, and child labor and you name it, right? Well, I mean, I'm speaking to you from West Virginia, and we're back to 12 hour shifts here, with hardly a protest. I mean, you've just recently started being, started seeing significant protests, a lot of it not covered in much of the media. But there is protests against some of the more appalling working conditions, the sliding schedules, the no breaks and people having to wear diapers to work, because they got no breaks, and things like that, that are frankly dehumanizing. But back in the 18th- Sorry the 19th century and early 20th century, I mean, the strikes were bitter and they were viciously put down. And that went on and on and on. You had some very creative political thinking that again, got pretty twisted in how it was described and labeled. And you had an incredible rural movement. That I think, you know, it's really interesting for a lot of AMC listeners, because a lot of the most sophisticated and creative reformed thinking was going on, you know, some of it in places like upstate New York, some of it, you know, a lot further west, in places like West Texas, and Missouri and things like that, and I was very impressed by that, because we seem to think that you either have to have an internet connection or live in a city, you know, to do creative thinking, and boy, that wasn't the environment that these people were inventing a flexible currency system, direct election of senators A variety of ways of collectively purchasing their agricultural inputs, and collectively putting them up for wholesale sales to wholesalers in the North and East, and even overseas. A lot of those were crushed, those movements were crushed. I mean, those ideas were crushed. And indeed, the movements themselves in their own time, didn't actually take. And that was very sobering to me. What I discovered was that it really took those repeated calamities of the early 20th century that I just mentioned, to drive this nation and much of the rest of the industrialized world into a more reformist place, a place of a little bit more sense of solidarity that then allowed for a lot of the reforms of the New Deal and afterwards, and for the succeeding decades, frankly, all the way through the 1970s. To take root now they all had to be fought for, but at least the fighting achieved something. Whereas for the 70 years prior to the calamities, it really didn't get anywhere, and that's what I'm afraid of. That's the pattern that we risk to replicate today, is it going to take us that level of calamity to wake us up?

You write in the epilogue of the book: "There will be no defeating this Hydra without changing our ways without putting in effort," without traveling a little further- "Without traveling a little farther or making do with a product that isn't exactly what we thought we wanted or getting it delivered in a week, instead of a day or taking time to consider our choices or generating new ones or again and again, demanding better of our leaders. But I'm not talking martyrdom here. So please, let's stop obsessing about what we might have to give up. What we're doing now is not bringing us joy." So how do we take the next step from that with those rules intact?

Thank you. I mean, if money is the drug that's destroying us at the moment, a second drug- You know, that money drug is, as we all know, concentrated among a very, very few of us. Here's the earth sets drug that they give the rest of us, you know, to deactivate us: It's called convenience. What- How many things do we compromise for convenience? How much convenience do we really need? How much happier does it really make us now? I don't want to say that, you know, like, "Let's throw out our washing machines," you- Like again, I'm not asking for martyrdom here. I'm asking to consider our choices and to weigh them up a little bit. But I'm also saying, while, I think that conscious buying is a very important way to reward people who don't make money to center their existence, and to create an infrastructure of smaller businesses that we can actually interact with and, therefore have some oversight on, because they're in our neighborhood, and they might actually listen to us and things like that. I think that's really important. But that can never be a substitute for concerted political action. We need a public sector. And we need a public sector that is run in the public interest, not the private interest, and so you know, where you're thinking boycott to punish something that ought to be in concert with a, you know, concerted political demand for a specific policy reform. That's what, you know, the bus boycott was, right? It wasn't just a boycott of buses, it was about we want a different policy outcome. So we ought to think about that. I also think we ought to get very serious on both the state and the federal level, about what are the rules in terms of conflict of interest, insider trading, gifts, bribery, that sort of thing. Take a look at your state level statutes, and join with your neighbors and see are they strong enough? Are they being enforced? How much you know how much enforcement is being put against corporate crime and corruption, as opposed to street crime? Corporate crime and corruption hurts way more people than street crime does, but it doesn't it's not seen in that light. And so join with your neighbors think about maybe what a basic ethics pledge ought to be on the part of state as well as national care. To date, and it has to have to do with money in politics. We got to stop. If we're a civic communion, that's what this nation is about. We've got to stop having it be purchasable by money. Money isn't speech. So let's start curtailing that every way we can,

At the risk of sounding overly cynical, and, and because you were, you were talking about convenience. We could also distill that down to laziness. And it seems that we have a laziness that I worry about, that will read your words and say okay, but we'll let somebody else do it. But also, not only do we have laziness, but we also, evidenced by the wearing of a mask, that we also have an egotism and if you put those two together, how, how much how much faith can we have that this can be eradicated in in some form?

We don't have a right to have faith or not safe to do it. We just have to get in it. Now, here's the other thing and I and I end on corruption in America back in the realm of mythology, because once again, it is incredibly instructive. So one metaphor that I use for the, these kleptocratic networks which again it's a real wonky way of saying it is the Hydra remember the many headed. You know, beast from- Monster from Greek mythology that every time you lopped off ahead, two more would grow? Well, guess what? Even Hercules couldn't defeat the Hydra. The greatest hero there was couldn't not alone he couldn't. And that's the answer to your question is, this thing needs all of us. And it needs all of us. No matter what our different skills are. We're not all good at everything, like I'm a terrible manager. I would be a terrible movement leader myself because I'm just not that good at managing people. But maybe I've got some other skill. You know, maybe I know how to sew. And so I sew masks or I sew banners, to proclaim, you know, some of these new ethical principles. Find what you know how to do, and do it and you know what, you're very quickly going to find that it's a heck of a lot of fun. And that's the real message here is, yeah, it's going to be a fight. No, I can't guarantee you we're going to win. I can guarantee however, that if you get in the fight, you're gonna have fun. Let's make it a celebration.

The book is simply brilliant. It is entitled "On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake." It is published by Knopf. Sarah Chayes, what a great pleasure to have you on the program. I thank you so much for sharing with us this morning.

Thank you and thank you to everyone who tunes in and listens to public radio.


Originally aired August 2020.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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