Benjamin Franklin, corruption, US Government, Capitalism
“A republic if you can keep it?” Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from ken fager / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How and why corrupt political and business systems have become normalized, how they determine the shape of our government, and how they undermine democracy.

Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, historian and journalist Sarah Chayes, argues that we can’t fix our floundering democracy until we face — and fix — our current levels of corruption.

In her view, we are in a “pandemic of corruption,” fostered by a network of corrupt businesses and political leaders worldwide. Before we can begin to set things right, however, we first have to grasp what modern-day corruption really is. 

Behind this evolving crisis, says Chayes, is a shift in the very definition of power. Where society’s leaders once at least paid lip service to the concept of public service, today the only measure of social status, she contends, is money:  The pursuit of power has turned into a no-holds-barred scramble for more and more wealth.  

Chayes explains how we got here, and how we must build a coalition of integrity that transcends ideology, one that has its roots in equity and the public interest. 

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Full Text Transcript:
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Much has been written and talked about of late, about the way in which the current threats to democracy here in America may resemble autocratic regimes and democratic retrenching throughout the world. Examining those parallels has become, for better or worse, a college industry; but there is another layer to this. One that undergirds the weakening of democracy and that is the way in which corruption — the corruption of our politics, of our corporate and legal institutions — has chipped away at any trust in the fundamental institutions of democracy.

Politics, business, economics, even our entertainment amusement complex, are all part of a vast network of private sector interests that are often antithetical to democracy. In other words, we can’t fix one without the other. To better understand this, perhaps the words of Arthur Jensen, as written by Paddy Chayefsky all the way back in 1976 in the movie Network, can bring it into bold relief.

Speaker 1: You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples, you get up on your little 21-inch screen, and how about America and democracy. There is no America, there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.

Jeff: Understanding this corruption of democracy has been the work of my guest, Sarah Chayes. As National Public Radio’s Paris correspondent, Sarah Chayes has reported on Europe, North Africa, and the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She spent a decade on the ground in Afghanistan, including service to two commanders of the international forces there. She’s renowned for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications, which she has probed on five continents, and most recently the United States, which she writes about in her new book, On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake. It is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Chayes here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Sarah, thanks so much for joining us.

Sarah Chayes: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Jeff: It’s great to have you here. Do we even know what corruption is anymore? You begin the book by talking about the case of Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and it really brings into bold relief this idea that we’re not even clear what corruption is anymore.

Sarah: I couldn’t agree with you more, Jeff. And in fact, I think there are two competing understandings of what corruption is, held by two different groups within populations, both here and in other countries in the world. Members of elites who troll the political and economic leaders of a given country tend to define corruption quite narrowly.

In the United States, the Supreme Court decision that you mentioned was a unanimous decision that essentially defined corruption down to a one-to-one transaction between two parties, in which material goods and money are exchanged for the exercise of a very, very narrowly defined exercise of public office. And then there’s the common understanding of corruption, which is much broader.

I went, I think it was 2018, speaking with voters and non-voters in West Virginia, which is where I live, and I simply asked them, “What does corruption mean to you?” And their response — and it was clearly a cross-party line — was basically that whoever has the money, obtains the government decisions that they want. One woman said, and it was fascinating, “Money washes hands.”

I found that a really interesting way of putting it because what she was saying is that it’s money that defines value and even virtue in our society, no longer the ineffable, immaterial values of integrity, of selflessness, of wisdom, and judgment. Those things no longer define a clean person; it’s money that gives you the badge.

Jeff: Is there something that has grown up in this country, in American democracy, that makes that inevitable in some ways, that if we look at it historically, there’s almost — and hindsight is always easy — but there’s almost no question that that’s where we would get to.

Sarah: I totally disagree with that actually. And in fact, I disagree with the implication of the piece of tape you ran, which says basically that business running society is inevitable and has been true of human society to an equivalent extent throughout history. That’s a completely ahistorical way of looking at the course of human events. And the fact is that for… Remember Homo sapiens goes way back before recorded history. And so one of the things I look at in On Corruption in America, believe it or not, it’s quite a ride, I take you to ancient Greece, and I take you also to human evolution. And the fact is we were egalitarian hunter-gatherers, relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherers for 150,000 years. This hierarchical capture of political and economic power is an artifact of settled civilizations approximately 15,000 years. So in fact, we, as human beings, have laid down and even evolved an egalitarian principle.

And I think that fact… but we’re also primates and primates are on the whole highly hierarchical with the alpha pair basically hogging the bulk of shared resources. So we’ve got these two tendencies in us. Both of them are human nature. And that fact — together with this dichotomy that I described before between the alpha pair view of corruption as only a very minor and tawdry change between two venal individuals and the much larger systemic understanding of corruption on the part of the population — those two things help explain the conflicts that we get into over the elites not understanding.

I’ve often heard, for example, people say, “Well, why don’t Americans care about corruption? Why don’t ordinary Americans care about corruption?” I’m saying, “Are you kidding? Are you kidding they don’t care about it?” Take a look at the absenteeism in terms of voting. Take a look at the mavericks on the right and the left who blew open the American political system with very different motivations, in my view, but in that they both blew it open in 2016.

And so there’s this different appreciation of corruption and its impact, depending on whether you are in the “alpha” category or in the “ordinary people” category. But also, internally, we are constantly struggling between our primate hierarchical, I want to say, tendencies, and our revolutionarily egalitarian human tendencies. That’s the revolution that Homo sapiens imposed on the primate order. Sorry to get into the few past years. [laughs] [crosstalk]

Jeff: No, it’s OK.

Sarah: But I think that’s where I get very skeptical when people say, “Humans have always been a certain way and it’s timeless and unchanging.” And so the other thing I take a look at in On Corruption in America to address that question is I believe that we are in, sorry for the overused pun, but a pandemic of corruption worldwide at the moment. There is a level of capture of political economies by networked corrupt business and government leaders across the world that really was only rivaled in recent history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And I think it’s pretty easy to find clear evidence of a difference between these two periods that extended from the Gilded Age and today, being periods of high corruption and systemic corruption, and the period from about let’s say approximately 1935, 1940 through until about 1980, where there were some curbs placed upon business activity. And again, I’m not saying that was a corruption-free period; what I’m trying to get at is that the systemic capture of political and economic power was less acute at the time than it is now.

Jeff: Is there, or should there be, a difference or distinction between the corruption of power and the corruption of money? Because there seemingly is a difference and yet they flow together so freely.

Sarah: They do, Jeff. And here’s how I would characterize the distinction: I think it depends on what is the currency of social status. What I found was really interesting was that in the wake of the mass calamities of the early 20th century, meaning World War II, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression and eventually… sorry World War I. World War I, the Spanish flu, the Great depression, and eventually World War II; those mass shared calamities brought a virtue of public spiritedness to the fore in a way that it had not been so admired in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.

And so there was a rivalry for power, but power in the guise of public service. Since about 1980, money has become the yardstick by which we measure social standing. Therefore, instead of using money for power, and it’s power that gives you social standing now, we’ve reversed the order and many people seek power only in order to maximize their wealth, to maximize their money. So the competition today for social standing is basically in who can rack up the most zeros in their bank accounts.

Jeff: And talk about the ways in which that got started. What was the turn that we made, the contemporary turn that we made, that moved us there?

Sarah: I think it happened around 1980. And I know that’s a cliché but that’s what I found in the record. And you suddenly find, even in popular culture, one of the things I looked at in On Corruption is Risky Business, the movie which a lot of people saw as a coming-of-age tale in the annals of those.

What I found really interesting was the extent to which that movie showers contempt on a decent, comfortable living by people who believe in education and believe in participating in their communities, in the health and life of their community. The parents — and that’s who incarnated those values — were so contemptible in that movie and the young hero gets ahead and gets the girl and gets all the respect by lying, and frankly by starting a whorehouse. I mean basically monetizing sex — let’s put it that way — which at the time was a criminal activity.

And the whole ethos of that movie is that playing by the rules and living a comfortable life is for chumps. The cool people break the rules, violate the law, violate the sanctity of a very important human activity and it’s a zero-or-nothing… I mean all-or-nothing, and they win every possible reward. That’s a crazy ethos to inculcate in young people and that was in the mid-1980s.

Jeff: And that was further enhanced by the way money became flaunted in the 1980s. The idea that greed is good was another part of that.

Sarah: It sure was. And we were… again it was supposedly satirical, that line in another movie, “greed is good.” But the terrible thing was… and I was in the graduating class in that period — I graduated from college in 1984 — and when I look back at where my classmates went, I mean all the best ones made a beeline for Wall Street because making money was a good thing in and of itself. And that…  just look back at the decade or two decades previously, where if you were super rich, you were looked on with skepticism.

The default was “Where did you get your money?” So that’s another little vignette that I recall in On Corruption in America, which was a conversation, as I asked a lot of Nigerians. I spent a couple of weeks asking Nigerians about the social significance of money over time in their culture. And I’ll never forget someone saying, “It used to matter where your money came from.” And that almost resonates for me with the comment “money washes hands” from West Virginia.

And the point is, once money becomes the yardstick for measuring social status, a couple of things follow from that: One, is that’s a race with no finish line; there’s never enough in that framing of the value of money because someone’s always going to get more and then you have to get ahead of her and then… that’s one point. And the second point is the most efficient way of maximizing wealth.

Number one, it’s to build a coalition or a network so that you can concentrate power and wealth in a group of people that controls enough of the access to both that they’re capable of keeping the 99 percent out. They’re capable of disarming in a way the 99 percent individual rich people can’t do. They need to join forces… number one.

Number two, the most effective way of maximizing wealth is to take control of the levers of government power and twist and bend them to that purpose rather than to the public interest. And so that’s where you get corruption as the enemy of democracy.

Jeff: And that’s really where we’ve gotten to because as you talk about before the ‘80s for example, where power was more the status symbol and power even within the guise of public service as you talked about to the extent that money and politics have become conflated, they are today one and the same.

Sarah: That’s exactly right. That’s absolutely right. And we make a mistake, and we are misled if we think that the total extent of corruption is in somebody stealing the furniture from their Supreme Court office, state supreme court office, or somebody using government funds to take a private trip. That’s not the way corruption works in this context, I mean that happens, but that’s trivial.

The really important way that people conflate politics and money is that they use their access to government powers. They use their access to the ability not only to write laws and rules, but to ensure that laws and rules are not written, in order that the commercial and monetary interests of their network are served. And then, a couple of years later, they leave government office and they get to reap the results of the changes in the rules that they made when they were in government.

It’s not about the money you steal right then and there when you’re in government; it’s how you make your bed for when you leave government. And often, the other important thing to understand is, these exchanges are often indirect. You might favor a certain sector of activity that maybe you didn’t even work in before, but then when you get out of government your daughter gets a job on the board of directors of… Do you know what I mean? A position on the board of directors of a company in that sector. By so narrowly defining corruption as a one-to-one exchange between two parties, we miss the vast bulk of the way these exchanges take place, which is often deferred in time, and even in recipient or indirect in recipient.

Jeff: Is it different today in that it has become so much more systemic. If we look at the Gilded Age, and we see that the pushback that came to that, and the rise of the progressive era of that moment, it’s hard to imagine a similar kind of successful pushback today.

Sarah: I would challenge that the progressive era was really successful. I think I found looking into the Gilded Age that it was every bit as systemic, if not more so. Today you couldn’t actually have the general council of the railroad industry group continuing to receive salary from that group while he served as Attorney General of the United States. That’s pretty systemic.

I would argue that the progressive era was successful in writing better rules. They were never enforced. What I found was that the thing that really caused the effective changes was the series of calamities that I just mentioned. Two world wars, that’s two genocides, use of the nuclear bomb, a pandemic that makes COVID-19 look like a minor aftershock, and an economic meltdown that, again, makes 2008 look like a pale imitation. That’s what it took to really, substantively, change the rules of the games throughout the industrialized world, really.

Jeff: It is interesting though to look at it in a contemporary sense, and you allude to that. If we look at 9/11, if we look at this pandemic, if we look at the 2008 meltdown, none of those things — although smaller in scope than the things that happened back in the last century — while smaller in scope, they didn’t make a dent.

Sarah: Correct. Let me just backtrack a tiny bit, because you did refer to pushback in that earlier period. I took a look in On Corruption in America at some of that pushback, and I was awestruck. I looked at the labor movements. Again, today we’re seeing a level of striking and labor workers contesting their terms of employment that we haven’t seen in decades, but back then it was really stunning; often, unfortunately, violent — but courageous, inventive, multilingual.

I look back at strike movements that crossed six or seven different languages where the weekly newsletter had to be translated before it was sent out, and this was of course before the internet or anything like that. There was the Farmers’ Alliance, which came up with some of the most inventive and innovative reforms, many of which were eventually enacted, and long after the Farmers’ Alliance fell apart.

But again, we have a tendency to think of the urban classes as the most inventive, but in my view, the most thoughtful pushback against the Gilded Age system came from folks who were driving their covered wagons to meetings on the prairies, but that didn’t make a dent either when it was happening. As I say, many of the recommendations  did eventually come to pass, but long after the movements themselves were shattered. And then what was your question which was a really great one?

Oh, yes, it was about the pattern. So the other thing that I found that ignorantly I didn’t even know about, was how similar. So if you look at our pattern of economic meltdowns, and as you point out now a pandemic, it really starts in about 1980 with the savings and loan crisis. And then you’ve got the .com, and then you’ve got the international currency collapse in 1997. And then you’ve got 2008.

I mean, you’ve got this series of almost-like a church bell tolling that climaxes for the moment in 2008. Well, lo and behold, I didn’t know it, but there was the very same thing back in the late 19th century. You had the panic of 1873, and then you had the panic of 1882, and then you had the panic of 1896, and it went on until you hit the Great Depression.

So if I were to map these two trajectories, and this is why I think this problem is so urgent and why you hear probably more passion in my voice than is easy to absorb is how concerned I am, because when you map the two trajectories, you put us in about what the latest panic before 1929 was about 1919, I think. You already had a world war. Well, we just lost two wars. They weren’t world wars, but they did involve a great many of the nations on the earth.

And so what I’m trying to get at here is, as you pointed out, none of these individual crises that we’ve had — and let’s add on top of it some of the exacerbated natural disasters that we’ve had, whose results were larger than, more devastating than they would’ve been had we not been in a kleptocratic context. What I’m trying to get at is the big ones are still ahead. If we can’t figure out how to reign this phenomenon in.

Jeff: What’s different, and this may make it worse not necessarily better, is the speed at which events move and information travels. Those are fundamental differences. And what impact they have on this is an open question. And as I say, it may be for the worse, but those two things are different.

Sarah: I agree with that. Although once again, I notice, looking back through history, that massive transformations in the structure of human society never waited for the internet. The Protestant Reformation happened, and by gum that was about exchange of information without modern technology. So I wouldn’t overblow it.

For me, the biggest difference is in the ecological imbalance that we’re in today. I don’t feel as though our species has as much wiggle room to make catastrophic mistakes as it did in 1517, or in 1914, or the 1940s. I think the wiggle room is much less generous now. And I think, in my view, that’s the calamity that lies on the horizon, and it’s staring us in the face.

And I’m not just talking parts-per-million CO2. I’m talking about a much more integrated… The earth is a deeply intertwined ecosystem. And we are basically dealing mortal wounds to vital organs in this, at least metaphorically, living organism that is planet Earth. The value of the Amazon is not just in how many tons of carbon it sequesters. The value of the Amazon is frankly the role that it plays in regulating the health of the planet. Our human understanding doesn’t even encompass it yet. We don’t even know, and yet we are dealing wounds to it from which it may not recover.

Jeff: Talk about what you see in terms of the pushback today. The indignation that does exist in some quarters, and the anger that goes along with that, and the desire that doesn’t really seem to have a clear outlet other than to just be angry and blow something up.

Sarah: Thanks, Jeff, because indeed there is enormous anger and indignation. And by asking that question, you draw our attention to another facet of corruption that often gets overlooked. When we talk about corruption, we almost entirely talk about things we can count. Material that fighting forces lack, or number of soldiers who are not fielded, or obviously amounts of money. What we often overlook is the psychic wound that is inflicted by corruption.

When the very person you have entrusted to uphold and defend the laws is the one who is violating them. When the very superior officer that you as a young soldier long to admire is the very one who is substituting shoddy equipment for the proper weaponry and tents that the country has paid for. That is a betrayal. And can you think of any more painful moral injury than betrayal?

When people feel betrayed they get angry, and sometimes they want to exact revenge no matter what the cost. I think we see that in a lot of the, as you say, almost objectless anger and desire just to blow something up that we see around the world, in this country and elsewhere. And that sometimes seems to be aimed in irrational directions, but guess what, when somebody is enraged [laughs], they rarely sit down and do a tee chart about what is the most rational course of action. That’s not how people behave when they’re angry.

The other point is that there’s a tendency to personify a single individual as the incarnation of what is, in fact, systemic. What I’ve seen around the world, and here, is a tendency to lash out at an individual and often topple that individual. There’s an almost unconscious presumption that “Okay, now democracy’s going to break out.” And I’ve seen that in Guatemala, Brazil, Burkina Faso, South Africa, and the United States, where the person at the top is seen to be the only person who needs to be curbed or removed from power in order for things to go so-called “back to normal.”

Whereas everything that I’ve been saying is that this type of activity is the work of a coalition, and these coalitions are sophisticated. They are many-headed like that beast of ancient Greek myth, the Hydra, who horribly would sprout two heads for every one you lopped off. This is what’s happened all the way in countries all around the world, that when protest and pushback movements just focus on one head, they cut it off and two more spring up, and they’re in the same position they were before.

The pushback, I think, needs to be much more sophisticated, much more multifaceted, and has to again in the Greek myth, what happened was even Hercules couldn’t kill the Hydra by himself. He needed someone, his cousin, to come and basically cauterize the neck, the second he lopped the head off. To just use that as a metaphor, what I’m thinking about is that that’s the institutional reforms that must take place after an individual is removed from power.

I think frankly, that that’s the situation that we’re in right now in the United States, where an individual has been removed from power, but we’re really having a hard time, the networks, and I would say that these networks cross political parties. I think that’s quite obvious in the predicament that we’re in today, the networks are bound and determined to prevent the types of reforms from being enacted that will more durably curb their practices.

Jeff: Isn’t part of the problem though, that there is a reverse to what you were saying in terms of the personification of evil if you will, the personification of bad, that there is this human tendency also to try and personify a savior, to personify the good and looking for charismatic leadership becomes the object of the exercise, misguided though what it may be.

Sarah: A hundred percent, I think that’s a really great point. And so to just continue exploring this analogy, isn’t what we the people need a coalition of integrity? How do we go about building a coalition, a fighting coalition, whose values are rooted, not in a particular policy outcome, but in the basic premise of integrity, equity, and the public interest? Can we?

So let me just add another factor to this. Is that another thing I discovered looking at pushback against kleptocracy around the world was that, guess what? The empire strikes back [laughs]. Kleptocratic networks do not take a challenge lying down. Some of the obvious ways they strike back is by imprisoning people or shutting down newspapers or whatever, but another, the most effective tool that they use, is to exacerbate identity divides. I’ve seen that again and again.

And that’s the most effective way that they can avoid confronting challenge by the cross-section of their victims, which is again basically 99 percent, but it’s the old “divide and conquer.” And unfortunately, again going back to evolution, we as a species are hardwired to collect around identity differences.

And so for me at this moment, the principal challenge before us the people is, how do we come together to build crosscutting coalitions that cut across our innate differences, but also our chosen political affiliations, in order to uphold the basic human standards of equity, integrity, and public interest? If we do that, all of our sectional, I want to say, our identity grievances will not be perfectly assuaged, but will be at least seen to.

Jeff: Sarah Chayes, her book is On Corruption in America: And What is at Stake. Sarah, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Sarah: What a pleasure, wonderful questions and conversation Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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