Tag Archives: corruption

Is America a Failed State?

As we say in New England, it’s been a wicked bad time lately. What with Ebola, ISIS, climate change induced weather crises, the situation in Ferguson, MO, the Secret Service scandals and more, we all feel shaken and fearful for the future.

It’s not only Americans who are feeling less secure and more frightened about what lies ahead. Worldwide, there is a growing sense of insecurity, anxiety and vulnerability. Still, I can’t help noticing the ways in which the U.S. is moving in dangerous directions, revealing flaws so serious that one wonders what separates us from countries that we like to call “developing countries.” “American Exceptionalism” – a term that smacks of superiority – may no longer imply what is best in our national culture. Now it may stand for all that is exceptional in negative ways in American life and politics.

Think about the growing corruption in our electoral system, typical in “less developed countries.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dealt a terrible blow to our political process when it ruled that essentially corporations are people. The rise of Super PACS and the power afforded individuals like the Koch brothers will have alarming consequences in the 20016 elections.

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Anonymous political giving is growing exponentially. Voters are increasingly accosted by advertising from groups with seemingly benign names and dubious agendas. These groups are required to disclose their finances only on federal tax returns, and the names of donors are exempted. Approximately 55 percent of broadcast advertising has been paid for by groups like this recently. Then there is gerrymandering and changes – attempted or achieved – to voting laws designed to keep certain people from voting the way some folks want them to.

Then there’s police brutality and our deeply broken justice system. I’m not only talking about what happened in Ferguson or St. Louis or other places where black kids are shot to death by white cops, which obviously has a lot to do with the abysmal state of race relations in this country.

I’m talking about stories that seldom make the news, although the case of Lisa Mahone and her boyfriend Jamal Jones did get coverage. Mahone and Jones were rushing to the hospital where her mother was dying when they were stopped by police because Lisa wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Before the whole thing was over, police had drawn their guns and Jamal was tasered because he didn’t have an ID and was too afraid to get out of the car. All of this occurred with two terrified children in the back seat of the car.

The police are simply out of control. They have turned into militarized forces and SWAT teams because they’ve been trained to act like they work in a war zone by people who have done exactly that, many of whom are now cops on the beat.

Police departments and drug task forces have been allowed to take millions of dollars from Americans under federal civil forfeiture laws with which they buy Humvees, automatic weapons, night-vision scopes and sniper gear, according to the Washington Post. The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize, even without charging anyone with a crime. In order to retrieve their assets, victims must prove that the seized money or property was acquired legally. Mainly used by the Drug Enforcement Administration or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there have been 62,000 cash seizures since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments.

As for the justice system, take the case of teenager Courtney B. who was falsely accused by another teen of unwanted sexual touching, an accusation invented by a mother who wanted to sue a school district for money. Courtney was arrested in Arizona without due process, held without bail for 66 days, and wrongfully convicted of child molestation by a judge. Sentenced to 11 years, she is required to register as a sex offender upon release. Despite proof that the alleged crime never happened, the county attorney, disbarred after copious alleged ethics violations, refused to admit he’d made a mistake. So this young woman languishes in jail – like so many others with similarly tragic stories, and many exonerees who finally make it out.

Clearly, we are failing as an exceptional, First World, democratic country in many ways.

In a recent column in The New York Times related to the Secret Service debacle, Thomas Friedman put his finger on something important and relevant. “Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying,” he wrote. “Watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore?”

We should all be asking that question with all due speed and gravity before we too become known as a “less developed country” struggling with political and moral corruption.

Corruption, Control and the Pathology of Power

In part because the subject intrigues me, I’ve been trying to answer the question of why corruption, moral and otherwise, is so prevalent in human nature.  None of us comes into the world corrupt, morally bankrupt or cruel. So what is it that makes so many of us fall prey to this dangerous and disillusioning character flaw?  Try as I might to tease out an answer that would satisfy my curiosity about this facet of human psychology, I have yet to posit a theory, even after researching the subject on the ‘net using search terms like ‘power and pathology,” “moral corruption,” and “Tammany Hall.”

My interest in this topic was sparked by a difficult personal experience involving local politics but it peaked when the scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke, and was exacerbated when I read about similar machinations by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  The Christy debacle has received wide media coverage while Gov. Walker’s questionable behavior has stayed below the radar for the most part.  But it seems that thousands of emails and hundreds of court documents released in February strongly suggest that Mr. Walker and Mr. Christy have much in common, including the fact that there’s been a lot of monkey business going on inside the office they oversee.  In the Walker case, it seems that staffers were mixing government and campaign business to the extent that several of his aides have received criminal convictions.                                             

 Not that corruption is always political.  In a stunning example of corporate corruption, a recent New York Times story revealed that a federal lawsuit had been filed charging for-profit schools with fraud.  It turns out that Premier Education Group, owner of more than two dozen trade schools and community colleges operating under several names in ten states, has been charging fees of $10,000 and up for programs that don’t prepare students for promised careers.  What’s more, they are falsifying records in order to qualify for grant money and other funds.  Students report that the schools they attended lied about certifications they would receive upon completion of a program. Some students and teachers testified that people without high school diplomas had been admitted, and in one case a man convicted of a sex crime was accepted to study massage therapy.

 Corruption is a complex and compelling topic which knows no boundaries. It happens in every country – with the possible exception of Bhutan until it opened up to the outside world – and across all cultures.  It has no age, race or ethnic parameters (although there may be gender disparities), and none of us fully understands why so many people seek personal gain through such behaviors as bribery, extortion, nepotism, graft and embezzlement. The world, it seems, is full of Bernie Madoffs.     

 Take the Sochi Olympic games, for example.  An estimated one-third of the $50 billion spent on that event – an amount greater than all the other winter Olympics to date combined – was allegedly lost to embezzlement and kickbacks, according to the Institute of Modern Russia in its online report “The Reverse Side of the Medal.”  But then, what else is new in Russia?

 Afghanistan is ranked as the third most corrupt nation in the world after North Korea and Somalia, largely thanks to its American-educated president, who is known to govern through patronage.

 And in Nigeria, an upsurge in corruption has resulted in long lines at everything from gas stations to passport offices.  Port congestion is said to be rampant and with a nod to New Jersey police extortion at toll gates and traffic slowdowns on highways are common.

 The litany of petty and grand corruption around the globe goes on ad infinitum. So why, we must ask, do so many people put personal gain above the public good?  Why are huge numbers of people willing to cheat others as a means of gaining success or recognition or material comforts?  What does it all say about our collective humanity?

 I still don’t have any answers.  All I know is that Lord Acton, a.k.a. John Dalberg, was right when he noted, in the 19th century, that “power tends to corrupt [and] absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an insight he had upon recognizing that civilizations fall into decline when they fail to use power wisely.  History teaches us that power is no friend of intelligent inquiry or discourse, and that it wreaks havoc on the good traditions and institutions it is meant to respect and honor. It also reminds us that power becomes its own God. 

 Mahatma Gandhi once noted that “corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy.” To that I would add, corruption ought not to be such a vibrant piece of the human psyche.  But the questions remain: Why does corruption prevail in matters of governance, commerce, and individual exchange? Why do we become indifferent to it?  What can end such “business as usual?”