On Corruption in America: and what is at Stake (August 2020)
Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (2015) – Winner LA Times Book Award
Please do support your local bookseller. And if you enjoy audiobooks, Sarah narrates her own work.
There was zero chance I could upload a proper interview to YouTube. I just don’t have the internet speed. Instead, i presented a short excerpt with a bit of my own animation and graphics.
Christina Moore (00:00):
My understanding of corruption in the United States has matured over the last decade. While certainly shaped by recent history and scandals, my time in Iraq and Puerto Rico gave hints to the longterm consequences. During the summer of 2020, I read two books by Sarah Chayes. We’ll explore Thieves of State and On Corruption in America Now.
Sarah and I have never met. We’ve traveled entirely different trajectories, we’ve followed entirely different careers, written entirely different types of books. Yet, our efforts converged with our exploration of the impact, risks, and means of combating corruption. We’ve learned that we were raised in the same neighborhoods of the same city. She was in Afghanistan while I was in Iraq, my big bosses in Iraq later became her bosses in Afghanistan. Please continue your interest in these topics by visiting Sarah’s website, sarahchayes.org. Sarah has an H on it, and Chayes is C-H-A-Y-E-S. I’ll put the links in the show notes.
Sarah is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. She has uncovered the unrecognized reality that severe and structure corruption can prompt international crisis such as revolutions and other uprisings, violent insurgencies, and environmental devastation. Corruption of this sort is the operating system of sophisticated networks which weave together government officials, business magnates and private charities, and out-and-out criminals. And, in Sarah’s view, represent the primary threat to democracy.
Her career includes reporting from Paris for National Public Radio, covering the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to running a soap factory in downtown Kandahar in the midst of a reignited insurgency. She went on to advise the top-most levels of the US Military, serving as a special advisor to two commanders of the international forces in Kabul. Then, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Mike Mullen. She left the Pentagon for a five year stint at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Sarah, what is the scariest or most foreboding story that you found while researching and writing this book, On Corruption in America, and what is at stake?
Sarah Chayes (02:17):
Thank you for having me, and I’m glad that you touched on this overlap in our backgrounds because that is how I first started thinking about corruption, was in Afghanistan. I had gone there as a reporter for the National Public Radio, to cover the fall of the Taliban and I stayed for about a decade. I had no intention of talking about or working on corruption, I was going to help rebuild the country in this net.
But, I lived in downtown Kandahar, which was the Taliban heartland, and I lived [crosstalk 00:02:52] person, in a house, without barbed wire or sandbags. I mean, we had a couple guns around, but every Afghan has a couple of guns around [inaudible 00:03:02], yeah. And it was Afghans who brought the issue to me, it was really interesting. What was driving out of their minds was the corruption of their government, and what they saw as the US government and all the US officials roll in, enabling and facilitating that corruption.
As time went on, they started saying, “Well, you must just be in favor of the corruption,” because they kept seeing American officials, both military and civilian, reinforcing, standing side-by-side with, giving contracts to these incredibly corrupt officials who were abusing ordinary Afghans. What I discovered was that that was what drove Afghans back into the arms of the Taliban. I was in Kandahar, they hated the Taliban when I got there in 2001. I mean, they were so glad to see the end of the Taliban. By 2005, some of my neighbors were drifting back in that direction, not because of any deep seeded hate of Western civilization, but rather because of corruption.
So then, I spent another 10 years or so really looking into that phenomenon, and discovering that it’s the same the world over. That the reason people joined Boko Haram in Nigeria was because of corruption, the reason why people revolted in the Arab Spring was because of corruption, the reason people were migrating out of Africa and Latin America was not some vague issue of poverty and lack of opportunity, it was very explicitly because of the corruption of their governments. So they saw the American governments choice of short term security because we “need to work with this or that other corrupt official,” was in fact the longterm failure of all of those campaigns, and that Iraq and Afghanistan.
Frankly, I don’t know if you agree, but my feeling is we lost those wars, which we did, because we refused to understand that the Iraqi and Afghan people did not want to support a government of thieves.
Christina Moore (05:33):
Sarah Chayes (05:33):
That a government of thieves and violent insurgents, well basically, who’s going to hurt you the worst, right?
Christina Moore (05:43):
Yes. I did a podcast two weeks ago called Thieves of State, where I touched on key topics of your book Thieves of State, which is where we’re starting here. Your experiences there rang so true which my experiences in Iraq, where we were building out telecommunications infrastructure, I was part of an army unit as a civilian. And then I ended up in Puerto Rico in 2017 through 2018, following those hurricanes, and working for the Governor’s office. It rattled my bones.
Your Thieves of State book did, to me, was even though it’s 2020, open my eyes things I wasn’t really seeing in this country. And when I came to read On Corruption in America, which came out in August 2020, you caused my head to spin, woman. I think I remember writing you an email at one point saying, “How did you get through this research, and have a smile at the end of the day?” Or, something like that. How did you do that?
Sarah Chayes (06:52):
You’re exactly right. It’s one thing, and I did say this in Thieves of State, that we are on this spectrum, the United States of America is on the spectrum of systemic corruption. I didn’t quite realize that it was going to blow up in our faces as quickly as it did, so even I feel like I was behind the eight ball.
Christina Moore (07:16):
But you weren’t.
Sarah Chayes (07:19):
Well, we’re living what we’re living. I didn’t get ahead of it, let’s put it that way. What I also found, and that touches on what you just said, is that as much as I knew when I set out to write On Corruption in America, that I was going to find something like what I found. That knowledge didn’t prepare me for just the depths, and the breadth, of what I found. I didn’t expect that, basically, every public figure that I would research would lead me directly into a network of self-dealing, and insider trading, and influence peddling, as the business model, and exploitation of distressed assets, including people, as the predominant business model.
To answer your opening question, I would have to go back into history. But, let me answer it in two parts. One is what caused me to really say, “Okay, the time has come to turn my international developing lens onto the United States of America.” That was the Supreme Court case, McDonnell versus the United States, decided in June 2016. The campaign is in full swing, Clinton’s way ahead of Trump, Brexit has just happened, and it’s the end of the Supreme Court session. I was waiting for this decision, I wanted to hear how it went. It was a straight quid pro quo bribery case, in which the then governor of Virginia had taken a bunch of money and a bunch of gifts of various kinds, a Rolex watch, rides in a Ferrari, rides in a private jet, campaign contributions, from a quack medicine guy. It was basically big tobacco trying to turn into big pharma, except he was a two-bit version of it.
Christina Moore (09:19):
Sarah Chayes (09:22):
Open and shut. Not only did the Supreme Court overturn McDonnell’s conviction, what really got me was the Supreme Court overturned it eight to zero. The opinion basically said, “It’s not the place of this court to become concerned with such tawdry details as Rolex watches and Ferraris. The concern of this court is, basically, prosecutorial overreach.”
I’m saying, “Wow.”
Christina Moore (10:00):
Sarah Chayes (10:01):
Supreme Court unanimously thinks that the United States of America has more to fear from the effort to fight corruption than it has to fear from corruption itself. I was like, “My God, these people are completely out of their minds.”
Sure enough, within weeks we’ve got Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump lighting up the campaign, basically upending the Presidential campaign with different ways of approaching, or railing against, corruption. I mean, corruption was the central issue in the 2016 campaign.
Christina Moore (10:44):
Drain that swamp, baby.
Sarah Chayes (10:46):
Yeah. Yeah. How did the Supreme Court miss that? What it showed me is how endangered the United States is, because where people go to extremes is when there is systemic corruption and there’s no means of redress.
Here you have all of the elites in the country have narrowed corruption down to this itty, bitty, little mincing definition, while ordinary people can smell corruption when it’s in a pile in front of them.
Christina Moore (11:22):
My podcast next week, Sarah says, “I think Sesame Street, a cute song, and a couple of puppets could tell what corruption is.”
I picked up on your book, and I reviewed the Skilling case which was from 2010, another unanimous Supreme Court decision that I didn’t know anything about until I read your book and it scared the jimmers out of me. I quoted the 1964 Supreme Court saying, “I’ll know it when I see it.” And here, we have to have a set of rules that are so carefully defined that exactly bribery and exactly kickback is the only definition of corruption. Whereas with other cases, it’s a lot more looser like Obscenity, “I’ll know it when I see it.” I’m sorry. Thank you for both of those educations.
Sarah Chayes (12:09):
Thank you for picking up on Skilling because what it shows … Skilling was a case that preceded McDonnell, and what it proves is that there was a concerted campaign, this was not just an accidental set of decisions by Supreme Court justices who are members of the elite, there was a campaign underway to deliberately narrow the definition of corruption. So you have a situation where one individual who was suspected of maybe being guilty of a $20 fraud was tortured to death, that’s George Floyd. Whereas we have an entire class of bankers, and top government officials, and money managers, who are guilty of repeated systemic fraud, running to the billions of dollars, who not only don’t get investigated and prosecuted, but they’re actually in government. They’re actually rewarded with that government position.
Christina Moore (13:16):
And they’re shifting the law to accommodate them. Your illustrations, your research showed me that we have lobbyists, which you clearly identified as a pay-to-play politic environment, we have lobbyists doing Amicus briefs trying to shift the law to accommodate this behavior, which then very much defined this hydra, and this web, process that you carefully crafted throughout your entire story.
Sarah Chayes (13:47):
Absolutely. Let me zero in on this, and just say even to separate even to separate the group as lobbyists doesn’t quite get at the phenomenon because who really changes the laws?
Christina Moore (14:01):
Sarah Chayes (14:02):
One interesting figure that I mention is Justice Louis Powell, who went from being either on the board or a vice president of Phillip Morris and was their general council. So he’s an executive at a tobacco company, and then he shifts to being on the Supreme Court. He’s in a position to do the remaking of the laws himself. He doesn’t need a lobbyist, he is the lobbyist.
That’s what we’ve been seeing increasingly. Look at Eric Holder, who failed to investigate or prosecute any top executive of a major US bank in the wake of 2008. What did he do before he was Attorney General? He was a defense attorney at the firm of Covington and Burling, working for those self-same companies, banks.
What we have, and this gets into the hydra as a metaphor … Let me stop for a second on that, if you’d humor me. I think that the American public is being hammered by one corruption book after another, most of them are anti-Trump books. A couple of them are anti-Clinton, or the Empires, I can’t remember. Schweitzer’s book, that was a little bit aiming in the other direction. They tend to be quite partisan, and they tend to be very contemporary, focused on the current figures as though they have sprung from nowhere.
What On Corruption in America does that’s a little bit different is tries to give us a handle … Both my research and what I’ve tried to do in writing this book, is to give readers a handle on the contours of this phenomenon, and how it has ebbed and flowed in human history. And therefore, how we, today, line up with other period of history, and therefore how we could maybe get out of this.
Christina Moore (16:16):
Thank you for that.
Sarah Chayes (16:17):
One of the sources of wisdom that I think we have ignored at our peril, or to our peril, is mythology. Now, the word myth is an insult, but if you read myths you gain some really precious insights that are very valuable. That’s why I brought in the hydra as a metaphor for-
Christina Moore (16:44):
Sarah Chayes (16:46):
Again, you’ve been in the military environment, you know exactly what network analysis is but not everyone does. So I use interchangeable metaphors, it’s pick which one works for you.
Christina Moore (16:46):
Sarah Chayes (17:01):
One of them is link analysis, which is a science, and it’s how you trace the connections between individuals and then see how they are working in concert with each other. Another is this myth of the hydra, which is really rich it turns out.
The hydra was this multi-headed beast, which lived in a swamp outside Argos. There are a lot of aspects of this monster that are instructive. One is that it poisons its entire environment. It’s not just dangerous itself, but it makes the whole environment around it toxic. A second is that it has a number of heads, and that means that if you don’t look at it properly, you might think that there are nine or 100 separate animals coming at, striking you, separately. That’s what corruption, I want to say scandals, look like to us. “Oh my God, today it’s DeJoy and the post office, yesterday it’s Hilary Clinton and Whitewater. Another day, it’s Zinke and …” What was he, another white, right? Whitefish? Whitefish.
Christina Moore (17:01):
Sarah Chayes (18:19):
It seems like oh, there are all these individual corrupt people with their hand in the cookie jar, and it gets very confusing, and the stories about them are extremely detailed, as though you had had an artist draw you one hydra’s head, and every single scale on the head, and every eyelash, and every flicker of the tongue. You get all involved in that one particular hydra’s head, and you get sucked into that one element of the problem. Meanwhile, another hydra head comes around and strikes you from behind, and you don’t realize that these hydra heads are all working together.
That’s the first really important thing about the hydra as a metaphor, we are talking networks here. We are talking public officials, business executives, out-and-out criminals, and frankly terrorists, be they domestic terrorists or be they the Taliban or ISIS, that are intertwined in a single network. Now, it might be a turbulent network, it may have internal rivalries, it may get violent internally occasionally, but fundamentally the overall objectives of the network are shared. The network is acting on behalf of the network. That means it is one organism that disposes of, again to use military terminology, a vast variety of capabilities, and that makes it incredibly successful, and incredibly resilient.
Oh, where business and lobbying doesn’t work, well let’s just put our guy in as Secretary of the Treasury. When that doesn’t work, let’s get a drug trafficker in there, to peddle some opium. Or, opioids. And then in behind the doctors peddling the opioids, let’s put our friends the drug traffickers, to make even more money out of this. That is the diabolical way that these networks operate.
The problem is, Americans, we divide those folks up into separate categories. Oh, business and government, that’s two separate and opposed spheres of activity. Well, not when the personnel is shared, it isn’t. That’s how we’re being framed. And then we say, “Okay, but good guys and bad guys. Criminals and government officials, they’re completely different.” Not so much, when they’re woven together in a network.
Part of what I’m trying to do with this book is help us all stand back from the hydra so we can see the whole body. We can see that it is one organism, and that it’s just different heads doing what each head does well. And what government officials do particularly well is bend the rules, just what you were saying before. That’s the job. When you put your person in as Secretary of Treasury, let’s say, or as Attorney General.
Let’s take Attorney General. Eric Holder was not working … he doesn’t have shares in a bank, I don’t think. Maybe he did have shares in banks. But, he wasn’t not prosecuting top banking executives in order to gain an immediate transactional, monetary payoff, that’s way too simplistic.
Christina Moore (22:08):
Sarah Chayes (22:09):
He was benefiting the network. And then, that network would benefit him later. Now he’s back at Covington and Burling.
Christina Moore (22:16):
Sarah Chayes (22:17):
Maybe his daughter is going to get a great job in a bank. Do you know what I mean? It’s not a direct and immediate quid pro quo, the way that the hydra operates. It operates for the overall health of the organism, the overall ability of the organism to maximize money.
Christina Moore (22:36):
It plays a long game.
Sarah Chayes (22:41):
The long game.
Christina Moore (22:42):
And a long memory.
Sarah Chayes (22:42):
In a very indirect kind of gratitude, the gratitude isn’t just, “You invite me to dinner, and you invite me back to dinner the next week.” It’s going to be, “I invite you to dinner, and then you find a paper route for my son’s best friend.” Do you know what I mean? It’s just two or three removes, and it’s the way you keep, I want to say, a class together, a billionaires class, become woven together by these kinds of reciprocal exchanges.
Now, let me take you, if I may, to another myth that I think is really important, that I begin the book with, which is the myth of Midas.
Christina Moore (23:31):
I was amazed at your research there, and some of the suppositions. I hope you take us through that. I just followed you like a child reading a children’s book, I just was like, “Oh, please keep going.” Thank you for that.
Sarah Chayes (23:45):
I’m so glad, because I felt that way, too. Of course, some of the political junkies were like, “Oh, this is a digression.” No, it’s not a digression.
Christina Moore (23:52):
Sarah Chayes (23:53):
[inaudible 00:23:53]. Thank you, thank you.
Christina Moore (23:56):
I’m not a political junky, I’m a story junky. Anybody who tells me a great story gets my smiles, so keep going, lady.
Sarah Chayes (24:04):
It’s a story that actually lays down the fundamental concepts. Midas is the guy who, in Greek mythology, did a favor to a God, and the God offered him one gift. As his one gift, he asked for everything he touched to turn to gold. Well, it took him about 37 seconds to figure out that that was no gift, it was a curse. He was about to die, because he picked up an apple and he couldn’t bite it, because it was gold. And then he picked up a goblet of wine mixed with water, and he couldn’t drink it because it turned to liquid gold. That meant he couldn’t drink water, that meant he was going to die.
More deeply, what is an apple? An apple’s a miracle, it’s not just sustenance. I mean, what is an apple? It’s that crunch, it’s that juice, it’s that tartness, it’s the flavor of autumn. It’s something absolutely irreplaceable, an apple. To drive that idea home, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a version of this myth in which he gave Midas a daughter. So when Midas’ beloved daughter sees his distress, she comes running up to him and he kisses her forehead, and turns her to gold. Now, we get it. Now, it’s about turning irreplaceable, sacred values into metal. It’s not even a very useful metal, it’s too soft to do anything useful with.
In today’s world, it’s not even metal, it’s zeroes. Zeroes, in bank accounts. We are converting irreplaceable treasures into zeroes in bank accounts. But, why are we doing it? It’s because, basically, we have an epidemic, or a pandemic, of the Midas disease, which is to say people who love, who are addicted to the pursuit of money. I think that’s a really important point to dwell on because there’s no such thing as enough. They’re not addicted to money because of what it can acquire for them, they’re addicted to money for the social standing that it delivers. That means it’s just about zeroes.
Christina Moore (26:31):
Sarah Chayes (26:31):
It’s about, “Oh, Christina has $23 million in her bank account. Well, that means Sarah needs 24. Simon over here, he needs to have 24.5.” We get to the absolutely ridiculous situation where our Commerce Secretary lies to Forbes Magazine about how many billion dollars he has. I mean, are you kidding me? You’re such a child that you have to fib about what’s in your lunchbox. That’s how far we’ve descended, that’s how badly bitten we are by the Midas disease. To the extent that, ask anyone you know what the Midas Touch means.
Christina Moore (27:11):
It’s considered a blessing. People want that.
Sarah Chayes (27:14):
We have completely missed the significance of the myth, which is that if you are afflicted with the Midas disease, if you put people with the Midas disease in charge of your society, it will be destroyed. Everything of value will be converted to zero. That’s why I start with Midas. There’s a twist to it, there’s a historical basis to that myth. I won’t give it away, it’s kind of interesting.
Christina Moore (27:44):
It’s a great read. That was part of that delight that I had in reading that, is I think I’m a pretty good student on these things and I’m like, “Oh, you showed me something I didn’t know, thank you.”
Sarah Chayes (27:53):
I didn’t either, I was so excited to discover that. Then, I get to the next, perhaps better known sacred story, which is what happens when people with the Midas disease are in charge of a society. They get together into kleptocratic networks, and they bend the rules. Where is an absolutely example of that, Jesus and the money changers. That’s what Jesus was up against, he was up against a network of Supreme Court justices, money changers, bankers, tax farmers, and in his case, the religious establishment.
I talked about those four incredible lines of gospel with a group of pastors, and I was struck at how uncomfortable they were with it. I read those lines and I thought this is the climactic event in the guy’s life, this is what lead to the crucifixion, we need to think about this. They told me they only taught it once every three years. Wow. Why?
What I discovered was it was the violence of the gesture. The guy starts throwing the furniture around. And, imagine what he’s taking on. This is not just some quiet gentle church, this is the temple of Jerusalem, it was gold plated like any Trump tower. It had, as I said, the high court in it, it had the religious leadership, it was an imposing, intimidating building. It had Wall Street in it, basically, the money changers were, it had the main bank of the community, and where all the transactions and exchanges were taking place. And, it had a military barracks. I mean, it was incredibly courageous to stride up the steps of that temple and start throwing the damn furniture around. That was what made them uncomfortable.
So I really drilled down, and I noticed yeah, for the Prince of Peace, it was a pretty dramatic act. It wasn’t quite terrorism, he didn’t kill anybody. So, what was it? It was a public shaming. He disrespected this people who were so used to their money buying them all the respect, who were so used to disrespecting the ordinary members of the community. Well, what he did was bring together all of the ordinary members of the community across all of their identity divides. That’s how you can read love thy neighbor, love they neighbor is about let’s stop tearing our eyes out about how many breasts we have, or whether we have a vagina or some other organ between our legs, or what color our skin is. Let’s stop competing over how much damage has been done to us, and let’s come together, all of us, on behalf of each other, and let’s take on our real enemies, who are the billionaires, the people infected with the Midas disease.
Christina Moore (31:07):
Sarah Chayes (31:08):
What’s so fascinating is that was when they decided they have to kill him. So if you correctly read this story, what you understand is it’s the billionaires who killed Jesus. It doesn’t make any sense to say the Jews killed Jesus, he was a Jew. It wasn’t The Jews, he was a Jew. It was the billionaire kleptocratic network of his society that found him such a threat, not because he was doing violence, but because he was bringing the people together to reign in the kleptocratic network, the corrupt network.
So what’s incredibly important here is that it wasn’t the Republicans who happened to be corrupt, or the Democrats who happened to be corrupt, it’s the network which crosses those political, as well as all the other identify divides, who are corrupt. That means we, the victims, need to also come together across those divides and reign them all in, and that means looking at ourselves as rigorously as we look at the other side, and it means taking this fight very seriously because it could get ugly. This is hitting them where it is the most central to them. Let’s not take this lightly, but let’s make a celebration out of it, which Jesus did. I mean, he had a picnic! People are hungry, sitting around. How does he launch this thing? He has a picnic.
That brings me to another historical passage in On Corruption in America, which is when was the last time we were in these dire straights in the United States? I would say it was at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. So I looked back at the Gilded Age.
Christina Moore (33:12):
The Gilded Age.
Sarah Chayes (33:14):
I mean, just one example is the Farmer’s Alliance, which was a rural movement, very sophisticated, very determined, and very celebratory of farmers in West Texas, and Kansas, and Missouri in particular, who came up with all kinds of really great solutions to combat the corrupt network of their day. Which was the railroad magnates, the bankers, a lot of the same people, frankly. Energy, finance, high end real estate. I would say pharma is a close fourth. You get healthcare almost everywhere, because it’s very lucrative.
You know, these farmers, they came up with all kinds of kooky ideas. What if we were to elect our Senators directly, instead of it being the state legislators that got to elect our US Senators? Golly gee, I wonder if that would make our country a little bit more democratic? So a lot of the solutions they came up with were both sophisticated, and eventually enacted. But, not during their time. It was the celebratory side. All of their meetings were picnics, they all had great music and bands, and garlands, and things like that. I think we should all take a leaf out of that book.
I tend to get very serious and somber about the fight, the struggle. Nah, that’s not the right approach. Let’s make the fight a celebration. We’re not going to get through it, otherwise. But it is an urgent fight.
Christina Moore (34:50):
When I was in Puerto Rico, I didn’t know I was doing a network diagram, but I started doing photographs with the classic red yarn and connecting people. I was just shocked that the two parties connected. The two parties knew each other, the two parties … If you’re doing a briefing for one agency, you’re going to do a briefing for the people who are part of one party, then the next day you’ll do another briefing in the same room with a different leader because you need to brief the other party, with the same words.
But then, the people who connect these two parties are at the same schools, go to the same clubs, and they hire the same law firm. I’m like, “How is that possible?” And then, I realized it was deliberate, it’s absolutely deliberate. When you drew that map for me in your book On Corruption in America, I was like, “Damn.” Then, I absolutely got your hydra picture. I got so frustrated, woman. I needed to turn the page to find out how you were going to bring me home. How were you going to bring a smile to my face? Because I didn’t think I was starting with a Greek tragedy, I thought there’d be something there for me to look forward to.
In my essays, which I feel a little humbled on with your work, because you did so better research, and broader research … Broader. I was looking very specifically at US Federal agencies that interface with people during times of need, and that’s what I know. I happen to be part of a software company that manages millions and billions of dollars, and I’m frustrated at what I’ve been seeing for the last decade. My basic themes were transparency, enforcement, regulatory compliance, and this unnamed, fuzzy thing about a social contract, which I think you fleshed out, and I appreciate that, too.
One of your suggestions that just lit up the page was a cop show about public integrity squad. I’ve loved all of my Law and Order shows, and all of that kind of stuff. I haven’t been able to watch it in the last few years, just because I get so frustrated with the topics. I’m like, “You’re thumping the wrong people on the head. You’re looking at [inaudible 00:37:09] crime people.”
Sarah Chayes (37:09):
Before we get to the light, let me just drag you a little deeper into the tunnel.
Christina Moore (37:15):
Oh, thank God.
Sarah Chayes (37:16):
Back into the darkness. Before we get to the light, I want to take you back a couple of steps and just reinforce the urgency. Here’s what I found.
Christina Moore (37:16):
Sarah Chayes (37:26):
And it takes us back to your very first question. What raised my hair, what worried me the most in doing this research? In fact, it was that comparison with the Gilded Age because I spend a little bit of time exploring, and trying to learn from, the protest movements of the day. So there’s the Farmer’s Alliance, which I just mentioned.
Christina Moore (37:52):
Sarah Chayes (37:53):
But, there’s also the Labor Movement, and there’s so pretty innovative political movements that I think went in some counter-productive directions. Anyway, I explore a lot of those, I take a lot of solace from how brilliant they were, and I want to say a lot of teaching about how things that we would well to emulate today. These were creative, determined, innovative, incredibly courageous … I mean, what they threw themselves up against, in incredibly persistent movements.
Here’s the downside. They did not make a dent, not in their day. For 70 years, they got a few laws passed that were, frankly, implemented in the opposite way to how they were designed, literally to serve the opposite purpose. And, that was about it. So then I said, “Well okay, what did get us out of it last time?” The answer was very sobering.
Christina Moore (39:02):
Sarah Chayes (39:03):
It was global cataclysm, it was two world wars, equals two genocides, mass starvation in Europe, the nuclear bomb. And, a global pandemic that makes the current one really look like a bad case of the flu. And, a global economic meltdown. That’s what it took to jolt enough of, frankly, the elites into a feeling of solidarity, victims with sufferers, to act in ways that victims of natural disaster or fires typical act. Which is to say, you don’t ask what political party the old lady is who you rescue off of her roof, you don’t look at what color she is, you just rescue her because of the shared calamity. Well then, we got enough of a shared worldwide calamity that we finally were able to put some serious guardrails in place, and to discipline [inaudible 00:40:11] corrupt kingpins.
That lasted 40 years, and then we started right back down the same road. I would say that we’re somewhere around 1910 or ’11, before the first World War. What I’m saying is, if we don’t really roll up our sleeves and get serious about this, the same series of catastrophes is going to rain down on our heads because that is the direction that we’re driving. I think it’s just about inevitable, and those calamities were, in part, caused by precisely this phenomenon of systemic corruption.
Christina Moore (40:51):
Sarah Chayes (40:52):
That’s the urgency. Please, please let us band together across the identity divides, and work both for the identity groups and for all of us, against all our enemies which are the corrupt elites. All of them, all means all.
Christina Moore (41:17):
All means all.
Sarah Chayes (41:17):
All means all. In order to stave off the likely coming calamity, let’s find that solidarity before the disaster sparks it in us. Let’s find the moral equivalent of calamity, if you will.
The light is we can make this … I mean, we’re going to have to do stuff differently. You don’t get to fight a fight, and just do it by thinking the right thoughts. No, you’ve got to do something. That’s going to mean changing some of your habits, it’s going to mean maybe driving a little bit further, it’s going to mean maybe not driving at all, it’s going to mean maybe not getting that package tomorrow. It’s going to mean actually in a public comment session, or it’s going to mean conducting a boycott not just as one lone individual, but as part of a concerted movement that has specific demands, like for example, the bus boycott in the 1960s.
Christina Moore (42:18):
Sarah Chayes (42:18):
That wasn’t just a boycott, “Oh, we don’t like the way the buses are acting,” it’s a boycott saying, “You have to desegregate public spaces.” A specific public policy outcome was desired, so let’s channel our boycott towards specific public policy outcomes. That might be the kinds of things that you are talking about, more transparency, beefing up our regulatory capabilities. So what that suggests is that, while some resources might need to be moved away from street policing toward, for example, other street activities like mental health. We also need to move resources away from street policing toward regulatory policing, toward corporate crime and corruption policing.
Christina Moore (43:11):
Sarah Chayes (43:11):
Which is also policing, it’s also investigation, and prosection.
Christina Moore (43:14):
Yes it is.
Sarah Chayes (43:16):
It’s much more complicated. But, the fact is that the crimes are much larger, and have much greater social impact.
Christina Moore (43:25):
Sarah Chayes (43:25):
And harm, that’s what I mean! And harm.
Christina Moore (43:30):
There’s so many ands in there, yes.
Sarah Chayes (43:32):
Yeah. When you bring down the world financial system in 2008, how many people lose their homes? How many people commit suicide? How many people get divorced? How many children go to school homeless, go to school by studying in their cars? How much life is directly affected by those crimes, and yet not a single person went to jail. I mean, are you kidding me?
That’s where we get the cop show. I actually had the same conversation that you’re describing having with yourself about Law and Order, I had that with a former police chief friend of mine, it was absolutely fascinating, who read the manuscript and gave me some great suggestions, and he loved it. And then sometime later, we had this conversation by email in which he says, “I really focused on the kind of crime that affects people in their everyday lives.” I said, “Did you not read the book? Do you not get this, that 2008 affected four, or five, or 10 million Americans in their everyday lives?”
Christina Moore (44:39):
Sarah Chayes (44:40):
“How did that not come through to you?” We had a significant back and forth, so this is after he’s already read the book.
Christina Moore (44:48):
Sarah Chayes (44:48):
But to be fair, he’s devoted an entire professional career to a different type of harm, it’s going to take more than one book and one email exchange to undo that.
Christina Moore (45:02):
We have a very strong bias to seeing crime happens between the door and the door, between the curb and the curb. It’s at the street, it has nothing to do with Wall Street, tall buildings, and folks at the country clubs and in the ties. No, that’s not crime.
Sarah Chayes (45:20):
That’s deliberate. Let’s point people’s attention some place else. I would go so far as to say even the focus in the current Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s not exclusive, but I think there is an emphasis on street policing, is somewhat misplaced. I’m not saying that you don’t have a systemic, or repeated pattern of racial profiling in how street policing is done, but in a way, that’s just the pointy end of the spear. Whose holding the spear? Whose holding the spear are the billionaires, is the corrupt network, and that, frankly, includes some people of color. I don’t want to keep singling out Eric Holder, but that’s just one example.
Another example, not an American, is Ngozi Iweala, who was the finance minister of Nigeria who presided over the loss of $1 billion a month, give or take, from the country’s oil revenues. She is now vetted around the world as a great anti-corruption crusader, because she was easily able to launder her image. I’m not say she stole $1 billion a month, but she was certainly part of the network that did, and she has never had a bad word to say about that network. She currently, for example, was just inducted onto the board of directors of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I founded the anti-corruption practice, if you will. Carnegie didn’t work on corruption until I got there. Now they have a whole bunch of people who work on corruption, but they’ve got a poster child for international corruption on their board. That’s called enabling.
Christina Moore (47:14):
She’s not even the only person that we’ve seen join the board. You mention another when you’re discussing the Skilling case, that’s on that board, that was tied to that, too.
Sarah Chayes (47:25):
Greg Craig, I think his brief was for the McDonnell case.
Christina Moore (47:29):
Sarah Chayes (47:29):
But in any case, Greg Craig, another prominent Democrat, who has enabled foreign kleptocrats, most notably recently Ukrainians. He’s the one who put Yanukovych onto Mr. Manafort, who was President Trump’s now convicted former campaign manager. There again, you get this interconnection across the political divide. Greg Craig throws a huge account to Paul Manafort. You’ve got Madeleine Albright, arm in arm with Donnelly, who is the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, [inaudible 00:48:11] blue chip, red as blood Republican.
Christina Moore (48:14):
Sarah Chayes (48:17):
You’ve got Steven Mnuchin deeply wound together with George Soros.
Let’s just beware, we American citizens and citizens of the world, of being manipulated into this eye clawing political divide, when the people at the top of our political parties are laughing, arm in arm, all the way to the bank because that’s what’s happening.
Christina Moore (48:43):
As I saw in Puerto Rico.
Sarah Chayes (48:44):
Christina Moore (48:45):
They just connect. They just wiggle and tangle inside.
Sarah Chayes (48:50):
It’s a beautiful example.
Back to the cop show. We’re not getting better of this problem, and you will find the epilogue to On Corruption in America, a vast array of different things that ordinary people can do to contribute to the fight against this phenomenon. The good news is it’s going to take every single one of us, and that means there’s room for all of our talents, all of our quirks, all of our preferences, just like everyone else. I flagellate myself at the stuff I don’t do, and I’ve tried to assuage myself a little bit by saying, “Okay, let me figure out, what are my gifts?” One of them being, as you may have noticed, the gift of gab.
Christina Moore (49:38):
Sarah, do you mind if [inaudible 00:49:40] your epilogue, and put some up?
Sarah Chayes (49:42):
That’s what I would love. In fact, I would love that, and also link to my website. What I would love to do is start to … Eventually, it’s going to take me a while to get underway, but collate other people’s ideas, and collate experiments.
If you try one of these things in your context, give us feedback about how it went, or how you discovered that you needed to adjust or expand on one of the ideas. Or, how you found that actually brought you joy that you didn’t expect. Or, what obstacles arose that you didn’t expect. All of that, then we can curate an activism.
The other thing I want to start doing is to curate, I dislike this term, but a … The term would be magic bullet, I don’t believe in magic bullets. But, I do think that there may be some bricks in the edifice, just like the keystone in an arch, that if you pull the keystone out, you will damage the arch to a much greater extent than if you pull one of the other stones out. Can we focus our energies on some specific targets that will make a more significant difference than other targets? I will try to bring together some of those ideas.
A very significant undercurrent to this is culture. We have got to cure ourselves of the Midas disease.
Christina Moore (51:17):
Sarah Chayes (51:17):
We have to honor the people who fight systemic corruption. Right now, they’re almost seen as Stooges. I have the story in On Corruption in America of a friend of mine who was an Assistant US Attorney, and she was working bank fraud cases in the 1990s. It became uncool, and she couldn’t find any investigators anymore. And then, all of the cool people started working healthcare fraud. And then, all the cool people started working terrorism. She stuck it out with bank fraud, but she couldn’t argue her cases anymore. Well then, what happened? 2008 happened. And she did not get the respect that the anti-terrorist prosecutors got.
Christina Moore (52:00):
Sarah Chayes (52:00):
We have to turn the corporate crime and corruption prosecutors and investigators into our folk heroes. They need to be like cowboys to us, that mystique that cowboys have. That mystique that the Law and Order guys had, that’s the mystique. We have to make it so 13 year old girls, what they really want to do is go to law school so they can be a corporate crime prosecutor. We have to make it shameful, shameful to have more billion dollars than your neighbor. That can no longer be a source of admiration, but rather a source of suspicion and shame. That is all of our jobs, that’s all of our jobs. We can do that in how we respond in our every day lives.
Let me just finish up with an example from my own experience, that shows how wrong even I got it, even recently. This is not so easy, we really have to think about it. I was in Nigeria, I was in Kano, which is a magnificent, kaleidoscopic town in the North of Nigeria, just beyond the edge of where Boko Haram was really powerful. I happened to know the emir, it’s a religious traditional leader there. He was actually the former governor of the Central Bank, who denounced the $1 billion a month corruption. He found it, and denounced it, and got fired. I was going to visit him. I got to know him, and I was going to visit him.
This is walking into Arabian Nights, because you’re walking into a mud brick palace. You go in, and I didn’t know where the inner sanctum was, and all this. There’s a police officer standing by the gate and I say, “Can you tell me where I go?” He directs me and all that. I go in, and I come back out. On the way back out he says, “We’re hungry out here.” Translation, “Give me a bribe. Give me a little payoff for having helped you.”
Christina Moore (54:11):
[foreign language 00:54:11], [foreign language 00:54:12] in Arabic. Yeah.
Sarah Chayes (54:14):
It wasn’t Arabic because we’re in Nigeria, and he spoke [crosstalk 00:54:17].
Christina Moore (54:17):
Fair enough. But, it was literally one of the first words I learned.
Sarah Chayes (54:22):
That’s exactly right. What I did was laugh it off, and then I realized oh my goodness, here was Miss Corruption herself, who lost an opportunity to affect culture. Because what I could have done was stop and say, quite loudly, “Excuse me? What did you just say? Excuse me, maybe I misunderstood you but I think you were just asking me for some money. Are you serious? Inside the palace of the Emir of Kano, you are going to ask people for money?” Do you see what I mean?
Christina Moore (54:55):
Sarah Chayes (54:57):
That’s a mild version of Jesus and the money changers, that’s a mild way of bringing public shame in a non-violent, in a non-damaging way. I wasn’t going to end his career that way, but I was reinforcing a cultural value that the Emir of Kano held dear, also. In a way, I was doing his work.
That’s what I urge all of us, we are our brother’s keeper, we are our society’s keeper, and if integrity in public life is important to us, we must require it. That means from our business leaders, it means from our corner store, it means from our taxi drivers, it means especially from our public officials. Because the private sector and the public sector have different objectives, it is not appropriate to put people whose objective is private gain. That is a perfectly respectable objective within reason, within limit, but it is not the correct objective to put in public office. We need to hold our public officials to an even higher standard of honor and integrity, than we hold ordinary members of our society.
Christina Moore (56:22):
Sarah Chayes (56:22):
Let’s do it, and let’s have fun while we’re doing it.
Christina Moore (56:25):
Join us for the ongoing discussion about The History of Now. Stop by the website christinamoore.us for show notes, scripts, and resources. Email me if you’d like, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This podcast, The History of Now, is a production of Fire Media, LLC, with all rights reserved, copyright 2020.