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The Art of the Shakedown, from the Nile to the Potomac, by Lawrence Weschler

Sweet, Sweet Cash (Photo: AMagill, flickr)

Sweet, Sweet Cash (Photo: AMagill, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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In the U.S., corruption is seldom “corruption.”  Take as an example our president, who has been utterly clear: he will not take money for his electoral campaign from lobbyists.  Only problem: according to the New York Times, 15 of his top “bundlers,” who give their own money and solicit that of others — none registered as federal lobbyists — are “involved in lobbying for Washington consulting shops or private companies,” and they are raising millions for him.  They also have access to the White House on policy matters.  According to a June report from the Center for Public Integrity, “President Obama granted plum jobs and appointments to almost 200 people who raised large sums for his [2008] presidential campaign, and his top fundraisers have won millions of dollars in federal contracts.”

The president’s spokespeople insist, of course, that he’s kept to his promise, as defined by the labyrinthine lobbying legislation written by a Congress filled with future lobbyists.  And keep in mind that Obama looks like Little Mary Sunshine compared to the field of Republican presidential candidates who seem determined to campaign cheek to jowl with as many lobbyists as they can corral.  More than 100 federal lobbyists have already contributed to Mitt Romney’s campaign, while Rick Perry has evidently risen to candidate status on the shoulders of Mike Toomey, a former gubernatorial chief of staff, friend, and money-raising lobbyist whose clients “have won $2 billion in [Texas] state government contracts since 2008.”  And that’s just the tip of the top of the iceberg.

None of this is “corruption,” of course, just a pay-to-play way of life, which extends to the military-industrial complex and a Pentagon that has spent a mere $1 trillion in the last decade purchasing new weapons to “modernize” its arsenal.  In the meantime, every top civilian official, general, or admiral there knows that some weapons company awaits him with (so to speak) open arms, whenever he decides to spin through the revolving door into “retirement” and the private sector.  The results are stunning.  Arms giant Lockheed Martin paid out $12.7 million in lobbying fees in 2010.  Its CEO took home $21.89 million that year.  And the company just reported third-quarter net earnings of $700 million, beating the expectations of analysts, and predicts more of the same for 2012.  Advantage Lockheed.

Similarly, the government’s top economic advisors regularly come from (and/or end up in/return to) the arms of banks and giant financial outfits, the very firms which pour money into political campaigns.  It’s but another version of the same cozy, well-organized world in which, for example, Robert Rubin spun from Goldman Sachs into the government as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury in the 1990s, then out again to Citigroup, which he then helped run into the ground until it was bailed out on such generous terms in November 2008.  In those years, he made an estimated $126 million. Advantage Rubin.

Just remember though, it’s not corruption.  It’s just the way our world works.  Get used to it.  As it happens, the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t been willing to adjust to that reality, and as a result, corruption is suddenly on American minds, as it has been, for a while, on Lawrence Weschler’s. He happens to be one of our most skilled essayists, with a dazzling writing career behind him.  His latest book, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint), just published, covers a typically unsettling array of topics ranging from why digital animators can’t create a credible human face to how a film editor comes to grips with his war films in the context of war.  Here’s Weschler’s version of an American corruption story. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Weschler discusses his new book click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom

*****

The Art of the Shakedown, from the Nile to the Potomac
How Corruption in the U.S. Puts Everyday Corruption in Africa to Shame

By Lawrence Weschler

A bit over an hour into the five-hour drive across the ferrous red plateau, heading south toward Uganda’s capital Kampala, suddenly, there’s the Nile, a boiling, roiling cataract at this time of year, rain-swollen and ropy and rabid below the bridge that vaults over it.  If Niagara Falls surged horizontally and a rickety bridge arced, shudderingly, over the torrent below, it might feel like the Nile at Karuma.

Naturally, I take out my iPhone and begin snapping pics.

On the other side of the bridge, three soldiers standing in wait in the middle of the road, rifles slung over their shoulders, direct my Kampalan driver Godfrey and me to pull over.

“You were photographing the bridge,” one of them announces, coming up to my open window.  “We saw you.”

“Taking photos of the bridge is expressly forbidden,” the second offers by way of clarification, as the first reaches in and grabs the iPhone out of my hand.  “National security.  Terrorists could use such photos to help in planning to blow up the bridge.”

“Do I look like a terrorist to you?” I ask.  “And anyway,” I shout as Soldiers One and Two walk off with their prize, oblivious, “I wasn’t photographing the bridge.  I was photographing the rapids.  The bridge was precisely the one thing I wasn’t photographing!”

To no avail.  I open my car door and begin to get out — but the third soldier pushes me gently back and then leans into the window, peering amiably. “And besides,” I continue, “there were no signs forbidding such photographs.  Anyway, if it’s such a big deal just give me back the phone and I’ll delete the photos.  You can watch.”

I’m beginning to panic.  As with most of us nowadays, pretty much my entire life is couched inside that bloody little device: contacts, calendars, hotel reservations, all my appointment coordinates for the coming days.

“Ah no,” Soldier Three smiles in a silkily practiced manner.  “You are not to worry.  This is not an affair about you.  This is an affair between Ugandans.  It is your driver who was at fault.  He is a Ugandan, he should have known about our national security and how no one should photograph the bridge.  Let them work it out.”

And indeed, when I turn around Godfrey is no longer behind the steering wheel.  He’s with the other soldiers, remonstrating away.  “Don’t you worry,” repeats my guy indulgently, a broad smile spreading across his face as if we are the best of buddies.  “Give them time.”  And then, as if to pass the time himself, he adds, “So, how do you like our excellent country?”

Minutes go by with Godfrey and his two interlocutors on the other side of the road, locked in fervent colloquy — much hand waving, arm flinging, rifle toying, shouting, cajoling, and then smiling, even guffawing — until finally, 15 minutes and $20 later, Godfrey comes ambling back to the car, climbs into the driver’s seat, and hands me the iPhone.

(Memo to would-be terrorists: If any of you are planning to blow up the Karuma bridge, make sure to budget an extra $20 photography fee during the planning phase.)

Anyway, Godfrey turns the key, revs up the car’s engine, and we resume our climb out of the canyon of the Nile and back onto the flat, red, shrubby plateau.

“Does that kind of thing happen often?” I ask Godfrey, who in much of the rest of his life is a Kampala taxi driver.

“All the time,” he assures me.  Two or three times a week.  He has to figure it into his budget, and it’s a large item.  Just the other day, he adds, he turned down a one-way street in the middle of Kampala and found, a couple hundred yards on, that it was completely flooded.  As he gingerly made his way back to the intersection, a traffic cop was happily standing in wait to give him a hefty fine for driving the wrong way on a one-way street — either that or a 100,000 shilling tip (about $5, which in Kampala might otherwise pay for two good meals) to make the problem go away.

It’s to be expected, Godfrey went on.  The soldiers are conscripts, the traffic cop a lowly underling, and they’re all notoriously underpaid.  Or rather, their superiors carve out a substantial part of their salaries for themselves, leaving these men with hardly enough to live on, let alone maintain a family.  The opportunity to garnish bribes becomes a necessary perk of the job.  The trouble is, he continued, such corruption riddles the entire country, infesting virtually every transaction with the state.

We are silent for a few moments, the scrub brush racing by.  Then Godfrey asks, “Doesn’t this sort of thing happen in America?”

I don’t even hesitate.  Not really, I tell him: not blatantly like that, and not frequently, certainly not all the time.

Only, then I get to thinking, because that answer turns out to be way too glib.  It’s not that the United States lacks corruption, I go on to say — or even pervasive corruption.  It’s just not of the low-level and petty variety like the kind we just went through, not most of the time anyway.  In America, corruption is concentrated at the highest levels of society — and it masquerades, for example, under the name of “campaign finance.”

Election campaigns have become so expensive that candidates have to go begging, hat in hand, to anyone who will finance them.  And the billionaires and millionaires and bankers and hedge-fund operators and portfolio managers and CEOs and their lobbyists are, in turn, only too happy to contribute.  They lard the “people’s representatives” with grotesque “contributions” after which those representatives prove only too willing to turn around and carve out billions of dollars in specifically targeted tax breaks and subsidies structured exclusively for them — precious dollars which then can’t be used to fund schools or clinics or playgrounds or to further the public good in any way.

And it’s worse than that: once congressional representatives or their senior staff retire, they almost invariably get much higher paying lobbying jobs working for the very industries over which they had once held sway — a further incentive not to upset those monied interests when still on the public payroll.

So regulations get gutted, calamities ensue, and guess who gets stuck cleaning up the inevitable mess, whether financial, environmental, or of any other sort: yup, the taxpayers.  Tax laws get dictated or often just written by the lobbyists of those same monied interests, with all sorts of sweet loopholes carved out especially for them — not infrequently for them individually — so that, in the end, the richest man in America reports he’s getting off with a lower tax rate than his secretary.

“You’re kidding,” Godfrey interjected.

No: even he’s embarrassed!  Education, meanwhile, is funded according to narrowly local property taxes — and the rich make sure it stays that way.  The result?  Their kids get a far better education than those living in poorer neighborhoods.  When people try to remedy that injustice through affirmative action programs which at least recognize the unfairness of the competition for access to, for example, university slots, the rich protest and get judges to overturn such programs as racist.  They are, however, perfectly happy to take advantage of other programs that assure the acceptance of the children of alumni, no matter their scholarly performance, and no one says boo.  It’s all perfectly legal.

In America, as W.E.B. DuBois noted toward the end of his life, “We let men take wealth which is not theirs; if the seizure is ‘legal’ we call it high profits.  And the profiteers help decide what is legal.”

In Uganda, corruption often arises out of desperation.  In America, more typically, its wellsprings are greed, pure and simple.  And it’s hard to decide which is the more dismaying, the more disfiguring, the more disgusting.

Or actually, no, it’s not.  It’s not that hard at all.

Lawrence Weschler is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.  His newest book, just published, is Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint).  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Weschler discusses his new book click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Lawrence Weschler

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Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tomdispatch.com is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman's Maus and John Dower's War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan's The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for Tomdispatch.com. He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.

To find out more about Engelhardt and his background, check out:

Harry Kreisler's interview, "Taking Back the Word", on the Conversations with History website.

Julian Brookes' interview, "Iraq, Bush, and Writing Long", on the Mother Jones website.

Nick Turse's two-part interview on the Tomdispatch website, "Reading the Imperial Press Front to Back" (part 1) and "On Not Packing Your Bag and Heading Home When Things Go Wrong" (part 2).

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