Even The Graft Is Worse…

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, political scientists have been writing about the role played by the erosion of democratic norms and public ethics.

I recently came across an article titled “Whatever Happened to Honest Graft,” in a publication called Splinter. The article is a vivid illustration of that erosion; it began with a description of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband (my nominee for “America’s most evil man”) Mitch McConnell.

Last week, The Intercept’s Lee Fang and Spencer Woodman published a story about how the family of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, funneled millions of dollars to their family foundation from their own offshore tax shelters, which are incorporated in the Marshall Islands in order to hide their dealings and profits from the United States government. That is, the government that Chao and McConnell help to run.

The Transportation Department says, “Chao has no affiliation with the family shipping business,” though she did receive at least one officially reported gift of millions of dollars from her father…. McConnell, who has never had a career outside of politics, and who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985, somehow has a personal net worth of around $26.7 million. None of this is particularly unusual.

The article wasn’t about Chou and McConnell–the clue lies in the observation that the reported behavior isn’t “particularly unusual.” For example, there’s Bob Corker, who Matt Taibbi has described as“a full-time day-trader who did a little Senator-ing in his spare time.”

Corker is notable for the volume of his trades—in one extreme example, he made 1,200 trades over a nine month period in 2007, according to Taibbi—but not for the acts of making ethically questionable investments or carrying out trades seemingly based on information known only to members of Congress.

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was a longtime member of Congress; his Cabinet confirmation was nearly derailed by the emergence of reports that he had invested in a small Australian biotech firm and then had pushed legislation to speed the FDA approval process. During his seven months at HHS, he made a habit of buying healthcare-related stocks and then pushing for policies that would increase their value.

The article explained at some length how much various Senators will benefit personally from their “tax reform” bill–after all, a bill intended to benefit the wealthy could hardly help benefitting lawmakers, since most of them range from extremely comfortable to very rich. As the author of the article notes,

I think this blatant self-dealing, and thin-skinned outrage at the suggestion that it is what it plainly looks like, is another example of norm erosion. In a Twitter thread a while back, the writer Jedediah Purdy identified a version of this new shamelessness: the more you think others are cheating on their taxes, running agencies for their own interest, doing public service just to switch sides through the revolving door, the more useless it is for you to do differently.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but the basic outline of the story looks pretty clear. Bribery, graft, and naked self-dealing used to be commonplace in our politics, especially in the big urban “machines,” as exemplified by Tammany Hall. The professionalization of our politics—its takeover by serious lawyers and respectable, credentialed men—meant, first, that those practices were reformed away. Then it meant that they returned, totally legal but slightly disguised, as normal politics.

As is the case with most of the norms that have been swallowed by the sea recently, this one’s erosion is exemplified by Donald Trump, but he is the culmination, not the cause. Serious people who imagine themselves to be virtuous, or at least no less virtuous than their neighbors, have normalized what used to be easily recognizable as graft.

As the author points out, at least corrupt organizations in the past, like Tammany Hall,  actually built things (Tammany Hall built most of upper Manhattan) while they were skimming off the top and doling out overpaid patronage jobs.

Even in their corruption, today’s elites seem to lack the sense of civic or social responsibility of our crooks of old.

31 thoughts on “Even The Graft Is Worse…

  1. “As the author points out, at least corrupt organizations in the past, like Tammany Hall, actually built things (Tammany Hall built most of upper Manhattan) while they were skimming off the top and doling out overpaid patronage jobs.”

    The difference is that those who were running Tammany Hall still had some sense of community and decency, unlike those involved in the Trump Administration. The DNA of our “body politic ” has been criminalized not unlike, or much different, than what the world experienced through the Nazi regime in Germany.

    At this stage of the American styled evolution of nihilism, only the accents are different.

    Important references: “The Revolution of Nihilism” and “The Redemption of Democracy” both by Hermann Rauschning a former member of Adolph Hitler’s “inner circle.”

  2. I would also highly recommend: “Europe and the German Question” by F. W. Foerster (Sheed and Ward, New York, 1940).

    From the opening words of the Introduction:

    “During an historical crisis when the destiny of the world is being decided, personal reminiscences may seem an untimely impertinence. But the brief account of my life I propose to give is justified by the fact that my experiences and observations throw light on the development which is the subject of this book.

    I must begin by insisting that although I am deprived of my nationality and live far from my native land my soul has never lost its fatherland. I address my fellow countrymen not only as a PATRIOTIC German—whose patriotism however is given to a country still invisible—but also as a German who knows Europe and therefore believes it his vocation to explain to his people the reaction of the rest of the world to the German aggression and thus help to pay the way for an eventual reconciliation between Germany and Europe.” p. vii

  3. “The DNA of our “body politic ” has been criminalized not unlike, or much different, than what the world experienced through the Nazi regime in Germany.”

    Marv; as always you are on target but…should we also be making connections between Trump and Putin’s “governing” of both countries with their personal wealth being their only goal? Trump hasn’t started killing off his personal enemies yet…that we know of.

  4. We kill off our enemies all the time, JoAnn, and have for decades.

    I read an interesting article this past week which noted that an independent international organization who inventories chemical weapons cleared Russia of the nerve agent used in England recently to kill a former Russian spy who was traded to England nearly a decade ago and posed no threat to Russia or Putin.

    Theresa May has a huge problem with Brexit and Ireland. It’s rather odd she’d be using the same diversion the USA used when Hillary lost HER election. We still have a dead DNC Tech Manager who was murdered during a robbery where nothing was stolen. 😉

    Murder is common amongst thieves. The stealing escalates.

    This is why I find it comical that folks believe we have a democracy or a representative republic. We don’t and haven’t for decades if we ever did have one.

    How much blood do we have over our own imperialist seeking ways?

    One thing I’d like to point out…the articles referenced for this piece all come from sources outside the mainstream media. McConnell’s district in Kentucky keeps reelecting him. Do they know he’s a crook? Why do they keep re-electing him if they know he’s a crook?

    Who’s role is it in our society to inform voters about the elected representatives in their district so they can make informed decisions?

    If this was plastered all over the local news in Kentucky, he’d be shamed out of serving the public. Instead, he’s been reelected since the 80’s.

    Apparently, everyone voting for McConnell is also a crook without a moral compass.

  5. Todd, Perhaps the voters of Kentucky keep voting for McConnell because he “takes care of them”. He has the highest position in the Senate and can get support for ANY measure that the folks back home want… highways, bridges, government facilities, and any right wing social program deemed necessary to that backward state.

  6. Todd,

    “This is why I find it comical that folks believe we have a democracy or a representative republic. We don’t and haven’t for decades if we ever did have one.”

    We’ve had a PROCEDURAL DEMOCRACY, but we never had a real SOCIAL DEMOCRACY. We had MASSIVE RESISTANCE to Civil Rights instigated by the ruling oligarchy before the “ink was dry” on the civil rights legislation of the 60’s.

    I remember well the telephone conversation my father had with Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee, the so-called “father of civil rights,” and the veiled threats made to him by Senator Kefauver when my father, the Selection Chairman of the Gator Bowl, made the decision to break the color barrier in college football in the “deep south” in 1960.

    My father had me listen to the conversation on another line.

  7. The real problem with our government is that we, the people, are too lazy to vote or even to know what happens in our own government. Only when we get off our duffs, demand change, wnd vote for that change will anything be different.

  8. You began with “the role played by the erosion of democratic norms and public ethics.” The situation is such that the advantages of graft and corruption in government have given rise to the extreme partisanship affecting the nation. Those on the benefits side have no interest in fairness and honesty in public matters, hence it becomes their way or no way.

  9. Perhaps the youth — smart and engaged – can bring some change
    It helped in the 60’s
    Maybe it will again

  10. “Those on the benefits side have no interest in fairness and honesty in public matters, hence it becomes their way or no way.”

    fmontyr; “Something Wicked This Way Comes”!

  11. I have said for a long time, that Tammany Hall, the Pendergast machine, and all the other crooks of the late 19th and entire 20th century were honest crooks. Yes, they enriched themselves, BUT they did perform valuable public services in integrating immigrants of that era into American culture. They provided food and housing, and most of all, jobs, which is a more complex way of saying “They put money into the hands of the poor”, which provided the growth of the modern economy.
    What Chao and Mitch, Trump, and Ryan, and Republicans as a whole are doing is modeled upon the crooks and dictators of Latin America, who sequester their money ‘safely’ away from the poor of their nations, ensuring a permanent poverty-stricken underclass whose labor feeds the rich, but earns nothing for itself.
    When I was teaching, my students sometimes chuckled when I’d say “honest crook”, and I’m sure they didn’t take it seriously, because most of them that I can follow are still Republicans who think the poor are responsible for their own poverty.
    So, thank you bigly for confirming my own long held opinion!!

  12. As a Boomer I grew up in the Chicago area, when it was run by Richard J. Daley (Daley the Elder). Political influence was called Clout. It was possible to use the system to enrich your self and your allies. Some decided to go a bridge too far. Illinois Governors Otto Kerner, followed by Daniel Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich were all convicted on federal criminal charges.

    The system controlled by the 1% has an interlocking defense. The elected politicians pass the laws that protect themselves and the 1%. What should be called a bribe is categorized as campaign contributions. Thus, you have tax shelters, tax loopholes and essentially legalized money laundering.

  13. The demise of our civic culture, in business as well as politics, is well captured in Robert Reich’s new book – The Common Good. Once compromised, it is very difficult to re-establish the norms necessary for a functioning democracy (and a productive economy). As Sheila has pointed out many times, we need civics education. And we need to continue to identify and protest behavior that undermines the common good. Our institutions are not strong enough to save us if the norms, upon which these institutions were built, are debased.

  14. Graft by any other name….

    McConnell’s “district” is Kentucky, for those who missed their civics classes.

    Yes, graft, in its many forms has been with all humanity since the invention of economics. It’s a matter of how insidious it is and how much harm it does that defines the “norm” that the people allow. McConnell, Ryan, Corker, et.al., are low-life crooks, plain and simple. They possess nothing resembling a conscience and are dedicated to nothing more than their own false status in life. For the most part, these creatures define the new Republicanism that is cruel, untruthful and hideous to society.

    Well done, voters…er, those who didn’t vote against these bastards.

  15. David @ 10:21 > Our institutions are not strong enough to save us if the norms, upon which these institutions were built, are debased.<<

    Speaking of debased, I just read where, CBS plans to broadcast an interview March 25 with porn actress Stormy Daniels, who has said she had a sexual relationship with President Donald Trump before the 2016 election, a person familiar with the matter said. Anderson Cooper's interview with Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star known as Stormy Daniels will air on 60 Minutes.

    I guess I should not be surprised that our News Media has sunk to such depths.

  16. Perhaps we haven’t had a decline in standards for political chicanery but rather have simply become immune to recognition of the usual. We apparently do not care that McConnell and his wife Elaine (Secretary of Transportation) have a Marshall Islands shell company to sheild their foundation income from their overseas investments from prying IRS eyes, or Trump’s driving ambition to build a Trump hotel in Moscow and money launder at the expense of our democracy.

    The good news is that millennials and liberals who have not been immunized are soon to be the political majority in America and I think they will be puritanical in cleaning up the messes that allow such conduct which Sheila describes today. Yes, aldermen in Chicago had a piece of the action whenever a new sidewalk or sewer came into their domain, but the new sidewalks and sewers did in fact get built. That reality is only good for purposes of comparison; like the current view that Bush is good by contrast with Trump – when both are bad.

    I look for new laws, rules and regulations that will end the McConnell-like offshore antics of American corporations and individuals in an intensifying global economy. Those who are practicing the current brand of capitalism are headed for a fall unless they relent and agree to regulation of their practices. The alternative and the likely result will be, in my opinion, a new form of government based on that of the social democratic European countries along with careful regulation of the investment practices of our corporations and individuals. The backlash is on the horizon, if we can last long enough (per Marv) to see it happen.

  17. “Honest graft!” Brings back memories of reading William Riordan’s, Plunkett of Tammany Hall. It seemed so quaint and harmless, then, but when compared to excesses carried out by the McConnell’s, and Chao, it seems trivial . . . and the humor is gone, as well.

  18. Gerald,

    “The alternative and the likely result will be, in my opinion, a new form of government based on that of the social democratic European countries along with careful regulation of the investment practices of our corporations and individuals. The backlash is on the horizon, if we can last long enough (per Marv) to see it happen.”

    Thanks for putting my concerns in its proper place…(in parenthesis). I continue to support your vision of our political future.

  19. Perhaps some of the problem is that we, the people, relinquished democracy for entertainment and the current round of politicians realize that nobody is watching the store.

    That makes the historical leader of the gang Rush Limbaugh who got extremely wealthy showing oligarchs how easily and completely we can be brainwashed.

    “News” entertainers funded by oligarchs proved that getting truly self serving politicians not only elected but unafraid of the consequences of monumental thievery was doable given the pervasive media network that we as consumers funded.

    One question is how do we the people paying for all of that wealth redistribution up break those chains?

    We have to revolt but I think that we still have the option of peacefully.

    Think of the message that all D’s this year and ‘20 sends to that cabal shoveling the wealth that we the people create out of the country as fast as possible.

    I believe that it would be the great reckoning but am also sure that the more momentum such a movement gains the more propaganda will be deployed against it.

    It’s already started.

    Unite authoritarians and divide liberals will be the entertainment theme of the year.

  20. Gerald,

    I think it’s about time for me to find a publisher, probably in Europe, for my memoirs entitled: “Deeper than the Deepest: Holding the Line against the Invisible Front.”

  21. Years ago, my uncle, a Republican Chicago millionaire at a time when millionaire was an exceptional status, told me that he supported Daley (the elder) because he got things done, especially infrastructure that facilitated my uncle’s business.
    Chicago was and probably still is a very graft-driven city. The public good was still served while the bosses got their cut under the table and sometimes right out in the public square. Not so now, when decades of graft and insider deals have left most inner cities stripped of revenue to maintain the public goods and services while the corporations take the tax deferments and privilege as their just due and run to the suburban areas where land is cheap and the pols are all too willing to pay to play.

  22. Opps, I left off the last part of my comment

    David @ 10:21 > Our institutions are not strong enough to save us if the norms, upon which these institutions were built, are debased.<<

    Speaking of debased, I just read where, CBS plans to broadcast an interview March 25 with porn actress Stormy Daniels, who has said she had a sexual relationship with President Donald Trump before the 2016 election, a person familiar with the matter said. Anderson Cooper's interview with Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star known as Stormy Daniels will air on 60 Minutes.

    I guess I should not be surprised that our News Media has sunk to such depths.

    The Intercept published a story about how the family of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, funneled millions of dollars to their family foundation from their own offshore tax shelters, which are incorporated in the Marshall Islands in order to hide their dealings and profits from the United States government. That is, the government that Chao and McConnell help to run.

    CBS as well as the other so-called News networks have ignored the story The Intercept reported on. We may never see the smoking gun in writing that the McMega-Media suppresses news, but we see the indirect result, when Stormy Daniels receives hours and hours of air time.

  23. “Even The Graft Is Worse”

    The above quote is the only outcome to be expected from the results of the 2016 presidential election and the hand-picked cabinet appointees of the corporate mafia; a National Crime Syndicate consisting of neo-Nazis, White Nationalists and the KKK shift almost weekly depending on his mood de jour. For approximately three years; 24/7 hours of all media has been filled with Donald J. Trump without letup. Donald Trump is now in actuality who he has believed himself to be since he gained understanding that the name Trump plus money equals power. He is, in a totally negative and extremely dangerous sense, even beyond our national borders, the most important man on earth. At this time there appears to be no stopping him; he was correct when he said months ago that he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and no one would do anything to stop him. Adding to his blatant daily lies he has admitted now lying to another national leader and it was accepted by all as simply “Donald will always be Donald”. His every utterance and mentally unbalanced actions, plus his gutter level morals, are now the accepted law of the land. “As our embarrassing President might tweet: SAD.”

    As Linda Ellerbee always said, “And so it goes.”

  24. “Former CIA Director John Brennan, who was appointed by Obama, sharply criticized President Trump for his celebratory tweet after the firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.

    “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you,” Brennan tweeted on Saturday.”

    I am in good company with my views of Trump; but I have to ask…WILL America triumph over Trump and when will it begin?

  25. JoAnn, we can end the siege if we set aside relatively petty differences and focus on first things first.

    United we stand, divided we fall.

    Hard but necessary, in fact critical.

  26. Like Paul Ogden, the discovery of evil is limited here to what might have happened since the election of Donald Trump. Let us say to the credit of Andy McCabe that when the Deep State Swampsters came after him to derail the investigation into the Clinton Foundation he would not go along with their desire. That investigation proceeds. The $70 billion high speed rail project in CA being attempted by Nancy Pelosi’s better half has had no charges of corruption, nor have there been any lodged against the Senior Senator from Kentucky. All it takes is a postcard, a stamp, and some proof of wrongdoing…so the pretenders of civic virtue on this thread can’t even get that up?
    Meanwhile, States are beginning to pass re certification laws for unions. You can bet that the employees of Carrier (who never had a voice in falling under union thumbs) might have preferred to dump their bosses and kept their jobs instead of seeing Mexico become the benefactors of market forces.

  27. Pete; first, think over this past week alone and please tell me which issues you consider to be petty that we can put aside our differences? Which issue, petty or vital, should we consider first?

    “United we stand, divided we fall”…I am in total agreement with that statement except for the fact that I REFUSE to unite with the current administration or the Republican controlled Congress. They have consistently refused to “unite” enough to include Democrats on their investigation committees and have ended their Russian “investigation” of Trump’s very open and public involvement with and support of Putin and all things Russian. If you choose to unite with them them; you still have that right as an American citizen. We are not dealing with honest, law abiding believers in civic and human rights as provided by the Constitution; they are ignoring it completely or have their own definition of what is said.

    Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” is a dog whistle translating to “Make America White Again”. “unity” is not part of the Republican vocabulary and they are leading this country in not knowing how to decide which issue should be “first things first”! WE, the majority of American people, are the ones UNDER SIEGE; we are not part of the siege so we are not the ones who can end it. We can only vote and hope and pray to survive the siege you seem to see as petty.

  28. JoAnn, I assumed (usually a mistake) that people would take “united we stand, divided we fall” in the context of my off repeated to the point of nagging mantra of all D’s this year and ’20.

    The differences among Democrats to me aren’t really petty except in comparison to the differences between the DNC and Trumpublicans.

    If we let our detail differences divide us while Republicans are successful in uniting their factions searching for power we will IMO lose the war.

  29. Vernon Turner @ 12:07pm
    “Yes, we must be active and start marching, demonstrating, writing, phoning, organizing. It’s how the people get things changed. By doing these things, the fascists will panic and make even more mistakes which will drive even more people/voters away from their brand. But, we’d better get with the program while we still have free elections.”

    Somebody compile a list of possible Americans who can provide needed leadership in this movement. Would these start the list?:
    Joe Biden, Lawrence O’Connell, John Kasich, Sheila Kennedy.
    Can we find a re-incarnation of Thomas Jefferson, or General Donald Trump to replace General George Washington to lead the New Revolution? Shall we start with clarifying the Second Amendment to 21st Century standards or would SCOTUS term limits be an issue? How about removing VPOTUS as congressional tie-breaker requiring popular majority instead? Take religion out of government?
    What are your hot-button issues?

  30. Pete did it again today with his post at 1:11pm today and 8:17pm yesterday. Add Pete to the list of prospective leaders.
    OMG @ 12:07pm today: correction: Lawrence O’Donnell.

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