Updated: Jul 22, 2018
I would like to hear what happened to you. Many people see corruption as a victimless crime. If a governor got fancy presents and a few tens of thousands of dollars in loans from some businessman, and in return made state officials listen to that businessman’s pitch, well that may be wrong in the abstract. It may be “tawdry” or “distasteful” (words judges and expert commentators love to use to make light of corruption). But no one died, right? No one got maimed. It’s not a serious crime. Right?
In countries where I have spent the past decade living with, working on, and investigating this problem, corruption is in your face. In Afghanistan, a dear friend of mine, a sunny, stout young man, former police officer and newly minted auto parts salesman, was smacked in the face when he told a cop he would not put any money in his outstretched hand. In Nigeria, a prosecutor I know told me the story of a man who died of the complications of diabetes when the judge refused bail for a petty arrest. That was after the judge demanded sex from the man’s wife as the price for her husband’s conditional release. In Honduras, people are assassinated for standing up to the wholesale theft of their land and natural resources by a handful of ruling families.
It’s true, we don’t have it so bad in the United States.
But it really depends on how you understand corruption. If corruption means cash in envelopes in return for an explicitly defined exercise of government power – a legal decision, a zoning ruling, the award of a contract – that’s one thing. And that’s how the U.S. Supreme Court has defined corruption. But if corruption is understood more broadly, to mean the systematic capture of government and its key functions by a network that counts government officials, business magnates, and sometimes outright criminals among its members. When that network bends government agencies into the service of its members, not the public’s, that’s another thing.
That’s what I call a rigged system. And that’s the form corruption is taking today in more countries than I ever thought possible. Including our own.
Under that definition, when well more than 350,000 Americans have died from an opioid overdose since 2000 – while DEA prosecutors turned coat as the deaths mounted, and went to work for the very pharma companies they had once prosecuted, the companies that were shipping millions of pills to tiny local drug stores -- those sufferers and their shattered families are the victims of corruption.
When some four million Americans lost their homes due to deliberate, systemic fraud by mortgage lenders and derivatives speculators, which had planted personnel in the most influential economic positions in administrations of both parties, so as to ensure their businesses escaped government oversight (see e.g. Bill Black, the former regulator who wrote the book on this system with regards to the Savings and Loan crisis, here on the Great Recession, or the U.S. Government’s own scathing inquiry, here), those millions of homeless are the victims of corruption.
When 300,000 of my long-suffering West Virginia neighbors had to do without drinking water for weeks on end, because “Freedom” Industries (freedom for whom, to do what?) spilled 10,000 gallons of lethal chemicals used in coal production into the glorious Elk River, turning its waters a sickening orange -- in a state where energy industry executives who control the political process have for years been stripping away our property rights and environmental protections and enforcement of even minimal safety standards -- those citizens, and their beloved landscapes, were the victims of corruption.
Has anything like this happened to you, to your town or community? If so, I’d like to hear about it.
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