• Sarah Chayes

On Corruption in America -- And What Is at Stake, Insight #1: Midas

Updated: Nov 16



A FEW WORDS OF BACKGROUND before I launch into the heart of this note.

My recent book is not specifically about our unprecedented week-long election and the years of tumult that came before it. Instead, On Corruption contains keys for understanding this barrage of events, and how to move forward from here.

It is 300 pages long, plus careful footnotes, and costs $15 or $22.50, depending on the format. And that – especially these days – can be a lot, of both time and money. My purpose in writing it was always to get those keys into as many hands as possible. ...because this election is not the end of the story. The United States is still in the claws of kleptocracy.

So I’m going to post a series of notes, extracting the basics. This is the first of them.

Second point: While corruption is not only about money – the favors and payments sometimes come in a different currency – money does lie at the heart of corruption in America. So a consideration of that bedeviling stuff is the place to start.

The third point has to do with this book's unusual approach. We’ve gotten so used to categorizing things, we expect a book on current affairs to take place…well, in the present. This one doesn’t. And I won’t, here. We’re about to take a plunge into fairy tales!

I realize that may be disorienting. But please bear with me. What we can gain is too important to deprive ourselves of it, just because it’s unconventional.

“Myth” is a word often used with disdain, to signify something that is manifestly false, but believed by gullible people. There is a different, older meaning of the word, worth considering. Myths (or sacred stories) are the means by which our species has considered itself and its place in the world for tens of thousands of years. Those myths are, in their own way, deeply true.

I can’t shake the feeling that because we have ignored myths and their wisdom, we are now being condemned to live our myths, in real life. Maybe it’s time to start taking them seriously again.

That is why I began On Corruption with a myth.

It’s the one about Midas – remember him? The king who did a favor for a god, and was offered one wish? He piped right up: he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold.

The god (reluctantly) granted the wish. Midas was thrilled!

…for about 37 seconds.

Nathaniel Hawthorne captured the crux of this sacred story by giving King Midas a daughter. How he adored that little girl. As he started touching things to test out his new gift -- and then realized to his shock that if he bit into the crisp fall apple in his hand, he'd break his teeth – his daughter rushed over to comfort him. He kissed her forehead and…that precious, sparkling, irreplaceable child was transformed to another lump of hard metal.

The Midas touch, this myth is telling us, is a deadly curse. It transforms things of irreplaceable value into lifeless gold – or in today’s economy, into zeroes, in bank accounts.

In doing the research for this chapter, I came upon a startling fact. There really was a Midas. He ruled in the mid-7th century BC, just across the Aegean Sea from Greece.

My eyes got wide. That was exactly where and when a revolutionary new way of storing and transferring value was invented: coined money. This fact adds new depth to the myth. It means the story of Midas is not just about greed in general. It’s about money.

Or, to be more precise, it’s about people who are obsessed with getting more and more of it. The multimillionaires. These people don’t crave money to purchase specific things they need. They crave it as a kind of yardstick to measure their social worth. Looked at that way, I wondered -- as a marker of who’s winning -- is there even such thing as “enough?”

I don’t think so. Enough isn’t even part of the equation. The goal is to have more of it than whoever you’re competing with. But then they push past you. And then you have to one-up them…

And that’s a race with no finish line.

The myth helps us visualize the result. People in that race are infected with the Midas Disease. They convert everything of priceless value – the land, what’s on and under the land, human creativity and effort and loyal relationships – into zeroes, in bank accounts. And they are a menace. There is no stopping them. They’re in a race with no finish line, competing with each other to convert everything to zeroes.

So widespread is this disease today that we’ve turned the myth upside down. What do the words “the Midas touch” mean to you? Is the sense positive or negative?

Here is the first key. The Midas Touch is no blessing, it’s a curse. Put your society into the hands of people who test positive for the Midas Disease and they will destroy it.

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© 2018 by Sarah Chayes