Tag: corruption

Republicans and Democrats Should Be Especially Concerned about the Threat of Government When Their Party Is in Charge

Gallup just released a poll showing that 46 percent of Americans view the federal government as an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans. My first reaction was to wonder why the number was so low. After all, we have a political elite that wants to do everything from control our health care to monitor our financial transactions.

But a secondary set of numbers is even more remarkable. As seen in this chart, both Republicans and Democrats tend to view the federal government as a threat mostly when the White House is controlled by the other party.

This complacency is very unfortunate. Republicans presumably want to limit government control over the economy, yet it was the Bush Administration that put in place policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley, the banana-republic TARP bailout, the corrupt farm bills, and the pork-filled transportation bills. Democrats, meanwhile, presumably want to protect our civil liberties, yet the Obama Administration has left in place virtually all of the Bush policies that the left was upset about just two years ago. There has been no effort to undo the more troublesome provisions of the PATRIOT Act. And shouldn’t honest liberals be upset that the Obama Administration is going to such lengths to defend the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy?

The lesson to be learned is that there is an unfortunate tendency for politicians to misbehave when they get control of the machinery of government. Lord Acton warned that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s almost as if Republicans and Democrats do their best every day to confirm this statement.

The Alaska Version of Big Government Means Big Corruption

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is an expert on graft and sleaze inside the Beltway, and his column this morning is a perfect example. He shows how corrupt insiders in Alaska use something known as the “Rent-an-Eskimo” scam to pull in hundreds of millions of tax dollars from no-bid federal contracts. These insiders, meanwhile, steers big bucks to Washington lobbyists (almost all of whom worked for politicians like Lisa Murkowski), who then provide campaign cash to the corrupt officials who pass the laws that enable the circle of graft to continue. Here are some key passages from Tim’s column.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in candidacy is being funded by $100,000 contributions from a handful of Alaska corporations that have been handsomely subsidized by the federal government. These six-figure donors have pulled in billions of taxpayer dollars thanks to special legislative favors from Murkowski and her mentors – the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R), and Lisa’s father, former senator and governor, Frank Murkowski (R). …In late September AST took in $800,000 from nine Alaska Native Corporations – unique, privileged, and politically connected for-profit entities created in the 1970s by legislation written by Stevens.  While the companies are technically owned by the natives, the taxpayer-funded spoils from these contracts accrue to the well-connected nonnative lobbyists, subcontractors, and executives in the “Alaska mafia” made up of aides, friends and donors of Stevens, the Murkowskis, and Rep. Don Young (R). Meanwhile the 130,000 Alaska Natives, who are shareholders in the ANCs, have received $720 million over the last nine years, which comes to $615 per native annually. In effect, the natives are unwitting frontmen for this racket. Critics on Capitol Hill say this is worse than Jack Abramoff’s exploitation of Indian tribes, and, in a dark joke, dub the ANCs with the politically incorrect name “rent-an-Eskimo. …These multimillion-dollar (in some cases billion-dollar) corporations are exempt from competition requirements that cover most federal contracts because they are automatically treated as small businesses from socially and economically disadvantaged populations – although their success in pulling in federal contracts would suggest otherwise. …These overpriced no-bid contracts aren’t welfare for poor natives as much as they are patronage for politically connected lobbyists and executives, most of whom are not natives. …The ANCs highlight the truly corrupt aspect of pork-barrel spending, especially in Alaska. “Bringing home the bacon” is not simply about transferring wealth north from the Lower 48 – it’s often about using taxpayer money to line the pockets of the politically connected, who return the favor in the form of campaign contributions. Much of the pork doesn’t make it all the way to Alaska – it stays right here on K Street.

This is just one example of how big government creates a breeding ground for corruption. The circle of graft is Washington’s version of recycling. Money gets taken from taxpayers and then winds up getting passed back and forth among special interests, lobbyists, and politicians. This video provides more of the sordid details.

Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.

‘Democrats Guess Wrong on Health Care’

That’s the headline of an article posted this week in Politico:

Rarely have so many political strategists been so wrong about something so big.

But when it comes to the health care bill, everyone from former President Bill Clinton on down whiffed on some of the more significant predictions.

Democrats would run aggressively on the legislation? Nope. Voters would forget about the sausage-making aspects of the legislative process? Doesn’t seem that way, as the process contributed to the sense that the bill was deeply flawed.

And Clinton’s own promise to jittery Democrats that their poll numbers would skyrocket after the bill finally passed also didn’t pan out, as the party is fighting for its life in the midterms.

What can explain the miscalculation?  Maybe religious fervor?

Lessons in Crony Capitalism

From this week’s Washington Post:

Afghanistan’s Central Bank has taken control of the country’s biggest and most politically potent private bank and ordered its chairman to hand over $160 million worth of luxury villas and other real estate purchased in Dubai for well-connected insiders, according to Afghan bankers and officials.

Farther down the page the article continues:

Kabul Bank previously had been shielded by the political clout of its shareholders who, in addition to Mahmoud Karzai [President Hamid Karzai’s brother, who partly owns Kabul Bank], include Haseen Fahim, the brother of Vice President Mohammed Fahim.

If this hostile takeover wasn’t questionable enough, the article goes on to report:

Kabul Bank’s biggest creditor, bank insiders said, is Haseen Fahim, a minority shareholder, who borrowed tens of millions of dollars to fund various business ventures, which in turn won contracts at U.S. bases and sites in Afghanistan operated by the CIA.

So, in an effort to stamp out corruption, which U.S. officials have prodded Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to do, he orders his Central Bank to take managing control of the country’s largest private bank, which, I might add, “also contributed to President Karzai’s reelection campaign last year.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, the above-cited transaction sounds like a stark lesson in crony capitalism: an allegedly capitalist economy based on close relationships between politically connected business figures and the state. This U.S.-led nation-building charade in Afghanistan sounds eerily reminiscent of the state-controlled corruption surrounding Afghanistan’s mineral mining laws:

“Article 4: Ownership of Minerals

(1) All naturally occurring Minerals and all Artificial Deposits of Minerals on surface or subsurface of the territory of Afghanistan or in its water courses (rivers and streams) are the exclusive property of the State.”

Well, it’s nice to see that we are exporting our system around the world!

Are These Examples of Washington Corruption?

The “appearance of impropriety” is often considered the Washington standard for corruption and misbehavior. With that in mind, alarm bells began ringing in my head when I read this Washington Times report about Jacob Lew, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. A snippet:

President Obama’s choice to be the government’s chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year — after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout. The money was paid to Jacob Lew in January 2009, about two weeks before he joined the State Department as deputy secretary of state, according to a newly filed ethics form. The payout came on top of the already hefty $1.1 million Citigroup compensation package for 2008 that he reported last year. Administration officials and members of Congress last year expressed outrage that executives at other bailed-out firms, such as American International Group Inc., awarded bonuses to top executives. State Department officials at the time steadfastly refused to say if Mr. Lew received a post-bailout bonus from Citigroup in response to inquiries from The Washington Times. But Mr. Lew’s latest financial disclosure report, provided by the State Department on Wednesday, makes clear that he did receive a significant windfall. …The records show that Mr. Lew received the $944,578 payment four days after he filed his 2008 ethics disclosure.

Why did Citigroup decide to hire Lew, a career DC political operator, for $1.1 million? As a former political aide, lobbyist, lawyer, and political appointee, what particular talents did he have to justify that salary to manage an investment division? Did the presence of Lew (as well as other Washington insiders such as Robert Rubin) help Citigroup get a big bucket of money from taxpayers as part of the TARP bailout? Did Lew’s big $900K in 2009 have anything to do with the money the bank got from taxpayers? Is it a bit suspicious that he received his big windfall bonus four days after filing a financial disclosure?

See if you can draw any conclusion other than this was a typical example of the sleazy relationship of big government and big business.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, let’s now look at another story featuring Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Republican and his former aides have a nice relationship that means more campaign cash for him, lucrative fees for them, and lots of our tax dollars being diverted to such recipients as the state’s university system. Here are some of the sordid details:

Since 2008, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has steered more than $250 million in earmarks to beneficiaries whose lobbyists used to work in his Senate office — including millions for Alabama universities represented by a former top staffer. In a mix of revolving-door and campaign finance politics, the same organizations that have enjoyed Shelby’s earmarks have seen their lobbyists and employees contribute nearly $1 million to Shelby’s campaign and political action committee since 1999, according to federal records. …Shelby’s earmarking doesn’t appear to run afoul of Senate rules or federal ethics laws. But critics said his tactics are part of a Washington culture in which lawmakers direct money back home to narrow interests, which, in turn, hire well-connected lobbyists — often former congressional aides — who enjoy special access on Capitol Hill.

Some people think the answer to such shenanigans is more ethics laws, corruption laws, and campaign-finance laws, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Besides, it is quite likely that no laws were broken, either by Lew, Citigroup, Shelby, or his former aides. This is just the way Washington works, and the beneficiaries are the insiders who know how to milk the system. The only way to actually reduce both legal and illegal corruption in Washington is to shrink the size of government. The sleaze will not go away until politicians have less ability to steer our money to special interests — whether they are Wall Street banks or Alabama universities. This video elaborates:

The Sleazy Combination of Big Business and Big Government

There’s an article today in the Wall Street Journal showing how already-established companies and their union allies will use the coercive power of government to thwart competition. The article specifically discusses efforts by less competitive supermarkets to block new Wal-Mart stores. Not that Wal-Mart can complain too vociferously. After all, this is the company that endorsed a key provision of Obamacare in hopes its hurting lower-cost competitors. The moral of the story is that whenever big business and big government get in bed together, you can be sure the outcome almost always is bad for taxpayers and consumers.

A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the antidevelopment campaign. Saint is a specialist at fighting proposed Wal-Marts, and it uses tactics it describes as “black arts.” As Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has grown into the largest grocery seller in the U.S., similar battles have played out in hundreds of towns like Mundelein. Local activists and union groups have been the public face of much of the resistance. But in scores of cases, large supermarket chains including Supervalu Inc., Safeway Inc. and Ahold NV have retained Saint Consulting to block Wal-Mart, according to hundreds of pages of Saint documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with former employees. …Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant’s low prices lest they lose market share. …In many cases, the pitched battles have more than doubled the amount of time it takes Wal-Mart to open a store, says a person close to the company. … For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees. They flood local politicians with calls, using multiple phones to make it appear that the calls are coming from different people, the former employees say. …Former Saint workers say the union sometimes pays a portion of Saint’s fees. “The work we’ve funded Saint to do to preserve our market share and our jobs is within our First Amendment rights,” says Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Safeway declined to comment. …Mr. Saint says there is nothing illegal about a company trying to derail a competitor’s project. Companies have legal protection under the First Amendment for using a government or legal process to thwart competition, even if they do so secretly, he says.