Kleptocracy’s Long-Term Consequences

September 18, 2020

America, until recently, was one of the world’s cleanest places to do business. You didn’t have to pay people off to do what you wanted – indeed you couldn’t. Regulation was not about having a handout – it was about protecting the public. Public servants weren’t allowed to take anything for doing their jobs – from the president on down. Your job was your job. Taking anything was corrupt.

That’s changed. The power of campaign contributions helped undermine the moral spine of the American economy. Lobbyists and campaign contributors who spent enough on campaigns got huge perks for their companies and stuck the costs to you. The gains are enormous. You and I would be happy with 5-20% returns on investments. Kevin Philips calculated returns to investments on large campaign contributions ranging from 5 thousand percent to 1.4 million percent.[1] Pretty good for a day’s work.

Trump compounded that. He made it clear that everything was up for sale, up to and including American foreign policy. Americans didn’t understand the two-century old language of the Constitution and had no understanding of the significance of the emoluments clauses. Those clauses said simply that America is not up for sale. Corruption is a crime and presidents must be above it. Yet Trump was ready to bend American foreign policy to reward the Russians – so grateful was he for their illegal help in the campaign that he virtually took apart the free world that had been a thorn in Putin’s side. Trump has also been prepared to ignore all sorts of damage to public health from toxins in the air, water, food and drugs in order to please his contributors. Just please keep the money flowing. And stay in Trump properties. Anything to publicize Trump properties.

The consequences are visible all around the world. People live well where government stays on the up and up.[2] People live in poverty where the government is corrupt. Democracy does not survive corruption.[3] When everyone is on the take, no institutions are reliable.

It was obvious in Iran. They had very well-trained people but never mind trying to get anything done. You need what they called parti, what we call influence. Projects that were supposed to be built waited years or decades until someone who cared and had the necessary connections demanded its completion. Sometimes, in the years I was there, projects awaited the Shah’s imminent arrival when they would suddenly be done so he could see it. But how many projects could the Shah check on himself.

Corruption is the beginning of the end. When everything is up for grabs, nothing important to the country’s welfare gets done. Some people call that capitalism, but when capitalism lives without boundaries, the people live without, and the country flounders. It loses all the sinews, infrastructure, education, training and research that make the country strong. Conservatives once understood that. But Trump’s people aren’t principled – thieves couldn’t care less.

Conservatives kept yelling “Love it or leave it” in the sixties and seventies, meaning don’t try to fix it. But if we don’t fix the corruption you can say good-by to America as number one anything. We’re on the downward slide, where the slope is very steep, and when you hit bottom there are no handholds left to climb back out. That America is not great or number one; that America is a third world laughingstock – you thought you were so great, but look at you now.[4] And none of us will live well except maybe the tenth of the one percent.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on September 8, 2020.

[1] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy 326 (2002).

[2] Adam Przeworski, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being (2000).

[3] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (2003).

[4] Let me recommend Rex Smith, “Is this what our collapse looks like?” Albany Times Union, Sept. 5, 2020, A7 for an excellent discussion from a complementary perspective.


Disloyalty if not Treason

November 12, 2019

The U.S. was the world’s most powerful country when Trump took office. Though we couldn’t control everything, we influenced outcomes all over the world. Then Trump pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving China the dominant player in the Pacific. He withdrew from the multi-power nuclear agreement with Iran, leaving Iran to reorganize its nuclear ambitions to meet its new security situation. Bizarrely he keeps claiming Iran must abide by the agreement even as the founders of our country would have explained to him that breach by one party to an agreement terminates the other’s obligations to it. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, not only undermining the international effort to limit global warming, but undermining other countries’ willingness to count on American promises. And he withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, inviting Russia to restart the nuclear arms race.

He publicly questioned the value of the two major institutions formed to keep the Russians in check – the European Union which strengthened and unified Europe as a counterforce to Russia, and NATO, the military alliance between the U.S. and the European countries outside the Russian orbit, famously dubbed the “Iron Curtain” by Winston Churchill. He urged letting Russia back into the economic organization of major economies despite having been kicked out because of the Russian invasion of Crimea. He pushes Putin’s proposal that Ukraine virtually give Russia back its eastern provinces, the ones Russia had invaded until the West pushed back. And he has just invited the Russians back into Syria and a major role in the Middle East. In reality, Trump is being impeached because he keeps helping Russia.

I know there are people who call themselves super patriots who believe the US would be better off able to make its own independent decisions. What that means, of course, is that we will no longer have the trust and confidence of other countries who will no longer see us as reliable allies. When we do our best to isolate Iran, we think of it as a punishment, but when we do it to ourselves, it’s supposed to be a great advantage.

Yes, we think of ourselves as a superpower, but how much of the world can we take on alone? We didn’t win World War II alone. We certainly had the major role in the Pacific but those of us who lived through or studied the War, know that Russia did most of the fighting in Europe. So there is a large cost to isolating ourselves and convincing our allies that they can’t rely on us. If they can’t rely on us, then they can’t be reliable for us. They have to seek their own advantage.

In sum, Trump has enormously weakened America. It’s bad enough if he did it out of stupidity. But it’s disloyal if he did it for his own advantage. And since Russia can clearly be described as an enemy of the US, even though we’re not now making war against each other, we would be justified in calling that treason.

Let me suggest that you read and think about Art. III, sec. 3, of the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

Whether or not it fits the definition of treason, weakening America for the advantage of Russia and China is certainly disloyal. As Hamilton explained in The Federalist, the basis for impeachment is “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”[1] No abuse of public trust can be more serious than disloyalty to America for the benefit of a foreign power.

  • Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio on Nov. 12, 2019

[1] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist, No. 65 (Hamilton) at 396 (Clinton Rossiter ed., New American Library 1961); and see Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Impeachment in America, 1635-1805 chronicling the development of impeachment from English precedents through the Founding Era in America (Yale U. Press 1984).

 


The Seriousness of the Ukraine Meeting

October 1, 2019

Let’s clarify the problems with Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

First, restrictions on foreign contributions to American elections protect American control over our government. If foreign countries can influence American elections, they can deflect the benefits of American wealth and power for their own advantage and the disadvantage of the rest of us. Restrictions on foreign contributions to American elections also keep candidates’ and office-holders’ loyalties home. More than that, if a foreign country can influence American elections, it can undermine American national security, preventing us from responding to the dangers from abroad.

Second, American foreign policy should not be for sale for personal benefits to American presidents. Corruption is not just a minor flaw. It sacrifices public to personal advantage. Corruption means that politicians are shirking their duty to the public in order to gain benefits for themselves.  Numerous provisions are in the Constitution to help stop that misbehavior, including the emoluments clauses. Of all types of corruption, none can be more serious than disloyalty, making deals with foreign countries at the expense of the American public. That is a particular risk of presidential power, which is why the emoluments clause outlaws the president or any other office-holder from gaining any personal advantage in dealing with foreign powers. The Constitution does not permit the risk that the president might deflect American foreign policy for personal advantage.

Third, it’s against the law. Federal statutes prohibit candidates for federal office from accepting contributions from foreign nationals.[1] That applies to the president and everyone else. They should be responding to American, not foreign, incentives. And the Constitution, though written in eighteenth century language, underscores that prohibition. It forbids any “person holding any office or profit or trust under … [the United States], without the consent of the Congress, [to] accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” In other words the president could not accept anything from the Ukrainian President individually or from his government.[2]

This whistle-blower complaint, about selling American foreign policy to a foreign government for personal advantage, is about disloyalty, about selling American “security assistance to Ukraine.” No president in American history has been as corrupt as Donald Trump. Since he took office, Trump has been determined to use his position to advance his personal financial interests. And before Donald Trump, no president in American history has ever been found guilty of putting American interests up for sale for personal advantage.

Let me end with a word to Trump’s supporters, both in and out of government. This is not a time when you can simply dismiss what everyone else sees and knows, indeed what the majority of America understands. The consequences are just too serious. Supporting a man whose corruption and foreign allegiances are so obvious is the most disloyal thing you can do short of pulling the trigger. It’s time to wake up and discover what the rest of the world knows.

[1] 52 U.S.C. 30121(a).

[2] U.S. Const., Art. I, sec. 9, par. 8.


Is America For Sale? Is Trump Motivated to Sell Us Out?

June 20, 2017

Two lawsuits have now been filed over Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause.[1]

Emoluments is an eighteenth-century word rarely heard before Trump became president. It’s a rare president who ever came into office with assets that could motivate him to sell us out. And still rarer the president who refused to give up all interests in such investments. But Trump has refused to sell his assets or put them in a blind trust. His assets therefore are at risk here and abroad and their value is closely related to Trump’s dealings with foreign powers and domestic corporations and investors.

Foreign governments understand how to press his buttons. Like any lobbyist who curries favor with those in power, these governments understand that they may get better treatment if they patronize his enterprises. China granted numerous trademarks and other business advantages to Trump enterprises. Officials from China and many other countries use his hotels, lease or buy facilities from him, dine at his restaurants and thereby shift substantial amounts of money to him as well as help him publicize his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. All of this has raised the market value of Trump’s properties as all these foreign and domestic supplicants want to show Trump how they can feather his nest.

Now Trump has reversed positions he took during the campaign and his first weeks in office toward his foreign and domestic business partners and authorities. He reaffirmed the one-China policy, and backed off China’s expanding control over the South China sea. Trump abandoned his criticism of Saudi Arabia, and fell solidly behind it in a dispute with Qatar, where the U.S. has its largest regional base. Trump consistently excludes Saudi Arabia from his immigration bans though Saudis have dominated the terrorist events of the past two decades.

Was that because it was good for America or because foreign governments and officials gave him the rights he wanted for his enterprises abroad. With Trump we can never know.

The name for Trump’s behavior is corruption. Corruption includes using public power to gain personal wealth or profit, or accepting benefits that could lead a public official to take action contrary to the public interest. It’s almost impossible to prove a bribe – I’ll do this for you if you give me that. Politicians, lobbyists and other supplicants avoid the language of a deal and let the quid pro quo be inferred and implied. Numerous federal, state and local statutes prohibit public officials from accepting anything of value precisely because the quid pro quo is never stated but  always understood.

Whether Trump’s motives are pure or disgusting, he is in fact showing everyone how private advantage can be extracted from public office and laying America open to corruption. In many countries you get no help from government officials without bringing ever more costly “presents” to them. Trump’s behavior threatens to extract our energy and innovation for the benefit of Trump, his family and friends. That’s the essence of corruption and corrupt governments reduce their peoples to beggars.

This country worked hard to ensure an honest, dedicated, civil service. Despite all the jokes about government employees, our civil service has been the envy of most of the world. All of us will pay for Trump’s private empire.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 20 2017.

[1] Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington v. Donald J. Trump, U.S.D.C., S.D.N.Y., Jan. 23, 2017, https://s3.amazonaws.com/storage.citizensforethics.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/23140054/CREW-DJT-Final.pdf and District of Columbia v. Trump, US.D.C., D.Md., June 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/12/us/politics/100000005161070.mobile.html. And see Jackson Diehl, China and Saudi Arabia have seduced Trump into being their sweetheart, Washington Post, June 11, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/china-and-saudi-arabia-have-seduced-trump-into-being-their-sweetheart/2017/06/11/d4001330-4c67-11e7-a186-60c031eab644_story.html?utm_term=.dae3f8d62c7a, Sui-Lee Wee, Trump Adds More Trademarks in China, New York Times, June 14, 2017, B5, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/business/trump-china-trademarks.html, and David Marsh, Trump’s China First Policy, MarketWatch, June 6, 2017, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/trumps-china-first-policy-2017-06-06.

 


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