On Corruption In America: And What Is At Stake
By Sarah Chayes (@Sarah_Chayes)
Published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York
ISBN 978-0525654858, Hardcover, 414 pages, illustrated, indexed.
New in Paperback: ISBN 978-0525563938, Paperback, 432 pages.
I hate the title of this book. In Europe, the title is Everybody Knows, echoing Leonard Cohen’s pulsing paean to profiteering. The title and subtitle couldn’t be more boring, yet the story between the covers is as mesmerizing and complex as a jewel. A better title might have been Money, with a Pink Floyd soundtrack, or I’m Evil, with a more populist Roy Buchanan twang. Any way you play it, corruption in America is one familiar tune.
“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.” (L. Cohen)
The way Sarah Chayes plays is all over the place, like one of those professional musicians who can play a wedding in the morning, a concert in the evening, and a club late at night. The former NPR correspondent has a strong voice and the book reads like a well-edited podcast. You have to give up hope, though, for a linear journey and follow where the voice takes you. It will take you on a kaleidoscopic adventure, the journey of money, from King Midas to Hamid Karzai, with stops in France, Germany, Honduras, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, the U.A.E., and the United States. So why does the title say “America?”
“Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” (R. Waters)
I don’t like the chapter titles, either. The book has five parts. The chapter numbers start over with each part. The parts have dates, but they’re not chronological. The 1870s comes after the 1980s. In case you weren’t confused enough, one of the five parts is called “It Throve On Wounds (1870s-1945).” Don’t throve this book away! Inside is some of the most insightful prose about money ever written. It’s better than Adam Smith, better than John Kenneth Galbraith, better than Milton Friedman!
“I’m evil, just as evil as I can be.” (R. Buchanan)
My recommendation is to start at the end. If you go all the way back to the Acknowledgements, on page 308 you’ll find my name. I was part of a team of researchers hired to assist the author combing through a mountain of data and history looking for connections. As the author explains, she threw out most of our research and went at it from a whole new perspective, a holistic perspective, a gestalt.
Every paragraph of this magnificent book radiates backwards and forwards in time, east and west in geography, from ground level to birdseye view. Even the girth of the book is both fat and skinny; there are 100 pages after it ends. It is a small book about money inside a bigger book On Corruption.
“A new business model was born: bankruptcy for profit.” (S. Chayes)
I think you should start with “Part V. The Pattern (1980- )” because that is where the lived experience of Sarah Chayes comes in, starting with the dismantling of the New Deal by Ronald Reagan and the decision of the Democratic Leadership Council to sell out to Wall Street. Chayes ties all the threads together — the heads of the hydra — government, business and organized crime — oligarchs, investment bankers and mobsters. On pages 278-79, Chayes runs through America’s Greatest Grifts, sparing no prisoners and naming names: BCCI, Long-Term Capital Management, the Asian financial crisis, the Latin American financial crisis, Enron, the Great Recession, the Covid Crash, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Phil and Wendy Gramm, Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao.
“No one becomes a billionaire honestly.” (S. Chayes)
Then you can go back to the prologue, where Virginia’s corrupt and convicted former governor, Bob McDonnell, and his wife Maureen, were let off the hook by the U.S. Supreme Court, signaling that no amount of cash found in your freezer is enough to convict you of corruption if you never wrote down a specific promise for a specific act in return. The Supreme Court undid numerous corruption convictions with McDonnell v. United States and ensured that prosecutors would stop bringing to court winnable cases against public officials. Chayes, who has extraordinary access to some of the attorneys involved, has Don Ayer at Jones Day spell it out for her: You can’t have unlimited funds come into politics then punish someone for pocketing it.
Goldman Sachs is “for all intents and purposes a criminal entity.” (S. Chayes)
Chayes provides detailed looks at Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell that should give you pause as to what’s in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November 2021 which privatizes many formerly public assets. Chayes notes, “Public private partnership arrangements crop up all the time in corrupt developing countries. A chief way the networks I examined siphoned funds out of government budgets was to earmark them for road projects or sports stadiums, to be built by construction conglomerates. Once the money was moved off-budget, private contract law hid the details of how it was spent.” (p. 69)
“Elections boil down to conflicts within the business community.” ( T. Ferguson)
When you add together the Reagan deregulations, the Clinton deregulations, the Bush deregulations with Citizens United allowing unlimited, unidentified corporate cash to flow into politics, and McDonnell v. United States letting that cash flow through to the hands of public officials, then the United States really did lose, not just in court. The people have lost control of the state to a hydra of business, government and criminal bad actors. The result is inequality so extreme, a regulatory environment so lax, and a judicial system so unresponsive that all the systems we’ve been patching and nursing could fail all at once with cataclysmic results.
“Forty years after the 1980 turning, the world today seems to be back on the course first charted in the Gilded Age. Bending and distorting economic and political systems to suit their purposes, globalized networks of kleptocratic elites compete in pursuit of wealth without limit. In the process, they are debasing or destroying priceless treasures and countless human lives.” — Sarah Chayes
“Unlimited or unnatural growth is an omen of impending disaster.” (S. Chayes)
On Corruption in America: And What Is At Stake, may be a lousy title, but it’s one heck of a book. It explains how money shifted from a measure of value to becoming value itself. In the process, it went from a sign of success to a sign of excess, from something to exchange for what you need to something hoarded in ever-growing quantities. Sarah Chayes takes an unconventional look at money in America that results in a more accurate view than anything we’re used to.