Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tomgram: Lawrence Weschler, The Great American Shakedown

In the U.S., corruption is seldom “corruption.” Take as an example our president, who has been utterly clear: he will not take money for his electoral campaign from lobbyists. Only problem: according to the New York Times, 15 of his top “bundlers,” who give their own money and solicit that of others -- none registered as federal lobbyists -- are “involved in lobbying for Washington consulting shops or private companies,” and they are raising millions for him. They also have access to the White House on policy matters. According to a June report from the Center for Public Integrity, “President Obama granted plum jobs and appointments to almost 200 people who raised large sums for his [2008] presidential campaign, and his top fundraisers have won millions of dollars in federal contracts.”

The president’s spokespeople insist, of course, that he’s kept to his promise, as defined by the labyrinthine lobbying legislation written by a Congress filled with future lobbyists. And keep in mind that Obama looks like Little Mary Sunshine compared to the field of Republican presidential candidates who seem determined to campaign cheek to jowl with as many lobbyists as they can corral. More than 100 federal lobbyists have already contributed to Mitt Romney’s campaign, while Rick Perry has evidently risen to candidate status on the shoulders of Mike Toomey, a former gubernatorial chief of staff, friend, and money-raising lobbyist whose clients “have won $2 billion in [Texas] state government contracts since 2008.” And that’s just the tip of the top of the iceberg.

None of this is “corruption,” of course, just a pay-to-play way of life, which extends to the military-industrial complex and a Pentagon that has spent a mere $1 trillion in the last decade purchasing new weapons to “modernize” its arsenal. In the meantime, every top civilian official, general, or admiral there knows that some weapons company awaits him with (so to speak) open arms, whenever he decides to spin through the revolving door into "retirement" and the private sector. The results are stunning. Arms giant Lockheed Martin paid out $12.7 million in lobbying fees in 2010. Its CEO took home $21.89 million that year. And the company just reported third-quarter net earnings of $700 million, beating the expectations of analysts, and predicts more of the same for 2012. Advantage Lockheed.

Similarly, the government's top economic advisors regularly come from (and/or end up in/return to) the arms of banks and giant financial outfits, the very firms which pour money into political campaigns. It’s but another version of the same cozy, well-organized world in which, for example, Robert Rubin spun from Goldman Sachs into the government as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury in the 1990s, then out again to Citigroup, which he then helped run into the ground until it was bailed out on such generous terms in November 2008. In those years, he made an estimated $126 million. Advantage Rubin.

Just remember though, it’s not corruption. It’s just the way our world works. Get used to it. As it happens, the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t been willing to adjust to that reality, and as a result, corruption is suddenly on American minds, as it has been, for a while, on Lawrence Weschler’s. He happens to be one of our most skilled essayists, with a dazzling writing career behind him. His latest book, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint), just published, covers a typically unsettling array of topics ranging from why digital animators can’t create a credible human face to how a film editor comes to grips with his war films in the context of war. Here’s Weschler’s version of an American corruption story. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Weschler discusses his new book click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Art of the Shakedown, from the Nile to the Potomac
How Corruption in the U.S. Puts Everyday Corruption in Africa to Shame

By Lawrence Weschler

A bit over an hour into the five-hour drive across the ferrous red plateau, heading south toward Uganda’s capital Kampala, suddenly, there’s the Nile, a boiling, roiling cataract at this time of year, rain-swollen and ropy and rabid below the bridge that vaults over it. If Niagara Falls surged horizontally and a rickety bridge arced, shudderingly, over the torrent below, it might feel like the Nile at Karuma.

Naturally, I take out my iPhone and begin snapping pics.

On the other side of the bridge, three soldiers standing in wait in the middle of the road, rifles slung over their shoulders, direct my Kampalan driver Godfrey and me to pull over.

“You were photographing the bridge,” one of them announces, coming up to my open window. “We saw you.”

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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