Often, people will look at a high-profile example
of corruption, and conclude that the egregious act is an exception
to the rule. In reality, it might be the tip of the iceberg.
On October 29, 2009, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
did a wonderful thing when it expunged
the records of as many as 6,500 juveniles
in Luzerne County. That’s not a misprint.
judges in that county were sent up the federal river for locking
up thousands of innocent children over five years, in exchange for
$2.6 million in kickbacks from private juvenile detention centers.
Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan helped the
developers secure the county contracts to build the prisons. Moreover,
they filled the detention centers with warm bodies - many of whom
were first-time offenders with minor infractions - and illegally
denied the teens access to an attorney.
In the case of Luzerne, the “cash for kids” scheme
was a coldblooded expression of greed, and we should not downplay
the seriousness of the crimes committed. Yet, what happened in this
rural county in northeastern Pennsylvania is a reflection of what
America’s criminal justice system has become - a for-profit, money-making
Often, our poorer children, disproportionately of
color, are funneled into a cradle-to-prison pipeline through adulthood.
With a criminally negligent public school system, and job opportunities
outsourced abroad, many children at the bottom of the socioeconomic
ladder are ensured a future of little else than street corners or
prison bars. In fact, many urban schools are nothing more than prison
prep, complete with police and metal detectors.
Interestingly, the children of Luzerne, a county
which is nearly 97% white, did not resemble the “usual suspects”
in the criminal justice system. But that really is not the point
- when prisons are a capitalistic endeavor, warm bodies are needed
as the raw materials, and so they must come from somewhere. And
consequently, justice takes a backseat to dollars. From the foodservice
industry and the phone companies, to the Wall Street bankers and
the investors, many people have a vested interest in filling up
those empty prison beds and maximizing their cut. American capitalism
made the U.S. prison population the world’s largest at 2.5 million,
with mass incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses and victimless
American-style capitalism is problematic for the culture of corruption
it has enabled, in the absence of an effective regulatory framework.
Much attention has been paid to Bernie Madoff, that poster child
of the Ponzi schemes, who defrauded investors out of $65 billion.
The damage he created is impressive, from the family savings that
were forever lost, to the charities that went under. But like the
judges in Luzerne County, Madoff was merely a cog in a wheel of
corruption that enabled greed.
himself said he was surprised his
scheme lasted so long, and that the Securities
and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigators were so clueless about his fraudulent activities over 16 years. The fact is, some members of
the SEC staff were inexperienced or just idiots. Further, Madoff
had too much credibility with the SEC and was not properly investigated,
with red flags uncovered yet ignored.
With the deregulation of the financial sector and
the evisceration of the Glass-Steagall Act came the financial crisis
of 2008. The system had become the Ponzi scheme. The economy was
built on paper shuffling and no tangible products. Consumers were
preyed upon with sketchy, deceptive and destructive subprime mortgages.
Banks gambled people’s money in high-risk, high-stakes poker games.
And with a revolving
door between Wall Street and the Treasury department,
the same people with the gambling problem are running the casino,
and “monitoring” it as well.
The banks that ruined the country swore by the free
market when it suited them. But now, they gladly accept their corporate
welfare bailout checks, and scoff at the rest of us. Wall Street
has rebounded, business as usual, and Gordon Gekko is smiling. Meanwhile,
America’s former middle class is joining the ranks of the poor,
and the foreclosed are filling the nation’s homeless shelters. Short
of bold government action of Rooseveltian proportions, there will
be no economic recovery for everyday people. After all, the unemployed,
the homeless, and the soon-to-be unemployed and homeless generally
are not big spenders.
The moneyed interests also have corrupted the political
process, and a prime example is the behavior of Senator Joe Lieberman
(I-CT) and the “Blue Dog” Democrats in the health care reform debate.
Lieberman has earned a special place in the hearts and minds of
progressives of late for vowing to stand with Republicans, and filibuster
any health care bill that contains a public option. He has even
would rather have no bill at all than a bill with a public option.
In American political folklore, the Senate is presented
as an august deliberative body where cooler heads prevail, where
genteel statesmen and stateswomen put the brakes on rash and potentially
harmful legislation, for the betterment of all. In reality, the
Senate is a place where bold legislation for the public good is
killed, because industries put a contract out on democratic ideas.
And they instruct their employees, the senators, to stop these ideas
in their tracks. This is a bipartisan endeavor. The Blue Dog Democrats,
who are the self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives of their party,
distinguish themselves from other Democrats by their greed and hypocrisy.
They receive the most corporate money, and have rejected less costly
health reform bills that would hurt their benefactors. Ask Sen.
Max Baucus of Montana, chair of the Senate Finance committee, and
a key player in this year’s health reform debate. Baucus received
million form health and insurance industry interests between 2003 and 2008, more
than any other member of Congress. Judging from the sad excuse for a health reform
bill that came out of his committee, the industry got its money’s
Lieberman, the dirty dog that Democrats love to hate, is a fully-owned
subsidiary of the insurance industry. Over the course of his career,
he has received $2.6 million from the insurance companies. In addition,
his wife is a health care industry lobbyist. Despite the overwhelming
popular support in Connecticut for a public option, Lieberman has
decided to follow the money. The Democrats must take Lieberman to
the tool shed for his
double-crossing ways, and relieve him of his coveted chair in the
Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee. Not to be outdone,
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), whose wife has made at least $2
million sitting on the board of a major health insurance company, hinted that he would filibuster the public option as well. Apparently, faced
with the prospect of the Democratic leadership opening a big can
of whup ass on him, he backed off.
The problem here is not just Senators Lieberman,
Baucus, Bayh and a few other unscrupulous politicians. The fact
is the entire political game, the link between money and politics,
is rancid and is killing democracy. In the case of health care reform,
the corrupting influence of money is literally sucking the country’s
As in the days of old before the 1929 stock market
crash and the New Deal, corporations have far more influence in
this society than they are entitled. Citibank gleefully proclaimed
in a series of reports in 2005 and 2006 that the U.S. is a plutonomy - a system of wealth
inequality in which the richest 1% hold a disproportionately large
share of wealth. The rich are likely to get even wealthier, at the
expense of labor. This rising inequality, Citibank predicts, will
lead to a political backlash.
And some backlash is needed now. It is certain that
the outrageous displays of greed and corruption deserve our attention
and our outrage. But to dismiss them as exceptions to the rule,
rather than products of a systemic, vulturous culture that must
be attacked, is to choose a perilous path.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a journalist and human
rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to The Huffington Post, theGrio,
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times
Independent Media Center. He also blogs at davidalove.com,
and Open Salon.
to contact Mr. Love.