The Augean Stables – How Corruption Has Amended the Constitution

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.
Not something you don’t already know if you’re a regular reader of these pages, but it’s becoming more and more mainstream to deliver a radical* analysis of government in the U.S. That’s why I found the following so interesting — the source is former U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Gary Hart. And believe me, this is a radical analysis.

But first, two definitions. The Augean Stables is a reference to the Fifth Labor of Hercules, one of the Twelve (click to read the context). The task was to clean the king’s stables, which housed 1,000 cattle and which hadn’t been cleaned in 30 years, the life of the man who owned it. Cleaned of what? Surely you know:

The fifth Labour of Heracles (Hercules in Latin) was to clean the Augean (/ɔːˈən/) stables. Eurystheus [the king assigning the tasks to Hercules] intended this assignment both as humiliating (rather than impressive, like the previous labours) and as impossible, since the livestock were divinely healthy (immortal) and therefore produced an enormous quantity of dung (ἡ ὄνθος). These stables had not been cleaned in over 30 years, and over 1,000 cattle lived there. However, Heracles succeeded by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth.

The second definition — corruption. Most think of corruption as an outcome that’s perverted for the sake of money. Hart, correctly, says, Not so:

From Plato and Aristotle forward, corruption was meant to describe actions and decisions that put a narrow, special, or personal interest ahead of the interest of the public or commonwealth. Corruption did not have to stoop to money under the table, vote buying, or even renting out the Lincoln bedroom. In the governing of a republic, corruption was self-interest placed above the interest of all—the public interest.

Corruption is “self-interest placed above the interest of all,” or in some cases, one’s legal or contractual obligation. Thus, for example, some college football referees and refereeing groups are obviously corrupt. When Conference A plays Conference B using Conference B’s referees, and year after year the bad calls go Conference B’s way, especially with the game on the line, the referees are corrupt.

Are they betraying their obligation for money? No, likely not. Are they betraying their obligation in order to satisfy animus against Conference A, or to make sure the “home teams” win? That’s an obvious explanation, and by this definition (and mine), that’s corrupt.

Or take another situation. By this definition, the Supreme Court since at least 2000 and likely before has acted corruptly, if the definition is “self-interest placed above the interest of all.” No legal analysis of Bush v. Gore passes the “upholds the interest of all” test — the Republicans on the Court simply put a Republican (the home team candidate) in the White House because they could. Nor do the major decisions around money and corporate rights, like Citizens United or even Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 Burger Court decision that lifted restrictions on campaign contributions, and its follow-up, First National Bank of Boston vs. Bellotti, whose majority opinion was authored by Lewis Powell, of the infamous Powell memo.

By this definition — perverting an outcome to benefit a group in which one has a personal interest — the Supreme Court acted corruptly in the cases above. Likely corrupt in Buckley, Citizens United, and First National Bank of Boston. Certainly corrupt in Bush v. Gore, where Republican justices favored a Republican candidate for president over a Democratic one on no defensible grounds. They weren’t metaphorically “corrupt,” with the quotes. They were corrupt by definition.

Gary Hart on the Systemic Corruption of the U.S. Government

Hart’s piece is an interesting Time magazine essay, and also a long section from his new book, The Republic of Conscience (I don’t support Amazon, so no Amazon link). I don’t want to quote a ton of it, since its main argument is likely familiar to you. But he makes a systemic point in a way that seems original; that is, he puts pieces together to make a bigger whole than most of us were aware of. For example, it’s likely that the “army of lobbyists” we all hate aren’t a perversion of government — they are government.

A few notable sections (all emphasis mine):

Gary Hart: America’s Founding Principles Are in Danger of Corruption

Welcome to the age of vanity politics and campaigns-for-hire. What would our founders make of this nightmare?

Four qualities have distinguished republican government from ancient Athens forward: the sovereignty of the people; a sense of the common good; government dedicated to the commonwealth; and resistance to corruption. Measured against the standards established for republics from ancient times, the American Republic is massively corrupt.

From Plato and Aristotle forward, corruption was meant to describe actions and decisions that put a narrow, special, or personal interest ahead of the interest of the public or commonwealth. Corruption did not have to stoop to money under the table, vote buying, or even renting out the Lincoln bedroom. In the governing of a republic, corruption was self-interest placed above the interest of all—the public interest.

By that standard, can anyone seriously doubt that our republic, our government, is corrupt? There have been Teapot Domes and financial scandals of one kind or another throughout our nation’s history. There has never been a time, however, when the government of the United States was so perversely and systematically dedicated to special interests, earmarks, side deals, log-rolling, vote-trading, and sweetheart deals of one kind or another.

What brought us to this? A sinister system combining staggering campaign costs, political contributions, political action committees, special interest payments for access, and, most of all, the rise of the lobbying class.

Worst of all, the army of lobbyists that started relatively small in the mid-twentieth century has now grown to big battalions of law firms and lobbying firms of the right, left, and an amalgam of both. And that gargantuan, if not reptilian, industry now takes on board former members of the House and the Senate and their personal and committee staffs. And they are all getting fabulously rich.

Gargantuan numbers of lobbyists with gargantuan amounts of money. There’s a point where corruption of government on that scale systemically changes government itself.

The “Big Three” Lobbying Conglomerates Are a “Fourth Branch of Government”

For Hart, the movement of office-holders and their staffs between lobbying firms and government is not a “revolving door” to government; that revolving door is government. Hart makes his point by looking at the lobbying firm WPP, the largest of three giant lobbying conglomerates. WPP isn’t just a lobbying firm, it’s an international conglomerate of firms that wields enormous power and wealth.

Consider — WPP has been eating up lobbying firms the way Macy’s, Inc. eats department stores or Darden eats restaurant chains. At some point, you simply own the business you’re in, and the size of your operation changes the nature of the game itself.

Hart on how lobbying at this scale changes our government:

[T]he largest [lobbying “predator” (his term)] by far is WPP (originally called Wire and Plastic Products; is there a metaphor here?), which has its headquarters in London and more than 150,000 employees in 2,500 offices spread around 107 countries. It, together with one or two conglomerating competitors, represents a fourth branch of government, vacuuming up former senators and House members and their spouses and families, key committee staff, former senior administration officials of both parties and several administrations, and ambassadors, diplomats, and retired senior military officers.

WPP has swallowed giant public relations, advertising, and lobbying outfits such as Hill & Knowlton and BursonMarsteller, along with dozens of smaller members of the highly lucrative special interest and influence-manipulation world. Close behind WPP is the Orwellian-named Omnicom Group and another converger vaguely called the Interpublic Group of Companies. According to Mr. Edsall, WPP had billings last year of $72.3 billion, larger than the budgets of quite a number of countries.

With a budget so astronomical, think how much good WPP can do in the campaign finance arena, especially since the Citizens United decision. The possibilities are almost limitless. Why pay for a senator or congresswoman here or there when you can buy an entire committee? Think of the banks that can be bailed out, the range of elaborate weapons systems that can be sold to the government, the protection from congressional scrutiny that can be paid for, the economic policies that can be manipulated.

The lobbying business is no longer about votes up or down on particular measures that may emerge in Congress or policies made in the White House. It is about setting agendas, deciding what should and should not be brought up for hearings and legislation. We have gone way beyond mere vote buying now. The converging Influence World represents nothing less than an unofficial but enormously powerful fourth branch of government.

To whom is this branch of government accountable? Who sets the agenda for its rising army of influence marketers? How easy will it be to not only go from office to a lucrative lobbying job but, more important, from lucrative lobbying job to holding office?

When one lobbying firm has billings of nearly $75 billion, you can “buy committees,” not just individual votes; and you can “set agendas” rather than just pass laws.

Now consider that “revolving door” again. Is that a door out of government and back into it, or is it a door into another branch of government, one where policy decisions also get made?

Does an International Lobbying Firm Serve One Nation’s Interest or Many?

And a final question: If the lobbying firm is international, with international clients and governmental “targets,” are its interests “American” in any way? If not, how compromised are those who take its money?

Where are its [WPP’s] loyalties if it is manipulating and influencing governments around the world? Other than as a trough of money of gigantic proportions, how does it view the government of the United States?

Why would not WPP act to modify the laws of one country to serve the interests of clients in another? And I’ll ask again, are those who take its money compromised by the international goals of these mega-firms?

“Purchasing” Candidates and Office-Holders — Even Former Senators Are Saying It

Just as “corruption” is not a metaphor when it comes to decisions like Bush v. Gore, “buying” and “sponsoring” candidates and office-holders — the way soap is bought and race cars are sponsored — is not a metaphor, at least according to Hart:

The advent of legalized corruption launched by the Supreme Court empowers the superrich to fund their own presidential and congressional campaigns as pet projects, to foster pet policies, and to represent pet political enclaves. You have a billion, or even several hundred million, then purchase a candidate from the endless reserve bench of minor politicians and make him or her a star, a mouthpiece for any cause or purpose however questionable, and that candidate will mouth your script in endless political debates and through as many television spots as you are willing to pay for. All legal now. …

The five prevailing Supreme Court justices, holding that a legal entity called a corporation has First Amendment rights of free speech, might at least have required the bought-and-paid-for candidates to wear sponsor labels on their suits as stock-car drivers do. Though, for the time being, sponsored candidates will not be openly promoted by Exxon-Mobil or the Stardust Resort and Casino but by phony “committees for good government” smokescreens.

I think he’s literally correct. In the old days, it didn’t take much money to wholly own a back-bench Congress person from coal country, say, and one coal company, if big enough, could do it. But the major office-holders had to be funded by competing interests. Now you can tag several  presidential candidates, at least on the Republican side, with the single name of their “benefactor.”

For example:

  • Marco Rubio — Sponsored by Norman Braman & (he hopes) Sheldon Adelson
  • Scott Walker — Sponsored by the Koch Brothers
  • Ted Cruz — Sponsored by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer
  • Rick Santorum — Sponsored by Foster Friess
  • Rand Paul — Sponsored by [this slot available]

And so on. Joe Biden’s been called the “Senator from MBNA,” and Chuck Schumer the “Senator from Wall Street.” Seems right. In cases of such complete “sponsorship” I agree that wearing of badges should be required. Partial sponsorship could be handled like NASCAR jackets.

boehner_sponsors_ACFB13

But this treats a serious problem too lightly. Remember, I said this was a radical analysis. In fact, by this practice we’re actually amending the Constitution — not the one as written; the one as practiced.

The Other Way to Amend the Constitution

All constitutions and all systems of laws are amended in two ways, by formal agreement (legal process) and by informal agreement. In England, the second ways is in fact the primary way their “constitution” is amended.

In the U.S., if both parties enforce a law in the same way, even though that way deviates from the way the law is written, the law is amended until forced back to its original form in practice. Thus:

▪ We have, by bipartisan agreement, revoked the Fourth Amendment. Neither party enforces it, so it’s gone. Do you think you’ll see it enforced in your lifetime? It’s possible. Is that likely, do you think, without another radical change?

▪ We have changed the “rule of law” to add a “circle of immunity” amendment. It started with Nixon — the circle of “who cannot be prosecuted” included one person, the president. That was granted him by Gerald Ford’s pardon with no objection from Congress and confirmed by Obama’s refusal to indict Bush II for violating laws against torture. (Can you see Obama being indicted by anyone for extrajudicial murder, assassination really, of Americans, some mere propagandists and some completely innocent?)

Under Reagan–Bush I that circle expanded to include their top cabinet officers, like Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. Under Bush II–Obama it includes all money-center bankers and former senators (and outright crooks) like Jon Corzine.

▪ Regarding that parenthetical comment about Obama and his drone kills above, we’ve now amended the trial-by-jury section of the Sixth Amendment to allow executive assassination, death by executive fiat. It just awaits a Republican president to confirm it by following suit, but Congress has already approved.

And so on. Now we can add one more:

▪ The mega-lobbying firms, with their combined more-than-$100 billion annual budget, are a fourth branch of government. Policy is set in these firms and passed to Congress and the executive branch to “discuss.” Once discussed and passed, those who passed these policies then return to the firms to set more policy — and receive what’s often the biggest payoff of their lifetime.

Was TPP drafted first in these mega-firms before being negotiated between nations? There aren’t many other ways to convene 600 lobbyists (pdf).

Cleaning the Augean Stables

Back to Hart’s essay and where we started, with the Augean Stables. The way out of this mess, if Greek myth is any indicator, is not incremental. You can’t shovel your way out. Remember, that’s a 1,000-cattle stable, and in our case a literal army of lobbyists. With a mere shovel, we’d be buried to our necks before the fourth toss of filth out the window.

How did Hercules clean his stable? He diverted a river and ran the whole mess out to sea in one pass. There’s a word for that equivalent in government life — radical change, and it comes in several forms.

I recommend the peaceful kind, like backing this guy for president. Click to support; you can adjust the split at the link.

*Did you know that “radical” means “going to the root or source”?

Radically yours,

GP

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72 comments

  1. Jim

    In modern times talk of the basically meaningless US constitution is just a ritualistic exercise.

  2. grayslady

    First, thank you for not supporting Amazon. I refuse to buy anything from Amazon or Walmart unless I truly can’t find the product elsewhere. It may seem like my small, ineffectual protest against wage and market tyranny, but if millions of others acted in the same way we would start to divert the rivers through the stables.

    Secondly, thank you for the information about mega-lobbying firms. I had no idea they even existed. Of course, I know about all the lobbying by law firms and specific industry organizations, but I was unaware of the behemoths.

  3. Jerry Denim

    WPP – 72.3 billion – 107 countries

    Mind-blowing. Now I get it. The TPP makes so much more sense in light of this. I had no idea lobbying firms had reached this scale of size and power. 4th branch? Sounds more like the only branch of government that matters, the rest is a facade. The supranational trade/governance deals (TPP, TiSA, TTiP) being negotiated currently are just updating our public institutions so they are in harmony with reality. Appearances can be costly to maintain I’ve been told.

    1. bob the builder

      The presidential candidates will raise 10 billion to run for office. That money is coming from just a few billionaires. You think they are spending that money to look out for the middle class?

  4. Ishmael

    I truly agree with your comments and I like your candidate but I can not and will not support a socialist. Socialism by definition demands centralization and centralization brings in corruption. We would not have all of these problems if forces in this country have not been pushing for a stronger and stronger federal govt. It is far easier to corrupt one person than fifty.

    I have also seen this $72.3 billion dollar amount challenged. I have not done any research but this sum seems unlikely.

    1. Vatch

      “Socialism” is just a word. We had plenty of corruption in the United States when the federal government was weak. A little over a century ago, Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, and a few giant railroad corporations were highly centralized and privately owned.

      There are probably politicians and billionaires on the so-called “right” who are more supportive of concentrated centralization than Sanders is. Just yesterday in the NC Water Cooler there was a discussion of the color blue and the word “blue”. We could probably have a similar discussion about socialism and the word “socialism”.

      1. Ishmael

        Yes, socialism is a word and words have meaning. Socialists are always attempting to hide who they are and few really call themselves socialists who are. Other words to hide socialism are “progressive”, “liberal’ and “social justice.” I agree many corporations and billionaires want socialism and I did not say there was not corruption prior to this creaping corruption but it was not as wide spread.

        We have had a lot of discussions of Greece. Well Greece is a socialist country which has been going more and more left over the last 20 years. Look how that turned out. Let’s look at other socialist countries – Venezuela and Argentina.

        People keep pushing something that has failed at every attempt. Why, socialism needs centralization and to make that work it needs a mail fist to force everyone to follow what the centralists say. In the end this kills innovation and finally results in “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

        1. Vatch

          Greece has rich people who don’t pay taxes. That’s at least as significant as whatever “socialism” they might have.

          Rich people only want socialism for themselves. They want everyone else to have the freedom to fail. I don’t think that is remotely similar to what Sanders advocates.

        2. cassandra

          I guess I’ll request yet another substantiation. Will you please define “socialism” as you’re using the term? I do find that its critics are often careless in its meaning. I’ve had people answer me that socialism is interference by government in private activity, and that it is therefore evil, but receive no reply when I point out that by the preceding definition, any country using traffic lights is socialistic. It has become all but impossible to use socialism accurately in discussions, as propaganda has stripped all semantic meaning from the word to the point where it’s now simply a pejorative.

          1. Ishmael

            Socialism has nothing to do with such things as traffic lights etc. The difference between socialism and capitalism is simple. Socialism has a centrally planned govt and capital allocation is performed via the government and the central planning. Please note this usually ends up with the state owning most things. Capitalism has free individuals making decisions of how spending and capital decisions are made. In this system free men and women end up owning most things. A by product of central planning is always a large govt with a large police force to ensure that people follow the central planing.

            Mr. Levy makes a point below which I would like to elaborate on. Most here probably have no idea that while under a capitalistic system Mozambique was called the pearl of the Indian Ocean. There was steady creeping socialism which then resulted in a civil war that lead to Somalia being the crap hole that it is today.

            Mr. Levy then goes on to say he does not care for innovation. I guess he wants to go live in some cave. Capitalism and innovation has created the standard of living that most people enjoy in the US. It is the creeping socialism that is destroying it.

            Just so you know, NAZI stood for National Socialism.

            1. jrs

              That’s state socialism. Socialism is worker ownership of the means of production. Yes, I’m going to stick with that because I believe it’s historically correct. This can be worker ownership via the state “dictatorship of the proletariat”, not of course the original intent even of the Russian revolution, but let’s call the attempt to implement that state socialism. But it can also be direct worker ownership, worker co-ops, Mondragoon etc..

              Sanders is NOT any kind of socialist properly defined. Although certain policies might properly be called socialist, like government run healthcare, as that is a limited implementation of state socialism. But that limited role for socialism is what most social democrats and lots of countries accept. Sanders runs as a Social Democrat period. Whether he would govern as one I can’t possibly say, power and money tends toward corruption, so frankly I think he’d govern much further right than that.

              Capitalism is capitalist ownership of the means of production, and the capitalists are not the workers. The free individuals making decision about how capital decisions are made are ONLY the rich. If you aren’t one of them – guess what? You don’t get a decision. Free decisions but only for those who can pay to play. That is the system called capitalism. A biproduct of capitalism seems to be a police state to enforce that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, which is probably needed more and more the more neoliberalism dominates.

              “Capitalism and innovation has created the standard living that most people enjoy in the US. It is the creeping socialism that is destroying it.”

              I’m afraid petroleum based excess created the standard of living most people enjoy (ha only with massive prescription of antidepressants but ok “enjoy”) in the U.S.

              “Just so you know, NAZI stood for National Socialism.”

              nonsense. The “national socialism” moniker grew out of an attempt by the fascists to appeal to a real socialist left that existed even though they never were of the left. It was branding.

              1. Ishmael

                Socialism is worker ownership of the means of production.
                ———————-
                Example please.

                1. jrs

                  I listed one: Mondragoon

                  I know it’s not widely tried. Neoliberal capitalism is widely tried and a disaster everywhere. If you want something that is both widely tried and also came close to working, you want social democracy.

            2. Vatch

              Most here probably have no idea that while under a capitalistic system Mozambique was called the pearl of the Indian Ocean. There was steady creeping socialism which then resulted in a civil war that lead to Somalia being the crap hole that it is today.

              How did a war in Mozambique cause the disaster in Somalia?

              Anyhow, Mozambique is still called the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. Sri Lanka has the same nickname. They’re not known as Pearls because of their governments, but because of their beaches.

            3. jonf

              Socialism has a centrally planned govt and capital allocation is performed via the government and the central planning

              Those words can mean different things to different people. So for my sake tell me which of these things are socialist?

              Governement programs to fix infrastructure like roads and bridges
              Social Security
              Medicare and Medicaid
              Health insurance
              Unemployment insurance
              Free education, including college
              Government spending when the economy is in recession
              Government programs to alleviate poverty and hardship
              Government programs to employ people, aks the job guarantee

            4. Wat

              Ishmael — Capitalism doesn’t trend toward centralization? What’s merger and acquisitions? I’m sure you’ve heard that since Clinton deregulated the media, what were thousands of independent companies has resolved to a landscape in which 90% of American media properties are owned by 6 gigantic corporations governed by military-style top-down hierarchies for the sole purpose of self-interest over and above that of the public. THAT’S centralization. Whereas the Founders attempted to create three permanently separate branches of government that were checked and balanced by each other, including an institution of 535 independent representatives, all working together toward the best interest of the greatest number of citizens. That was their attempt at institutionalized decentralization. It has been defeated by the centralizing forces of capitalism.

            5. different clue

              Mozambique and Somalia are two different countries. Didn’t you know that?
              How can creeping socialism in Mozambique result in a civil war in Somalia when Somalia is two thousand miles north of Mozambique?

        3. James Levy

          By your definition, capitalism fails, communism fails, democracy fails, dictatorship fails–you get the point, because all of them have shown cruelty, corruption, and force. You know what radically decentralized power looks like, historically, don’t you? Early Medieval Europe. Somalia. Yugoslavia after the nation fell apart. I’m waiting for all the many examples of highly decentralized power that didn’t wind up looking like failed African states or Europe after the fall of Rome. Or Italy during the Renaissance. Endless petty and “private” war, murder, and intrigue as everyone jockeys for power and survival in a war of all on all.

          I’m a Socialist. I don’t give a damn about innovation. I give a damn about every human being having three squares a day, a roof over his or her head, and clothes on their back. I care about people having a say in their government and their workplace, and allowing the majority to rule so long as the basic rights to live and to speak (NOT to own loads of shit and hordes of money) are not abridged. First, everyone lives, with some dignity and a sense that what they say matters (not that they get what they want, but that what they want is heard and if others agree, acted upon). We can worry about who gets the electronic gadgets and the fancy cars later (which nobody needs) later.

        4. Jerry Denim

          You seem like you are kidding. The cold war has been over since at least 1991. Its 2015. The brand of Socialism Bernie Sanders is advocating is the Scandinavian model of Democratic Socialism and it is not incompatible with Capitalism or Democracy. The Nordic countries which practice it are consistently rated as the happiest, healthiest, and wealthiest countries on the planet. They have very high levels of business innovation and productivity as well. The neoliberal strain of market fundamentalism dominating our government and business here in the United States is a knee-jerk, mirror-image, extremist sort of Capitalism that apes the worst excesses of the communist system, but in reverse. Yves’s entire site has documented the shortcomings and the breakdown of this system which is increasingly showing itself to be incompatible with honest representative government and a properly functioning capitalist society. You sound like a Republican from 1981. Wake up and smell the rot. We need a honest referee on the field if capitalism is to be saved from itself.

          As far as your laughable quote about “socialists are always attempting to hide” , what do you make of guys like this and his clients? Socialists?

          http://bermanexposed.org

          1. Ishmael

            Jerry having lived and worked in Scandinavia I believe I know a little more about it then you do. Why was I working in Scandinavia, because they could not get their people to work as hard as I will to get the job done. Now, fact Norway stands a high level of living because it has the North Sea oil. Sweden is struggling with 1/10 of its GDP coming from Ikea. The other thing you miss is Scandinavia is one of the most homogeneous populations on earth. Most people there are related to one another. You are also missing prior to the US financial bailout there was a Swedish financial bailout. But they did it properly with a cram down (the Swedish Model).

            We do not have a capitalist model in the US any more. I will repeat myself due to creeping socialism in the US ever since FDR we have a Corporatism. The reason is most people will sell their freedom for crumbs off of the corporatists table.

            1. jrs

              So what? The U.S. only has the high standard of living (though I’m not sure I really want to call it that as the inequality is fierce – “high standard of living” and homeless everywhere – but for the middle class it is somewhat high) it does due to reserve currency and military dominance. So it’s hardly compares well to Norway who only has it due to North Sea oil and at least shares it with the masses. And at least they aren’t warmongers. But the 19th century U.S.? Uh it also had tremendous natural resources.

              take your worthless “freedom” and shove it. I want worker ownership (truthfully social democracy may be more than we can hope for – but I’m shooting for what would really be best for human beings here). FWIW I do regard freedom as having some value if it meant the people had some influence over how their society was run (democracy), could protest, etc. without fearing thug cops, criminal records etc.. If it meant people had a voice. But that’s pretty irrelevant to life in the U.S..

              And OMG people didn’t work as hard, how terrible. Nah, how civilized. Enough work still got done to run the society, wanting to drive people harder than is necessary for that goal is just sadistic slave driving.

            2. Gio Bruno

              …now you’re just getting dizzy. Folks on this site are likely to let you stumble and fall.

            3. BRUCE E. WOYCH

              Ishmael: I hesitate to argue points with 1950s propaganda and the fallacy of distinctions between power concentration and centralized command of society. However, it is important to understand that capitalism, as a system, is a multi-layered process that works under competition to produce a comparative advantage but is prone to both concentration (of wealth) and consolidation (competitive exclusion and monopoly)…so the process is self-destructive for freedom and true liberty in a democracy. You seem to be locked into rhetorical jargon, catch phrases and talking points that remain unmeasured by history and authentic experiences of entire populations. The distinction between a politicized economy and an economically determined polity is a critical qualifier. The “Socialism” you are fear mongering about is actually suppression and tyranny in history in the name of revolution and reform. The capitalism of today’s mass economy is centralized and concentrated without a democratic filter. When the new ownership society commandeers the economy intothe hands of a few it is the antithesis of your working idea of capitalism.

              Socialism today is a process of literally attempting to guarantee freedoms to a capitalist systemic process of exchange networks left fair to all society…and does not lend itself to a “free for all ” market dominated by too big to fail centralized finance, private equity that determines revenue flow over healthy corporate services, and crony politicians that work for the big money. Wake up! it’s not Kansas anymore.

              1. Doug Terpstra

                A perfect deconstruction of crony capitalism among many good ones. The (d)evolution of regulated capitalism appears to be inexorably warped by gravitational phenomenon akin to the creation of supernovae and black holes, accelerating cycles of expansion and contraction. Like many who think Obama is a Marxist, Ishmael may not recognize the corporate socialism, fascism, we suffer today.

            4. Jerry Denim

              Now you’re really not making sense and you’re attempting to hide the weakness and contradictions of your argument in condescension.

              First of all I too have a good bit of experience with Scandinavia as well but what does it matter? You bragging about being some sort of ex-pat scab has nothing to do with the discussion at hand and furthermore you went on to make my own point for me; “Norway stands a high level of living because it has the North Sea oil” So you do admit socialism works great! The Norwegians in their wisdom refused to buy into all of the free-market cold war hysteria and nationalized their oil industry in 1972. The massive oil profits have created the third largest sovereign wealth fund in the world for a tiny little nation with a million less people than the state of Maryland. Socialism really sucks huh? Compare that to the US market fundamentalist model of “if you can drill it you can sell it” where the private petroleum business is the most profitable business year after year and they use their billions in profits to fund climate denial, strangle the EPA and push the country into disastrous wars of choice waged for oil access.

              The Swedish banking crisis of the early nineties was a good resolution achieved under a socialist government and our bank bailout was a miserable crony capitalist bailout where bonuses where paid to the traders that made the bad bets that brought down the economy, CEO’s were kept in place with obscene pay, and share holders received dividends while the tax payers got slapped with the bill. All of the bad actors were rewarded. Again, thank you for making my point.

              ” ever since FDR we have a Corporatism” What? Again, non-sensical and completely unmoored from facts, dates and reality. No, FDR saved the Capitalists at critical moment of crisis from themselves with a large and healthy dose of socialism. FDR’s New Deal worked beautifully and ushered in the greatest age of prosperity the world has ever seen. The American economy grew steadily, the middle class prospered and we went decades with out a crisis,…. and then came the Powel memo, Milton Friedman , Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand’s free-market libertarian crackpots. Wall Street bloomed like a cancer and now we have a hollowed out financialized economy that lurches from one crisis to the next impoverishing more and more of the nation while continuing to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few.

              Your argument is weak, dishonest and contradictory. You should go find a place with more gullible readers if you insist on spouting such hackneyed drivel.

            5. Legendary Bigfoot

              This is not a rational and dispassionate statement you are making; rather it is an opportunity for you to construct the universe of things you would like to declare “bad” because reasons.
              Every counterpoint you have come up with has been inaccurate or surreal-as if pre-FDR was some utopia? How about TR? There is no utopia and your notions are as fanciful and false as lost cause Confederate fantasy.
              Central planning works every time it is applied in a controlled and limited way. Both World Wars resulted in central planning and control of US industry and it improved them vastly. USRA standardization of railroads. War Production Board.
              Now look at the private sector. Look at the Penn Central merger and bankruptcy. Look at the Pinto and all AMC cars (Romney’s dad). Pure Food and Drug Act.

              Laissez Faire capitalism is social Darwinism.

        5. Norb

          Ishmael- What kills innovation is an economic system that no longer functions to supply the true and honest needs of the people in a given society. I would define innovation as any system that improves the quality of life on this planet. For all living things. How can a system based on consumerism evaluate in any meaningful way the idea of innovation? If the system functions to enrich a powerful elite to the detriment of all else- what is its use?

          Do you believe in Democratic government? You imply support for Oligarchy.

    2. cassandra

      Would appreciate links to the articles challenging the figure. Actually, 72.3 billion doesn’t seem surprising to me at all; it amounts to spending a bit under half a million for each of its 150000 employees. I don’t find that excessive, given high salaries and profligate activity. A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money.

      1. Ishmael

        Okay, I went and looked. WPP did have $75 billion in billings but they are an advertising agency. They place advertising and bill clients for it. Their revenue was $18 billion.

        This article makes it sound like all of this is going for lobbying activities. WPP’s major activity is functioning as an advertising agency. Don’t get me wrong, I detest all of the lobbying in DC but that is a rather misleading number.

        1. bob the builder

          Workers have become Debt serfs, and modern corporatism has led to the most unequal distribution of wealth the world has ever seen.

          60 year old FDR policies including the social safety net, and welfare are the only reasons capitalism has endured so long. When the largest employer in the America (Walmart) doesn’t pay workers enough to purchase food without the help of foodstamps, you know the system is in severe danger of collapse.

          We need the second coming of FDR to grant capitalism another lifeline, enter Bernie Sanders.

          1. hunkerdown

            In that light, Bernie doesn’t sound like such a catch anymore.

            I’m not sure what to say about the wisdom of helping up and dusting off stimulant-crazed wild animals for another tussle after said animal has taken an arm and a leg from one. Fire the control shot and leave it where it lies, as we almost did in the late 1940s before daddy Koch created the Birch Society.

            1. bob the builder

              That there is the real quandary.

              Elect a republican president and i think occupy taken on a second more menacing form.

              Elect Clinton and the same will happen, but it will a little bit longer.

              Sanders is the one that we need, the nation at large knows what it doesn’t need, but it doesn’t know who he is.

              Do we let the system crash and burn? Or do we reboot it? The system was at a crisis point and we thought we were going to reboot it with Obama. For a time, Citizens were pacified with hope and change. Hillary will not be given the benefit of doubt that Obama was. I don’t think those in the bubble understand this.

              1. hunkerdown

                By stimulant-crazed animals, I meant capitalists and the institutions that offer them aid and comfort. The USA searched its soul about the privileges extended to them for a little while, until the industrialists put a stop to it.

                So why, then, should the aristocracy (useless people with money and image) get a third chance to crush labor underfoot, as they perceive is their duty to the Order? What shallow sort of sense in pushing a cancer back with round after round of chemo because surgery leaves scars and is therefore Bad Bad Bad!

        2. inode_buddha

          Indeed, wouldn’t it be great if we could create a system whereby everyone had equal opportunities? Instead of the warped and twisted hellhole of crony capitalism we have now?

    3. Vatch

      Here’s the WPP 2014 annual report:

      http://www.wpp.com/annualreports/2014/

      They say that they billed 46,186 million pounds sterling. I don’t know what the exchange rate was in 2014, but at the current exchange rate, that comes to about $71 billion. That’s pretty close to $72.3 billion.

      1. Ishmael

        As I said above. I agree but this is an advertising firm. Most of the business is placing advertising. The article above makes it sound like that is what they spend on lobbying. To get a true picture you need to know what their billings were for lobbying.

        Also when I first looked at that number I thought they were saying that is what WPP’s revenues were. My error. Their revenues are approx $18 billion.

        1. hunkerdown

          So they lobby the public. What’s your point? It’s still influence peddling, it’s still putting private interest ahead of the public interest, and therefore it’s still corruption.

  5. Enquiring Mind

    A useful companion reader is Charles Beard’s book about the constitution:

    The phrase Corruption is “self-interest placed above the interest of all,” could describe the essence of neo-liberal thought.

    The better angels of people’s nature get stampeded by Keynes’ animal spirits:

    The above is not an argument for more regulation, but would serve as a call for more awareness and discussion of morality in a public sphere that used to treat it with some respect.

  6. Sam Adams

    its the wheel. Sometimes they’re up, sometimes they’re down. We’ve been in an assending rotation for much of the 20th century. Greece may be the beginning of a downward turn. Last time they used guillotines.

  7. Jim Haygood

    ‘We’ve now amended the trial-by-jury section of the Sixth Amendment to allow executive assassination, death by executive fiat.’

    This is true. But so far, executive assassination has only claimed four U.S. citizens, versus thousands of foreigners.

    Far more pertinent to domestic U.S. residents is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s casual admission in 2012 that plea bargaining “is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.” He added that “longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes.”

    Jury trials, a bedrock protection against tyranny, had to be set aside to produce the conviction volume needed to feed the Gulag. This is done by threatening defendants who go to trial with the maximum sentence if convicted, making insistence on a trial a de facto crime.

    From ‘constitutional right’ to ‘sentence enhancement’ in 226 years. Proud to be an American! /sarc

  8. CB

    Hedrick Smith published The Power Game in 1988. I didn’t find it surprising then. Thomas Ferguson published Legislators Never Bowl Alone in 2011. Ferguson has been featured on NC. I recommend Ferguson’s pdf, being more recent and shorter, and available online.

    The republic is faltering, badly.

  9. Bernard

    apparently socialism is only bad when it is for the poor. we have had Socialism for the Rich and Business since St. Reagan and his Merry band of Thieves decided Business/Rich needed more and more tax cuts. lol. The Powell Memo shows how America has effectively been sold out to the Socialists of the Rich/Corporations. aka Lobbying.

    such lies and hatred for the working poor are usually cloaked in some such “terms.” Poor working people and socialism = bad, Rich Businesses/Elite and Socialism = Good. of course, making socialism only “okay” for the Rich has been and continues to be unspoken bias since the Demo/Republican Party decided to “sell out” to Business and the Rich.

    spare me the lies and tears about Socialism. i pay taxes, unlike the Rich, who buy Congress to make sure they don’t pay any taxes. Leona Helmsley’s truth that “only the poor pay taxes” is a stark truth of Socialism for the Rich.

    Cry me a river about Socialism. Until then, Grow up.

  10. Peter Whyte

    Bernie Sanders is the author’s peaceful alternative to fixing this mess?? I once heard a learned speaker at a psychological conference say that “if you want to get away from corruption you are going to have to find yourself another habitable planet to call home”. Self-interest is in our genes. We use it to survive, which means overcoming constraints. In the Anthropocene Era, constraints are what stand in the way of money, power and not allowing the turnip truck you sit on top of being overturned. Rules, laws, mores, traditions, treaties, and constitutions are constraints to those captains of modern corruption. Our Can Do society has always admired those who overcome obstacles in the way of success.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That’s the value system of the last 35 years. It’s not the value system of the one hundred years before that, save the Gilded Era of the 1890s, which led to a backlash (trust busting and the Progressives).

      If you read management literature or even Congressional debates from 40+ years ago, you see vastly more concern among the leaders of major organizations for the long term health of their enterprises (we had much less class stratification then, so you couldn’t even identify “elites” save maybe some old WASPs, many of whom like the Cabots had more brand name value than actual power; Wright Patman, who came from a dirt-poor farming background in Texas, was one of the most powerful men in America for decades). Yes, there were always cheats who got ahead, but they were held in low esteem and would have trouble getting entre to the right “clubs,” not just country clubs but other status markers for those who cared about status like the top tier not for profit boards (back in the day, the Ford Foundation, etc). To perhaps put it another way, the kind of status you could buy for money was less than now and less tightly connected to political power. Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America in the 1960s, which meant he was one of the most powerful. Yet he was not very well paid and really did convey, and I think had, a real sense of public good.

      What made an enormous difference in American culture was when Reagan dropped the top marginal tax rate from 70%. That greatly increased the incentives to cheat. Seriously.

      1. steelhead23

        What made an enormous difference in American culture was when Reagan dropped the top marginal tax rate from 70%. That greatly increased the incentives to cheat. Seriously.

        That’s an interesting thesis Yves, and I encourage you to expand it.

        I agree with ex Senator Hart’s thesis – for an array of reasons, be they the corrupt decisions of courts, the spectrum of mass media making influence peddling easier, the marketing brilliance of Bernays, or Friedman’s sanctification of greed, corruption is both worse and more effective today than ever.

        While GP suggests that Senator Sanders just might be the rushing torrent we need to clean our stables, I would argue that Gary Hart, a graduate of both Yale Divinity and Yale Law schools, is very likely the smartest and most uncorrupt man I’ve seen in government in my five decades of paying political attention (he was my senator) and very likely would have become our 51st president but for one, fairly minor, ethical lapse. Unfortunately, it wholly destroyed his political career. Perhaps it is a tendency of our Puritanical society to place greater weight on our politician’s personal ethical lapses than on their corruption. I would bet that Bill Clinton’s dalliances with a White House intern are widely seen as greater sins against the public (how?) than his repeal of Glass-Steagall or adoption of NAFTA, both of which have had huge consequences for us. In a way, the media facilitates corruption by portraying it as business as usual while titillating us with non-stop coverage of naughtiness.

  11. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    With that definition, we now realize that capitalism is based on corruption (or itself is corruption), when a firm prices a product at X, instead of .9X.

    With the latter price, the firm makes less, but can surely still be profitable, perhaps even more profitable if it results in more sales (though it does not have to be so – it can price the inelastic product at .9X and less profit because it cares about public interest which, in this case, equates to more people using and enjoying the product).

    And democracy itself can be corruption, if we vote the interest of our state, instead that of the nation, or our town instead of that of the state, or our interest instead of that of the town.

  12. flora

    Harper’s Index, July 2015:

    Amount by which annual lobbying expenditures by U.S. corporations exceed the Congressional budget: $600,000,000.

  13. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    1,000 cattle in stables not cleaned for 30 years?

    And they didn’t die from living there?

    We ask the same question of lobbyists in this analogy – how did you not already die from the methane intoxication or diseases from your own, uh, bodily waste after digesting all the money?

    1. hunkerdown

      Same way as in the fable: immortality by fiat. Pranic feeding apparently metabolizes fully to hopium, a dangerous narcotic with dissociative effects.

  14. JTMcPhee

    What outcomes do “we,” whoever “we” are for the moment, want from the political economy? (Let’s say “the p e,” not “our,” since “we” need to recognize the reality of “their” existing “ownership society.”)

    The ruling ethos, we all get, is mostly “iMe, iMore and iMine,” is the current reality. (Jobs got it, all right, by adding that little ego-sign to the front of all his product labels, the bast–d and yes that’s a negative judgment no matter how many people got rich off Apple-peeling.) How many of “us” are willing to nail down what it takes to change the ethos to some form that’s based on comity, and what we think we mean when we talk about “progressive liberal socialism” which is something more than recreational pot, single payer, voting rights, gay rights, Freedom’n’Liberty ™ and all that? Or have any idea what that “what it takes” is? Or whether it’s possible, from the starting conditions as of 3,2,1, RIGHT NOW!? And willing to act on and live with and endure the cost of a livable planet for vast numbers of us, and embrace that the cost is worth what it takes, and try to make something kindly and love-ly out of it?

    Goldman and ISIS and the Duopoly and ECB and Assad and Netanyahooo, etc., in all their parts, ain’t gonna do it. Getting wise about how it’s being done to the rest of us by the few of us ain’t likely to do it, either.

  15. Doug Terpstra

    Thank you, Gaius. Hart states what’s been blindingly obvious for many years, but with compelling detail, and it can’t be repeated too often. Though I think the lobbyists are mere representatives of the true shadow government, what the dearly departed Banger called the Deep State, It’s quite clear from Bush v Gore, Citizens United, Wall Street bailouts, Obamneycare, universal fealty to AIPAC/Israel, the tax code (39k pages?) and endless warmongering that democracy is an elaborate but increasingly glitchy illusion.

    IMO, the TPP, TTIP, and TISA regimes are the culmination of this deep state transnational coup — check and mate — and TPA’s manifestly fixed passage was rather stark evidence of this, albeit with a brief glitch in the VR matrix. If/after passage of these supranational structures, the elaborate democracy stage set will be dismantled as Frank Zappa put it. We’ll be staring at the brick wall behind the stage, and the velvet glove will come off the fascist fist.

  16. Left in Wisconsin

    Since everyone to the left of Arthur Laffer gets called a socialist these days, and since the old, historical understanding of socialism (as a totalizing system) is no longer relevant (i.e. barely known, even less supported), I would suggest a simple new definition of socialism that comports more with the Sanders-ish view:

    A socialist is someone who supports having the economy operate for the benefit of the society rather than the society operating for the benefit of the economy. It’s a definition that puts the “society” back in “socialism.”

  17. Left in Wisconsin

    Worst of all, the army of lobbyists that started relatively small in the mid-twentieth century has now grown to big battalions of law firms and lobbying firms of the right, left, and an amalgam of both.

    This is typical Gary Hart. The left has virtually no lobbyists. There are a large number of Democratic lobbyists, but that mostly means they lobby Democrats on behalf of corporate interests. The unions have a few lobbyists but the lobbyists for the private sector unions are typically lobbying in the interests of the companies at which they represent workers, and the public sector lobbyists just lobby for more gov’t spending, which is hardly what I would call “left.” Some of the “progressive” foundations support a bit of lobbying but, again, they are hardly “left.”

    Spend some time in a state capitol and see for yourself. They are crawling with lobbyists but you will be hard pressed to find one who is a lobbyist for the left. I’m not in DC but it seems impossible to me that it could be any different there.

  18. Dirk77

    Interesting article. More evidence that the two major flaws in the Constitution were not making the rules apply to everyone equally, and allowing public officials to accept private donations. I wonder how much blood it will take to make the second one right.

  19. Tom Stone

    Now I understand why we need to ban firearm ownership by ordinary citizens.
    Only the LEO samurai are worthy!

  20. Linda A

    If we are wanting to use correct terminology, we need to stop using the false label of capitalism for our economy. We don’t have an investment based economy. We have a extraction based economy. There is no sustainable investments being made to benefit a viable long term anything (even the lives of the greedyBs with the all the money). There is no production of anything other than as a way to extract money. Everything is based on greed (hoarding) and entertainment (short-term, self-interested game play). So lets agree to stop calling our current economy capitalism and call it what it is — EXTRACTIONISM.

  21. McKillop

    When has a country and its citizens ever been of utmost concern to the elite, the guys with the swords and lances and horses or the guns and tanks and other weaponry?
    Or the advertizing bucks?
    Even in battle it was the poor who were robbed on the killing fields. The nobles were ransomed to return to one of their castles.
    Those who are out of power and cannot get a share often appeal to the ideals and hopes of the best of us – but only as long as it takes to obtain power and dispose of a different fair share.
    Just as I have more of an ‘affinity’ to people who share my interests and can help me to get what I value, even foreign people, I think that those who believe in the acquisition of wealth and economic and political power have more of an affinity to those who share those ideals. I imagine that a ‘socialist’ German would be considered more of a comrade to a ‘socialist’ Scot than any of the Scottish elite that enclosed the land and enabled the poor to be considered less valuable than sheep. Hell, old Bonnie Prince Charlie spoke Polish, not Gaelic.
    F.R. Scott, a Canadian poet, wrote that the “business of [the] country was selling out the country”.
    I myself have never met a rich person that I cared for regardless of national origins. Most of the ones I read of seem to be nasty pieces of humanity.
    I’d not argue that poor people are much more passionate in their nationalism although they pretend to be when anyone criticizes the homeland – just as I take offense to anyone who parrots any complaints I have of my “Mom”. Sincerity is lacking, replaced by sentimentality.
    I’d always thought that the whole system of checks and balances was an attempt by the political founders of the United States of America, having recognized that corruption flourishes, fed by power, to control the corruption it by setting one pack of beasts against the other. People who believe that ‘voting’ is the chief and only act of a citizen have given up their power and received no pottage (just a mess) in return. The rich, no longer having to fight for control, will soon no longer even have to pretend to pay for it.

  22. FedUpPleb

    Likely responses

    – “Radical, extremist viewpoints”
    – “Our country works best through compromise”
    – “Americans pull together to get things done.”
    – “Changing the system would create chaos and confusion”
    – “Dangerous radicalism from malcontents”
    – “This is a democracy. People want lobbying”
    – “The system is efficient”
    – “Freedom means freedom of association”
    – “Augean Stables? What is this homo greek crap.”

    I completely agree that a major, radical reform of lobbying in Washington is needed. But this parasite is big enough to have a host of immune responses.

    Ultimately only a determined President will be able to clear the money lenders out of the Temple, but then ah!, where will he find the priests to run it? Answer: There are plenty of capable and unconnected professionals and civil servants across the country, quietly standing their posts. Maybe it’s time to rotate some divisions.

  23. McKillop

    The more I consider the article, the more I’m grieved. To speak of how the corruption of our times has amended the constitution is itself a corruption – of the language. Amend held a promise of a change for the better, ideally. Corruption has certainly changed the behaviour of elected representatives, and appointed, but the Constitution. the U.S.A. is gone if recent actions become accepted as legal.
    To say that the corruption has amended the law of the country is similar to arguing that lies amend truth, that death amends life. Has it always been so but claimed otherwise?
    Is the key change only that there is now more wealth and more people willing to get what they can anyway they can? Is there no power to call the betrayal out?
    Claims to support the public good, our ‘humane values’ are still voiced to justify political choices, and economic. Perhaps this necessity to pretend (still) is an harbinger of restoration or renewal or true amendments but I doubt it.

  24. ekstase

    As overwhelming as all of this is, I think there is a cultural counterweight to it. It seems to me that there is a new transparency emerging. The ways that people get their news; the sense that people have now that they can share their opinions and ideas with the whole world on an equal footing: this stuff is just beginning. And it’s almost as if at the point where we developed as a species to have powers that exceed any national boundaries or laws, we also have deveoped the means to figure this out. Most people do not like corruption, or the corrupt. They needed to see it, and to see that they are in the majority.

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