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To Get Rid of Corruption in High Places, Get Rid of the High Places (Leftwing Style)
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' sketchy relationship with megadonor Harlan Crow reminds me of an old conservative quote, though the quote does not mean what conservatives think it means.
For over two decades now, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has enjoyed the beneficence of billionaire real estate magnate Harlan Crow, according to a recent Propublica report: Thomas has taken annual trips on Crow’s 162-foot superyacht and on Crow’s private jet to various vacation destinations, and often stayed at Crow’s massive private Texas ranch. Thomas did not pay for any of this or reimburse Crow for it, and virtually none of this largess ever appeared on Thomas’ financial disclosures. Meanwhile, Crow has also been a lavish donor to rightwing political causes—to the total tune of around $10 million—including the outfit founded by Thomas’ wife.
Thomas and Crow say they are simply old and genuine friends. Nor does it appear Crow ever had business in front of the Supreme Court that would’ve caused a direct conflict of interest—though God knows the political causes Crow is invested in have. Meanwhile, the ethics rules governing Supreme Court justices are infamously lax, so the question of whether Thomas even broke them is somewhat squishy. (I think Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern make a good case that Thomas did technically fall afoul of them.)
As a result, everyone retreated to their respective corners for the obligatory partisan food fight. Democrats are gearing up investigations. Progressives view it all as further evidence that Thomas in particular is a rightwing crusader with brazen contempt for impartiality and propriety in his public position. And for folks on the right, this is just a nothingburger spun into a conspiracy theory with which Thomas can be forced out, or with which the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court can at least be beaten into submission.
For myself, the whole thing actually reminded me of a quote I’ve seen bandied about by conservatives themselves my whole life: The only way to get rid of corruption in high places is to get rid of the high places.
The basic idea is that, if government screws with rich businesspeople like Harlan Crow—by taxing and regulating them—rich businesspeople like Harlan Crow are going to screw with it back—by deploying their influence and resources to shape taxes and regulations to their benefit. “As long as government is involved in controlling markets to some extent—regulating, taxing, exempting from taxes, subsidizing—corruption will run rampant,” as Tim Carney once put it.
Thus, if government would just stop screwing with rich businesspeople, corruption would go away.
The logic is pretty airtight, I guess. But it’s also an exceedingly odd line of reasoning, as it assumes that people object to corruption on purely abstract, almost theological grounds. As if the corruption itself, as a raw, disconnected moral fact, is the problem. If that were the case, then yes, we can just have the government stop doing things that would cause people to want to corrupt it.
But what people actually object to about corruption is that it prevents the government from achieving some social purpose. All those taxes and regulations and subsidies were passed for particular reasons! They’re there to do something. What people don’t like about corruption is that it undermines the purposes those taxes and regulations and subsidies were supposed to achieve in the first place. Yes, the individuals and public servants who engage in corruption unethical and immoral, but their personal lack of character is a second-order matter. The material consequences their corruption has for carrying out policy is the central issue.
Coming from conservatives, “the only way to get rid of corruption in high places is to get rid of the high places” is essentially “burn the village to save it.” If you don’t like corruption in government, stop government from governing.
Sympathy (To An Extent) For the Devil
Yet there is something I like about the quote: it’s an argument that stems from a fundamentally structural analysis. I tend to gravitate towards structural analyses—and structural solutions—over exhortations that human beings should just be morally better.
The implied reasoning behind the quote is that we have a collision between several material circumstances:
We have a lot businesspeople who don’t want to be taxed and regulated and generally screwed with by government.
Those businesspeople are often rich, and thus have a lot of resources and clout to throw around to prevent being screwed with.
We have a government that nonetheless insists on screwing with said businesspeople.
The public officials who run the government are going to be vulnerable to influence by the rich businesspeople who throw their resources and clout around.
The inevitable result of these four material circumstances is that we have lots of corruption. As long as we have Circumstance 3, businesspeople are going to use the realities of Circumstance 2 to lean on elected officials, government bureaucrats, regulators and civil servants to get what they want.
You can shout all you want about how corruption is immoral and unethical, and people should do better. But, as conservative often point out (Correctly, I think!) human nature is fundamentally fallen—sinful, venal, selfish. You’re basically shouting angrily at the sky for raining on you. So there’s not much you can do about Circumstances 1 or 4. The vast majority of businesspeople are not going to selflessly submit to taxation and regulation. Nor are they going to be principled small-government libertarians; they’re going to reshape the rules to benefit themselves personally. And lots of elected officials and public servants are always going to be vulnerable marks for this sort of thing.
Indeed, I don’t even think wealthy elites leaning on public servants to get what they want usually requires the outright self-dealing of bribes or payoffs. Powerful and rich elites tend to gravitate towards one another as social creatures, and gravitate towards political values that defend and justify their privileges. And that’s just the water in which our public officials, elected politicians, and court justices all swim.
I don’t doubt that Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow are genuine friends. Hell, my friends are mostly all people with an interest in leftwing politics. And if any of them did have Harlan Crow’s means, I’d be happy they were devoting those resources to the cause. And if they ever invited me to ride their superyacht to the Seychelles for a few weeks, you better believe I’d take them up on it!
Of course, I’m also not an elected official or public servant. There’s a perfectly coherent argument that people in those positions, like Clarence Thomas, must accept unique responsibilities along with their unique privileges—including conducting their personal affairs with an unusual amount of scrupulous discipline. At the same time, on just a raw human level, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the devil here: I get why Thomas and the Wall Street Journal editorial board are peeved and standoffish about the idea that there’s anything underhanded here.
This is precisely what makes fallen human nature such a tricky bastard. The line separating corruption from the normal human impulse to commune with people of similar values is a vague and blurry one.
You can and should have laws against corruption, and ethics rules that public servants are expected to follow. And you should aggressively enforce both. The strictures for elected officials need to be dramatically tightened, and really dramatically tightened for Supreme Court Justices specifically. But I think we should acknowledge that this is always going to be an effort to stop water from flowing downhill. It will always find the cracks, and there will always be cracks. Precisely because this is a structural problem: corruption is an inevitable outgrowth of the structural system that’s set up here.
What’s amusing is that structural arguments are unusual, coming from conservatives. They’re generally the ones emphasizing the need for individual character and moral fiber, rather than how the structural design of a system will push aggregate human populations in certain directions.
And I think conservatives’ enthusiasm for this particular structural analysis on the matter of government corruption can largely be explained by Corey Robin’s observation that conservatism is, at bottom, the impulse to defend the power and privilege of elites against their subordinates’ demands for more freedom and equality. Usually, when it comes to questions like why are some people rich and others poor, that reactionary impulse is best served by emphasizing individual character. But what to do about government corruption is a case where conservatives can jujitsu a structural analysis to serve the same ends.
A Good Analysis With a Really Bad Conclusion
At any rate, while I buy the whole structural argument up to this point, I think it goes entirely off the rails by concluding that the thing to do about the problem of corruption is to get rid of Circumstance 3—the fact that government regulates and taxes businesspeople and “interferes” in the market.
But as it happens, you can follow this whole analysis without reaching that conclusion! You could instead decide to get rid of Circumstance 2—the fact that businesspeople have vastly more money and wealth and influence than the rest of us. We can still have businesspeople who don’t want to be taxed and regulated, and we can still have the government tax and regulate them anyway. We don’t even need to do anything to improve Clarence Thomas’ or Harlan Crow’s personal moral character. But if Crow just didn’t have a private jet or a superyacht or a palatial East Texas estate in the first place, he wouldn’t be able to actually do much of anything about his dislike for taxes and regulations.
Put more specifically, it is the enormous inequality of our society—the vast difference in wealth and income between the rarefied top and the rest of us—that creates the structural circumstances that give rise to corruption. This problem also gets solved if everyone has a superyacht and a private jet, lest any pro-capitalism midwit accuse me of wanting to make everyone equally poor. The disparity is the root cause of the problem. The less any one person can offer public officials unusually rich goodies compared to what everyone else can offer, the less of a problem corruption becomes.
Moreover, pursuing a more economically equitable and egalitarian society strikes me as a far more plausible structural solution to corruption than just trying to convince your fellow citizens to have the government not govern anymore. We have lots of wealthy, modern, western democracies out there. And precisely none of them are the “night-watchman state” of libertarians’ dreams. But plenty have far less inequality than the United States.
Indeed, the United States itself was far less unequal in the not too distant past. An amusing side note in the Wall Street Journal’s defense of Thomas was their huffiness at Propublica’s “adjectival overkill” and calling Harlan’s 162-foot private boat a “superyacht.” Paul Krugman helpfully pointed out that even the yachting community itself considers anything over 98 feet a “superyacht.” But more to the point, we can trace the fall and rise of American inequality via the superyacht: In 1898, at the height of the Gilded Age excesses, the launch of J.P. Morgan’s personal 302-foot steam yacht was featured in the New York Times. By 1955, a Fortune essay on the compression of living standards noted that, for top executives that year, “75 feet is considered a lot of yacht.” These days, Crow’s 162-footer and even J.P. Morgan’s 302-footer are pipsqueaks compared to the battlecruiser-esque monstrosities owned by our modern capitalist masters of the universe.
“If you had any doubts about whether we’re living in an era of extreme wealth concentration, comparable to or even surpassing the Gilded Age, the superyacht boom should quell those doubts,” Krugan noted. And if our wealthy elites have so much surplus wealth that they can afford to fling some into a 500-foot, high-luxury hole in the water—as my grandfather would’ve called it—imagine the gravitational pull they can exert on over-awed and less-than-scrupulous public officials.
The Obligatory List of Suggestions for Tackling Inequality
A full tour of all the ways to reduce American inequality is well beyond the scope of this newsletter. But it’s just lazy to identify a problem and not at least take a stab at a solution. So let’s sketch the basics.
Most people will immediately point to higher taxes and a more generous welfare state, and that’s certainly an important part of it. Any decent society should have things like a universal child allowance, affordable and universal health care, universal rights to affordable housing and education, and arguably a universal basic income as well. Social Security should be made much more generous than it is. As for taxes, the aforementioned Fortune article from 1955 fingered the progressive income tax rates passed under the New Deal as a big reason top executives lived much more modestly mid-century—they essentially imposed a maximum income on the country that would be around $4 million per year in today’s dollars. Capital gains should also be treated as ordinary income, and I would throw in a direct tax on wealth as well.
But all those policies also amount to grabbing money and redistributing it after the market has already made an initial distribution. There are a lot of things we could do to change that initial distribution as well.
A big part of the post-New Deal compression in inequality was actually the macroeconomic policies of World War II. We spent absolute gobs of public money in the economy, hiring everyone we could get our hands on. We did not use interest rates to manage the resulting inflationary pressure, but instead turned to taxes and regulations like price controls. And we massively expanded union power and membership. All of which delivered gigantic growth in incomes, especially for the most marginalized Americans, while squashing the amount of money left over to go to the capitalist ownership class. We got the lowest unemployment rates we’ve ever seen, a two-decade economic boom, and the single biggest compression of American inequality in the country’s history.
The lesson there is that macroeconomic policy should focus on permanently maximizing full employment, and use tools other than interest rates to control inflation. We should drastically raise the minimum wage and rebuild unions, and then move on to setting up sectoral bargaining across the whole country, and ultimately just get rid of the capitalist ownership class entirely by making every company a worker-owned democracy.
A huge reason wealthy elites have so much money is that they get to “own” the companies all the rest of us work at, and siphon “profits” out of the revenues before the rest gets used on investment and wages. We should just turn that spigot off at the source.
Exactly What Do You Mean by “High Places,” Kemosabe?
I’ll end by going back to that quote, and note one further oddity: It is extremely strange to say that we must get rid of corruption in high places by getting rid of the high places, and then identify the “high places” as the public government offices where tax and regulatory policy gets finalized.
Members of Congress make between $174,000 and $194,000 annually. The Speaker of the House gets $223,500. As of eight years ago, the highest paid folks at the Federal Reserve made just over $300,000. (Though it sounds like most everyone at the agency makes under $200,000.) Clarence Thomas himself makes $285,000 a year.
Granted, these six-figure salaries are a lot more than what most Americans enjoy. But they also exist within a reasonable envelope of relatability: median individual income in this country is roughly $38,000 per year. (Median household income is around $71,000 per year.) So you’re talking about pay for public officials that’s usually only five or six times what the everyday American makes—as opposed to the top one percent of private earners, who make roughly twenty-one times that. The average wage of the top one-percenter is, in turn, a pittance compared to Harlan Crow’s net worth, and the kind of regular spending income it generates. And Crow is small potatoes compared to an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos.
To look at these numbers and conclude that the “high places” we need to rein in are the offices of our public servants, rather than than the offices of private capitalists, is… well, it’s a take.
I suppose the conservative will reply that our public servants set policy and the rules that private elites must conduct business by, so their pay does not reflect their true power. But the whole point of the “high places” quote is that, despite the power to make policy, public officials will nevertheless be influenced, intimidated, and enthralled by the grandiosity of the privately wealthy. That’s why the “revolving door” is such a problem: folks put in their time in public service, then abscond for the private sector, where the pay is much better, and they can use their experience of government’s internal guts to help their new private paymasters get the best deal they can.
So yes, let’s roll with the structural analysis and the structural solution. To get rid of corruption in high places, let’s get rid of the high places. Just, you know, the actual high places.