The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

US Corruption vs. World Corruption

One of the most hilarious things to me is Americans whacking other countries for being corrupt.  Russia is a favorite target, but the US abuses virtually every non-Western country for “corruption.”

I’ve pointed out before that this is absurd. There is no more corrupt country in the world than the US. The bank bailouts were pure corruption, performed even though a supermajority of the population was against them, even though the banks had broken the law systematically, and even though the banks were bankrupt due to decisions they knew were corrupt, illegal, and (yes), stupid.

The US election system is flagrantly corrupt, with billions of dollars of direct and indirect donations from the rich. You buy supper with a candidate for thousands of dollars a plate. You buy White House access with much larger donations. Third party PACs spend hundreds of millions.

The bribery in the US is legal. Legal. That does not mean it is not bribery. That does not mean it is not corruption. This system was arranged by the monied classes to ensure that politicians owe them and do not harm them, and that they continue to pass laws and take actions which help them.

The regulatory class is completely owned. There is a revolving door between Wall Street and the Treasury and Federal Reserve, for example, and Wall Street pays far better. When senior officials leave, they get jobs from those whom they regulated, or give speeches for six figures a pop. Politicians are treated the same, receiving lobbying jobs worth six to seven figures, board positions, and so on.

This is all legal, but it is corruption.

Jimmy Carter recently said this, with respect to Citizen’s United:

an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery

But don’t be deceived, Citizen’s United was just the final capstone: The US was already a completely corrupt, bought, and owned regulatory state before Citizen’s United.  Citizen’s United just made it much easier.

I repeat, in absolute terms, there is no more corrupt country in the world than the US. In relative terms? Who knows, but the US being corrupt matters more than corruption in any other country.  (Though China is coming on strong.) US financial law is essentially extra-territorial: The US is capable of crippling other countries’ economies almost entirely with simple Treasury orders. The US has the world’s largest military and regularly intervenes in other countries with air strikes, assassinations, and general terror.

What is unique about America is not its corruption, many countries are corrupt, it is the sheer hypocrisy the pretense that America is not corrupt, because Americans have made their corruption legal.

Corruption is the inevitable consequence of concentrated wealth.  It always occurs when you have great inequality, it cannot be avoided.

You want corruption back to reasonable levels? You want it illegal again? Take the oligarchs’ wealth away from them and break the great monopolistic and oligopolistic companies or bridle them with uncorrupted regulators who will crawl up their backside and tax the hell out of them.

Nothing else works (and the second solution works for a while). Nothing else has ever worked.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

You want you country back, and your children and yourselves to have a future?

It’s you or them. So far Americans keep choosing them.

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  1. The logical result is that the American people want corruption.

  2. RJMeyers

    From my experience, Americans think that corruption is only when the police or courts or etc. directly solicit bribes from the common people for favors or expediency. Or, corruption is one-off insider trading and scheming like Enron.

    Systemic and massive corruption permeating the highest levels of our political economy is now known as “normal” to most people.

  3. Giselle

    These are simply my experiences and limited to a very finite sample size.

    Having lived in a number of countries including some of the most allegedly corrupt ones, I do perceive a difference. Namely that while America is overtly corrupt at high levels as the blog post accurately states, it manages to maintain a veneer of credibility at many levels.

    When I lived in Latin America or Africa, I could easily get out of any traffic stop. In fact many such stops were understood to be direct money-making stings by individual police officers. Everyone knew this and had the requisite bribes in hand….higher for tourists of course.

    Now in America you don’t have much of an option for a bribe during a traffic atop rather you are concerned about being executed or beaten, especially if you are the wrong race or ethnicity.

    The other element is the populace and their perception. In russia and Latin America, few people I was around had any illusions about their governments being pristine or not corrupt. Meanwhile in america I’m constantly surrounded by middle class white collar people who insist that there’s no corruption or at least, that’s it’s the “other political party” that’s corrupt.

    Has the media and press done such masterful job of brainwashing these people or are the masses that ignorant? I’m partial to the latter explanation.

  4. Tom W Harris

    And don’t forget the voting machines.

  5. Lisa

    Just like for anything else, only the 1% get the benefits of corruption…..

  6. Ian Welsh

    Yes. I lived in Bangladesh. Corrupt as hell, but that corruption was available to the “middle class”. (Such as it was.)

  7. Dave

    but! but!

    They loves us, and shepherd us and protect us!

    For those indulging their god distributed rights to take whatever the hell they want, all this complaining means nothing…unless of course they do it simply for sport. I think it is a mistake to think humans have sufficient awareness to make decisions such as you put forth. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost empathy for your obvious pain, confusion and frustrated compassion.

    It’s hard to understand things like equality, fraternity and liberty when you’re the latest generation suffering from food poisoning, metal poisoning, a starkly materialistic, rationalist, greed based society that rewards only cruelty. How can we expect malnourished and abused people to think properly?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that – in the case of humans – intelligence is a genetic artifact that no longer contributes meaningfully to species advantage. Homo Sapiens has a brutal slog ahead of it. One which provides no guarantee of survival. Amen.

  8. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Many of those USAmericans who keep choosing “them” do so because they hope, even expect, to become one of “them” eventually.

    The system may collapse from its damage to the environment, but it will not be overthrown unless and until a majority of USAmericans lose all hope of upward mobility.

  9. ProNewerDeal

    Ian, once again great article, Sir.

    This corruption index seems biased and incompetent, as it lists the US in the top decile of least corrupt nations.

    By chance are you aware of a corruption index that is actually of quality, using your superior definition of corruption? I’d be interested in reading that list.

    Aside, similar to your complaint about US poli-trick-ians, like 0bama, Bush43, Sec State H Clinton, lecturinge other nations about corruption, I also get disgusted when they lecture about democracy. I don’t see the US as being a democracy, with the 2-party duopoly that at least on economics, is far right-wing to what actual voters actually want. A clear majority of voters, based on numerous polls, want social democratic policies like Medicare For All, Social Security expanison, increased $10 or even $15/hr minimum wage, extend free public school to include university & pre-school, etc; but our right-wing pols like 0bama, Bush43, treat the voters’ intent as a joke. Sanders seems to earnestly support these policies, but says he will support the the Dem Pres candidate without any conditions, policy or otherwise, whatsoever. Thus, I feel at least partially disenfrachised and the US is an oligarchy NOT a democracy, as that famous recent Princeton academics’ study claims.

    OTOH, in Canada, it does seem your NDP is an earnest genuine social democratic party, I wish we had a party like that here in Murica.

  10. Joe

    George Orwell knew a thing or two about how language then was and would be used to fold corruption into society in a way that made it pose as something offering a certain utility. Systems that were once useful and valid regularly become abused and commandeered for profit and power. it is the manifestation of a society through time and why cultures fail.they become corrupt and abused into monsters but the languge remains the same. Insurance could be extortion with very minor differences or perspective. It seems to be the case for many people in many places that corruption is not occurring because there’s a different word or justifying system which presents a blatantly corrupt entrenched system as a service. the service is here to serve and protect you or assist. the creation of money should be a utility for example. it is way to subject to abuse to be left to a private party but we know this. So when is one the other. I would propose when it’s not what the word actually means. once again the word insurance comes to mind. It is not only Americans but they sure are oblivious to how languge is used to fool them.

  11. kj1313

    My cousin in India was stopped by a cop for being inebriated and he was able to bribe him with 500 rupees which is roughly equivalent to $10 at the time. He said to me unlike Americans there were no delusions on how corrupt his country is.

  12. Ivory Bill has it right. Americans love our form of corruption because we labor under the delusion that we are upwardly mobile and will become one of the corrupters. Each one of will write the iPhone app that will make us billionaires. Or we will win the Power Ball. Or we will start a company in our garage and do an IPO that sells billions in stock.

  13. Daize

    Great article Iain, thanks.

    Just to inject a bit of hope into this scenario, and to counter some of the musings about the idiocy of the American general population (I am not American myself):

    Ya can’t fool all the people all the time.


  14. V. Arnold

    You want you country back, and your children and yourselves to have a future?

    It’s you or them. So far Americans keep choosing them. Ian
    You are saying Americans are making choices? Hmm, not so sure about that; looking at the real numbers (unemployed/under employed/homeless/incarcerated) and, understanding the betrayal by the “elected” ruling class; where are the choices?
    Voting? You well know that no longer counts.
    I self exiled to a third world country that is rated one of the most corrupt on the planet; after more than 12 years, I find it far, far, superior to that which I left. The personal freedom is way beyond that which I left. the police are friendly and not at all aggressive towards the average citizen.
    One anecdote; there was a mentally disturbed, 43 yo woman surrounded by 6 male cops; she was yelling abuses and actually kicked 4 of them in the leg. They continued to try and reason with her and after a not short time, she calmed down enough to speak with one of the senior officers. It ended well. It’s far from the only example I have seen…
    Can you imagine that in the U.S.? I cannot! I picture cop violence ending in death of the woman!
    I’m not sure for how long, but it’s been at least more than a decade; every election has been corrupt. At the very least, the elected must tow the line of the deep state or face assassination. An intimate of Ray McGovern (ex-CIA analyst) was at a small diner party, with Obama there; Obama was questioned about not following through on his campaign promises. He “turned sharply and said; do you remember what happened to MLK?”
    Look it up on the web; I myself saw the video by Ray McGovern.
    I do hold Americans responsible for their plight; but in fact, it may be well beyond their ability to change anything in a meaningful way, now. But, for the present, travel (internationally) is still possible and I wonder why more don’t choose relocation. But I do see that option closing in the not too distant future…
    Use it or lose it…

  15. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Most of us really can’t afford to leave. The people who can afford to leave are doing well enough that they probably don’t want to leave.

    Meanwhile, in the U. S. Corporate Media, Donald Trump shot a lion fetus, or something like that.

  16. Jimmy Carter was monitoring elections in emerging nations years before the Citizens United decision and was asked about monitoring and certifying an election in the United Syates. He replied that he would not be able to certify an American election as either fair or adequately democratic because of the role that wealth played in the process. To repeat, this was at least a decade before the Citizens United decision.

  17. V. Arnold

    Ivory Bill Woodpecker
    August 1, 2015
    Most of us really can’t afford to leave. The people who can afford to leave are doing well enough that they probably don’t want to leave.
    Well, you don’t know what your talking about. I left with $400 and a plane ticket; kindly keep your uninformed opinions to yourself!
    Morocobama yet again…
    Go away.

  18. V. Arnold

    Bill H
    August 1, 2015
    You’re getting it; keep going…

  19. JEHR

    As far as Canada’s corruption is concerned, at the moment we have the most corrupt government that we have ever had! Our PM pushes against all the limits of legality and democratic principles in order to get re-elected and in order to bring forward his neoliberal ideology. It is an ideology of the corporations, especially supporting the tar sands that makes Canada a one commodity oil state; it is the ideology of not believing in climate change; it is the ideology of getting rid of regulations against air, land and water pollution; it is the ideology of ridding Canada of its socially responsible institutions including unemployment insurance, pension funds, unions, charitable organizations, watchdogs, oversight bodies, whistleblowers, etc. that go against Harper’s beliefs; it is the ideology that does not believe in a diversified economy; it is the ideology of the global governance of our sovereign nation (including all those “free trade” deals where a corporation can sue local and federal governments if they perceive they have been denied a profit [TPP]); in short, it is Harper’s ideology and not the average Canadians idea of a just and fair country.

    One never knows whether or not another party would go against these new ideas when thse ideas could serve to make THEIR party more powerful. I guess we will know soon enough.

    I am sad for Canada and sad for the world that is remaking itself into a corrupt planet.

  20. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Shorter JEHR: Harper wants to turn Canada into USA Part Deux.


    Apparently, VA does not take polite disagreement well. :mrgreen:

  21. Synoia

    I see corruption, and wealth, as a race to the bottom.

    Oil drives huge levels of corruption, and the elites in the oil producing countries set an example for the elites elsewhere.

    Those no-oil producing elites became jealous of the plunder displayed by the oil producing elites, and then set about plundering their own countries.

    And round and round and down and down the slippery spiral we go, driven by the engine of greed.

    I don’t believe this can be fixed. I do believe it will collapse, and that collapse is called climate change.

    Where to go to survive that apocalypse? Southern Europe? African High veldt? Central America? N America and Central Asia, I think not, too hot and too cold.

  22. EmilianoZ

    In the US, corruption is:

    1) Legalized.

    2) Indirect. It’s not a cop taking a bribe directly from you. It’s taken from your paycheck (you get a low salary which economists can then attribute to other causes) or from your bank account in the form of zero interest or from the inflated price you pay for goods, … Because it is indirect, it is invisible for most people (especially those still following the mainstream media).

    3) Delayed. Politicians and oligarchs do not exchange goodies simultaneously like in the developing countries. Politicians deliver first. Then years after the deed, once they’re out of office, they get their reward in the form of lucrative jobs or gigs,… This contributes to the invisibility. But it requires some degree of confidence between politicians and oligarchs and delayed gratification from politicians, which might still be lacking in third world countries.

    4) Industrialized. A cop soliciting a bribe from you, that a mom and pop enterprise. Having the apparatus of the state devoted to transferring money from the 99% to the 1%, that’s corruption on an industrial scale.

    The developing countries still have a lot to do to catch up with the degree of sophistication of corruption in western countries.

  23. Peter

    Excellent analysis of corruption in the Homeland, Ian but I’m confused by your last paragraph’s solutions. They begin by sounding revolutionary and then become reformist leading to the ludicrous assumption that voting equals democracy or that people have real choices and are able to choose ‘better leaders’ as if any such mythical creatures existed.

    The concept of ‘being led’ leads to the cult of the leader and the corrupt leaders we now have. Only when people stop delegating their power to a professional, sociopathic, political class of leaders will we have the power and opportunity to destroy the Ruling Class who our leaders revere and serve.

    I could recommend that we shoot all the politicians and anyone who shows symptoms of becoming one but that may be too harsh. A more humane solution might be to confine them to colonies in Antarctica where they couldn’t harass the more human population in the rest of the world.

  24. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    When has any “successful” violent revolution ever “succeeded” in anything but replacing the existing ruling gang of criminals with a different ruling gang of criminals? (See every Communist revolution ever for gory details). 👿

  25. Peter


    You may be correct just look at what happened in the US after 1776, the first nation state to proclaim freedom for all and practice slavery.

  26. Sadly, it’s hard to disagree with anything you’ve said here Ian. This weekend we learned that the top cop for the state of Texas was just indicted on apparent securities fraud violations. The sad part is some of these revelations were out in the open as potential red flags last year, but the guy still managed to get elected last November.

  27. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Peter is correct about the USAmerican Revolution. Maybe the alternate term “War of Independence” is more accurate.

    I expect the only way we talking apes might ever have universal peace and justice is if our science becomes so powerful as to give us sustainable prosperity for all. Hopefully, if everyone’s material needs and wants were satisfied, we’d have enough sense not to fight over immaterial things (though I wouldn’t bet the rent on that).

  28. Jerry Falk

    I read this somewhere and thought it was fitting.

    “Once upon a time, there was a nation of people who believed everything they were told by their government.

    When terrorists attacked the country, and government officials claimed to have been caught by surprise, the people believed them. And when the government passed massive laws aimed at locking down the nation and opening the door to total government surveillance, the people believed it was done merely to keep them safe. The few who disagreed were labeled traitors.

    When the government waged costly preemptive wars on foreign countries, insisting it was necessary to protect the nation, the citizens believed it. And when the government brought the weapons and tactics of war home to use against the populace, claiming it was just a way to recycle old equipment, the people believed that too. The few who disagreed were labeled unpatriotic.

    When the government spied on its own citizens, claiming they were looking for terrorists hiding among them, the people believed it. And when the government began tracking the citizenry’s movements, monitoring their spending, snooping on their social media, and surveying their habits—supposedly in an effort to make their lives more efficient—the people believed that, too. The few who disagreed were labeled paranoid.

    When the government hired crisis actors to take part in disaster drills, never alerting the public to which “disasters” were staged, the people genuinely believed they were under attack. And when the government insisted it needed greater powers to prevent such attacks from happening again, the people believed that too. The few who disagreed were told to shut up or leave the country.

    Finally, the government started carrying out covert military drills around the country, insisting they were necessary to train the troops for foreign combat, and most of the people believed them. The few who disagreed, warning that perhaps all was not what it seemed, were dismissed as conspiracy theorists and quacks.

    By the time the government locked down the nation, using local police and the military to impose martial law, there was no one left in doubt of the government’s true motives—total control and domination—but there was also no one left to fight back.

    Now every fable has a moral, and the moral of this story is to beware of anyone who urges you to ignore your better instincts and trust the government.”

  29. V. Arnold

    Jerry Falk
    August 2, 2015
    OMG; you offer a fable! A child’s fable?
    The god’s be good; you’d better grow up and fast!
    You truly have no idea what you’re up against…

  30. Hugh

    My take on this has been that the three great social problems of our times are kleptocracy, wealth inequality, and class war.

    All the world is a kleptocracy. It just plays out in different countries in different ways. It is all about the looting. Kleptocracy is how the rich use the elites they own to enable systemic looting. Their are no brakes or stops to this looting. The rich will loot to a crash and then loot the crash. See the 2008 meltdown for an example of this.

    Total, massive, wealth inequality is the goal: The concentration of the wealth produced by the many into ever smaller fractions of the few.

    Class war is how they get away with it. The conspiracy-minded think this never-ending looting is all planned by a handful in small, dark, smoke-filled rooms at international gatherings of the mega-rich. And while there are a few such meetings, it is easy to poke holes in the concept and portray its believers as kooks. The rich are not monolithic. They jockey among themselves. Some may scheme behind closed doors, but by and large, they don’t need to. This is where a class perspective is superior. What we need to understand is that while their is flux within the classes of the rich and elites, they are all out to loot the rest of us. Their goal is the same. Their methods may vary and conflict.

    Class war is how they keep us the many divided, dispersed, distracted, and distrustful, at each other’s throats, chasing phantom bogeymen, hyponotized by celebrity and the media. All this to keep us from pulling together and realizing that we and not they hold the real power, that we not they are the source of all wealth and its real owners, and that if we ever did act together, we could sweep them away in an afternoon. They present us with a world turned upside down, and we believe it. We could not survive with out them. They “earned” and “merit” all their wealth, and it would be the most heinous theft to separate them from it. They know more and better than we do. And so they lead us from crash to crash and from war to war, all the while telling us not to believe our lying eyes, until nothing is left but their lies, and we can scarcely talk without buying into some or all of those lies.

    What we need is an independent perspective, and I think that kleptocracy, wealth inequality, and class war provide the beginnings of one. They teach that you can not reform a rotten system. You can only replace it. And then the question becomes not just what you are against, but what you are for. What are you against? What are you for?, not just for yourself and the people like you, but for everyone, and the people not like you.

  31. Hugh

    Sorry for the typos.

  32. Fritz Knese

    You basically have it right. Your solution of more government regulation is likely absurd since it is the cooperation between the ruling elite and government that allowed the oligarchs to get their stolen wealth. A real free market has the potential to cure most of our ills, but getting to it is another question. Corporate law is set up by the elite to protect their money, power, and perqs. It needs to be eliminated in favor of partnerships and individual ownership where individual accountability is the rule. 85% of US wealth is controlled by the top quintile. Most of this was not earned by productivity. When a crook steals money or things and is caught, his loot is taken from him and given back to the rightful owners when possible. This should be done with the ruling elite with the intent of undercutting their control of our society. We should be extremely suspicious of any and all governmental interference in the free market. Government’s track record here and abroad shows consistent corruption in favor of the elite.

  33. Peter


    Another purveyor of fables or is it the Snake Oil of Really Free Markets and the Good, for anyone but themselves, Capitalist. How are you going to create this new specie of humans who will pursue this Holy Grail of untainted Capitalism when they will start their quest with a huge competitive disadvantage.

    You may need to get a benevolent Emperor involved to cut through the red tape, it will take a lot of cutting and chopping, to position this new class of man over those old nasty Capitalists who rule with an iron fist today.

    It must be the $15 minimum wage and Bernie’s Run that have given people the illusion of power that makes them believe they can take anything from our Ruling Class, without a very bloody fight.

  34. Ian Welsh

    The regulatory solution worked during the post-war liberal era.

    Aka. It’s been done. Therefore it is possible.

    The problem with it is it doesn’t last.

  35. V. Arnold

    Untainted capitalism?
    Capitalism by definition is exploitative; therefore untainted is not possible.

  36. As an American, I have to agree with most of your post. How could it be any other way? The world’s leading empire, not corrupt? Impossible! Any time you have vast money flows into a city like Washington DC, you are going to have scum siphoning off much if not most of it.

    You are completely correct about the hypocrisy. It is an embarrassment to thinking Americans. As Mencken put it, “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

    I have to take issue with your suggested remedy:
    “Take the oligarchs’ wealth away from them and break the great monopolistic and oligopolistic companies or bridle them with uncorrupted regulators who will crawl up their backside and tax the hell out of them.”

    “Uncorrupted regulator” is an oxymoron. Oh, it *might* be the case that some regulators in places like Germany or Sweden are lily-pure, but in America? Nothing could be more ridiculous. It is outside our culture. Corporations have power, and they use it! They are not going to tolerate regulators not vetted by them. In fact the true purpose of regulation in the US is to exclude competition from smaller forms. That is all it will ever be used for.

    By the way, if you imagine cops are not corrupt because the bribery is not as visible as in say, Mexico, look up the phrase “civil asset forfeiture”. Americans would be thrilled to trade in their thuggish cops for some Mexican ones. But when the empire finally crashes, we will deal with our murderous cops, soon enough.

  37. Peter


    Untainted Capitalism, , my feeble attempt at sarcasm.

  38. V. Arnold

    @ Peter

    Sarcasm is difficult to communicate in the world of electrons…

  39. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    I recommend “snark tags”: [snark], [/snark]. Just be sure not to use the symbol which actually indicates a text change in the specific format of the blog or forum.

  40. philadelphialawyer

    “What is unique about America is not its corruption, many countries are corrupt, it is the sheer hypocrisy the pretense that America is not corrupt, because Americans have made their corruption legal.”

    Indeed, and the hypocrisy is not at all limited to corruption. Whenever the US government speaks of democracy, human rights, economic opportunity, terrorism, peace, criminal justice, and so on, in terms of the failings of other countries and their governments, there is a large element of hypocrisy present.

    “Corruption is the inevitable consequence of concentrated wealth. It always occurs when you have great inequality, it cannot be avoided.”

    Completely agree.

    “You want corruption back to reasonable levels? You want it illegal again? Take the oligarchs’ wealth away from them and break the great monopolistic and oligopolistic companies or bridle them with uncorrupted regulators who will crawl up their backside and tax the hell out of them.”

    Agree with the first option. Not sure the second one is good enough. As you just said, too much inequality and concentrated wealth inevitably leads to corruption. Taxing the wealth and regulating the conduct is maybe not drastic enough. There simply can’t be folks as wealthy as there are in the USA. They must be brought down several pegs, so they don’t have the money to buy elections.

    “Nothing else works (and the second solution works for a while). Nothing else has ever worked. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.”


    “You want you country back, and your children and yourselves to have a future?

    “It’s you or them.”


    “So far Americans keep choosing them.”

    Do they (we)? Most Americans understand what you say and want high taxes on the rich, tight regulation of corporations, a much more robust public sector, the wealth shared, and money kept out of politics (as well as the empire liquidated). The problem is how do they (we) get from here to there. Even the rich-favoring politicians, reflecting popular will to some extent, managed to pass some legislation cabining wealth off from politics. But the Supreme Court has struck it down, and threatened to do more of the same. The majority of people, and even those who manage to vote, tend to vote for the party that promises to do some or all of the above, but gerrymandering and other structural factors neutralize that vote. And then, of course, the entrenched two party (one openly in favor of the oligarchy, the other only against it in theory, or, as in the case of Jimmy Carter, after they are out of office) system works against real change as well.

    I think it misstates the case to say that the American people have simply “chosen” to maintain the oligarchy and its corruption. As if they could just snap their fingers and make it go away, but, for no good reason, merely choose not to.

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