Moyers on Democracy

Corruption at the Core: Bill Moyers talks with Sarah Chayes


Corruption at the Core: Bill Moyers talks with Sarah Chayes

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy.  You may have seen the jaw-dropping news this week that some $2 trillion dollars – yes,    two trillion dollars –  poured through America’s financial  system to  fund criminal activity over the past 20 years. Yet unnamed sources leaked the documents to BuzzFeed News which  shared the information with other publications;  you  can check the full story at  The, which reports that one of the named suspects is Paul Manafort, President Trump’s campaign manager in 2016.   The story broke just as we were about to release the interview Bill Moyers conducted with Sarah Chayes on her new book ON CORRUPTION IN AMERICA.   As a prizewinning reporter for NPR Chayes  covered France, Europe, North Africa  the Kosovo war, and the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan,  She stayed  to help rebuild the country, running a soap factory  and founding a farmers’ cooperative, among other things.  After serving as a senior adviser to two U.S.  field commanders and the   chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff she took off to examine the roots of corruption in several far-flung countries.   You’ll find the name  Sarah Chayes on  three acclaimed books, including the latest, ON CORRUPTION IN AMERICA. Here is Bill Moyers with Sarah Chayes.

BILL MOYERS: Sarah Chayes, it’s good to see you again.

SARAH CHAYES: Such a pleasure, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I have tracked you for a long time.


BILL MOYERS: And it’s just been interesting to watch your life and your work bring you to this moment. And I know you have been working for a decade now to fight corruption in countries like Nigeria and Afghanistan and now the United States. You say corruption is the defining issue of what is happening in this country. Why did you take this on?

SARAH CHAYES: I didn’t intend to work on corruption in Afghanistan. It was Afghans who came to me. This was the most important thing that was disrupting their lives. And to them spelled failure of the stated US mission to help birth a reasonably just, equitable government there in which the population would have a say in their collective destiny. Afghans were telling me, but look at how this government that you people are supporting is treating us. And so I came, quite quickly, to recognize that this issue is what was driving people back into the arms of the Taliban.

BILL MOYERS: Corruption was driving them?

SARAH CHAYES: Corruption. And so, what I did was go to a variety of different countries and found that corrupt government was driving just about every world crisis you could name, including the environmental crisis, including mass migration, including a lot of civil strife. So, I felt as though focusing on anything else is almost derivative.

BILL MOYERS: What you found was that people were indignant at their own government’s corruption, and America’s role in enabling it.

SARAH CHAYES: That is exactly correct. We are living in an unprecedented period of indignation against systemic corruption. Unprecedented. If I named all of the revolutions around the world, you know, it would take the rest of our hour, including the Arab Spring, including Ukraine, including South Korea, including Lebanon repeatedly, including a variety of Latin American countries. And there is a systemically corrupt government in all of the Gulf nations, but certainly Saudi Arabia. And we have been married, the United States has been married to enabling and reinforcing the Saudi Arabian government for decades. And yet I have rarely seen an example of a genuine reformer capitalizing on the indignation to bring the country in question to a more just and equitable situation governed by public integrity first. Instead I find that demagogues or the kleptocratic network itself almost everywhere are gaining the benefit of these reactions.

BILL MOYERS: You say in ON CORRUPTION IN AMERICA: AND WHAT IS AT STAKE, “It’s not an isolated scandal or even a whole stack of them. It’s the operating system of sophisticated and astonishingly successful kleptocratic networks.” And you compare these networks to the Hydra – the creature with the body of a serpent and eight mortal heads and a ninth head that was immortal and lived forever. Why the Hydra?

SARAH CHAYES: We’re going back to mythology or sacred stories. So, the Hydra is an analogy for these networks for two important reasons. One is: those heads appear to be separate snakes. When you look at one or look at the other, it’s a very scary snake doing its own thing, but they’re joined to a single body. So, it really helped illustrate the idea that it’s not one individual or one actor doing something wrong. Rather, they’re acting to the benefit of this larger network. And we should never forget that as much as we have to look at, how did this individual benefit from his or her political office? How did Ivanka Trump? How did Mr. DeJoy? How did, you know– what we do have to bear in mind is that the transactional nature of the wrongful acts is not necessarily direct. US law commands us to look for a quid pro quo, but often the return comes later. So, I might bend a rule that I might never benefit from, but this other member of the network then benefits. You can’t call that a quid pro quo, but that’s how the Hydra operates. And so, that’s why corruption is a deeper and more general phenomenon. The other aspect that’s really critically important is that even the mortal heads, when you whack one off, two more grow. Too often, not always, but too often when I have looked at anti-corruption insurrections overseas, I see a fixation on the one individual or his or her family who seems to personify the corrupt system. And it never works. Look at Guatemala. Look at Egypt. Look at even Tunisia. So many of these anti-corruption uprisings, the government tumbles, the government comes down, but the network is able to generate a new head, which immediately takes the place of the old one. So, for Americans, I would urge all of us, as outraged, disgusted, offended as many of us may be by the lengths to which President Trump and many of those around them have brought the misuse of the public trust for personal gain, as outraged as we may be about that, we must not fool ourselves that by getting rid of this individual or this administration, we will solve the problem. And the problem is the Midas disease. When you have the Midas disease it’s that you’re so infatuated with money that you convert everything that’s sacred, meaning our earth, the land, what’s on the land, what’s under the land, human creativity, human labor, love, relationships. You monetize all of that. And when a society is struck by the epidemic of Midas disease, what it means is that money becomes the chief source of social standing. And that’s a huge conversion. It’s no longer your honor, or your courage or your wisdom or your ability to play beautiful music. You’re not honored by society for that as much as you are honored for accumulating money. And the danger of that is, it’s a race with no finish line. Bill, you have $3 million in your bank account. You’ve got 3 million. How many zeroes is that? Three followed by, you know, this number of zeros. I better get a four ahead of my zeros because I otherwise I’m not better than you. And so it becomes this race and then it leads to preposterous extremes where you’ve got the current secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, you know, who lied to Forbes magazine about how many zeros he had, you know, I mean, really?  Really? Like, we’ve descended to this? And the problem is that once a society is in the grip of that kind of a pandemic, the money hoarders organize themselves into a coalition in order to bend the rules of the game to ensure that they can keep competing with each other about more zeros, that, that the flow of money goes to them. And that’s how you get systemic corruption.

BILL MOYERS: And as you say, it is not a partisan casino, it’s run by both parties.

SARAH CHAYES: Yes. The virulence of the political battle can camouflage the identity of interests across that political divide among the meat hogs.

BILL MOYERS: And by meat hogs, you mean?

SARAH CHAYES: The plutocracy. You know, the plutocracy, the integrated network of government officials and top private wealth maximizers that are in this web where they switch places frequently, they rig this system to serve the interests of this network rather than the public interest.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck when President Trump delivered his acceptance speech of the nomination at the White House and the camera panned down to the crowd. The very first row was one plutocrat, one fat cat after another, right there looking very, very, very much at home. And in the back of them were the quote so-called ordinary people. It was the marriage, symbolically, of what you write about in the book, plutocracy and populism. You appeal to the populists, the everyday people who are angry at a risk system that’s rigged, but the very people rigging the system are sitting there at the head of the line.

SARAH CHAYES: Okay, you’ve touched on two really deep issues here. One is the coalition of meat hogs, if you will, the plutocrats, right? What is fascinating about that coalition is it’s a network. It’s a web, right? Of connections among people. And what’s really deceptive about these networks, these kleptocratic or plutocratic networks, is that they cross all the divides that we commonly use to categorize our society, right? They cross public and private sectors. So, by having in their coalition, government officials who can wield government powers and access government money, private, big businessmen who monetize authorizations and things like that, who convert sacred values into money. I mean, it’s an extremely capable coalition. It’s extremely flexible and adaptable. So that’s who you were looking at on the stage and in the front row, right? You’ve got the symbols of government power, the guy holding them, and you’ve got the plutocrats and you know, those guys, the moguls in the front row.

BILL MOYERS: And democracy was supposed to be a check on the unbridled power of money.

SARAH CHAYES: Absolutely. But what you are seeing when you describe that crowd with the sort of ordinary folks who are revolted against the rigged system, somehow allying themselves with this very same rigged system, what you see is an expert manipulation of identity divides, and that it is the most powerful tool that kleptocratic networks use worldwide. Lebanon is a really stark example, but it’s exactly what’s happening here too, which is you appeal to people on an identity level. And if you make that appeal strong and effective enough, you actually overpower their indignation at the rigged system, or you deflect it. You say who’s rigging the system isn’t us billionaires. It’s those educated people like, you know, it’s the, it’s the main stream, the lame stream media people. It’s people with who have advanced degrees. You know, you’re appealing to the resentment of the two thirds of the country that don’t have a college degree, for example, who frankly have been treated with some contempt by the professional classes. And you activate that and you divert their indignation at rigged system against the professional classes while you laugh all the way to the bank.

BILL MOYERS: It’s also a fact that both political parties in the eighties and nineties failed the people you are talking about. And then there was a huge open field for Trump to conquer in reaching out to people who felt both Republicans and Democrats had failed their hopes and their needs and the realities they were facing. And what a paradox that a man like Trump could run against “crooked Hillary” and the Obama administration that he said was the most crooked in history– that he could run to drain the swamp and wind up turning it into a sewer.

SARAH CHAYES: You point out this 1980s turning point and it’s much deeper than just Ronald Reagan. That’s what I discovered, it’s cultural. It’s when money starts becoming– when we catch the Midas disease again. President Reagan glorifies it, and he rigs the system in favor of wealth accumulators. But what’s equally devastating, I found, was that President Clinton basically validated that. That’s so critical because if it were just a one-party thing where we could say, we the American people could say, okay, that was an aberration by a radical fringe of one political party. Let’s corral it again and get it back into, that would be one thing. But once the other party decides money is the object, also invalidates all of the system rigging, the deregulation and whatnot, then it’s become bipartisan orthodoxy. And that’s where half the population at least ends up feeling pretty abandoned by both political parties. So that’s one piece of your question, but it’s easy to point the finger at Donald Trump because he’s such a kind of almost kooky mirror, exaggeration of a kleptocrat like it’s, I mean, it’s larger than life. So, it’s easy to just be fixated on his corruption. However, this really has become business as usual in Washington. The idea that you’ve got– Eric Holder comes from Covington and Burling, where he represented large banks to become attorney general under President Obama, where he deliberately did not investigate or prosecute any large banks or their top executives for what was clearly systemic fraud leading to the 2008 economic meltdown. So those experts in fraud are still at the helms of their institutions and oh, by the way, are shoveling it in as COVID relief is pumping printed money (except we don’t have to print it anymore, it’s electronic signals) are being pumped into bond buying. So, they are basically getting free money from the federal reserve whom we’re all saying, oh, the federal reserve is so great because it’s not partisan and everything like that. I’m like, are you kidding me? It’s part of the kleptocratic network and it is shoveling money directly into the hands of the same types of institutions that delivered us 2008.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve got the current secretary of the treasury Mnuchin, who back in, two thousand five, six, seven, and eight was an architect of predatory lending.

SARAH CHAYES: Exactly. Right.

BILL MOYERS: Are you familiar with Chapman University? The small liberal arts college on the West Coast. For at least five years and a little more, maybe six or seven, Chapman University has run an annual survey of what Americans fear the most. Do you know what is by far the dominant fear of Americans who respond to that survey? Corruption. Not loss of a job, not old age, but corruption. Because they’re paying for the corruption, not just in diminished dignity, but in actual real income, health insurance, and public education, all being diminished in America today because of corruption.

SARAH CHAYES: Correct. How many people lost their homes in 2008? That’s disrupting people’s everyday lives. And that was the result of corruption. We have a tendency to think that corruption isn’t affecting our everyday lives, but it really is. And as you say, the general public gets that and you put our finger on another really deep issue that I noticed and why I start the book with a preface on a Supreme Court decision.

BILL MOYERS: McDonnell versus the United States, right?

SARAH CHAYES: That’s exactly right.  He was a Virginia governor who had engaged in a very clear bribery exchange with a businessman who wanted clinical trials of some quack medicine that he had cooked up. And he wanted to pressure the governor to force the Virginia public education system to conduct the trials. And the quid pro quo is clearly demonstrated. What shocked me, and it comes back to your point, is that the Supreme Court overturned the corruption conviction eight to zero.

BILL MOYERS: Unanimous.

SARAH CHAYES: Not a single justice, not only couldn’t see why this was corruption under the law, but even was willing to say, okay, I had to vote this way, cause that’s how the law reads, but it’s incredibly dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: The Supreme Court, you wrote, “has transformed a broad, common sense definition of bribery into something narrow and technical.” That was a pivotal moment in the disintegration of American justice and morality.

SARAH CHAYES: And so, half the American public doesn’t vote. I don’t think it’s apathy. I think it’s that they know– not that they’re both alike. The political parties are not both alike, but that on these issues, they are both compromised.

BILL MOYERS: I was impressed by how you pulled together so many of the elements of the Epstein scandal. What you point out so effectively is how so many Democratic totems and icons and so many Republicans were drawn to Epstein’s web.  I mean, from Bill Barr’s father getting a job for Epstein, and Bill Clinton and friends, and Democrats all in some way surrounding the honeypot. It wasn’t sex, I don’t think, as much as it was money.

SARAH CHAYES: Exactly. In other words, for Epstein, it was sex, but for others it was money and that’s how he bought them off. And that brings us to another really effective tool that these networks deploy against their potential opponents. You can then, another metaphor, think of money as a drug. You know, the first hit is free. You inject people with some of that stuff and they lose their senses. The Epstein story– you know, I encountered it before it broke. Because at random, I started tracing the networks of the members of the administration. So, at random let’s do it alphabetically. Number one was Alex Acosta. So, I started tracing Alex Acosta and before, too long, I get, he was the guy who gave that incredibly lenient plea bargain the first time Epstein was caught on sex trafficking charges. Acosta was the US attorney in Florida.

BILL MOYERS:  And later, he was Donald Trump’s secretary of labor.

SARAH CHAYES:  What came out in the reporting about that very lenient plea deal which allowed him such generous house arrest that he was able to continue abusing young girls while he was serving a supposed prison sentence. The story is that, you know, he was able to pay for such talented lawyers that Acosta was kind of bowled over by these talented lawyers. What I found was the entire defense team was part of Acosta’s network. So, the good deal that Acosta got on his plea bargain was really because you had members of the network who were ostensibly on opposite sides of the table, but they were, they were members of the same network and, and what really troubled me as I dug into that story further was how close to home it reaches. So, you are right to say it’s both sides of the political spectrum, but in my personal case, one of the lead characters was a colleague of my father’s and that really caused me to think, to what extent are we all, the most well-meaning of us, unconsciously enabling this ecosystem? So, I know that my father did not particularly appreciate this colleague of his, my father was a wonderful, very positive, ebullient, very just man. I mean, he fought the good fight. I don’t think he ever really made an effort to see how his institution, which was Harvard Law School, could rein in this distasteful colleague. Right? And so, it caused me to think about, how can we all in our everyday lives, again, without descending into sort of doctrinaire cancel culture. How can we encourage our own institutions to live up to their stated goals and standards? I got together with a group of maybe 60 or seven– maybe they were, I think we were over 70 by the end, anti-corruption and Russia-Eurasia specialists, senior people, to write an open letter to the Council on Foreign Relations, which had accepted a gift from one of these members of Putin’s kleptocratic network, who happens to have acquired US and UK citizenship and be very wealthy. And he launders his image and insinuates the network into US and UK institutions by making donations. And we thought that it was particularly problematic for him to start insinuating into a policy organization, a foreign policy organization. They did not do what we sought, which was to return the gift. But we still felt that there was some value in raising the issue and we raised it. We worked very hard on the letter to make it both firm, but constructive and respectful. And I just feel as though, you know, am I my brother’s keeper? We are our society’s keepers. We are our society. And if we allow it to behave in ways that are unacceptable, that violate basic standards of integrity, well then, we’re enablers in one way or another.

BILL MOYERS: I thoroughly enjoyed your book, but I want to admit to being surprised at the beginning. I turn to a book on corruption in America, by someone who knows the world as well as you do. And there you are in the opening of the book, sitting at lunch with several pastors of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Cumberland and suddenly we’re plunged into a discussion of the famous story of Jesus toward the end of his life, soon before the crucifixion, when he wades into the money changers in the temple in Jerusalem. Why did you start there?

SARAH CHAYES: Money is central to the issue of corruption. It’s not money itself that’s evil. It is elevating money above other values. So, I knew that sacred stories have a wisdom that we are missing because we turned our backs as a society, as a culture, on what you could call myths or sacred stories. But for Americans, perhaps the most resonant sacred story about money is that one, is Jesus striding up the steps of the temple and throwing the furniture around. I wanted people who knew more about that episode to enlighten me about it. So, who else would I turn to, but pastors. And what I found really interesting was that they were not particularly comfortable with that story.  I was very surprised to discover that they only preached it once every three years. I’m like, my goodness, this is a pivotal moment in his ministry.  Why would you only teach it once every three years? We’ve got the Lamb of God, he’s throwing the furniture around, and he’s got a whip in his hand. That for me says that he understood this as a tremendously important moment. And as you read those four lines of gospel, you notice that that was the moment when, if you will, the hierarchy – the kleptocratic network – decides they better kill this guy.  It wasn’t any of the healing of the sick or the, you know—that wasn’t what scared them. What scared them was he was drawing the attention of the whole community to the wealth-hoarding behavior of a little clique at the top, the billionaires, if you will, and the way that they had converted every item of the most sacred value to the community into cold, hard cash. And that’s what Jesus did not do, but he did get killed. I mean, he was so dangerous

BILL MOYERS: He was dangerous because?

SARAH CHAYES: Because he was shaming the meat hogs. And the coalition of meat hogs realized, oh my goodness, if he gathers the much larger egalitarian coalition – the love thy neighbor coalition – against us, we’re done.

BILL MOYERS: And you write, “Money is rooted just as deeply in the American identity as democratic principles are. In fact, the two are entangled. Still a great paradox of money is this. Despite this democratizing start, once people get their hands on it in quantity, they turn it into the basis for a new aristocracy. One no better than the old and maybe worse.” So, tell me whether you are pessimistic or optimistic about our ability to break that chain in our DNA that puts money first.

SARAH CHAYES: It doesn’t matter whether I, Sarah Chayes, am optimistic or pessimistic. What matters is determination. Our obligation is to try. It doesn’t matter if we think that our effort will eventually succeed, we are not responsible for the outcome.

We are responsible to try as hard as we can, with whatever gifts we are lucky enough to possess. There is room for all of us in this fight. There’s room for each of our talents. Each of our quirks, each of our idiosyncrasies. Not only room, they’re required. So, without second guessing ourselves, well, it’s probably not going to work. That’s not a way to motivate yourself. Or wow, it’s going to work. I think it’s going to come out well, therefore, I don’t really have to try too hard because it’s going to come out well. Optimistic and pessimistic, both of them may have the capacity to deflate our enthusiasm for the fight. So, what I say is let’s fight this fight. Let’s find comradeship in this fight. Let’s find joy in this fight. Let’s celebrate the fight and fight it as diligently, respectfully and lovingly, as we can.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your time and ideas with us today.

SARAH CHAYES: Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy.  At our website, learn about the origins of meat hogs.  Until next time, you’ll find all this and more at