03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Absolute Corruption Is the Rule in America

people will look at a high-profile example of corruption, and conclude that the
egregious act is an exception to the rule. 
In reality, it might be the tip of the iceberg. 

October 29, 2009, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania did a wonderful thing when
it expunged the
records of as many as 6,500 juveniles
in Luzerne County. 
That’s not a misprint. 

judges in that county were sent up the federal river for locking up thousands
of innocent children over five years, in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks
from private juvenile detention centers. 
Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan helped the developers
secure the county contracts to build the prisons.  Moreover, they filled the detention centers
with warm bodies— many of whom were first-time offenders with minor infractions—
and illegally denied the teens access to an attorney.

In the
case of Luzerne, the “cash for kids” scheme was a coldblooded expression of
greed, and we should not downplay the seriousness of the crimes committed.  Yet, what happened in this rural county in northeastern
Pennsylvania is a reflection of what America’s criminal justice system has
become— a for-profit, money-making enterprise. 

our poorer children, disproportionately of color, are funneled into a
cradle-to-prison pipeline through adulthood. 
With a criminally negligent public school system, and job opportunities
outsourced abroad, many children at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are
ensured a future of little else than street corners or prison bars.  In fact, many urban schools are nothing more
than prison prep, complete with police and metal detectors. 

the children of Luzerne, a county which is nearly 97% white, did not resemble
the “usual suspects” in the criminal justice system.  But that really is not the point— when
prisons are a capitalistic endeavor, warm bodies are needed as the raw
materials, and so they must come from somewhere.  And consequently, justice takes a backseat to
dollars.  From the foodservice industry and
the phone companies, to the Wall Street bankers and the investors, many people
have a vested interest in filling up those empty prison beds and maximizing
their cut.  American capitalism made the
U.S. prison population the world’s largest at 2.5 million, with mass
incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses and victimless crimes.

American-style capitalism is problematic for the culture of corruption it has
enabled, in the absence of an effective regulatory framework.  Much attention has been paid to Bernie
Madoff, that poster child of the Ponzi schemes, who defrauded investors out of $65
billion.  The damage he created is
impressive, from the family savings that were forever lost, to the charities
that went under.  But like the judges in
Luzerne County, Madoff was merely a cog in a wheel of corruption that enabled

Madoff himself
said he was surprised his
scheme lasted so long
, and that the Securities
and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigators were so clueless
his fraudulent activities over 16 years. 
The fact is, some members of the SEC staff were inexperienced or just
idiots.  Further, Madoff
had too much credibility
with the SEC and was not properly investigated,
with red flags uncovered yet ignored. 

With the
deregulation of the financial sector and the evisceration of the Glass-Steagall
Act came the financial crisis of 2008. 
The system had become the Ponzi scheme. 
The economy was built on paper shuffling and no tangible products.  Consumers were preyed upon with sketchy,
deceptive and destructive subprime mortgages. 
Banks gambled people’s money in high-risk, high-stakes poker games.  And with a revolving
between Wall Street and the Treasury department, the same people with
the gambling problem are running the casino, and “monitoring” it as well. 

The banks
that ruined the country swore by the free market when it suited them.  But now, they gladly accept their corporate
welfare bailout checks, and scoff at the rest of us.  Wall Street has rebounded, business as usual,
and Gordon Gekko is smiling.  Meanwhile,
America’s former middle class is joining the ranks of the poor, and the
foreclosed are filling the nation’s homeless shelters.  Short of bold government action of
Rooseveltian proportions, there will be no economic recovery for everyday
people.  After all, the unemployed, the
homeless, and the soon-to-be unemployed and homeless generally are not big

The moneyed
interests also have corrupted the political process, and a prime example is the
behavior of Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and the “Blue Dog” Democrats in the
health care reform debate.  Lieberman has
earned a special place in the hearts and minds of progressives of late for
vowing to stand with Republicans, and filibuster any health care bill that
contains a public option.  He has even
said he would
rather have no bill at all
than a bill with a public option.

American political folklore, the Senate is presented as an august deliberative
body where cooler heads prevail, where genteel statesmen and stateswomen put
the brakes on rash and potentially harmful legislation, for the betterment of
all.  In reality, the Senate is a place
where bold legislation for the public good is killed, because industries put a
contract out on democratic ideas.  And
they instruct their employees, the senators, to stop these ideas in their
tracks.  This is a bipartisan endeavor.  The Blue Dog Democrats, who are the
self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives of their party, distinguish themselves
from other Democrats by their greed and hypocrisy.  They receive the most corporate money, and
have rejected less costly health reform bills that would hurt their benefactors.  Ask Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chair of the
Senate Finance committee, and a key player in this year’s health reform
debate.  Baucus received $3.4 million
from health and insurance industry interests
between 2003 and 2008, more than
any other member of Congress
.  Judging
from the sad excuse for a health reform bill that came out of his committee,
the industry got its money’s worth.

And Lieberman,
the dirty dog that Democrats love to hate, is a fully-owned subsidiary of the
insurance industry.  Over the course of
his career, he has received $2.6 million from the insurance companies.  In addition, his wife is a health care
industry lobbyist.  Despite the
overwhelming popular support in Connecticut for a public option, Lieberman has
decided to follow the money.  The
Democrats must take Lieberman to the woodshed for his
ways, and relieve him of his coveted chair in the
Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee.  Not to be outdone, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN),
whose wife has made at least $2
million sitting on the board of a major health insurance company
, hinted
that he would filibuster the public option as well.  Apparently, faced with the prospect of the Democratic
leadership opening a big can of whup ass on him, he backed off.

problem here is not just Senators Lieberman, Baucus, Bayh and a few other
unscrupulous politicians.  The fact is
the entire political game, the link between money and politics, is rancid and
is killing democracy.  In the case of
health care reform, the corrupting influence of money is literally sucking the
country’s life blood. 

As in the
days of old before the 1929 stock market crash and the New Deal, corporations
have far more influence in this society than they are entitled.  Citibank gleefully proclaimed in a series of
reports in 2005 and 2006 that the
U.S. is a plutonomy— a system of wealth inequality in which the richest 1% hold
a disproportionately large share of wealth. 
The rich are likely to get even wealthier, at the expense of labor.  This rising inequality, Citibank predicts,
will lead to a political backlash. 

And some
backlash is needed now.  It is certain
that the outrageous displays of greed and corruption deserve our attention and
our outrage.  But to dismiss them as
exceptions to the rule, rather than products of a systemic, vulturous culture
that must be attacked, is to choose a perilous path.   

David A. Love is an Editorial Board member of, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and theGrio. He is a writer and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His blog is