The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics: Greed

Why you should care

Because the U.S. Congress, as the old saying goes, is the only whorehouse that loses money.

Part of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttony, lust, pride, envy, wrath, greed and sloth.

When it comes to graft and greed, few politicians in a nominally democratic system can rival the exploits of the legendary William “Boss” Tweed. An influential politician and the boss of New York City’s Tammany Hall during the mid-19th century, the 300-pound Tweed had legislators, judges, reporters and business leaders in his plus-size pockets as he brazenly embezzled state funds, rigged elections and devoured bribes and kickbacks. By the time the “Tweed ring” had been broken and its boss jailed, it was estimated that a jaw-dropping $45 million had been pilfered from the public purse, a figure larger than the federal government’s entire annual budget before the Civil War.

Tweed, including the large diamond he wore on his shirtfront, became an outsize symbol of political corruption, and the target of cartoonists and satirists. But his greed differs only in degree, not kind, from the type of influence-peddling that continues in the corridors of American power today.

Greedy for Our Country

Greed never really falls out of fashion in American politics, though few presidential candidates in recent years have given it as ringing an endorsement as Donald Trump. “I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person,” the Republican nominee admitted in January in a campaign speech equivalent of Gordon Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” soliloquy. “But, you know what?” Trump added. “I want to be greedy for our country.”

At the heart of the sin of avarice lies an irrepressible itch for more. As biographer Michael D’Antonio chronicles in Never Enough and The Truth About Trump, Trump has never been content with what he has. Featured in the debut episode of the hit TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Trump has made a habit of calling the editors of Forbes magazine to complain about his position in their ranking of the wealthiest Americans.

Trump is hardly the first to seek the White House from a gilded perch, and extravagant tastes and the presidency have often gone hand in hand. George Washington may have freed his slaves upon his death, but for much of his later life, he was a wealthy plantation owner and one of the nation’s richest men, enjoying the lifestyle of a British aristocrat at his Mount Vernon estate. Thomas Jefferson similarly did not let his republican politics interfere with his love for the finer things in life, from French food and wine to a silver-trimmed carriage.

Expensive tastes alone, however, do not a greedy president make, and often it is those sharing the president’s table who enjoy the largest serving of political corruption. Warren G. Harding may have never been tied to the myriad scandals that erupted under his watch during the early 1920s, but he was responsible for lining his administration with golf buddies and “good fellows” who fleeced their country like a sedated sheep.

The buck may stop at the president’s desk but the bucks do not.

Washington’s Enormous Revolving Door

The buck may stop at the president’s desk but the bucks do not. From the machine politics and spoils systems of yesteryear to the armies of lobbyists in ten-thousand-dollar suits today, cash and influence sustain an entire food chain of elected officials, donors and influence peddlers. As long as you can make money by influencing public policy, says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney, there will be money in American politics.

And the spigot shows no sign of slowing. Quite the opposite, in fact. Lobbying revenue practically doubled between 1998 and 2012, according to a recent study by the Sunlight Foundation, with much of the growth coming from the 400 percent increase in winnings achieved by a particular breed of lobbyist: one with prior government experience. This sizable revolving door between the public and private sectors in Washington — and in state capitals — offers high-status, low-paid public servants a chance at delayed income gratification. “In Washington, you have a greed for power and status,” Pitney tells OZY, “but also people who succumb to status-income disparity and want to cash in.”

This gold rush even includes presidential candidates, eager to cash in on their brief fame by mining everything from book deals to cable news punditry to infomercials promising to “reverse” diabetes — or all three, if you are Mike Huckabee. Another former Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, made more than $100 million in speaking fees alone between 2001 and 2013.

In Greed We Trust

Hillary Clinton may place some Trump supporters into her “basket of deplorables,” but for many Americans, the billionaire is the apotheosis of what they’ve been taught is possible, and desirable. Donald Trump did not create the waves of baby boomer consumption, 1980s greed, reality television and social media narcissism, but he has surfed them for all they are worth. “For all of his excesses, Donald Trump is a man perfectly adapted to his time,” writes D’Antonio. “Trump is not a man apart. He is, instead, merely one of us writ large.”

Now the man who has found satisfaction in money, pleasure and “greatness” is offering them to others — like the celebrated pitchman that he is — for one tremendous low price: your vote. And, in the end, it is not a carnival barker like Trump who corrupts us, but our own desire for better. But is greed for ourselves, for our country and for a better world really the best way forward? Gordon Gekko certainly thought so. “Greed works,” he promised, and, “mark my words,” it will also save “that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

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