From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, however divergent their political views, these groups seem united by one thing: outrage over a system of power and influence that only serves the interests of a small number of corrupt elites. Increasingly, protesters on both ends of the political spectrum and the media are using the word “corrupt” to describe an illusory system of power that has shed any accountability to those it was meant to help and govern. In her new book, Janine Wedel, a university professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and a grantee of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, charts a fast–evolving system of power and influence that is utterly unaccountable to those it is supposed to serve, largely because “we the public” has an information problem. Who is accountable? What are the remedies available to the average citizen?
If there is accountability, it is in places which are not socially represented or publicly accessible. The elites have access to these “silos” of power, because they can connect the dots. The average citizen cannot. As they languish, one thing flourishes: a new, insidious form of corruption practiced by players cutting across boundaries and plying influence with unprecedented ease.
The hallmark of this alarming “new corruption” is the violation of public trust. Professor Wedel takes us far beyond the usual targets: money’s corrupting effect on politics, K Street lobbyists, bad–apple politicians who take bribes. While all those are important, the new corruption’s sweep is broader and its practitioners, even when they are named, can’t be shamed. They believe they can self–police, because their motives are pure and their integrity beyond questioning. And even when their motives are not pure, it doesn’t serve today’s technocrats to rock the boat by punishing these elites. And those guilty of wrongdoing are often in a position to manipulate media and shape the story to make it appear as if they are indeed selfless public servants.
In this new world, academics, Wall Street bankers, lawyers, retired generals, even former Presidents and Prime Ministers exploit their prestige as if it were a commodity, some turning themselves into one–man brands. Think tanks, once the source of sober–minded studies, often now act as bullhorns for the powerful. Wall Street, unbowed by the 2008 crash, remains free to “innovate” us into the next financial disaster after fighting a stealth regulatory battle.
Part of today’s challenge is that the institutions that we grew up with are completely different animals. Even though a bank is still called “a bank”, but it is very different institution than was the case even 15 years ago. Likewise with government. Three-quarters of people who work for “the public sector” today are actually still in the private sector. They work as private contractors or consultants. This places them beyond the scope of proper public scrutiny, and further undermines accountability. Indeed, Wedel notes that the image of the so-called “revolving door” is probably inaccurate these days. The door doesn’t revolve as such, but remains perpetually open to these private elites, changing the latter’s role well beyond what we normally understand government to be.
In the interview, Wedel tries to guide us through this maze. Her message is a very unpalatable one, but it is still the case that a malady, no matter how grave, cannot be repaired without an accurate diagnosis. That diagnosis starts here in Wedel’s profound scholarship and searing insights.