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Bad Examples

Watch as the war on corruption morphs into a war on entitlements

The politically motivated poisonings, the suicides by the wrongly accused, the tortures to extract confessions, plus stirring stories of heroism in battle, are all vividly told by the first-century historian Tacitus in his Annals of the Roman Empire. If only today’s political drama in the Empire State were so colorful, and so fraught with the enduring moral and political lessons that made Tacitus required reading for 20 or so centuries. One doubts that any students will be assigned to read the story about State Senator Malcolm Smith, or State Assemblymembers Eric Stevenson and his colleague Nelson Castro, the guy who wore a wire for four years. One can read the indictment that names the names of the suburban Republicans who took nickel-and-dime bribes in this mess, but unlike the names of the emperors Tiberius and Claudius and Nero, and the towering Agrippina and Julia and Drusilla, we will soon forget, if we haven’t already.

The impeached, disgraced, and jailed former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich isn’t much remembered, nor is his predecessor, Illinois Governor Jim Ryan, despite having been prosecuted and taken up residence in the slammer just a couple of years ago. The merely corrupt don’t seem to live on in their infamy.

What will remain potent, unfortunately, is the message that the anti-government defenders of a more elemental corruption will use—which is that government itself is our problem, and that it is certainly no solution. With a weird confluence of timing, this message will be amplified because of a death, a scandal, a report, and a budget.

The death

The true legacy of the late Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom who passed away last week, is that her successful 20-year-long campaign against the British Left inspired and refreshed the rhetoric of the American Right, and thereby transformed our politics on this side of the pond.

The estimable historian Rick Perlstein, whose Nixonland should be today’s classic now that nobody reads Tacitus anymore, capably argues that much of American society today was shaped by Richard Nixon. But Nixon was a governmentalist. Thatcher was an anti-government radical. She schooled the editorialists and the political operatives who left the relatively progressive Nixon far behind and embraced Ronald Reagan. It was Thatcher whose success in Britain energized the anti-regulation, anti-labor, anti-safety net policies that became the new normal in the age of Reagan. It was Thatcher’s success in so radicalizing British politics, which in turn radicalized American politics, that continues to intimidate the Labor Party there and the Democratic Party here to the point where both now embrace Thatcher-style approaches to regulation, capital, and entitlements.

The scandal

And now, just as in Thatcher’s day, a case of the lowest, most tawdry kind of political corruption—the $15,000 and $40,000 bribes taken by Republicans and paid by Democrats—will prove extremely useful for that most enduring legacy of the leading English-speaking politicians of the 1980s. Nobody knows how many more cases of corruption will emerge from all those conversations recorded by the FBI via that wire worn by Assemblyman Castro. One should expect, however, that the story will roll on and on, and that even if there are not more indictments, there are two discourses that have been empowered, namely, a campaign against corruption, and with it, a renewed campaign against government itself.

Democrats are, predictably, striking first on both. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are out front on the anti-corruption campaign. As former Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Pigeon argues—seizing the opportunity to remind any who will listen that he was justified in organizing the notorious “coup” against now-implicated State Senator Malcolm Smith, the alleged bribe-payer—it is long past time for prosecutors in New York to get better legal tools for pursuing evil-doers.

The report

Meanwhile, however, a much more difficult story—less lurid, to be sure, but more threatening to the common good—is unfolding in the form of a report not from any prosecutor, but from New York State’s chief bookkeeper.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is spending this week and next rolling out a series of studies about what he calls “the new normal” in Upstate New York. Here’s what he means: fiscal crisis in most counties, towns, villages, school districts, and especially cities. And more: a failure of any Upstate region to regain the jobs that were lost in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and recession.

All of DiNapoli’s work, which in normal times could have resulted in a renewed focus on the need to re-think governance, re-imagine economic development, and re-frame our expectations about Upstate, is now overshadowed by the news—which might soon get bigger—about a handful of money-grubbing forgettables. So far absent in his work, however, is a clear and compelling case to re-think, re-shape, or re-constitute all the little jurisdictions that are either going to go broke or sharply curtail services to the economically-stagnant region.

The budget

And now, in the immediate aftermath of Lady Thatcher’s passing, President Barack Obama has submitted a budget that both leaves American Thatcherism in financial regulation undisturbed and embraces a thoroughly Thatcherite proposal to limit payments to future Social Security recipients. Gone is the muscular Keynesianism of the “stimulus” spending in 2009, which many economists observe as having measurably helped prevent the Great Recession from becoming a second Great Depression. Missing is the robust commitment to reversing the regulatory leniency that empowered the financial emperors of Wall Street and the City of London, who ever wield the Thatcherite rhetoric of “self-correcting markets.” Absent is any suggestion that the federal government will enable the transitions that the struggling municipalities of the Rust Belt so clearly need (see Tom DiNapoli’s “fiscal distress monitor”) but that they cannot hope to achieve without an embrace of a different notion about government, a non-Thatcherite, a non-Reaganite notion, a notion of collective action as possible, moldable, and certainly preferable to the raw action of markets alone—a notion of government, in short, that even Richard Nixon would have found acceptable.

Beware the scare

Whether the classic we read is Tacitus on the Romans or Perlstein on Nixon, there’s not much new under the sun when it comes to the struggle to save a few more crumbs for the masses from a ravenous aristocracy and an even more gluttonous royalty. Tacitus tells the story of a rebellion by some hard-used common soldiers, way away off in Gaul in the first century, soldiers who wanted their terms of service reduced from 20 years to 16 years, some relief from physical punishment, and a little bonus for living through the fights against all those tribesmen who resisted the Empire. Fast forward 2,000 years to the liberal Democrats and activists shouting about Obama’s willingness to put the little bonus called the Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) on the table as a negotiable item in the fight to raise taxes on today’s aristocrats. The Roman story didn’t work out so well for the soldiers; the bonus went away, and soldiers went back to 20-year terms, and, until the Empire fell, corporal punishment and even executions were normal. Now, the “new normal” for moderate-income households is income stagnation, and another assault on the entitlements that they thought they’d won, fair and square, in yesterday’s negotiation.

The story is, again, whether or not concentrations of power will be constrained. What would have been great, given the centuries of influence of Tacitus’s Annals, is if his chapter on the insane over-reacher Caligula had survived. Caligula’s successor was Claudius, who ultimately succumbed to treachery, but during whose reign there was more general prosperity, less in the way of brutal wars, but also, because of his reputation as a dimwit, an endless parade of scandals, murders, intrigues, and worse.

The lesson that used to be taught was this: Until the advent of democracy, the aristocrats and emperors abused everybody else. The reading assignment was meant to cure us of affection for aristocrats and emperors. Then democracy gave us Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and their progeny.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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