Q: What do President Bush & long gone folk singer Phil Ochs have
in common? A: They both declared a war over when it wasn't.
The absurd season is upon us. Hot fun in the Summertime. Thanks
to Iraq, the national political conversation has reverted to
a familiar landscape. Left. Right. Hup 2 3 4. Each side knows
the devil hangs with the other.
I used to think politics mattered. Even believing "the personal
is the political". A dictum designed to drive people out of their
lives. Block busting the soul. Speaking of block busting, have
you heard the one about Flipper? In TV land, Flipper was the name
of a dolphin pretending to be Lassie. In real estate land it's
the name of someone pretending to be an investor. In it for the
long haul, seeking reasonable profit, etc. But a flipper turns
properties over snip snap, inflating values via various frauds.
Such as phony appraisals, dummy financial documents and ownership
flim flams. In urban nabes the practice produces blocks studded
with abandoned buildings. Flipping can be perped by a large group
of professional players or just a few in pivotal roles. The
"must haves" are straw buyers. They step up for the federally
insured, funded or firmly supported loans and pretend to be
buyers with a dream. Some straw buyers take a bite from one loan
and move on. Others do repeat business in rings juggling hundreds
of loans and properties. Essentially low level front men, straw
buyers are recruited from the poor and marginal and the solid and
respectable. Druggies and the homeless do it with a little help
from their non profit friends. Prison inmates do it via the
Internet. John Q. Suburban does it for McMansions and New
Urbanists do it for HUD. Which is why real estate fraud is great.
It's so inclusive. Right wing birds do it. Left wing bees do it.
Politically speaking, both left and right modestly claim the
other is better at being corrupt. But both are pretty well
matched-- which makes the game a bit dull for spectators. Neither
team ever pulls ahead. Just when a Republican in one state gets
busted doing pay-for-play with a mob connected developer,
a Democrat in another gets hit for the same. Which is why I've
stopped putting "D" or "R" next to anyone's name. Affiliation
only matters to team players, who hope riding public outrage
over the other guy will carry their party to the boo-tay. Or
to ideological nirvana where ends glow unsullied by means.
Looking at my single column score card I see that X Mayor Joseph
Ganim of Bridgeport, Connecticut just won 9 years in prison. For
pigging out on a hefty plate of revitalizing kick backs. U.S.
District Judge Janet Bond Atherton waxed accurate and eloquent
on why political corruption counts. Saying democracy "takes a lot
to keep it going, and not much to erode it". She also pointed out
the irony of Ganim receiving a national award for being Mister
Good Mayor-- while he was busy being corrupt. The award she
referenced was Ganim's sharing of top honors in the 1999 City
Liveability Awards Program of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. An
award supported financially by Waste Management Inc. Based in
Texas, WM is the biggest mover and shaker of waste in the USA.
They know waste matters. They also know mayors matter.
But back to Judge Janet Bond Atherton, who really did get it
right. As have a number of juries lately. Prosecutors are finding
that if they present financial cases clearly, juries are
increasingly savvy about white collar crime. Guilty verdicts have
been rolling in. Of course some of the convicted still await
sentencing. Like the brothers Amico in upstate New York. In early
April, a jury found the developers guilty of running a multi
million dollar mortgage fraud in the counties of Monroe, Ontario
and Wayne. The sentencing was set for August 15th. Now moved back
to November 4th. Of this year. Seems the brothers need more time
to consider their plea on related charges of income tax evasion.
Fretting about how a plea on the tax case would affect an appeal
on the fraud case. Or is it the other way around? Whatever. It
just goes to show that being a white collar crim means making
Some think corruption buys freedom. Admittance to a realm of
little lords and ladies. With butter applied from below. But in
reality, when ensconced in a web of corrupt relationships, white
collar crims must oil the loyalty of those beneath them. Because
if the law comes knocking the clout of underlings inflates like
a flipper's fantasy. Underlings have the goods but less to
loose. Everything to gain. For instance, when pleading guilty
to corruption charges this Spring, X County Executive James
Treffinger of Essex County, New Jersey admitted to making
"favorable personnel decisions in regards to his County
Counsel..designed to coax him to remain loyal". Now Treff
was a major player in Jersey. With one foot on the national
stage. When he sneezed lesser lights held the hanky. Yet there
he was, down on his knees (figuratively speaking) coaxing an
adjunct with favors.
The down side of complicity has been well explored by American
pulpsters. Paperback king Jim Thompson did it to a nightmare T.
Currently, some of the best real life insights come out of
Eastern Europe. Yulia Latynina writes for the Moscow Times,
covering corruption in Russia. A big job. Recently Latynina wrote
a piece called "Corruption, Complicity Create Loyalty". While
talking about specific incidences she also touched on the
general subject of corrupt methods, quoting Alfredo Stroessner,
Paraguay's president and dictator for 35 years: "Corruption
must be encouraged, because corruption engenders complicity
and complicity engenders loyalty." To this Latynina added
"Incompetence also breeds loyalty and is also encouraged".
You don't say.
We're not living in Russia. But clouds do loom. And the tactics
and psychology of corruption are universal. I focus often on
corruption in post industrial, second tier cities. Partly because
my 9th grade English teacher in a still industrial, second tier
city told me I should write about what I know. But also because
I believe systemic corruption plays a large part in why these
cities never get over. Massive public expenditure has produced
regional flutters but no across the board rebirth. All the
usually cited rut reasons are true. Such as the loss of
manufacturing jobs and the rise of a drug economy. Lousy schools.
The decline of families. Thug culture. Some social policies
aimed at uplift, have instead helped produce and mire an urban
underclass. But many struggling cities have also become perpetual
cash cows for an army of thoroughly bipartisan, interconnected,
and often actively criminal, political pimps and grifters.
I also focus on real estate fraud. If cities are the public
gathering places of civilization, homes are its private heart.
So when housing and mortgage fraud rises alarmingly, as it has
according to the FBI and numerous industry sources, it's not
a good sign. What's particularly worrisome is the type of fraud.
A few people scamming here and there is no big deal. But large
rings, involving hundreds of properties and layers of pols,
lenders, mortgage brokers, realtors, developers, appraisers and
buyers is a very big deal. There have been incidences of entire
communities participating in mortgage frauds.
Corruption isn't an affliction that only besets politicians or
those in the financial sector: it can become a social sickness.
Which in turn produces more toleration of corruption in politics
and finance. The end result can be a criminal state. Where
politicians say whatever constituents want to hear, but where
corruption is the true ideology. A profoundly undemocratic one.
Corruption sets inequality in stone. It negates individual
endeavor and genuine achievement and in doing so, crushes the
human spirit. Which leads back to the meaninglessness of
politics. They aren't really meaningless, just limited. Politics
are only a map, an attempt to establish direction. Though
politics can reflect morality, they're not the thing itself.
It's a shame Bush was only waxing rhetorical when he declared
the war was over. War polarizes and subsumes. It feeds the
tendency to confuse politics with morality. People relax on
their positions about the mammoth single issue and ascribe all
evil to those who disagree. Count ideologues and opportunists
among the dogs unleashed by war. And it will be as tough to get
them back in the kennel as it will be to really reach the
end of the road in Iraq.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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