The American System is One Big Grift
I learned the facts of life from a drunk uncle. He was not an American, and worked in international construction in Asia. His main job was to bribe people. Over the course of many tiny glasses of some awful, clear Asian liquor I learned every yard of concrete poured required money to gangsters who controlled unions and to politicians who controlled permits. A fact of life, he said. You get used to it. He even had a joke—my hands are dirtier than the guys who dig the foundations.
You come to realize someone is pulling the strings behind everything and it usually isn’t you, he said. The odd official just doing his job for his salary is a rube. You feel embarrassed for him, saying no for moral reasons. You learn, uncle slurred, to trust nothing. That politician on TV? The company just dropped off a nice check to his “charity.” Play by the rules? Those were the rules.
The first bribe I ever paid was to an Indonesian immigration officer, who noticed some small defect on my passport. Of course, he said, it could be resolved. Between us. With a fine (so many euphemisms). Off to the side. In cash. It was all of $20 to save a vacation but I felt filthy, cheated, a chump. But I learned the rules.
In New York we use the euphemism “tip,” and it is as required as oxygen to get through the day. A restaurant table pre-COVID. A last minute anything. A friendlier handling by a doorman. Timely attention to fix-it requests. My, um, friend, used to pay a lot of money for better hotel rooms until he learned $20 at check in with a friendly “anything you can do” often got him upgraded to the same thing at a fraction of the price. What, you still paying retail, bro?
I used to think it was all small stuff, maybe with the odd mafia king bribing a judge with real money or something else Netflix-worthy. In America we were ultimately… fair, right? But things started to add up. We have our petty corruption like anywhere, but our souls are filthy on a much larger scale. America goes big or it goes home.
Things like the Clinton Foundation accepting donations from the Saudis to help with women’s empowerment, an issue of course dear to the heart of the Kingdom. When it looked like his wife was going to be president, Bill made six-figure speeches to businesses seeking influence within the U.S. government, earning $50 million during his wife’s term as secretary of pay-for-play state. The Foundation, now mostly out of business, was at its peak a two-billion-dollar financial dangle. It spent in 2013 the same on travel expenses for Hillary and her family as it did on charitable grants. The media, forever big Clinton fans, told us we should be used to it. Hey, Nixon was so much worse.
Trump refused to be very specific about who his charity donated to. We know its offshoot, the Eric Trump charity, donated to a wine industry association, a plastic surgeon supposedly gifting nose jobs to kids, and an artist who painted a portrait of Donald. Trump-owned resorts received $880,000 for hosting Trump-sponsored charity events. Trump donated money from his foundation to conservative influencers ahead of his presidential bid.
With Joe as vice president, the Bidens made $396,000 in 2016. But in just the four years since leaving the Obama White House, Joe and Jill made more than $15 million. In fact, as his prospects for election improved, Joe and his wife made nearly twice as much in one year as they did in the previous 19 years combined. Joe scored $10 million alone for a book no one read. Jill was paid more than $3 million for her book in 2018. Joe has a tax-dodge S Corporation that donated money back to his own political PAC. Then of course there was Hunter, who scored millions in Chinese and Ukrainian money for doing nothing but being Joe’s son.
About half the nation got very twisted over Trump’s corruption and actively avoided noticing the Clintons and Bidens, and vice-versa, to the point of covering their ears NYANYANAYNYA. Yeah, politicians are corrupt, but does anyone think the donors in all three cases didn’t know what they were buying? What, you still voting retail, bro?
But even all those millions, measured in Epsteins (a unit of influence buying I just made up) are petty cash. Real corruption scales. Pre-COVID America’s 614 billionaires were worth $2.95 trillion. As the Dow hit record highs this month, there are now 650 billionaires and their combined wealth is $4 trillion. The 400 richest Americans own 64 percent of the country’s wealth.
Where’d all their money come from? You.
Dan Gilbert, chair of Quicken Loans, worth $7 billion in March, is now at $43 billion (thanks for paying on time each month.) Who benefited more from COVID and everyone buying from home then Amazon and Jeff Bezos? It takes a lot of poor people to sustain that amount of wealth at the top.
Money is always good. But it is wrong to think just in dollars. That’s how small-time grifters like waiters and the Bidens think. The real rich understand wealth as power. The power to shape society and government to ensure they make more money for more power until someday they Have. It. All. You hope one day for an upgrade to business class; they own the jet.
To talk about conspiracy theories is to imply something “different” happened, that the system does not work as intended; for example, instead of an election the president was assassinated to change leaders. So let’s not call what happened this autumn to elect Joe Biden a conspiracy. But here is what happened.
Corporate media owned by the wealthiest Americans spent four years attacking Trump. Working as a single organism fused to the Democratic party as its host, they tried to bundle Trump into a SuperMax as a literal Russian agent. When that failed they ginned up an impeachment with more holes in it than a bad joke about Stormy Daniels. The same media then pivoted to defense when it mattered most, sending information about Hunter Biden that would have changed the election down the memory hole, and policing social media to Joe’s advantage.
Corporate pharma, also owned by the same people, held back announcement of COVID vaccines until just after the election. The intel community, tightly bound with Big Tech and its super-wealthy owners, did its part leaking and concealing information as needed. They too worked to discredit the Hunter Biden story by calling it Russian disinfo. Money that actually controls information is gold.
Earlier in the contest something happened, again, in Democratic primaries which began with some of the most progressive candidates in the running since Henry Wallace. Instead a politician known as the Senator from Mastercard was pushed into the White House. It was just a coincidence two promising candidates, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, dropped out nearly simultaneously just ahead of the South Carolina vote Biden desperately needed to end Bernie, again. How many people in America are powerful enough to have made those phone calls to Pete and Amy?
Biden promptly returned the favor, filling his Cabinet with the same old thinkers corporate America liked from the Obama years. A highlight is Janet Yellen (net worth $13 million) at Treasury, who helped swizzle the corporate bailout that created the .01 percent out of the one percent after the Great Recession. Notice how crises for most of us like the Recession and COVID end up benefiting the wealthy? Biden was wrong when he told donors “nothing would fundamentally change” for the wealthy when he’s in charge—actually, things’ll get better.
A tiny percentage of Americans own, control, and benefit from most everything; some call them the one percent but a large number of even those people are just slugs and remoras (hedge fund managers, corporate lawyers) who feed off the crumbs left by the really powerful. You know a handful of the names—Bezos, Gates, Buffet—because they own public-facing companies. Most of the others prefer less public lives while they control the public. And silly you, you worried that it was the Russians who stole the election. What, you aren’t down with using Prime points to vote in the next election, bro?
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.