“Dean’s own business, gas and fast food, had become hateful to him … He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses — always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking — and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.”—George Packer, telling Dean Price’s Piedmont tragedy, in “The Unwinding.” Damn near the whole book is contained within this passage, both in content and paranoid, Pynchonian form. Only it’s not exactly paranoid, because it’s right. This is what happened to our country over the last four decades, and it’s told in a way that makes you truly grasp the human cost of this slow chipping away at our landscape and soul. I’m only halfway through it, and you better believe this will be required reading for 12th graders when I’m dictator.
Medium published the deepest dive into the Leland Yee scandal I’ve seen so far. And, aside from the fact that it appears to have been edited by someone who recently purchased a Zagat guide to San Francisco, it’s excellent. Yee seems to have spent five years surrounded by all sorts of federal agents playing a dizzying cast of characters — a play he stumbled into and turned into farce. At one point an FBI agent, posing as a developer, has Yee call another FBI agent, posing as health department official, to have Yee steer business toward a buddy of his. Kicker: the business doesn’t even exist; it’s yet another FBI front.
As with many corruption cases (and, if I recall correctly every terrorism case post-9/11) Yee’s wrongdoing happened in an alternative universe, only he didn’t know it. Schroedinger’s crime, or something.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Yee as the story drags on. He’s pathetic, on the one hand — arrested for shoplifting sun block in Hawaii! — but he’s also desperate and suffering from a severe case of dramatic irony, besides. On top of that — and not absolve Yee of obvious wrongdoing — it’s difficult not to see corruption cases like these as somewhat arbitrary. We are so inured to the role money plays in politics at the federal level that it seems our outrage over corruption on the local level is a form of overcompensation. (Qualifier here: yes, Yee offered to sell $2 million worth of weapons to a fake mob boss, but this started as a run-of-the-mill corruption case.)
But what about this, from Jonathan Chait’s column in New York this week, on David Camp’s honest tax reform effort. Camp, a Republican from Michigan, and chair of the House Ways and Means committee, released a plan that, among other things, would directly tax financial institutions in an effort to reduce moral hazard, and, obviously, generate tax revenue. It was promptly smothered by leadership. Observe:
“Hours after the Camp plan emerged on February 26, private-equity firms informed Republicans that fundraising commitments would be canceled indefinitely. Then they sent lobbyists to explain to various Republicans the vital role their special treatment plays in the proper functioning of the economy and the terrible things that would result from cancellation of this special treatment, not least to the GOP’s fund-raising operations. By mid-March, more than 50 House Republicans had signed a letter assailing the ‘arbitrary’ financial-transaction tax that ‘threatens our economic vitality by reducing access to credit, curbing economic growth, and worsening our nation’s unacceptably high unemployment rate.’”
There’s so much intermediation (from RNC, to leadership, to lawmaker) and the requests are so broad as to be indistinguishable from economic theory, but this is the entirely legal relationship we have between for-profit ventures and lawmakers in Washington.
Now, back to Yee:
"On Sept. 22, 2011, the agent posing as the Atlanta developer met Yee at a fundraising event in San Francisco and wrote him a $500 check — the maximum donation allowed under city law. Yee followed up with a voicemail, transcribed in the court filing: he ‘appreciate[d] the conversation and then hopefully, um, you know, there are things that uh, we can do to be of help uh, to you, and uh, but anyway just wanted to reach out and say thank you very, very much.’
Two days later, Yee called the developer twice. The first time, he said he wanted to discuss affordable housing development, particularly once he became mayor. In the second call, Yee said he couldn’t talk policy on the same call in which he asked for money. And then he asked the developer to raise $10,000 for his campaign.
The agent obliged. He got 10 undercover operatives to write $500 checks to Yee’s campaign. Then the agent wrote a $5,000 check — 10 times the legal limit. When Yee asked for even more money, the developer balked. He needed to know he’d get something in return.
Yee assured him that once he was mayor that would be no problem. ‘We control $6.8 billion, man, shit,’ he reportedly said, referring to the city’s annual budget.”
Had Yee, not Ed Lee, been elected mayor of San Francisco in 2011, he’d have a budget of $6.8 billion at his disposal. The federal budget for 2013 was $3.8 trillion. The money maps to favors one-to-one at a local level just because the numbers are smaller. The sort of favors you can do for someone as mayor of a city, even a large one, are necessarily discrete; the sorts of favors you can do on a federal level are sort of vague, and can be more easily masked by rhetoric. The quid and the quo get lost in a stultifying slurry of horseshit.
None of this is to excuse corruption on a local level, just to say that these indictments feel like close cousins of show trials to me. Official fictions — literally! — that distract from the amorphous corruption we take for granted. The sort that actually, you know, ruins our country.
“The cosmological principle states that the universe is homogeneous and isomorphic. Look at the universe on a large enough scale and it’s made of enormous walls of galaxy clusters, each billions of light years across, containing millions of galaxies that themselves contain billions of stars, forming a fragile web between vast and empty voids. Great things happen. Galaxies collide, stars are born and burn out, intelligent life stares out into the darkness and dreams stories for itself. Look at the universe on a slightly larger scale and the filaments and voids vanish. The universe is a flat grey expanse, all matter and all energy distributed evenly across its infinity, with no structure and no hidden meaning. On a large enough scale, the heat death of the universe has already happened. The world we think we inhabit, with its iridescent nebulae and heroic struggles for life and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis – it’s a translation error, a glitch between the blankness of the large-scale universe and the blankness of subatomic chaos. You exist, miraculously, in the middle of this precarious mistake of heterogeneity, and President Barack Obama has decided that he has the right to snuff out your life by missile-armed robot in the event that you might pose a threat to the future security of a national abstraction. And that’s pretty funny.”—From Sam Kriss’s "First as funny, then as die."