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Fareed Zakaria:
But, first, here’s my take. The hottest political book of the summer, “This Town” by Mark Leibovich, is being read in Washington with equal parts embarrassment and delight.

It is a vivid, detailed picture of the country’s ruling elite, filled with tales of ruthless networking, fake friendships and a sensationalist media. But beneath the juicy anecdotes is a depressing message about corruption and dysfunction.

If you are trying to understand why Washington works so badly for the rest of the country, the book explains that it works extremely well for its most important citizens; the lobbyists.

The permanent government of the United States is no longer defined by party or a branch of government, but by a profession comfortably encamped around the federal coffers.

The result, according to many measures, is that Washington has become the wealthiest city in the United States.

Leibovich describes a city in which money has trumped power as the ultimate currency. Lobbyists today hold the keys to what everyone in government, senator or staffer, is secretly searching for, a post- government source of income. He cites an Atlantic magazine report that in 1974, only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyist. Today, that number is 42 percent for members of the House and 50 percent for senators.

The result is bad legislation. Look at any bill today and it is a gargantuan document filled with thousands of giveaways. The act that created the Federal Reserve in 1913 was only 31 pages long.

The 1933 Glass-Steagall legislation that regulated banking was only 37 pages long. The current version, the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill, is 849 pages plus thousands of additional pages of rules.

The Affordable Care Act is more than 2,000 pages. Bills have become so vast because they are qualified by provisions and exemptions and exceptions put in by the very industry being targeted; a process that academics call “regulatory capture.”

The entire political system creates incentives for venality. Consider just one factor, and there are many, the role of money, which has expanded dramatically over the past four decades.

Harvard University’s Lawrence Lessig has pointed out that Congressmen now spend three of every five workdays raising money. They also vote with extreme attention to their donors’ interests.

Lessig cites studies that demonstrate that donors get a big bang for their campaign bucks, sometimes with returns on their “investment” that would make a venture capital firm proud.

Now, taking money out of politics is a mammoth challenge. So perhaps the best one could hope for instead is to limit instead what Congress can sell.

In other words, enact a thorough reform of the tax code, ridding it of the thousands of special exemptions, credits, and deductions, which are, of course, institutionalized, legalized corruption.

The most depressing aspect of “This Town,” by Mark Leibovich, is how utterly routine all the influence-peddling has become. In 1990 Ramsay MacMullen, the great Yale historian of Rome, published a book that took on the central question of his field. Why did the greatest empire in the history of the world collapse in the fifth century?

The root cause, he explained, was political corruption, which had become systemic in the late Roman Empire. What was once immoral had become accepted as standard practice and what was once illegal was now celebrated as the new normal.

Many decades from now, a historian looking at where America lost its way could use “This Town” as a primary source.




Posted August 5, 2013 by tmusicfan in Politics, Quote of the Day

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