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666: Our Modern Spoils System


Last year around this time, I made a very bad financial decision, which cost me around $70,000. My wife and I tried to fix the problem, but we had missed a crucial deadline, and it was too late. We did get some of our investment back, but not all. In the end, we lost a good deal of money that we will never be able to recoup in full.

In 2007, Charles and Jared Kushner made an even costlier financial mistake. They purchased a tower at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York and borrowed $1.75 billion to finance this deal. Because of the ensuing recession, the property never made enough in rent to cover the Kushners' debt. There is a $1.4 billion mortgage on the building that comes due next year, but any sale or rents would not be enough to cover this hole. It looked like the Kushners, like me, would suffer from poor financial planning, with over a billion dollars at risk in their case.

But wait! Enter Brookfield Asset Management, which appears likely to take this property off of the Kushners' hands. And here is some relevant detail: As the New York Times notes, Brookfield’s real estate arm, Brookfield Property Partners, “is partly owned by the Qatari government, through the Qatar Investment Authority."

Can I get a deal like the Kushners’? Will Qatar answer my call? I guess not. After all, I have no connection to the White House. Qatar has no reason to help me recoup a mere $70,000. But assisting out someone with a direct connection to the current president—now that’s another story. And such assistance invariably comes from countries like Qatar and China, which have something to gain by helping out presidential family members; after all, such authoritarian regimes can turn on a dime and make such backdoor transactions, while democracies can’t.

This is a symbol of the inherent rot fomented by the current administration and its enablers. A useless simp like Jared Kushner not only has access to power beyond his capabilities, but he also benefits from access to totalitarian foreign governments that may be seeking favor. The essential watchword for this administration is: We take care of our own in any way we can. Everyone else--fend for yourself. Democracy—that’s for losers.

Here is another angle on the self-serving nature of the current president and his minions. In an upcoming New Yorker article, reporter Evan Osnos reveals how the administration and its departments have made a concerted effort to weed out government staff members whom they deem to be political opponents. Non-political staffers, who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations, are being forced out or relegated to paper-pushing positions. Examples of this abound in departments such as State, Interior, Housing, and the EPA, among others. Moreover, when people are hired to fill new positions, they often have little to no knowledge of the department in which they will be working, their main qualifications being that they served the current president's campaign in some capacity.

This purging of talent is in direct contrast to every administration since -- well, Andrew Jackson. Under Jackson's long-discredited spoils system, presidents directed favors to their political allies rather than to people who were better qualified. More recent presidents have consistently relied on the expertise and experience of long-time government workers. Even Ronald Reagan, who famously held that government is too big and is "the problem", never went so far as to purge government workers.

The current administration is taking Reagan's doctrine to its most extreme conclusion, fighting a war against a "deep state" of Steve Bannon's imagination, when in fact government is made up of individual workers who are not only just like many of us (working hard, earning a decent salary, trying to take care of a family), but who in most cases are pretty effective at their jobs. The Department of Energy includes folks who safely manage the nation's stockpile of nuclear waste. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helps forecast long- and short-term weather effects. The Forest Service fights deadly wild fires. I could find numerous other examples.

Again, the administration's narrative is simple: There are those on our side, and those on the other side. We are fighting a war against our enemies on the other side.

Still, we have a government built on a system of checks and balances. The other two, co-equal, branches should be able to rein in this excess, shouldn't they? Dream on. The Republican congressional leadership has shown no inclination to call out the current administration for its actions. In fact, they are playing much the same game. A recent article pointed out that the Republican Senate has reversed a long-standing practice of deferring to home state Senators in confirming judicial nominees. Until now, if a Senator from, say, Wisconsin objected to a potential judge selected for a seat in that state, that nomination would not go forward. Democrats honored this tradition when Obama selected judges, and so did Republicans such as Reagan and the two Bushes--until now.

Even if this practice was frustrating to me during the Obama years, it had an effect of ensuring that nominees would be acceptable to a broader range of the populace. This is no longer the case. And the past year has shown that nominees from the current president tend to be extreme right wingers and/or minimally competent.

Let's connect the dots. People on the inside of this administration are able to capitalize on their connections in often corrupt ways, and, in doing so, compromise the implementation of best policy. Those with the knowledge and skills to keep the government operating effectively are pushed out or replaced by people with no aptitude for their positions. Congress is sitting idly by while this happens and feasting from the same self-serving, extremist trough. And the judicial branch also ends up more extreme, as the president and Senate gang up in an assault on democratic and moderate values.

This polarizing situation has some dire implications for our future democracy, which should trouble those on both the right and the left. I will provide more detail in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, keep this in mind: When the administration and its enablers in our current ruling class marginalize people with competence and values, and when foreign regimes gain influence by supporting members of the presidential family, the rest of us who work hard and play by the rules have no chance.

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