Does power corrupt?

Nov 7 JDN 2459526

It’s a familiar saying, originally attributed to the Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are nearly always bad men.”

I think this saying is not only wrong, but in fact dangerous. We can all observe plenty of corrupt people in power, that much is true. But if it’s simply the power that corrupts them, and they started as good people, then there’s really nothing to be done. We may try to limit the amount of power any one person can have, but in any large, complex society there will be power, and so, if the saying is right, there will also be corruption.

How do I know that this saying is wrong?

First of all, note that corruption varies tremendously, and with very little correlation with most sensible notions of power.

Consider used car salespeople, stockbrokers, drug dealers, and pimps. All of these professions are rather well known for their high level of corruption. Yet are people in these professions powerful? Yes, any manager has some power over their employees; but there’s no particular reason to think that used car dealers have more power over their employees than grocery stores, and yet there’s a very clear sense in which used car dealers are more corrupt.

Even power on a national scale is not inherently tied to corruption. Consider the following individuals: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

These men were extremely powerful; each ruled an entire nation.Indeed, during his administration, FDR was probably the most powerful person in the world. And they certainly were not impeccable: Mandela was a good friend of Fidel Castro, Gandhi abused his wife, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and of course FDR ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Yet overall I think it’s pretty clear that these men were not especially corrupt and had a large positive impact on the world.

Say what you will about Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Idealistic? Surely. Naive? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Sometimes. Ineffective? Often. But they are equally as powerful as anyone else in the US Congress, and ‘corrupt’ is not a word I’d use to describe them. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand….

There does seem to be a positive correlation between a country’s level of corruption and its level of authoritarianism; the most democratic countries—Scandinavia—are also the least corrupt. Yet India is surely more democratic than China, but is widely rated as about the same level of corruption. Greece is not substantially less democratic than Chile, but it has considerably more corruption. So even at a national level, power is the not the only determinant of corruption.

I’ll even agree to the second clause: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Were I somehow granted an absolute dictatorship over the world, one of my first orders of business would be to establish a new democratic world government to replace my dictatorial rule. (Would it be my first order of business, or would I implement some policy reforms first? Now that’s a tougher question. I think I’d want to implement some kind of income redistribution and anti-discrimination laws before I left office, at least.) And I believe that most good people think similarly: We wouldn’t want to have that kind of power over other people. We wouldn’t trust ourselves to never abuse it. Anyone who maintains absolute power is either already corrupt or likely to become so. And anyone who seeks absolute power is precisely the sort of person who should not be trusted with power at all.

It may also be that power is one determinant of corruption—that a given person will generally end up more corrupt if you give them more power. This might help explain why even the best ‘great men’ are still usually bad men. But clearly there are other determinants that are equally important.

And I would like to offer a different hypothesis to explain the correlation between power and corruption, which has profoundly different implications: The corrupt seek power.

Donald Trump didn’t start out a good man and become corrupt by becoming a billionaire or becoming President. Donald Trump was born a narcissistic idiot.

Josef Stalin wasn’t a good man who became corrupted by the unlimited power of ruling the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin was born a psychopath.

Indeed, when you look closely at how corrupt leaders get into power, it often involves manipulating and exploiting others on a grand scale. They are willing to compromise principles that good people wouldn’t. They aren’t corrupt because they got into power; they got into power because they are corrupt.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we should compromise all of our principles in order to achieve power. If there is a route by which power corrupts, it is surely that. Rather, I am saying that we must maintain constant vigilance against anyone who seems so eager to attain power that they will compromise principles to do it—for those are precisely the people who are likely to be most dangerous if they should achieve their aims.

Moreover, I’m saying that “power corrupts” is actually a very dangerous message. It tells good people not to seek power, because they would be corrupted by it. But in fact what we actually need in order to get good people in power is more good people seeking power, more opportunities to out-compete the corrupt. If Congress were composed entirely of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then the left-wing agenda would no longer seem naive and unrealistic; it would simply be what gets done. (Who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t work out so well after all. But it definitely would get done.) Yet how many idealistic left-wing people have heard that phrase ‘power corrupts’ too many times, and decided they didn’t want to risk running for office?

Indeed, the notion that corruption is inherent to the exercise of power may well be the greatest tool we have ever given to those who are corrupt and seeking to hold onto power.

Why are all our Presidents war criminals?

JDN 2457443

Today I take on a topic that we really don’t like to talk about. It creates grave cognitive dissonance in our minds, forcing us to deeply question the moral character of our entire nation.

Yet it is undeniably a fact:

Most US Presidents are war criminals.

There is a long tradition of war crimes by US Presidents which includes Obama, Bush, Nixon, and above all Johnson and Truman.

Barack Obama has ordered so-called “double-tap” drone strikes, which kill medics and first responders, in express violation of the Geneva Convention.

George W. Bush orchestrated a global program of torture and indefinite detention.

Bill Clinton ordered “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects were detained without trial and transferred to other countries for interrogation, where we knew they would most likely be tortured.

I actually had trouble finding any credible accusations of war crimes by George H.W. Bush (there are definitely accusations, but none of them are credible—seriously, people are listening to Manuel Noriega?), even as Director of the CIA. He might not be a war criminal.

Ronald Reagan supported a government in Guatemala that was engaged in genocide. He knew this was happening and did not seem to care. This was only one of many tyrannical, murderous regimes supported by Reagan’s administration. In fact, Ronald Reagan was successfully convicted of war crimes by the International Court of Justice. Chomsky isn’t wrong about this one. Ronald Reagan was a convicted war criminal.

Jimmy Carter is a major exception to the rule; not only are there no credible accusations of war crimes against him, he has actively fought to pursue war crimes investigations against Israel and even publicly discussed the war crimes of George W. Bush.

I also wasn’t able to find any credible accusations of war crimes by Gerald Ford, so he might be clean.

But then we get to Richard Nixon, who deployed chemical weapons against civilians in Vietnam. (Calling Agent Orange “herbicide” probably shouldn’t matter morally—but it might legally, as tactical “herbicides” are not always war crimes.) But Nixon does deserve some credit for banning biological weapons.

Indeed, most of the responsibility for war crimes in Vietnam falls upon Johnson. The US deployed something very close to a “total war” strategy involving carpet bombing—more bombs were dropped by the US in Vietnam than by all countries in WW2—as well as napalm and of course chemical weapons; basically it was everything short of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Johnson also substantially expanded the US biological weapons program.

Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, I’m not sure if it was actually illegal to expand the US nuclear arsenal as dramatically as Kennedy did, but it definitely should have been. Kennedy brought our nuclear arsenal up to its greatest peak, a horrifying 30,000 deployable warheads—more than enough to wipe out human civilization, and possibly enough to destroy the entire human race.

While Eisenhower was accused of the gravest war crime on this list, namely the genocide of over 1 million people in Germany, most historians do not consider this accusation credible. Rather, his war crimes were committed as Supreme Allied Commander, in the form of carpet bombing, especially of Tokyo, which killed as many as 200,000 people, and of Dresden, which had no apparent military significance and even held a number of Allied POWs.

But then we get to Truman, the coup de grace, the only man in history to order the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Truman gave the order to deploy nuclear weapons against civilians. He was the only person in the history of the world to ever give such an order. It wasn’t Hitler; it wasn’t Stalin. It was Harry S. Truman.

Then of course there’s Roosevelt’s internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. It really pales in comparison to Truman’s order to vaporize an equal number of Japanese civilians in the blink of an eye.

I think it will suffice to end the list here, though I could definitely go on. I think Truman is a really good one to focus on, for two reasons that pull quite strongly in opposite directions.

1. The use of nuclear weapons against civilians is among the gravest possible crimes. It may be second to genocide, but then again it may not, as genocide does not risk the destruction of the entire human race. If we only had the option of outlawing one thing in war, and had to allow everything else, we would have no choice but to ban the use of nuclear weapons against civilians.

2. Truman’s decision may have been justified. To this day is still hotly debated whether the atomic bombings were justifiable; mainstream historians have taken both sides. On, the vote is almost exactly divided—51% yes, 49% no. Many historians believe that had Truman not deployed nuclear weapons, there would have been an additional 5 million deaths as a result of the continuation of the war.

Perhaps now you can see why this matter makes me so ambivalent.

There is a part of me that wants to take an absolute hard line against war crimes, and say that they must never be tolerated, that even otherwise good Presidents like Clinton and Obama deserve to be tried at the Hague for what they have done. (Truman and Eisenhower are dead, so it’s too late for them.)

But another part of me wonders what would happen if we did this. What if the world really is so dangerous that we have no choice but to allow our leaders to commit horrible atrocities in order to defend us?

There are easy cases—Bush’s torture program didn’t even result in very much useful intelligence, so it was simply a pointless degradation of our national character. The same amount of effort invested in more humane intelligence gathering would very likely have provided more reliable information. And in any case, terrorism is such a minor threat in the scheme of things that the effort would be better spent on improving environmental regulations or auto safety.

Similarly, there’s no reason to engage in “extraordinary rendition” to a country that tortures people when you could simply conduct a legitimate trial in absentia and then arrest the convicted terrorist with special forces and imprison him in a US maximum-security prison until his execution. (Or even carry out the execution directly by the special forces; as long as the trial is legitimate, I see no problem with that.) At that point, the atrocities are being committed simply to avoid inconvenience.

But especially when we come to the WW2 examples, where the United States—nay, the world—was facing a genuine threat of being conquered by genocidal tyrants, I do begin to wonder if “victory by any means necessary” is a legitimate choice.

There is a way to cut the Gordian knot here, and say that yes, these are crimes, and should be punished; but yes, they were morally justified. Then, the moral calculus any President must undergo when contemplating such an atrocity is that he himself will be tried and executed if he goes through with it. If your situation is truly so dire that you are willing to kill 100,000 civilians, perhaps you should be willing to go down with the ship. (Roger Fisher made a similar argument when he suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes inside the body of a US military officer. If you’re not willing to tear one man apart with a knife, why are you willing to vaporize an entire city?)

But if your actions really were morally justified… what sense does it make to punish you for them? And if we hold up this threat of punishment, could it cause a President to flinch when we really need him to take such drastic action?

Another possibility to consider is that perhaps our standards for war crimes really are too strict, and some—not all, but some—of the actions I just listed are in fact morally justifiable and should be made legal under international law. Perhaps the US government is right to fight the UN convention against cluster munitions; maybe we need cluster bombs to successfully defend national security. Perhaps it should not be illegal to kill the combat medics who directly serve under the command of enemy military forces—as opposed to civilian first-responders or Medecins Sans Frontieres. Perhaps our tolerance for civilian casualties is unrealistically low, and it is impossible to fight a war in the real world without killing a large number of civilians.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we are too willing to engage in war in the first place, too accustomed to deploying military force as our primary response to international conflict. Perhaps the prospect of facing a war crimes tribunal in a couple of years should be an extra layer of deterrent against any President ordering yet another war—by some estimates we have been at war 93% of the time since our founding as a nation, and it is a well-documented fact that we have by far the highest military spending in the world. Why is it that so many Americans see diplomacy as foolish, see compromise as weakness?

Perhaps the most terrifying thing is not that so many US Presidents are war criminals; it is that so many Americans don’t seem to have any problem with that.

“Polarization” is not symmetric

I titled the previous post using the word “polarization”, because that’s the simplest word we have for this phenomenon; but its connotations really aren’t right. “Polarization” suggests that both sides have gotten more extreme, and as a result they are now more fiercely in conflict. In fact what has happened is that Democrats have more or less stayed where they were, while Republicans have veered off into insane far-right crypto-fascist crazyland.

If you don’t believe my graph from ThinkProgress, take it from The Washington Post.

Even when pollsters try to spin it so that maybe the Democrats have also polarized, the dimensions upon which Democrats have gotten “more extreme” are not being bigoted toward women, racial minorities, immigrants, and gay people. So while the Republicans have in fact gotten more extreme, Democrats have simply gotten less bigoted.

Yes, I suppose you can technically say that this means we’ve gotten “more extremely liberal on social issues”; but we live in a world in which “liberal on social issues” means “you don’t hate and oppress people based on who they are”. Democrats did not take on some crazy far-left social view like, I don’t know, legalizing marriage between humans and dogs. They just stopped being quite so racist, sexist, and homophobic.

It’s on issues where there is no obvious moral imperative that it makes sense to talk about whether someone has become more extreme to the left or the right.

Many economic issues are of this character; one could certainly go too far left economically if one were to talk about nationalizing the auto industry (because it worked so well in East Germany!) or repossessing and redistributing all farmland (what could possibly go wrong?). But Bernie Sanders’ “radical socialism” sounds a lot like FDR’s New Deal—which worked quite well, and is largely responsible for the rise of the American middle class.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s economic policy proposals (if you can even call them that) are so radical and so ad hoc that they would turn back the clock on decades of economic development and international trade. He wants to wage a trade war with China that would throw the US into recession and send millions of people in China back into poverty. And that’s not even including the human rights violations required to implement the 11 million deportations of immigrants that Trump has been clamoring for since day one.

Or how about national defense? There is room for reasonable disagreement here, and there definitely is a vein of naive leftist pacifism that tells us to simply stay out of it when other countries are invaded by terrorists or commit genocide.

FDR’s view on national defense can be found in his “Day of Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.

When Hillary Clinton lived through a similar event—9/11—this was her response:

We will also stand united behind our President as he and his advisors plan the necessary actions to demonstrate America’s resolve and commitment. Not only to seek out an exact punishment on the perpetrators, but to make very clear that not only those who harbor terrorists, but those who in any way aid or comfort them whatsoever will now face the wrath of our country. And I hope that that message has gotten through to everywhere it needs to be heard. You are either with America in our time of need or you are not.

We also stand united behind our resolve — as this resolution so clearly states — to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of these tragic acts. You know, New York was not an accidental choice for these madmen, these terrorists, and these instruments of evil. They deliberately chose to strike at a city, which is a global city — it is the city of the Twenty First century, it epitomizes who we are as Americans. And so this in a very real sense was an attack on America, on our values, on our power, and on who we are as a people. And I know — because I know America — that America will stand behind New York. That America will offer whatever resources, aid, comfort, support that New Yorkers and New York require. Because the greatest rebuke we can offer to those who attack our way of life is to demonstrate clearly that we are not cowed in any way whatsoever.

Sounds pretty similar to me.

Now, compare Eisenhower’s statements on the military to Ted Cruz’s.

First Eisenhower, his famous “Cross of Iron” speech

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

That is the most brilliant exposition of the opportunity cost of military spending I’ve ever heard. Let me remind you that Eisenhower was a Republican and a five-star general (we don’t even have those anymore; we stop at four stars except in major wars). He was not a naive pacifist, but a soldier who understood the real cost of war.

Now, Ted Cruz, in his political campaign videos:

Instead we will have a President who will make clear we will utterly destroy ISIS.We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re gonna find out. And we’re gonna make abundantly clear to any militant on the face of the planet, that if you go and join ISIS, if you wage jihad and declare war on America, you are signing your death warrant.


Under President Obama and Secretary Clinton the world is more dangerous, and America is less safe. If I’m elected to serve as commander-in-chief, we won’t cower in the face of evil. America will lead. We will rebuild our military, we will kill the terrorists, and every Islamic militant will know, if you wage jihad against us, you’re signing your death warrant.
And under no circumstances will I ever apologize for America.

In later debates Cruz tried to soften this a bit, but it ended up making him sound like he doesn’t understand what words mean. He tried to redefine “carpet bombing” to mean “precision missile strikes” (but of course, precision missile strikes are what we’re already doing). He tried to walk back the “sand can glow in the dark” line, but it’s pretty clear that the only way that line makes sense is if you intend to deploy nuclear weapons. (I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean bioluminescent phytoplankton.) He gave a speech declaring his desire to commit mass murder, and is now trying to Humpty Dumpty his way out of the outrage it provoked.

This is how far the Republican Party has fallen.