Syndrome of Distortions. With the exception of economically destructive natural disasters, every financial or political crisis is caused by either a corrupt regulatory process, prodigal fiscal policy, short-sighted monetary policy, or all of the above. Distortions in any one of these three processes can cause great damage to a nation’s economy and its democratic processes. This article explores how the symbiotic relationship between politicians and their special interest benefactors can create what I call a “politicogenic Syndrome of Distortions” in the economic and democratic organs of a nation.
Malignancy Spreads. The Syndrome of Distortions usually metastasizes into rampant, systemic malfunctions throughout entire economic and political systems. As this malignancy spreads, it imperceptibly but inevitably infects and corrupts the fundamental ethical purpose, structural integrity, essential character, and good intentions of a wide array of people and processes within these systems. Just as a malignant tumor hijacks the blood supply of neighboring healthy cells to spread its own corrupted DNA, the same is true of corrupted people and processes within a political system.
Cancer Creates Pain, Which Often Leads to Avoidance, Not Cures. Calling political corruption “a cancer” is usually too simplistic and inflammatory in any good-faith discussion. More importantly, emotionally-charged labels often cause otherwise intelligent and compassionate people to tune-out and ignore many of the subtle factors that culminate into major systemic collapses. In many cases, the painful consequences of a systemic collapse are unintended by both the victims and the perpetrators, especially in a complex system that is afflicted by a Syndrome of Distortions. That’s why the language we use to describe and discuss these problems should capture and reflect the texture, nuance and reality of the incentives, intentions and complex behaviors that contribute to any systemic collapse.
The Bouncy Castle. We have all seen examples of people in the political system who are “corrupt” by any definition. These are the people whose names become news headlines and punchlines of political jokes. The corruption of these people is usually obvious and does not require a book to understand. However, there is a much broader population of people who are not unusually corrupt by nature, but they are forced to work within a system that is itself highly corrupted by the Syndrome of Distortions. In this case, the system that exists all around them is continuously twisted, bent, and crushed like one of those air-filled bouncy castles, in which rambunctious children love to play.
Everybody Falls Inside the Bouncy Castle. Being inside a bouncy castle can be a humbling experience for any adult. Flying human projectiles slam against the walls from every direction, causing shock waves to ripple throughout the castle. No matter how strong and well-balanced you are, you’re very likely to fall down because the continuously shifting air pressure throughout the castle is too disruptive to maintain your balance.
Complexity Magnifies Distortions. As the system of humans flying around the castle increases in number and complexity, the castle itself is increasingly distorted in every direction, creating a Syndrome of Distortions all around you. From the inside, there’s no easily discernible single source of these distortions, which is why it’s a “syndrome,” but these distortions become part of the very fabric of your existence while you’re inside the castle. And while you’re on the inside, you cannot avoid being twisted, bent and crushed because you have become an integral part of an environment that is itself twisted, bent and crushed.
Systemic Corruption vs. Moral Corruption. The bouncy castle is the U.S. political system today. The concept of corruption is a major theme that rears its ugly head frequently in discussions of comparative political economy; so it’s important that we all have the same definition in mind. To avoid unnecessary confusion, I define “corruption” precisely as follows:
Corruption: any significant deviation from, or malfunction of, the intended purpose, spirit, structure, or character of an individual or process within an institutional, political, or economic system.
As we explore the concept of corruption throughout this article and website, please always remember that the kind of corruption we’re discussing should not be amplified with any significant emotional overtones. In other words, we should be primarily concerned about the corruption of systems and processes that result in widespread human pain and suffering, not the subjective moral arguments and opinions of individual victims and perpetrators within these systems.
Existential Pressures and Distortions. The distinction between systemic and moral corruption is important to keep in mind because it’s not fair or accurate to say that “all politicians are corrupt” or that “all politicians are self-serving and greedy.” If they appear that way, it’s primarily because they must operate within a system that distorts and bends their existence every day. They must adapt and continuously adjust within that undulating system; otherwise, the system will chew them up and spit them out and they will lose their jobs, their financial security, and they would have no way to support their families. Contrary to popular opinion, politicians have some humanity in them, too.
Victims and Perpetrators Can be the Same. We should remember that anytime humans are forced to live and work inside a highly symbiotic system that is continuously afflicted with a Syndrome of Distortions, the victims can sometimes be the perpetrators and vice-versa, depending on which aspect of the system we are observing at any given moment. So let’s never forget this important human dimension as we explore and attempt to resolve the various systemic problems in our political and economic systems.
Path to Political Purgatory
The President of Good Intentions. There are many thoughtful people who enter the political system with integrity and good intentions. Notwithstanding their human flaws showcased in various media, most politicians sincerely believe the power they seek to obtain “one day” will truly enable them to make a meaningful, positive impact in their country. Of course, one day is always just around the corner. One day is when they hope to be appointed to the next “powerful” committee, which never seems to be quite powerful enough to fix the problem for which the committee was formed. Or one day is when they get tapped to serve in a powerful cabinet position. Or one day they might even ascend to the highest office in the land: President of Good Intentions. If our world was fueled by good intentions, politicians would be the most beloved group in every society.
The Path to Political Purgatory. We all know the path to Hell is paved with good intentions; so, too, is the path to political purgatory, which is one way of describing the political system in the United States today. Regardless of their intentions, the reality is that every public opinion poll conducted in the U.S. in the new millennium ranks politicians approximately as popular as Bubonic Plague. And it’s not difficult to understand why: There are few things more maddening to sentient creatures than living in a world run by perpetually well-intending politicians who never seem to deliver meaningful, unambiguously positive, sustainable results.
Flawed Incentive Structures Magnify Flaws in Human Nature. I don’t believe the failure of politicians reveals an inherent flaw in Democracy; it’s an inherent flaw in human nature that is exacerbated by (1) particular special interest groups within each society who seek to distort incentive structures throughout an economy and its government to give themselves unearned advantages; (2) civic leaders in particular communities who do not truly understand the incentive structures that feed the counterproductive behavior of their elected officials; and (3) a lack of tools and resources in the hands of citizens who already have the resolve, integrity, and ability to implement meaningful solutions to the first two problems. This website and The Platform are intended to help resolve these three problems over time.