Today's Paul Krugman column in the Times calls for robust investigations into the illegalities of the Bush years. Urging the incoming administration not to let bygones be bygones, Krugman offers the following reasoning:
Why, then, shouldn’t we have an official inquiry into abuses during the Bush years?
One answer you hear is that pursuing the truth would be divisive, that it would exacerbate partisanship. But if partisanship is so terrible, shouldn’t there be some penalty for the Bush administration’s politicization of every aspect of government?
Alternatively, we’re told that we don’t have to dwell on past abuses, because we won’t repeat them. But no important figure in the Bush administration, or among that administration’s political allies, has expressed remorse for breaking the law. What makes anyone think that they or their political heirs won’t do it all over again, given the chance?
While I agree with all that he says, Krugman falls short of the mark. The wholesale failure of the rule of law within government leads to a general disrespect for laws. With a big boost from Bush/Cheney Inc, we have entered The Age of Piracy.
I'm from Detroit, and I can remember working on a Congressional campaign 35 years ago, going into housing projects where my brother and I were the only white faces around. The animosity between the police and the black citizenry was palpable. The government was on the other side. The Detroit police had been running a special strike force called STRESS in the preceding years, one that became notorious for brutality and some non-standard procedures. Now I am not arguing pristine causality here, that STRESS and the way that those in power held themselves above the law led directly to a rupturing of the social fabric in Detroit. But the story that played out over time, as Detroit became the murder capital, lost more than half it's population, saw it's neighborhoods burned for diversion, cannot be attributed to the ups and downs of the auto market.
Off the coast of Somalia pirates seize tankers and freighters in brazen fashion. It shocks us here in the comfy "civilized" world. It would probably shock us much less if we spent any time trying to manage a life in a place like Somalia, where violence, poverty and official corruption are the rule.
Paul Krugman warns of a future recapture of our executive branch by the current abusers or their heirs. While that prospect alone is a good rationale for wide-ranging investigations (and real jail time for the miscreants), we must look to the larger point. A government/military/police/tax authority/financial regulator that devalues the rule of law delegitimizes itself and initiates an ever widening gyre of lawlessness.
The banking crisis, especially as it relates to mortgage lending, began with financial piracy. Regulators wring their hands about "moral hazard", or the fear that by bailing out an institution that has gotten drunk and stayed too long at the craps table, it is enabling others to disregard steep downside risks. The larger moral hazard, or perhaps morale hazard, lurks in the citizens' perception of the transaction. Who among us, when writing checks to the IRS this year, will fail to think of the bank bailouts, the lavish golden parachutes, the revolving doors of the regulatory and banking community?
As the economy worsens, and more people are out of work, the shadow economy scales up. It is obvious that a person who is deprived of a legitimate means of making a living doesn't just evaporate. Notions like "black-market products" or "piracy", or "off-the-books work" have one connotation when the rule of law is strong. They carry a different connotation when the Captains of Legitimacy are all perceived as variations on a Bernie Madoff theme.
The Age of Pirates has been ushered in by Captains Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gramm, Lay, Addington, and even doofus Captain Rod Blagojevich, scourge of the Great Lakes.
In order to repair the terrible ruptures in our public faith in the legitimacy of our institutions of government, President Obama and Atty. General Holder must rapidly, resolutely and publicly investigate wrongdoings by the government. We should evaluate in a open way whether the policies relating to homeland security were useful, honest over-reaction, or dangerously dismissive of our Constitutional rights. We need to know whether the only way to fight the wars was through no-bid contracts. We need to know that the Justice Department has found a new moral compass.
Otherwise ... well, get out your sword and eyepatch. The seas are looking bumpy.