Friday, December 19, 2008

The Power of Addiction and The Addiction to Power

The scandals are flying so thick and fast around here that it is all a little reminiscent of the final act of Macbeth. The corpses have piled up so high and the murders so widespread, that you eventually loose count of the number and the motives behind each assassination. All you are left with is the primal force of the destruction: addiction to power.

On the political front, the arrest of Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder is currently centre-stage. The FBI affidavit underlying the criminal complaint against Blagojevich, whose state motto is “The Land of Lincoln” (an American avatar of political honesty and ethical probity), revealed wiretaps of conversations where Blagojevich and his associates schemed up various illegal ways in which he could profit from his authority to appoint Obama’s successor. In Chicago, which long-time resident Saul Bellow once indicted as a city representing “the overlap between politics and crime” this is known as “pay to play”. I actually thought that the seat-buying which characterised South Africa’s recently-euthanised floor-crossing was an extreme feature of our corroded culture. It appears, however, to have international application. The Illinois Governor is currently suspended in a sort of political-zombie zone – he remains in office but everyone from the President-elect to his own Lieutenant- Governor have called for his removal and he is now subject to impeachment petitions in the state legislature. But what differentiates the mop-haired Governor of easy virtue is that he hasn’t yet claimed that his “innocence until proven guilty” is a sufficient political defence to stave off the clamour for his departure. He is also likely to be hounded from office and certainly will not become the president of his country. In South Africa, of course, this basic right of the criminal defendant has become the political weapon-of-choice for the politically mighty, including our wannabe President, whose criminal charges are far more serious than those facing the sleazy US Governor.

The loss of faith in a local political personality here is nothing compared to the incredulity which has greeted the self-confessed mega-fraud of Wall Street titan Bernard L. Madoff. If it is possible to tarnish capitalism’s high street brand even further, then the 70 year-old with the once-Midas touch has done it. In what might be the largest financial swindle in history, he stands accused of orchestrating a $50-billion “Ponzi” con, on the good old pyramid scheme concept in which early investors are paid off with money from later investors, until no more money can be raised, and the scheme collapses.

In South Africa we would associate such a charming device (indeed, as Michael Lewis recently wrote, “something for nothing - it never loses its charm”) with a Nigerian criminal scam or with the founders of the ill-gotten 1980s Kubus get-rich-quick plot. However, Madoff’s alleged pyramid scheme was far broader than anything dreamed up by a Nigerian or South Africa crook. He drew in prominent billionaires, European banks and major American philanthropies, and he did so largely on the basis of the trust which his swanky Manhattan address, his Palm Beach Country Club membership and huge charitable giving engendered. His reliability was so great, that he was referred to, with affection, as the Jewish Treasury Bill. Madoff’s exposure is symptomatic of a much wider malaise, and one which goes far beyond personal embezzlement and corporate culpability. It is only slightly worse than the “legal scheme” which caused the wider collapse of America’s financial architecture, and many of Wall Street’s most famous houses.

Writing in the New York Times this week, Thomas L. Friedman pinpointed the parallel between Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and Wall Street’s “cheap credit, low standards and high greed.” On the one hand, you have Madoff cooking the books and providing consistently high returns regardless of market conditions. On the other hand, subprime lenders gave a worker who made just over $1000 a month a “nothing down and nothing-to-pay for two years” mortgage to buy a $750 000 home. They then bundled that mortgage with hundreds of others into bonds – which Moody’s or Standard and Poor rated AAA and sold them to banks and pension funds all over the world. A veritable pyramid scheme -writ hideously large.

But, of course, the link between the greedy Illinois Governor, the scheming Wall Street traders and the universal band of corrupt political brothers, appears to be addiction of one form or another – either to power, or greed or some combination. Just like Shakespeare gave forth Macbeth, Southern Africa’s local neighbourhood tyrant, Robert Mugabe, continues with his policies of national destruction. And South Africa, like a powerful yet indulgent relative, continues to coddle him from international sanction.

Last week I discussed Mugabe’s behaviour with my Durban boyhood friend, Jeremy Schmahmann. He now lives in Boston and has risen to great heights as Professor of Neurology at Harvard University Medical School. He has an interesting hypothesis, not yet proven, but one which has big implications for dealing with both national tyrants, and even the more common and garden financial fraudsters. It boils down to transposing “the tyranny of addiction” to the addiction to tyranny. As Jeremy put it the other night, society acknowledges “the tyranny of addiction” – the craving for drugs, alcohol or gambling that grabs hold of a person’s body and soul. Neurobiologists now have a fairly detailed understanding of the hard-wiring and chemistry of the brain that leads to this personal disintegration. With Mugabe, who cannot relinquish power even in the midst of a mass cholera epidemic symptomatic of the country he has now so comprehensively broken, “his brain reward system is in over-drive, addicted to power.” And like any addict, he cannot just be persuaded to stop. He needs to be removed from the addicting substance, and from the environment which supports it. Since our local politicians’ lack of political imagination and courage has led to consistently misdiagnosing Mugabe and his cravings, perhaps they should take a page from this eminent neurologist.

We are surprised and saddened when the oppression of Ian Smith metastasises into the brutality of Robert Mugabe. We are equally amazed that the frauds of Enron and WorldCom are repeated again in the form of Madoff. But, of course, they stem from the same impulses, and the same lack of internal or external correctives. The first step to healing, both the economic and political systems, is to recognise the addictions and to apply the corrective measures early on.

This being the last Washington column in the last Weekender edition of the year, allow me, with a touch of American ecumenicalism, to wish all readers “Happy Holidays”.

*Written for "The Weekender" in South Africa; publshing date: Saturday, 20 December 2008.

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