Center for Strategic Communication

PaperclipsBy Patricia Lee Sharpe

Now that the statute of limitations will protect me, I’ll confess: I am a thief.  I purloined some paper clips and several (barely used) steno pads while I was working for the government.  I also xeroxed some personal papers in full view of the signs that decried “waste, theft and mismanagement.”   Officialdom hoped, evidently, that worker bees would readily expose the petty thieves  hiding within our honeycomb of cubicles.  Especially the paper clip purloiners, the steno snitches and the photocopy filchers.

No one reported me.  Whoopie!

Surely bosses who colluded (we mid-levels saw the emails) to inflate and falsify  their accomplishments for promotion purposes were also guilty of fraud and mismanagement, to say the very least, but they weren't turned in either.  Imagine the consequent slamming shut of executive ranks.  Imagine how our superiors would have held us up to ridicule as victims of the sour grapes syndrome.  And know this, too: we'd have lost any legal challenge.  So I, at least, consoled myself by banishing any remorse I might have felt for paperclip filching.

This may sound like penny ante stuff, as it is, but small is father to big, according to kiss-up-kick-down government overseers.   Paperclip heisting, so the theory goes, is a starter theft, the analogy being to starter drugs—especially marijuana.  Casual, recreational stuff leads, supposedly, to dreadful addiction and severe criminality.  We'd become pushers next.  Pssst!  Hey want a paper clip? Then mules. Steno pads for sale—cheap!  Heavy stuff.    Better or worse, depending on the point of view, serious abusers might be propelled into the totally off-the-books financial big time: global gun and drug running; secret accounts in the Caymans or Zurich, mammoth back-scratching kickbacks from contractors to legislators,  presidential aspirants bought outright by gambling czars.  And all of these paths might lead, in time,  to those tell tale tip-of-the-ice-berg manifestations: the mansion(s), the yacht(s), the jet(s), the horse(s). 

At this point I have, of course, ventured into fiction.  American small fry (almost) never get so far.  Or so high.  Or so rich.  Except in their dreams and delusions.  The U.S. is now the most inflexibly stratified society in the industrialized world.  Real upward mobility in America disappeared well before the end of the last century.

Meanwhile, the big fish, the sleazy suits, such as the bankers and financiers who wheeled and dealed and turned themselves into fat cats while they destroyed the world economy along with millions of hard-working Americans, evade accountability.  They’re hard to catch because, believe it or not (and I didn’t, for a long time), the rules are written to make it impossibly tough to catch or convict them.  There’s this, too:  At the higher income levels, it’s hard to tell “honest” crooks who profit from a totally rigged system from “real” criminals who honestly disobey laws.  Can you say symbiosis? 

Deconstructing the defense budget might help to illustrate this point.  But where’s the executive-judicial-legislative will to do the job properly?  Everyone’s bought.  (Yes, judges running for office have to raise big bucks now, and pure philanthropy is rare in the political world.  Even some Supreme Court members accept the equivalent of financial favors.)  Anyhow, there aren’t enough luxury prisons in which to house white collar criminals that belong behind bars; all the corrections money goes to incarcerate losers caught with a few grams of marijuana.  (Moral?  Be white and sniff coke.)  Anyway the space won’t be needed.  The scandalously few ethically-challenged executives actually prosecuted for financial crime bribe the government into settlement, thus escaping a guilty label by paying truly tiny fines (a few mil is penny ante for them) that serve as keep-out-of-jail cards.  These are the real kleptos.  They steal from investors—then give themselves a bonus large enough to run an elementary school for a year or more.

And so privatization continues.  Everything our previously purely no-profit government used to do costs more because it's done now by for-profit contractors.  Even war fighting.  And we never get the supposed benefit of private sector efficiency?  Why not? Do the math.  Count the add ons: big profit, huge CEO salaries, kickbacks, fraud, waste, mismanagement. 

And who believes the well-founded, current government investigations into the financial shenanigans behind the Shedon Adelman casino empire will continue if Mitt Romney is elected president?  No wonder Adelman pours tens of millions into the campaign coffers of Republican presidential candidates, most recently the one who refuses to reveal his own tax records to the public.  Birds of a feather and all that

Back to that silly domino theory.  So one pocketed paper clip, properly parlayed, might have led me to a palace in Palm Beach and virtual immunity from prosecution!  Whoopie! 

Except for this: my life of crime stopped there. I reverted to the misguided values I grew up with.  I don’t cheat on my taxes.  I don’t even spend a great deal of time trying to minimize them.  I figure someone has to pay to keep the civilization going—and my meager (though much more than 15%) contribution may pay to keep a few park rangers on the job for a few hours or maybe to keep a few square feet of the Smithsonian swept and clean.  Oh yeah, I also pay property taxes gladly, to keep the schools in paper clips and lab equipment—and teachers.  What a sucker!

Now to the math of petty kleptomania.  Time to consider the shocking facts.  Let’s figure that all of us mid-level sneaks steal $5.00 of government supplies in a decade (paperclips are cheap).  Let’s also keep the math simple by figuring there are a million of us kleptos.  The government would be out $5,000,000, which almost sounds like real money.  Except it isn’t.  It’s actually only $500,000 a year.  Double that.  Make it $10 per decade.  And say we pilfering proles number 2 million  So that’s two mil a year.  Are you amazed?  Are you outraged?

Don’t be.  That’s chump change in today’s economy.  Less than a tenth of the annual salary of one briefly-tenured, Golden Parachute-endowed CEO or for some of those Wall Street operators and bankers who pushed rotten derivatives onto investors then bet against them.  To say nothing of the guys who incorporate a business in the Caymans, manufacture goods in China, sequester income in Switzerland and pay less than 15% in income tax.  And yet these cheapskates still enjoy (for free) all the government benefits we honest, tax-paying, wholly U.S.-based simpletons actually pay for.   (Not just in dollars, but in pain and sacrifice per dollar, which matters.)

Which brings me to the final indignity: the way these super wealthy tax-evaders draw upon the enormous amount of money they otherwise rigorously sequester to mount a relentless campaign to con ordinary Americans into blaming government per se for their shrinking share of the economic pie.  Why would big business lay out serious money to tear down government, especially when it's really helping the rich get richer?  This is why: a respected and respectable government would have the ability to legislate for the people instead of for the few.   That might just cut into profits, power and privilege.

So I’m a little confused.  We little folks are supposed to feel bad about our klepto-clipia, but defense and other contractors and sub-contractors who practice fraud, waste and mismanagement to the sweet (to them) and sour (to us)   tune of billions don’t get prosecuted or even shamed.  In fact, they tend to get more money to mismanage.  And then more.  And yet more.  Notorious case in point: the Pentagon and its suppliers.

This ongoing, apparently endless outrage has been completely documented, not only by government inspectors, whose reports tend to get buried, but also in a mountain of books by scrupulous journalists, scholars and whistleblowers.  The financial fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have played the primary role in inflating the national debt, have received particularly thorough attention.  I invite you to read the following four very accessible books whose facts have never been seriously contested.  You'll see how billions of taxpayer money has been lost though waste, fraud and mismangement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  You'll also see how the miscreants are regularly rewarded with fresh or renewed contracts so they can waste or pocket more taxpayer dollars.  For that matter, read just one of these books—they are all available, quickly and affordably, on Amazon—and weep for America.

On Afghanistan:

Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpapers Bankroll the Taliban by Douglass A. Wissing.
Little America: the War within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

On Iraq:

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by  Peter Van Buren

Books like these are so rich in shocking detail that efforts are under way to make it more difficult for whistleblowing to happen and also to limit reporters' and scholars' access to officials who know what is happening.  After all, an ignorant population is easier to manipulate.