Skip to main content

Carnegie Scholar Sarah Chayes speaks at UW on the dangers of corruption to modern society

October 24, 2017

Sarah Chayes at UW
Carnegie Scholar and former NPR journalist Sarah Chayes speaks on "The 21st Century Gilded Age: A Global Trend" at UW on Oct. 5, 2017

Over 100 students, faculty and community members came to Kane Hall on October 5 for a talk by Sarah Chayes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law program, for her talk on “The 21st Century Gilded Age: A Global Trend”. Jackson School Director, Reşat Kasaba, made introductory remarks.

Chayes began her talk by discussing the centrality of money and how it underlines the way we measure our social standard, especially in the last three decades. Elites around the world are rewriting the rules and selectively enforcing them, asserted Chayes, which results in a constant status competition where corruption triumphs. She went on to detail examples of corruption network systems in places like Cameron, Honduras and Egypt. Anti-corruption movements around the world from Africa to Latin America and Asia, she argues, are kind of an ongoing Arab Spring.

How do corruption networks work?
According to Chayes, several tactics are used: repression of any resistance or attempt to break the cycle. A second tool is legalism of some sort, for example the unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the corruption convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. What was puzzling in this instance, she noted, was that prosecuting corruption according to one of the opinions on the Supreme Court is worse than committing it.

Another factor, in Chayes’ view, is nationalist rhetoric or ideals-based rhetoric. Chayes spoke of diverting attention to arouse indignation or insurrection. One example is religious wars that at their core are almost always about corruption and lead to a revolution, she said, also citing the reformation during Martin Luther. Voting for unlikely candidates is another symptom.

“Those that see the Trump vote as puzzling because he may be perceived as corrupt miss the fact that he was also perceived as being the wrecking ball that blows up the system and this is what happens when people are driven to that level of indignation,” she said.

What can we do to stop it?
Chayes closed her lecture on action that all of us in the general public could take to combat corruption. She began by saying that every dollar we spend is a vote in today’s world and that companies are increasingly susceptible to our voting behavior. Along these lines, she called for less consumerism, and questioned the current leading economic axiom that economic growth is synonymous with the greatness of a society, which disregards the way wealth is distributed. She concluded as a society we need to come up with other measures for our competition over success and power, and replace the model that rewards accumulation of wealth.

“It takes effort and less convenience but we can change what we value,” she said.

About the Speaker
Sarah Chayes, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law program, is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Prior, she served as special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and as special adviser to two commanders of the international troops in Afghanistan. After covering the fall of the Taliban with National Public Radio and over a decade as a journalist covering hot spots around the world, Chayes chose to settle in the former Taliban heartland, Kandahar. In 2005, she founded Arghand, a start-up manufacturing cooperative, where men and women are working together produce fine skin-care products. From 1996 to 2001, Chayes was NPR’s Paris correspondent. For her work during the Kosovo crisis, she shared the 1999 Foreign Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi awards. Along with Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, which won the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Chayes is the author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban. She is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic and the Washington Post, among other outlets.

The event was sponsored by the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, the Center for Global Studies and the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, and with generous funding from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.