So far, the new lesson is frustratingly incomplete. The Washington Post reported Sept. 18 that an unnamed official working in an intelligence agency blew the whistle on President Trump after concluding that Trump pushed the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Trump’s domestic political rivals and to work with Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and Attorney General William P. Barr on it. We don’t know how Ukraine’s hopes for military aid from Washington might have influenced the exchange. But the whistleblower’s complaint has prompted the House to initiate an impeachment inquiry into the president.
As two new books demonstrate with numerous examples, whistleblowing at its best is a form of public service. It isn’t yet clear what sort of service the Trump whistleblower has performed for the country, but there is no doubt about the favor he or she has done for the authors of these books: They are likely to get considerably more attention now than they might have a few weeks ago. “Crisis of Conscience” by Tom Mueller, the fatter and more ambitious of the two, deserves attention, though its shortcomings are substantial and occasionally exasperating. Allison Stanger’s “Whistleblowers” is a thinner, more academic study and has much less to offer.
Both books remind us that the whistleblower who filed a complaint about Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky belongs to a large and growing cohort of citizens who “[inform] on a person or organization regarded as engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity,” to quote the Oxford Dictionary’s succinct definition. Both authors recount the earliest recorded case of whistleblowing, from the Revolutionary War, but as Stanger discovered by researching old newspapers, the term “whistleblower” is relatively new. It began to appear regularly in leading American papers in the 1970s, in the years after Ralph Nader and Ernest Fitzgerald, a famous early Pentagon whistleblower, attracted a great deal of attention from the press.
What began in the ’70s has flourished since. Over the past four decades, Congress has repeatedly passed laws to encourage whistleblowing and protect those who engage in it, a category that seems to have grown steadily. We now have a small industry of groups and individuals who advocate whistleblowing, defend whistleblowers in court and help those who lose their jobs. Scores of regulations purport to encourage and protect whistleblowers from retaliation, in the private and public sectors. In the second decade of the 21st century, whistleblowing has become an established and effective American institution. And whistleblowers have led to the recapture of tens of billions of dollars from lawbreaking companies.
Mueller considers how shifting mores interact with whistleblowing. He confronts the ugliness of the modern money culture, dating it to the Reagan era — but his criticisms are aimed at bipartisan targets, including Barack Obama and other Democrats who have normalized former public servants’ acceptance of huge speaking fees from big corporations. He suggests that the values of our modern Gilded Age have contributed to flourishing corruption, which can invite citizens who are uncomfortable with it to blow whistles.
Mueller confronts readers with the depressing but undeniable evidence of our country’s ethical descent. This began in the 1980s, when rules were changed in ways that fostered a dramatic increase in inequality of income and wealth. Mueller recounts one such change that made possible the decisions of numerous corporations to use the windfall of the 2017 Trump tax cut to buy back shares in their own companies: By increasing demand for shares (however artificially), these buybacks pump up a company’s stock price, which is used by many firms to set the compensation of their executives.
Mueller notes that companies were forbidden by law to purchase their own shares until President Ronald Reagan’s Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, a former stockbroker named John Shad, orchestrated a change in the regulations. Shad was the first Wall Street executive ever to serve as SEC chairman. Since his rule change, Mueller writes, “public companies . . . have spent many trillions of dollars in share repurchases.” Just since the Trump tax cut, repurchases have exceeded $1 trillion. Proponents of the tax cut said it would lead to dramatic increases in business investment in new plants, equipment and hiring, but this hasn’t happened. And inequality has continued to grow.
Mueller’s subtitle describes the modern era as “an age of fraud,” a harsh conclusion that nevertheless isn’t easy to refute. Noting the rise of whistleblowing in recent years, he calls it “a symptom of a society in deep distress.” Revealingly, his extensive footnotes include a remarkable catalogue of books and articles that document the “increasing incidence of fraud and corruption in many parts of U.S. society.” One of the most important contributors to this literature has been Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and political agitator. Mueller quotes Lessig’s irrefutable judgment: “We have allowed core institutions of America’s economic, social, and political life to become corrupted.” The White House now appears to be one of them.
Most of Mueller’s very long book is devoted to original storytelling. His extensively reported tales of individual whistleblowers and their often cruel fates are compelling. He begins with a poignant recounting of the experience of Allen Jones, a slightly eccentric bureaucrat in the Pennsylvania state government who discovered and blew the whistle on an enormous fraud by Johnson & Johnson, which conned Pennsylvania and other states into overprescribing the drug Risperdal to hapless and often helpless residents of mental institutions and prisons. Risperdal, an “atypical antipsychotic,” was used to treat serious mental illness including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It was no more effective than generic antipsychotic drugs, studies had shown, but it was much more expensive — and thus more profitable for Johnson & Johnson, which persuaded many states to buy a lot of it.
Jones’s tale cannot be briefly summarized. He ended up suing the company in Texas under the state’s version of the federal False Claims Act, a law that can provide significant cash rewards to whistleblowers. After a damning week in court, Johnson & Johnson gave up and offered to settle. Jones’s share of the $157 million agreement was nearly $40 million. But he had lost a marriage and 10 years of his life. His career as a public servant was long gone. People he had worked with turned on him viciously. He lives in a cabin in the Pennsylvania woods with no hot water, though the settlement afforded updates that put in running water and a toilet. He was bitter about the fact that Johnson & Johnson never had to admit wrongdoing or reveal how many people — a high number — were hurt by the side effects of Risperdal. “It is hard to fully trust anyone or anything again,” he told Mueller, 17 years after he blew the whistle.
Beginning his book with 40 pages devoted to this moving story is an effective literary tactic. Mueller has more tales to tell that are just as powerful. They illustrate how ambivalent society can be about whistleblowers, few of whom escape their episode of truth-telling unscathed. And they reveal what it can mean to live in an age of fraud — not a pretty picture.
But sometimes the pictures Mueller paints are misleading. He prefers black-and-white versions to the grays that so often describe reality. His anecdotes feature good guys in white hats and bad ones in black. One example is his treatment of the American academics who advised Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government in the early 1990s on how to make the jarring transition from Soviet, centrally planned socialism to some kind of new Russian capitalism.
Mueller appears to have no Russian expertise of his own and relies heavily on the reporting of an American anthropologist named Janine Wedel, who says in her George Mason University biography that she knows Russian at a “beginning level.” If Mueller and Wedel have any sense of how much damage was done to Russia by 75 years of communism, they don’t share it. The American advisers are portrayed as utterly corrupt, but Mueller skims over the vast corruption among the Russians who were involved. The full story is ugly and complicated, but you won’t get it here.
The great crash of 2008 and the government’s reaction to it is another subject Mueller oversimplifies. The crash was devastating, but Mueller exaggerates its impact. “Suicide spiked,” he writes, an unexpected assertion that sent me to the official statistics. In fact, suicides rose from 2008 to 2009 by 2.7 percent, and by an additional 1.7 percent the following year. No sign of spikes. The suicide rate is much higher today, after many years of economic recovery.
Mueller writes repeatedly and vividly of the cost to taxpayers of bailing out financial institutions in 2008-2009, apparently without realizing that taxpayers actually made more than $100 billion in profits when the bailed-out institutions repaid the funds — with interest. Mueller writes scornfully of politicians who took campaign contributions from big banks, implying that the bailouts were corrupt acts. But he says nothing about the extraordinary efforts of the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department under two administrations, which probably prevented a second Great Depression. And he writes almost nothing about the Dodd-Frank bill, the most significant reform of bank regulation since the 1930s, which Congress passed in response to the crash.
Mueller’s mistakes and omissions undermine a reader’s confidence. In her less-comprehensive book, Stanger makes a more serious error, writing that the identity of one of the past century’s most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, was revealed by the New York Times in “its first story on the Pentagon Papers.” In fact, Ellsberg’s identity as the Times’ source was not disclosed for years.
The timing of the books’ publication may boost their initial sales. But it won’t help the longevity of these two books that they are coming out just as we are learning about what might prove to be the most dramatic case of whistleblowing of our time, and they contain no mentions of Volodymyr Zelensky and the whistle blown on President Trump.
Crisis of Conscience
Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud
By Tom Mueller
Riverhead. 596 pp. $30
Honesty in America From Washington to Trump
By Allison Stanger
Yale. 277 pp. $27.50