Small World: Business as usual or shameful corruption?

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Henry Precht

“They are all thieves.”

That was the answer from an elderly gentleman sitting next to me on a Rome bus when I asked, “What do you think of Italian politics?” We have been spending a few weeks in Italy and I ask that question whenever I can. I start off every morning reading tales of corruption in the national press. It seems that practically all of the regions (somewhat like our states) are under investigation for crimes ranging from mafia connections to orgies at government expenses to falsifying mileage claims when an official does not even own a car. The president of Italy has called for a return to morality, as has the Pope.

The mature offspring of an old friend — two doctor specialists and a lawyer — are disgusted. A man, who gave us directions, prescribes revolution, which won’t happen, he says, because the youth are indifferent to the fate of the country. Three days later, there is a huge, youthful demonstration outside the Ministry of Education. Heads are busted and some are jailed.

While this outrage seethes, Italians are content in their personal lives not to pay taxes. Corruption is contagious. Italy ranks highest on the Western Europe scale for tax avoidance — except for poor Greece (which ranks lowest on all registers). Yet, there are two things which make some critics mildly optimistic: First, Italy has a technocrat, non-ambitious prime minister, Mario Monti, who is deemed honest, serious and who is almost universally respected. Second, unlike in the frequent crises of cheating in government in the past, Italians recognize they have a problem and are determined to resolve it.

Good luck, if their intention is to do so peacefully. In my Foreign Service career, I worked in Iran under the Shah and in Egypt under Mubarak. In both countries, the charges of prevailing corruption were widely accepted as true, though expressed with care because a rough government might be listening and ready to pounce. Each of these episodes took a revolution to deal with the charges. Italy is probably not on that track although one wonders how much strain the political system can absorb.

Which brings me to the main point: What about these United States? I ask you like a bus-riding Roman, “What do you think of our politicians?” If you are like most of your fellow citizens, you give the members of Congress a grade of “F” or lower. Why so?  Because they accomplish little and most of that is done at the bidding of lobbyists and others donating money on behalf of special interests. Scads of money flowing into politics: that is the recipe for a poisonous brew. When a donor puts up big bucks for a candidate, he is rarely doing so because he finds his personality attractive. He wants — and is willing to pay for — a tax deal or some other favor that makes the public’s vote count for relatively much less.

The Supreme Court has ratified this concept, saying there should be no limits on money spent in campaigns. That means that a Bridgton voter, who, I imagine, donates only minimally to candidates on the national or local scene, has far less influence on the outcome of elections and thus, on the direction of national policy, than, say, residents of New York City who have plenty of money for winning the hearts and later decisions of candidate recipients.

There is so much cash sloshing around in American politics that it seems to me the simple fact of scandalous corruption cannot be denied. No one could possibly assert that the Founding Fathers, who are consulted these days on every constitutional question, would have had it this way. It is the Italian, or the Iranian, or the Egyptian way when dollars determine our destiny. That is not the American way. We should be ashamed of the system we have allowed take over our government.

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, is a summer Bridgtonian.

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