Small World: Hands in the official cookie jar

 

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The subject for today’s inquiry is corruption — the official variety. A recent Gallup poll survey reported three-quarters of the citizenry believe corruption is widespread in the government. Not the Brazilian government, nor the Afghan, Russian or Nigerian regimes (where in some cases the percentage of accusers might be even higher). Rather, our very own masters in Washington (and, I suppose, their regional headquarters) are deemed to be abusing us.

“Not incompetence, but corruption,” Gallup emphasized. Having waited three months for an IRS refund, I wouldn’t exclude incompetence from a list of sins. But that’s for another time.

It’s a serious subject. Having spent a lot of time studying various revolts and revolutions around the globe, I will venture the opinion that the suspicion of being robbed drives people up and over the walls more reliably than any other cause, be it denial of freedom of speech, offenses against religion (a close second) or foreign intervention (ditto.)

How do they do it, our homegrown thieves? Mainly by following — or straying just a little bit from — the rules. Think how many ex-congressmen are hired by lobbyists. Perfectly legal. Yet, think how many of their preretirement votes were exercised with a future benefactor or employer in mind. Impossible to prove, but plain and easy to imagine. How many military officers end their working days in the employment of defense firms? Plenty.

When I retired from the State Department, there was the opportunity to become a private consultant advising companies on doing business in the Middle East. I knew/feared that would mean arranging for bribes to be paid to corrupt officials in the region. I declined. Apart from the morality at issue, it would also have been against U.S. law — even though there are ways under and around the statute — to corrupt a foreign regime or business.

Meanwhile, back on our righteous shores, the perception of corruption is nourished by the high cost of electoral campaigning and the undisguised need for office holders/seekers to invest tremendous time, energy and favors in raising the requisite funds. And, why do those who have funds share it with those campaigning? Sometimes, without (much) doubt there is a shared ideology. More often it is what a county commissioner in Ohio once said to me, “He gives me $50; you give me nothing. Whose call do I return?” People with money rarely give it away without something tangible in return.

Why is it, do you suppose, that the tax law favors those who already have riches? They benefit from loopholes and lower rates of taxation that are not available to the ordinary taxpayer. How do you think the CEO of a New York bank took home a paycheck of $27 million last year? Or a hedge fund manager garnered $1.7 billion during the same 12 months? The tax code helped to make it possible and who wrote the tax code? Members of Congress, don’t call it corruption unless you can prove a bribe, they say. Still, still…

I suspect that the broadly-based judgment that the system is rotten is what has fed the movement behind Donald Trump. He will “tell it like it is,” even if not always exactly true. He will also not be dependent on bundled and other raised funds (at least not until he turned recently to the Republican national apparatus).

Similarly, Bernie Sanders raised millions of dollars from small people giving small contributions — probably because they thought he was honest (almost certainly so). Hillary went for the big bucks from Wall Street, as did her husband. How many of you think candidates taking big money can be separated from their taking big advice? Every decision involving funds comes with a price tag.

What is to be done? First, we need national recognition that there is a serious problem although even that may not be enough. Look at New York State with some of their most influential politicos headed for or lodged in jail. Any kind of public movement there to change the system? Alas, people feel powerless in confrontation with the system. That means there must be leadership. Think about it.

With dedicated and competent leaders, money might be taken out of campaigns, careers in conflict with the public interest might be banned. Prison terms might be levied on those for whom greed, not sound policy, was a guide while the economy was wrecked.

You can bet on it: One day there will be a cleanup demand from the public that will be louder than Occupy Wall Street and stronger than Trump or Sanders.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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