Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ruminations on Political Corruption

Ruminations on Political Corruption

Rahm Emmanuel, Obamessiah's White House Chief of Staff, is refusing to answer questions about his involvement with Blagojevich. From the December 11, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times:

President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, refused to take questions from reporters this morning about whether he was the Obama “advisor” named in the criminal complaint against Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The complaint states Blagojevich wanted a promise of a high-level appointment or some other reward for Blagojevich in exchange for Blagojevich naming Obama’s friend Valerie Jarrett to replace him in the U.S. Senate.

Now, there is no accusation that Emanuel did anything illegal. After all, Blagojevich is caught on tape whining that Obama's people weren't prepared to give him anything but gratitude for putting Obama's pick in the seat. But at a minimum, if Emanuel was directly solicited for a bribe, why didn't Emanuel call the FBI, and tell them about this?

I think everyone knows the answer. Obama and Emanuel both come out of Chicago politics and government, where bribery is a way of life--as unremarkable as breathing. Operation Greylord, back in the early 1980s, had the FBI seeing how deeply corruption ran in the court system of Chicago--and the answer was deep. I recall seeing a comment by a reporter to the effect that someone should have been suspicious that people were spending a million dollars to get elected to jobs that paid $45,000 a year. The reason was that the bribes that they were regularly getting made it worthwhile.

This December 11, 2008 column by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown points out that getting rid of Blagojevich isn't going to solve the core corruption problem:
Forcing the governor from office and sending him to prison isn't going to change anything fundamental about Illinois politics.

By all means, let's hasten to accomplish both as quickly as possible -- without discarding his due process rights. There can be no higher priority at this point than Blagojevich's removal and incarceration.

And in the short run, we'd surely be better served with the earnest Pat Quinn running state government for the next two years than this fellow in need of serious psychiatric care.

But let's not kid ourselves. In and of itself, getting rid of Blagojevich isn't going to do us any more good than it did to get rid of his predecessor, George Ryan.

There's a deeper problem here, one that extends beyond the personalities of the moment.

Throwing out the bad apples doesn't accomplish much in the long run when it's the tree that's diseased.

Another crook is taken down. Corruption still reigns.

Why is that?

I don't have the answer any more than I have the cure, but I know generally it's because the corruption is systemic and because it's tolerated, in ways large and small, from the highest officials in our land to the average voter.

Whether we're the most corrupt state in the union or just the leading contender doesn't matter. We know the problem runs deep, and in many ways, what we don't recognize is our own role in allowing it to continue.

That's not intended to be defeatist or accusatory. By all means, the more crooks the U.S. attorney and FBI round up the better. Let's hope they keep the momentum. It's encouraging somebody cares enough to try to put a stop to it. And it's difficult for voters to clean up the mess themselves when the candidates offer no clear choice.

But even Patrick Fitzgerald seems to recognize indictments will never be enough without a fundamental change at a level he can't reach.

So what is the core problem? Why is Chicago so rich in this corruption while a place like Boise is relatively free of it? Boise's mayor a few years ago was caught in some improprieties that would be laughably small in Chicago--and he was gone in short order.

The book Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption the Democratic Party by Lynn Vincent and my friend Robert Stacy McCain, makes the argument that at least part of why Democrats are disproportionately involved in these scandals is that starting with Aaron Burr, the Democratic Party has had a culture of corruption. Like any other institutional culture, those coming into the party machinery have either been repelled, and left, or decided that this was okay, and stayed. Even if they were not directly corrupt (and there have been many honorable Democratic politicians, such as Harry Truman), they knew that much of the crowd with whom they had to deal was corrupt, and found that acceptable.

I think there's merit to this institutional corruption argument, but this isn't the whole story. As economist Thomas Sowell pointed out over the years, "When legislatures control buying and selling, the first thing to be bought and sold are legislators." Blagojevich's corruption involved not just who would get Obama's U.S. Senate seat, but the issuance of contracts, and the granting of favors--such as the state's involvement with the sale of Wrigley Field, which he was using to try and force the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers that Blagojevich didn't like.

Some years back, I was reading Mike Royko's political biography of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Sr. Royko explained that in the late 1940s, when Daley was elected to the Illinois legislature, it was common practice for legislators to introduce what were called "getter" bills that would regulate a particular industry. The legislators introducing these bills didn't really think the regulation was necessary; they would just wait until the industry in question would cough up enough "campaign contributions," and then the author of the bill would arrange for the bill to be killed in committee. Robert Sherrill's very entertaining Saturday Night Special makes the same claim about Senator Thomas Dodd (father of the Senator now caught in the cookie jar as one of the "Friends of Angelo"). Sherrill says that Dodd didn't really care all that strongly about gun control, but kept introducing gun control bills in the early 1960s--then arranging for them to die in committee--because he could use this as leverage to get money from gun manufacturers.

This problem is all the way up and down the chain of command in Chicago. Back in the late 1970s, I remember watching a 60 Minutes report where they set up hidden cameras in Chicago restaurants, and captured health department inspectors shaking down restaurants for bribes in exchange for passing them. I wasn't shocked by this, but it was disappointing how blatant these guys were. They weren't even slightly afraid that someone might arrest them.

The core problem is that when you give discretion to a public official that influences the lives, employment, or income of others, this creates a powerful incentive for those affected to offer bribes. Even if you are not tempted to offer a bribe, in Chicago, apparently, public officials are quite prepared to solicit you for a bribe.

Of course, there are other problems. A friend of mine some years ago decided to build a house in one of the suburban counties in Southern California. He could not seem to get the building inspectors to pass it--and it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was nothing that was really wrong with the systems that were supposed to be inspected. He finally figured out that developers were expected to pay a bribe to get an approval--but he since he wasn't really a developer, he didn't know who he was supposed to bribe, or how to make the approach. It was a very, very difficult situation.

Because bribes are illegal, sometimes you don't even know if you are getting what you think you are getting. A relative in the 1970s was arrested on some drug charges in Los Angeles County--diet pills for which she did not have a prescription. Her parents, while attempting to help her out, ran into a lawyer who guaranteed that in exchange for a much larger than normal fee, he would get her off--his father had lunch with the judge every week. They declined to be part of what was obviously bribery, because of the impropriety of it--but imagine what would have happened if they had paid this lawyer the big chunk of money, and the judge found her guilty? Filing an accusation would be effectively an admission that you had paid someone to bribe a judge.

To a libertarian, the solution is obvious: take away the opportunities by taking away government licensing, and reducing the number of actions that become criminal matters. I'm generally sympathetic to this point of view. Licensing is used far too often, and in many cases, it is either a leftover from an earlier time, or completely unnecessary. Where there is a legitimate public safety or health question, then we need to remove discretion from the process. Driver's license issuance has almost no discretion to it. The criteria for issuance are clearly defined. In most states now, concealed handgun license issuance has almost no discretion--and the states that still allow public officials to exercise discretion in issuance, such as California, New York, and Massachusetts, are awash in abuse and corruption.

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