The View on My Walk: Thoughts on Corruption


concorde steve clemons twn.jpg
Last night, I took this picture at the grand plaza at Concorde in Paris. I’m now flying to Chicago, and then to Jacksonville, and then to. . .
Soon, it will end.
On the trip, I’ve been thinking about how undefined and blunt the word “corruption” is. What Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich did seems to me to be the most crass, gross kind of corruption. But it’s different than the corruption of a Tom DeLay.
And I’ve been thinking about the useful sides of corruption in failed states and lesser developed nations. There seems to me to be a substantial difference between the type of corruption we saw historically in the Philippines and Vietnam when under American and French stewardship and the corruption in Japan and South Korea — or the kind of corruption China is orchestrating in African states in which it is doing business.
I’d be interested in any thoughtful commentary by others on this subject.
Off to catch a flight.
— Steve Clemons


18 comments on “The View on My Walk: Thoughts on Corruption

  1. David says:

    I agree that the absence of assured, appropriate accountability is one of the most serious problems which confronts us in today’s public and private sectors, and the more powerful, the less accountable. Or as Bob Dylan sang, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king.” But degree and kind of corruption matters, and matters greatly. Just as stealing a loaf of bread and stealing $50 million dollars are in no way comparable, especially if the former is driven by hunger, so is attempting to gain some personal benefit from appointing a senator (who will be a good or bad senator based on that person’s merits, or lack of same) in no way really comparable to what Tom Delay did.
    I prefer the honest and honorable to the corrupt, but I have argued elsewhere and I argue here that corruption is not our most serious political problem, ideology is. And neither the motives nor the intentions of a public servant matter as much as the consequences of the decisions that public servant makes and the policies she or he pursues. The terms of accountability for Blagojevich, if the punishment is to fit the crime, should be considerably lesser than the terms of accountability for starting a war based on deceptions or wreaking havoc on a global economic systems because of deceptive practices under a system in which destructive decisions were made and destructive policies were pursued.
    I have to agree, in general, with Steve on this one, even though I want Blago to become Lake Michigan fish food through an act of God (forgive me, Father, for my lack of human charity in this instance).


  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Steve, Nina posted your photograph on her art blog. It looks dynamite with a black field around your composition. Check it out….


  3. Linda says:

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Lord Acton, 1897
    I agree that there isn’t much difference between seeking money and seeking power. Some are driven by one or the other and some by both.
    Paul K, I loved what you wrote: “I think to not be corrupt one needs to see the world in black and white and not shades of grey.”
    I liked it most because almost 20 years ago in March, 1989, I wrote something very similar in an article for the journal of the National Association for Home Care warning about the emerging problem of home health agencies paying kickbacks to physicians in exchange for referrals:
    “The media have devoted considerable attention to the moral decline in our nation in recent years. A great many ethical questions in today’s society fall in a gray area or are situational issues–perhaps 50%. On either side are 25% of actions that are defined as always good or right, and 25% of actions that are defined as always bad or wrong. If we allow kickbacks and other unethical practices to become the norm in the conduct of the home health industry, we participate in the process of making the “black” area smaller by increasing the gray. There is the potential for slowly eroding and eliminating the concept that anything is bad or wrong.”
    I wrote earlier in the article in 1989 that if the industry didn’t police itself, there would be a story eventually on “Sixty Minutes” about a scandal somewhere. That happened around 1993 about a situation in FL.
    I googled a bit trying to find reference to the exact date, and all I found were reports of fines being paid on similar schemes in 2000, 2005, and 2008 for starters of many pages of google hits.
    White-collar criminals usually get fines and no jail time or serve in country club federal prisons or get pardons or commutations. Far more white-collar offenders should get jail time as it is a deterrent for them–well, perhaps not for IL
    Every 15 or 20 years a scandal, Watergate, Iran-Contra, whatever gate triggers this national debate with cover stories on “Time,” “Newsweek” about the ethical and moral crisis in the country.
    Then it’s usually back to politics and business as usual.
    As far as I can tell, the bottom of one slippery slope may just be a plateau at the top of another slippery slope, i.e., a definite downward trend.
    David Callahan wrote an interesting book about this in 2004, “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead.”


  4. MarkL says:

    The difference between Blago and Delay is like the difference between a DUI and mass murder.
    Of course Blago is a crook, and should go to jail.
    But in terms of the effects of his corruption, he’s just a rookie.
    Delay did far more damage.


  5. ej says:

    I think sometimes we can be too smart. Corruption is corruption no matter how one slices it.
    Splitting hairs to distinguish one type of corruption from another and as to who and what is worse is an exercise in a complete waste of time and energy.
    The salient issue here is the loss of trust and the expectation from the electorate that those entrusted with representing them will, in the end, find a way to “screw” tem in some manner – whether it be with guns or knives hardly matters.


  6. Josh Meah says:

    The problem with the word “corruption” is that it lacks context. Blagovich type corruption is bad, because it grants some people special access to power when there is both an alternative, viable, and preferable option to getting access to that power — election.
    But compare the same type of transaction to a failed state, and you have to then consider what the primary goals and values of the state are. An election is not good in and of itself unless real gains are made later. For example, if an incompetent fool gets elected into public office instead of a competent technocrat that could have simply bought the office through private means, then the lack of “corruption” in that instance is just not favorable. In fact, at least in failed states and the developing world generally (though I’m skeptical to make generalizations), “corruption” is often a necessary part to institution-building and/or is a prerequisite to basic community function.
    And then look at the broader world economy. China represses its citizens politically while many of the world’s democracies are currently depressed economically. Which is worse? Who’s the bad guy?
    Corruption is one of those words like “terrorism” and “evil” that whenever attached to a situation deserves a healthy dose of skepticism and investigation. In the case of Blagovich — I’d agree that punishment is deserved. But in other cases? Well, let’s look at those cases first.
    Sometimes “corruption” is just part of society. In Arabic, people have “wastas,” in Mandarin, it’s about “guanxi,” in Japan you have the “descent from heaven, in Washington you have the “revolving door,” in Brazil you have something similar to a “descent from heaven,” etc. It just goes on.
    But, that said, Blagovich should lose his office and go to jail.


  7. Paul K says:

    I doubt in the long run that the public would draw any distinction between types or levels of corruption. It’s what we’ve come to expect from our politicians and the world in general. But every once in awhile someone comes along that challenges that cynicism, and gives people a chance to believe. Someone like Gandhi who could stop people fighting each other by going on a hunger strike. There was a movie with Lindsey Lohan playing a teenager – who – to get what she wanted from her parents – went on a hunger strike. Except it was pretend – her mum found the empty pizza boxes she’d hidden. That’s what we expect and what fuels our deep cynicism.
    I think to not be corrupt one needs to see the world in black and white and not shades of grey.


  8. pauline says:

    imo what Blago did shows he’s both mentally and morally challenged. Maybe he can blame it all on his foul-mouthed wife?!
    Getting bushed may be worse — if that’s possible.
    Start with a war based on known lies, add the Katrina ineffective non-response and then fall asleep while the entire economy implodes, getting bushed has definitely ruined the holiday spirit for millions for holidays to come. Blago’s bad, yes. Getting bushed just may be divinely unforgivable.
    I guess it is possible for two slimely sleazeballs to trudge the streets of hell together.


  9. JohnH says:

    All corruption is ultimately personal. Money and power are two faces of the same coin. Diminishing the seriousness of corruption because it was “merely” about power does not make sense, because power can beget money just as money can beget power.
    What I find interesting is the outrage about Blagojevich selling a Senate seat when so much other corruption escapes attention. What about Bill Clinton’s approving the Enron-loophole, enabling much of the energy speculation that helped trigger the current bust? Was there really no quid pro quo? Enron profited immediately by manufacturing the California energy crisis? Are we to believe that Clinton just gave this away out of the goodness of his heart? Why was this never investigated or explored in the press?
    And what about Clinton’s signing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley gift to Wall Street at precisely the time Hillary was poised to run for Senate to represent Wall Street? Are Clinton/Gramm/Rubin less corrupt than Blagojevich, merely because they were clever enough to not leave an obvious smoking gun?
    And what about Dick Cheney funneling no bid contracts to Halliburton while he was still on their payroll (severance pay) and also stood to make millions if Halliburton’s stock rose enough for him to exercise stock options worth millions? Why did law enforcement and the corporate media never bother to investigate the Veep’s enormous “conflicts of interest?” Is Cheney really any different from Blagojevich?


  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    The Bush Administration qualifies in every sense of the word, as does the Democrat’s abject refusal to seek accountability or reverse the corrosive effect the last eight years has had on our standing with the world community. This jackass in Illinois is a simple criminal, motivated by greed, narcissism, and a feeling of entitlement that a recent thread here at TWN underscored perfectly. On the other hand, murdering over a million Iraqi non-combatants, politicizing our Justice Department, and aiding a foreign nation in what can only be described as genocide and collective punishment, is “corruption” in its most evil and base form. And our entire government is complicit in this despicable and epic example of true “corruption”.
    If Blagojevich gets a few years in prison for what he did, then what is a just punishment for murdering 1,250,000 people, destroying their infrastructure and society, and irrepairably polluting their environment with deadly DU dust??
    corrupt [kuh-ruhpt]
    –adjective 1. guilty of dishonest practices, as bribery; lacking integrity; crooked: a corrupt judge.
    2. debased in character; depraved; perverted; wicked; evil: a corrupt society.
    3. made inferior by errors or alterations, as a text.
    4. infected; tainted.
    5. decayed; putrid.
    (BTW, Steve, great photograph.)


  11. Carroll says:

    Posted by Bill R. Dec 11, 9:05AM – Link
    The Tom Delay/Karl Rove era of corruption is the systemic degradation of our system of justice and governance for the sake of illicit and illegitimate power and dominance.
    That also was personal. The personal greed,power hunger and/or ideology of individuals.
    Where did I hear..’everything is personal’…? Can’t remember ,but it’s mostly true.


  12. Bill R. says:

    The corruption of Blagojevich is personal. It’s all about him and his personal enrichment. The Tom Delay/Karl Rove era of corruption is the systemic degradation of our system of justice and governance for the sake of illicit and illegitimate power and dominance. They actually thought they could install a permanent one party state.


  13. Franklin says:

    Anon 1:41 AM, I agree with you about the domestic corruptions issues.
    If the charges against Blagojevich hold up in court, I don’t think many will shed tears — I won’t.
    In terms of degrees and abuses of power, the Bush administration’s misuse of the Justice system — among a number of areas — actively undermined confidence in the impartial operation of law itself.
    The prosecution of Don Siegelman was something that we might expect in the 3rd world; the firing of U.S. attorneys who refused to bring weak partisan cases, or who were too aggressive in prosecuting public corruption cases — is on an entirely different level.
    What’s especially disturbing about the Bush precedent is that, unlike the case of Nixon, where members of Nixon’s party sought to uncover the abuses; the group of clowns in the Congressional GOP House and Senate delegations — many of whom are still in office — actively blocked a fact-finding inquiry into those cases.
    On some level a remedy came about through resignations and an election, but the open questions in those cases still overshadows the implication of the Blagojevich prosecution.


  14. Franklin says:

    Tough question in reference to the global issue.
    Machiavelli’s The Discourses on Livy may have some relevance to the topic. He points towards factionalism: “There is no surer way of corrupting the citizens, and to divide the city against itself, than to foment the spirit of faction that may prevail there; for each party will strive by every means of corruption to secure friends and supporters.” — Niccoló Machiavelli, The Discourses. 1517.
    Hamilton and Madison also spill quite a bit of ink on the issue of factionalism as well in terms of its potentially destabilizing and corrupting influence in the Federalist Papers.
    In more benevolent occupations, there is a tendency by the outside party to create self-governing institutions (e.g. Japan being a clear example). The English colonization of the Americas was perhaps less benevolent, but there is a legacy of self-governance that did not exist with Spanish or French colonial models (e.g. the structure of the local economies also quite different). Many of the former English colonies emerged as fairly strong states with self-correcting mechanism during the period of separation (e.g. the ability to check against internal corruption). In the case of former Spanish colonies, the relationship tended to be much more exploitative.
    The Philippines and Vietnam were both former European colonies. South Korea was a colony of Japan – and endured a brutal occupation – although post Korean conflict the U.S.’s role tended to be more benevolent than exploitative.
    I guess the question to ask with the developing economies: Do the outside engagements tend to be largely exploitative, or is there some attempt to build internal institutions?


  15. ... says:

    there are many different ways corruption manifests, with the Blagojevich scenario an example of the most blatant form… this doesn’t make the more deceptive forms of corruption any less corrupt.. in fact it would be helpful if corruption was an openly visible as it appears to be in the Blagojevich example.. however it is not.. one doesn’t have to go back in usa history too far to know that bush’s war in iraq, his refusal for anything resembling open disclosure on 9-11, or his pardoning libby are all first rate examples of corruption, however the pundits refuse to dwell on any of it because the attention span of the average person has been dumbed down to less that 5 seconds or days, depending on you concentration level..
    all of which brings me to say, there is corruption and then their is corruption.. Blagojevich is a walk in the park relative to Bush.. notice who is walking free and who probably won’t.. it pays to be more cunning and deceptive.. the better the corruption, the less likely the person is held accountable.. to be disappointed in Blagojevich’s finesse is to be impressed with Bush’s.. frankly, i’m not..


  16. TonyForesta says:

    Tragically, corruption is as human as the desire for companionship. No one here is without sin, and simply regurgitating all the horrorshow instances of corruption through time immemorable is futile and fruitless. The better metrics or questions should focus or accountability for corruption. Too many times, corruption goes unpunished, and those responsible for the corruption are never held accountable. The better lessons are learned when corruption is discovered, proven in a legal system, and those that are responsible for the corruption are punished, and meaningful actions are taken to prohibit, or at least diminish the possibility of further corruption. These lessons – sadly – are few and far between.
    Instead of focusing on corruption (which is as broad and deep as all the worlds oceans) – is it not more productive to focus on accountability – and the means to both implement and insure that accountability, and to erect structurs with as many barriers or prohibitions to corruption as possible. Corruption sadly will never disapear from the conduct of humans and nations, – but if accountability were to somehow gain an advantage – I believe corruption would be minimized.
    Now, no one gets punished for anything, but the poor and middle class. The superrich, the predator class, the princes and kings, the tyrants and despots, the titans and olympians usually walk away with a gentle slap on the hand and retire in oppulent luxury, unrepentent, unaccountable and likely to reanimate in some unknown unknown future conjuring and concoctiing even more pernicious corruption.


  17. JohnH says:

    There seems to be a fundamental difference in attitudes toward corruption based on how blatant the corruption is. Selling a Senate seat or a no-bid contract is considered blatant corruption. “Buying influence” through campaign contributions, funding of favored “charities,” presidential libraries, inauguration celebrations is not considered to be corruption, though the quid pro quo may be well understood by both parties. The ultimate result–sale of a Senate seat or a no-bid contract–may be the same. But “buying influence” only becomes corruption when the quid pro quo becomes unambiguous, the parties leaving a trail that investigators can trace. Blagojevich left a well blazed trail, and that made him both corrupt and stupid. Delay’s trail was well hidden, which left room for ambiguity, plausible deniability and for continued respect for his “integrity,” which consists of little more than his being able walk dangerously close the edge of corruption without falling over it.
    Interestingly, this distinction is uncomfortably close to the distinction between terrorists, who kill civilians in person, versus bomber pilots and their handlers, who kill civilians without ever seeing their victims. In the one case the target is obvious, in the other, there is room for ambiguity and plausible deniability (mistaken identity, poor intelligence) about the killers’ intentions toward the targets.


  18. Carroll says:

    You need to quit thinking.
    But if you want to get philosophical about corruption and keep your head from exploding at the same time use the Ignatius rule ..the end justifies the means… ask what the ‘end’ has resulted in when you start judging corruption.
    Lying the US into a war was a successful corruption.
    Blagojevich was a corruption interruptus.
    And Delay is no different than Blagojevich.
    We have a congress full of Blagojevich’s. If you don’t believe me ask the FBI.


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