Government corruption is a vital watchword among many economists, because its effects hinder economic growth. Bribes to insiders with power don’t burden just the people who pay them. They hurt entire societies, because nothing of value is produced when people make a living by twisting arms.
Corruption comes in many flavors, of course, from the relatives of Mexican government officials stuffing millions of dollars of drug money into Swiss bank accounts to lobbyist Jack A. Abramoff’s more nuanced defrauding of American Indian tribes and his alleged connections to Texas Rep. Tom DeLay’s K Street Project. Two years ago the Army Corps of Engineers’ chief contracting officer alleged the Pentagon’s contracting system with a Halliburton subsidiary for Iraqi reconstruction projects was one of the worst she’d ever seen. Vice President Dick Cheney has gone blue in the face trying to explain his deferred compensation plan from his days as Halliburton’s chief executive.
Corruption, alleged or real, abounds. But few organizations monitor its effects in meaningful ways. One of the last studies of this kind was issued in 1990 in the form of an International Credit Risk Guide, which rated countries from 0, or most corrupt, to 6, or least corrupt. The Bahamas, Indonesia and Liberia, among others, rated a 0. The United States rated a 5.
Late last year the Berlin-based organization Transparency International, which monitors corruption worldwide, released its Global Corruption Barometer report. Although based entirely on random interviews that reflect largely only the opinion of those polled, it’s an interesting read, to say the least. Even as their economy explodes, the people of India believe corruption in their country will get worse before it gets better. The people of Indonesia believe corruption impacting their lives will gradually retreat. As for the Danish, they hardly even know what political corruption is, much less a bribe.
Given that relations between Mexico and the United States regarding immigration rise to the top of the headlines, the contrast between our two countries is fascinating. While 31 percent of all Mexican households said they had paid a bribe to a politician, policeman, judge, utility officer or businessperson, only 1 percent of Americans could say the same. Yet in questions pertinent to corruption across various institutions such as the military, religious bodies, medical services, the educational system and the media, both Americans and Mexicans showed a comparable distrust to almost every institution across society. Most humbling, for a journalist such as myself, were numbers showing that Mexicans were slightly more trusting of their media than were Americans, which might reflect the courageous nature of many Mexican journalists who work overtime uncovering and reporting on corruption at almost every level of their government.
Thankfully, then, most Americans have never been confronted with government officials demanding a handout. But what happens when our politicians and government officials turn the tables, albeit ever so neatly and nicely?
A good argument could be made that corruption American-style isn’t about questionable transactions between politicians and special interests'although we certainly have our share'as much as handouts our politicians offer in exchange for our votes.
For the most egregious example at hand, take the recent Senate Republican plan to give every taxpaying American a $100 gas rebate. One hundred dollars probably wouldn’t fill the tank of a Hummer at today’s oil prices. But we’re such babies when it comes to high gas prices that no rational person could blame our politicians for concocting such a lame idea, especially as election month approaches.
Conventional wisdom of late says that the Americans greeted this proposal with sour faces because they could see it for the transparent con it most certainly was. Given the recent fiscal moves of our government, I suspect the public gave it thumbs down because they know $100 is peanuts. Had the offer been considerably higher'say, $1,000 or $1,500'we would have asked our elected representatives when we might expect our very own personal “gas relief” checks.
And why not? Remember President Bush’s “immediate tax relief” checks of $300, $500 and $600 in May 2001? We ate it up. Despite the mountain of debt our nation was under then'never mind the even greater mountain of debt sitting on top of us now'whenever politicians talk about giving us money, we coo like children eyeing candy. That’s pretty easy arm-twisting all right. Our politicians give us money in the form of tax breaks our country can hardly afford, and we give them their jobs for another two or six years. Best of all, they bribe us without calling it what it is. A police officer in Mexico City doesn’t have it half that easy.
Those are hardly even the worst examples. What was President Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug plan if not a massive bribe for votes to our nation’s seniors? A plan estimated to cost $400 billion when first proposed has since spiraled into a $678 billion or possibly even $1 trillion program, and even then, Republicans in control of Congress talk about extending Bush’s tax cuts or even making them permanent.
The magic of paybacks to voters in the form of tax cuts, of course, is that it makes government look good, even if it has no real money to pay for what it must accommodate and accomplish. So, thanks to a cadre of Asian banks, we borrow endlessly. Republicans wouldn’t think of having us sacrifice these precious tax cuts, even as our troops sacrifice life and limb in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither, apparently, would we.
We pay bribes similar to the unfortunates living in Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico. The only difference is that, in our circular fashion, we pay the bribe to ourselves, and we don’t know when our creditors will start asking for payment in full.