A funny thing happened to the governor of Illinois on his way to becoming, check one, 1) ambassador to France; 2) a major union executive; 3) the recipient of a large cash gift given for his many outstanding years of public service. The governor, not noted for his deep intellect, failed to consider the possibility that the feds were tapping his phone, even though he was already the target of a federal probe.
One of the most discouraging aspects of this story is the public reaction. True, there is some outrage over Governor Rod Blagojevich's behavior, but there is mostly bemusement, and the stuff of late-night comedy. That's too bad, because corruption is not only a national story, it is a tragic international story. It is one of the most important factors in holding back the progress of what polite society calls "developing nations," a phrase that is often more optimistic than descriptive. It's not a story that is well reported, or consistently reported, in the mainstream media. If it were, we might treat it more seriously.
Why do people tolerate corruption? First, they tolerate it because they don't believe it really affects them. They don't feel the direct link that they feel with, say, a politician who raises their taxes or sends their son to war. Corruption is an abstraction. Second, corrupt politicians often perform well in providing services. The citizen might say, "Okay, I know he's taken some cash, but he delivers." The Daley machine in Chicago is famous for getting that traffic light installed, or those sidewalks repaired. The classic Tammany Hall machine in New York provided a Thanksgiving turkey to many voters. To poor people, in particular, that turkey meant the difference between a holiday and an ordinary day. They weren't terribly interested in how the turkey provider got his job. Third, corruption is often the way to a career. Political machines reward their workers with city jobs, and, through that employment, whole families are taken care of. They are not about to complain, even if their job came as a result of political connections, not qualifications.
Fourth, corruption is often the price that ethnic groups pay for rising in politics and the local economy. People like to see "one of their own" up there, in Congress, in the mayor's chair, in a judgeship. They are often prepared to overlook how that person rose, or who got what, and how much, to insure the rise.
There is a great story about Jimmy Hoffa, the late chieftain of the Teamsters Union, a man not renowned for the purity of his technique. Hoffa would often appear in union halls to speak to his members. They knew full well that Jimmy didn't always do things that would sit well in Sunday school. But Hoffa would get up, beautifully dressed, well trimmed, and say something like this. These are 1950s prices:
"You men see this suit? Hickey-Freeman. Three hundred dollars.
"You see these shoes? Florsheim. Twenty-seven ninety five.
"You see this watch? Gruen. Two hundred dollars."
And the men would cheer. Why? Because one of their own had made it. They liked the idea that Hoffa was as well dressed as the executives he dealt with on the other side of the bargaining table. They liked the idea that he lived in a good house. He was them. Was he skimming? Well, so what. He was their guy. He was entitled.
And finally, fifth, corruption is tolerated because confronting it, and defeating it, can sometimes be dangerous, if not to life and limb, than to career. There was a time when it was estimated that ten percent of the cost of any building in New York City went for corruption. It was simply cranked in as the cost of doing business. There was no particular interest in rooting it out.
Internationally, though, corruption is devastating. One hears stories told by pharmaceutical company representatives of having to pay bribes in some African countries in order to save lives. Corruption in some countries isn't simply part of the cost of doing business, it is the business.
Each year an organization based in Berlin, Transparency International, conducts a survey to determine levels of corruption around the world. Looking at its list for this year confirms our worst fears about what is happening in countries that, we are told, constantly need our help. The least corrupt countries, according to this survey, like Denmark or Finland, are countries that get along well on their own. But the most corrupt, like Somalia and Myanmar, are in serious trouble. The number of African countries in the "most corrupt" category is troubling.
Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe has become the poster child for corruption in Africa. Once envied as a country whose agriculture could feed the continent, Zimbabwe is itself now starving. Once possessed of the most educated population, Zimbabwe today is suffering the worst brain drain of any African nation. And why? African columnist Tonderai Munakiri puts it this way:
"Corruption has become the ocean that we swim in and the air we breathe and as a result, poverty and family disintegration have replaced the aspirations for a decent life and a hopeful future. Added to this, I believe we have entered an amoral era where notions of right and wrong, which were once commonly held assumptions, are slipping away."
By the way, on the Transparency International corruption scale the United States ranks 20th from the best, behind most European countries. Illinois is not separately ranked.
Any enthusiasm for foreign aid to corrupt countries is going to dim quite fast, especially in a time of economic stress, once people in the donor nations learn that much, if not most, of the aid goes into the pockets of corrupt officials. So corrupt countries usually stay corrupt, and their people remain powerless to do any thing about it.
Corruption can only be tackled if people around the world become serious about it, and confront it. That has not yet happened. The situation in Illinois is, for us, an embarrassment. What goes on in many countries is, for them, life-threatening.