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The Corruption of Corruption

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There's something wrong with corruption. I grew up in Chicago, where corruption was a bedrock principle of effective government. Recently, however, it seems to have lost its way.

Back then, police on the take kept us safe from people who didn't have enough money to be treated as white. Judicial corruption allowed us to pay speeding tickets in cash, to the court clerk, in a hallway, at a discount. Corruption in the Animal Services Department made it possible to keep an un-neutered elephant in your garage. Electoral corruption enabled you to have your vote counted as many times as you liked, particularly if you were dead.

Corruption was rationalized on two bases. First, our city ran just fine. The streets were clean, the snow got plowed, the water was chlorinated, and the river ran backwards for our convenience.

Second, corruption was a very effective way to attract the best, the brightest and the shrewdest to city government.

The salaries provided by law were simply inadequate to draw the right kind of people into the bureaucracy. Their value in the private sector was often double what they could earn as, say, a City Councilman. As a result, there was an unwritten proviso in every elected official's employment contract that he was authorized to supplement his income to the extent of the difference between what the City paid him and his value on the open market.

The system worked just fine, as it has in pretty much every other political subdivision in this country. But of late it seems like it's gone off the rails.

The decline of corruption as we've known it for the last century may have begun when the corporations and titans of industry who supplemented the incomes of public officials began to feel that they weren't getting the bang for their buck. Municipal, state and federal agencies were coming after them for taxes, for trading on stock tips, for operating coalmines with entrances but no exits, and for making products that killed people. In short, private sector donors weren't getting sufficient "pro quos" for their "quids."

The key contributor to the weakening of the institution, however, was the recession. As the bubble burst, there was a precipitous drop in the compensation of the private sector executives whose salaries were the benchmarks for the true value of our public officials.

A market-based reaction to this radically altered economic landscape would have been for politicians who supplemented their incomes through the beneficence of others to reduce the amount of their extra-legal compensation. Many elected officials doubtlessly did so. Others did not.

An illustration of the latter is Congressman Charles Rangel. The Congressman's annual salary, excluding benefits, is $174,000 annually. Prior to the recession, he apparently believed that his equivalent private sector value included his salary plus four rent stabilized apartments in New York, tax free rental income from a resort villa in the Dominican Republic, all-expenses-paid trips to the Caribbean, and storage of his Mercedes Benz in the House parking lot.

The Congressman's pre-recession calculation of his market value may well have been reasonable at the time. But when the economy went south, he failed to make an adjustment in his supplemental income goal to take account of his diminished private sector value. He thereby made himself an easy target for jealous colleagues who had responded to market realities by lowering their asking prices.

The result required no crystal ball. The Congressman's colleagues have sent him to his room with only two Oreos, an unprecedented fall from grace in an institution where bags of Oreos and cartons of whole milk are constantly available in the cloakroom.

Congressman Rangel's apparent sin is not that he sought or realized illegal financial gain. It is that he sought and realized excessive illegal financial gain. In government, greed is fine but excessive greed is not. Those who do not appreciate this basic tenet of public service should be thrown out of office.

At certain moments in the last few years, it has appeared that corruption as we've known it for the last century would go the way of actual filibusters. Thus, when in Nov 2006 the Democrats won control of the House and the new House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said, "Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history," it sounded like a death knell for graft, greed, and associated seedy practices.

But as we now know, Congresswoman Pelosi was not proclaiming that she would eliminate graft, greed and associated seedy practices. She was promising only that she would raise the bar separating corrupt and exemplary conduct by about an eighth of an inch, still permitting a flaccid gerbil to vault it without aid of a pole.

Recent events notwithstanding, there is little question that the Congresswoman has kept her pledge.

In sum, though the institution of corruption is not what it used to be, it faces no imminent existential threat. Indeed, given the political tsunami that occurred in November, there is reason to hope that corruption will soon return to full bloom, and that both corrupt politicians and those who vote them into office will once again get exactly what they deserve.
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When he is not in custody, Mark can be found at markofdistinction@att.net