Thursday, August 6, 2009

Political Corruption

Gail Collins and Ross Douthat had one of their “conversations” in the NY Times--the subject: are liberals inherently more corrupt than conservatives? I thought the conversation came out about even, i.e., the corruption dishonors seem evenly distributed between the warring factions. But as I read the column, I found myself thinking of the “old days” when Nixon was in power. Then I used to debate in my head (I often argue with myself, but I’m weird that way) whether it was better to have a smart crook (say Nixon-Agnew), or a fool (say Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sarah Palin . . .) for a President. I know, I know, it would better were we to have a smart, honest, ethical President (Obama) in power. But often we are not given that choice. We got lucky this time.
Then, I concluded in my head that perhaps a smart crook would be preferable. But why, you might ask? Well, it occurs to me that smart crooks almost always get caught, one way or another (Bernie Madoff comes to mind). Sooner or later, they do something not so smart, or they get too clever by half and then they get found out. And the good thing about that is, because they are acting illegally, we can do something about it. We do, after all, have laws that allow us to pursue the crooks of the world. So, whether you’re a crooked Congressman, Governor, or even President, once we find you out, you’re toast . . . eventually.
So, the corruption thing I find uninteresting, even silly as a debate topic. Gail and Ross need to consider other subjects to debate, like, for example, which group is more likely to lead the nation into an unnecessary war? Or which group is more likely to “legally corrupt” (as in Bush-Cheney) our system of government. How can one “legally corrupt” our system, you might ask? Well, if you appoint people hostile to the very notion of our current laws and structure, and you tell those people to go light on enforcement, then you get a legally corrupt system. For example, if FDA consistently refuses to monitor and enforce our food safety laws, you will eventually get a totally corrupt and very dangerous food supply system. Ditto on drugs. Similarly, if you appoint either incompetent or uncaring people to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, or to the Council on Environmental Quality, you will eventually see a degradation of the environment.
Why do these things happen, as sure as night follows day? Well, my view of the private sector is that, because profit is the dominant (sometimes the sole) motivation, eventually that factor becomes a corrupting influence. That is, people begin to act as though commercial interests are the only interests. And then companies will begin to slide on safety, or health, or environmental, or even employee issues.
So, to counter that tendency, you need some balancing force. Such a force tends to be government. A while ago, I wrote to President Obama about this issue. I said then:
“In economic matters, extremes do not work. Under Bush, we shifted dangerously in the direction of a fascist state—that is, a state in which private owners of businesses dictate government policies. The inevitable result is Enron, et al, as well as the collapsed financial system. We have been drifting in that direction for quite some time now, even under Clinton. Everyone has been so concerned with government regulation, that they failed to notice that unregulated business is as dangerous as unchecked government. One gives you fascism; the other socialism. Private business interests must always be checked to assure that the public is protected. So too must government overseers. Balance in everything is the answer. But balance requires mental agility. The public has little patience—they want the world to operate on autopilot. They need to be convinced that a world in which competing interests are balanced is both an efficient world, and a world that is worthy.
We need to pay for what we need. The Republican Party has been, almost as a matter of policy, fiscally irresponsible. They practice “charge and spend” politics. We will now have to pay for their profligacy. The public—the thinking public—needs to understand that we cannot continue on the course they charted and followed. Mainly the rest of the world will not allow us to continue on this course. They will simply stop buying our debt and then it will end, badly. Taxes are the way we pay for our policies. Taxes are neither good nor bad, in the abstract. They represent the price of operating our country, or, perhaps, the glue of a civilized society.”
So, there you have it. We need to operate as a balanced entity, occasionally twisting one way or another, but struggling always to stay upright and in balance, and to remain conscious that in the end we should act in the best interests of the American people—not just a small segment of that people. And, also, because we are big, relatively rich (well, we used to be prior to George Bush) and powerful, we need to be mindful that we affect the world in ways disproportionate to our size and population. There are in fact other inhabitants in this world beyond us Americans. They deserve a decent life also.
So, maybe, Gail and Ross, or David, the next time you debate, perhaps consider more important subjects than which party has a corner on corruption. These other issues seem to me more important. Of course, then you would have to check your usual biases at the door and actually think before you speak/write. Tough I know, but at least consider it.
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