By Daniel M. Ryan
With the possible exception of the Wall Street circuit, which seems to have gone to ground again, there's been a lot of optimism raised by President Barack Obama's clean-government initiatives. His announcement of greater controls on lobbyists was his first photo-op-enhanced policy announcement, suggesting that President Obama himself places anti-corruption fairly high on the totem pole. Ostensibly, this initiative came out of TARP-related embarrassments: the latest straw on the back was John Thain's redecorating expenses, which piggybacked on the post-TARP bonuses being hustled out of Merrill Lynch's treasury while he was still its CEO.
Would that it were issue-based, but President Obama's own handling of the restriction announcement – including its timing – suggests otherwise. Obama has been called a slippery character, which all politicians are to one extent or another, but this issue has the stamp of heartfelt on it. An emphasis on clean government is evidently a core value of President Obama.
Unfortunately, this kind of initiative fits easily into the glove George Gilder stitched for feminism: a Utopianism that's less practical but more feasible than the more intellectualist breed. Utopian measures of this kind have a proven record of becoming unintended-consequences bots.
What makes cleanness in government Utopian is the fact that one person's corruption is often another person's easygoingness. We all intuitively know that rules are inexact, and that the rulegivers did not show perfect foresight when promulgating and enacting. Even rules handed down by a Supreme Being have some slack in them, and each religion does put sin and repentance on one of its front burners. Religions tend to bundle in any mismatch between divine rules and human misconduct with humanity's fallible nature. (After all, there's lots of independent confirmation of the latter.) Every believer knows that the root of many temptations is socializing. We have a seemingly inborn inclination to socialize through letting the rules go a little. A punctilious rule-follower may be respected, even admired, but is never really liked in normal society.
It doesn't take a Cartesian to see a link between rule-fidelity and self-absorption. A steady regimen of self-watching, self-control and self-restraint do, after all, make one self-absorbed. Since more self-absorbed people don't have the same level of outer-direction that less self-absorbed people do, it's evident that the self-absorbed will be relatively less skilled in the social arena. Since the former have a higher social handicap, they tend to invite the more socially-minded to play off against them somewhat. So, it shouldn't be that shocking to see mutual rule-bending as a way of playing off against a devoted rule-follower (if only for group cohesiveness' sake.)
What's loosely called "corruption" is a result of that play-off. There are norms in that there corrupt organization, and they're all unwritten. Not knowing them, or not being inducted into them, makes you an outlier. This particular rule doesn't seem to have much bend in it.
Except on one point. A rigorous rule-follower can't really be one of the boys, but can win real respect from the boys. A culture, or organization, deemed corrupt is one where any such rule-followers have either been hoofed out or are respected less than they should be. That level is, of course, relative and largely situational: I might as well de-tarnish my grousemanship by noting that, as relativists, liberals should know better.
Enter The Dragon
De-corrupting an organization is, I can say with every spot of grey in my hair seconding me, a delicate and usually frustrating endeavor. It's one of the favorite follies of morals-driven charismatics, of people who manage to blend that kind of self-absorption with social skills that are way above the norm. President Obama is obviously one of those people, and he tipped his hand about it on the second day of his administration.
I use the word "folly" because it's not dissimilar to the folly particular to bright people. Becoming habituated to knocking back the homework in school does engender a kind of coddle, whose earmark is a difficulty in admitting to mistakes and changing course in consequence. People with more normal IQs become inured to their mistake-making early in life, and consequently take the next mistake far more phlegmatically than their higher-strung age-peers do. They also develop resourcefulness through the struggles with the books which their brighter peers don't need to cultivate. The same strungedness applies to a socially-gifted person and a flat-out faux pas. Just as the straight-A guy thinks (s)he can easily breeze through any book assignment, no matter how challenging, so it is that the socially gifted guy thinks that social graces can be stretched to cover any dynamic. In the case of spreading the morals, "any dynamic" includes "what the hell high horse did you ride in on?"
It's a sad fact, but marked differences in moral development – the c-word – do engender envy. It's actually the most intractable kind of envy, with the exception of body envy, because character is inalienable. In contradistinction to property envy, there's no way to alchemize it into jealousy through redistribution. The closest analog to property redistribution is being benched from the practical world.
I'm admittedly taking a harsh and conflictful view of the social world right now, which springs out because of its exceptional nature. In the regular world, property envy doesn't arise at all because of our inclination to mutuality. With character, skillful moral exhortation and quiet works can serve the bill.
The conflictful aspect is relevant to anti-corruption drives, though. All such drives are perceived as incursions by the ensconced ones who'd rather bend along to get along. A new leader bent on reform is bound to stir up some nascent envy, if not open envy. This doleful aspect is the one that the socially astute believe can be minimized through cajolery and, yes, mother-henning.
When both become seen as temporizing, though, the reformer faces a two-fork road: only one fork can be taken. The choice is between going normal – what the Brits like to call "going native" – or going perfect. If envy has nothing substantive to gnaw on, a reform leader can tough it out and turn envy into (perhaps grudging) respect. Any would-be Cap'n Budd has better know the sailing cold, and be shrewd enough not to try to learn the ropes on the fly. A few too many mistakes, and…
The Wolves And Their Usefulness
The Obama administration's infrastructure-renewal program does suggest a secondary motive behind Obama putting his reformer's foot forward first. Workaday road construction and maintenance are fields where political corruption is notorious: the old-style ward boss often made an easy living there. The displacement of the old machines by the professional politician network, as documented in the old tome United States of Ambition, did accompany the decaying of unglamorous infrastructure: the two together are uncoincidental. As many of the announced stimulus program's critics have pointed out recently, road and bridge repair aren't politically glamorous. Consequently, not much of that work gets done when politicians are in charge of it. This prioritizing has been the case ever since there were government-roads and bridges in our modern world.
In older times, though, the ward boss and/or his friends filled the prioritizing gap. Graft and overcharges can be seen as a compensatory side payment for being the only one to get the job rolling. Because corruption grows below the profile radar, it's not that surprising to find the corrupt in the jobs that no-one else really bothers with.
Hoisting out the corrupt won't change the nature of those jobs one bit; nor will it change the prioritization calculus. Consequently, when corruption is hoofed out, what will replace it is sloppiness. The kind of sloppiness, come to think of it, that popped up in those mortgage CDOs whose ownership claims on the underlying mortgages proved to be, er, dubious…
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