This is a continuation of the previous post.
I choose to start from the proposition that Megan McArdle must be wrong. I don’t have to go into it too deeply, because enough has been said about her here.
Suffice it to say that when she (or anyone else) tries to make fine distinctions to demonstrate why the political corruption in Greece – or Zimbabwe for that matter – is somehow worse because it’s not as “refined” or genteel as the political corruption in, say, the US, it reveals more about her than about the subject she is supposedly discussing.
I represented a number of building contractors over the years. One of them, a really good guy who has since passed away, once told me very frankly and with a sort of sad resignation that there wasn’t a single municipality he had ever dealt with where he didn’t have to grease some petty officials’ palm at one point or another. I thought about that revelation a lot. The area I practiced in was dotted with buildings, large and small, that this hard working and very intelligent man had brought into existence out of dirt and construction materials. They were businesses, homes, shopping malls, office buildings, places where people lived, worked, or just enjoyably passed their time.
I was often incensed when I had the time to think about this. It’s tough enough to navigate every inherent difficulty a construction project can bring you: the delays, the cost overruns, the personnel issues, the unanticipated problems with soil contamination, cracking foundations from poor concrete pours, or weather, or whatever. I could go on and on. Sometimes it seems a miracle that a building ever gets put up, because there’s no such thing as a problem free project.
But to have that kind of gratuitous, maliciously self-generated problem – some petty tyrant official wielding an approval pen in one hand, his other hand extended to you with a sly wink – I dunno, it just made me mad. It still does when I think about it.
It’s ubiquitous in the United States. Any time law enforcement wants to get off their butt and look into any city hall, town board or whatnot about such things, they will quickly find what they are looking for. It’s like the drug war. It can be quelled in one area only to spring up in another. By the time you’ve made the rounds it has resurfaced where you started.
Does it get any better as you go higher? Not really. Look at New York State. The Governor had to resign amid personal scandal. The state senate majority leader was convicted of public corruption charges, as was the state comptroller. The state senate minority leader was recently indicted.
In Illinois you have Blagojevich. Rhode Island? Massachusetts? Come on. And there’s Louisiana. And Arizona. And Texas.
In Ohio, the entire political establishment of Cleveland has been under federal investigation for years. They pick a few off here and there. So what?
The data – what I’ve recited above is more in the nature of anecdotal evidence, but when the conclusion is so obvious there’s really no need for some comprehensive statistical study – demonstrate that petty political corruption is rampant in the United States. Pervasive. Incorrigible. Entrenched. I mean, for Chrissakes the more secret arms of the federal government are known to have dealt with mobsters.
What, in the name of all that is holy, is “more refined” about any of this?
About one thing is all I can think of. The more refined kind of American corruption results in the success and prominence of people like Megan McArdle (via Mike at Crime & Federalism). This is apparently such an unambiguous good that we are compelled to draw otherwise laughable distinctions between our own sins and the more explicitly crass practices of those swarthy Greeks.
As a criminal defense lawyer I always ran the risk of judicial ridicule when I tried to make distinctions between the armed robber who used a loaded gun with the plain intention of shooting his victims in the event of their non-compliance; and the “armed” robber who had a fake gun or an unloaded gun and who therefore plainly wasn’t going to do any real intentional harm to anyone except maybe himself.
Yet that distinction is a hundred times more legitimate than the feeble and disingenuous (and vaguely racist) blather of those trying to claim that Greece is somehow beneath the rest of Europe and North America when it comes to political corruption.