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Corruption, infamy and shame

Your Humble Blogger is probably on record somewhere around here as not being particularly concerned about corruption in my government officials. I mean, I don’t like it, but I am willing to accept a certain level of it, if the officials are also doing their jobs. The image of Mayor Curley, f’r’ex, sitting in the front parlor of the house in Jamaica Plains (built with kickbacks and ’donated’ labor and outright bribes) taking a line of petitioners and promising them government jobs in return for votes—well, it ain’t quite James Madison, but the subway got extended. How many times have I told my African Dictators joke?

Anyway, most corruption is a matter of scale, as far as I’m concerned. Favors, gifts, jobs for nephews, fund-raising, arranging a meeting, dropping hints about future private-sector positions. Your Humble Blogger is happy to wink an eye at that at one level, but when it gets up into the five or six digits, or seven, or eight, that’s a different matter altogether. If I hadn’t disliked Diane Wilkerson (unfairly, but if she had done a damn thing about flood abatement in the Fenway when I lived there, I might have cared if I was being unfair), I would have pointed out that she only took as much cash as she could stuff into her bra. Yes, put her in cuffs, but seriously, that’s the level of skimming (and meddling in who gets what liquor licenses) that doesn’t really change much in the big picture.

Selling a Senate seat? A trifle different.

You know, when Joshua Micah Marshall mused about a State Corruption Contest, allowing his reader to point out that the final three are undoubtedly Alaska, Illinois and Louisiana, he immediately got gazillions of emails from people outraged that their own states (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona) were deserving of that final cut. And my thought, as a Nutmegger, was that thank goodness all we had was our last Governor having served a short prison term and he’s now out. Well, and the Senate Minority Leader asking the mob to beat up his granddaughter’s boyfriend. And the mayor of Hartford having his countertops done by the company that was supposed to be paving Park Street, which company never quite got around to sending him all those invoices (or pulling permits, for that matter). And the same for some of the Hartford city council. And the mayor of our biggest city being a cokehead. And the previous one getting convicted on 16 federal racketeering charges. Oh, and I forgot about the current Governor’s chief of staff who claimed not to have read the memo that banned leaning on public officials to lean on their staffs to attend fund-raisers, and then it turned out that she had written that memo. Oh, and the thing where a staff attorney for the State Ethics Commission forged a letter of complaint against the last Governor’s political enemy. But nothing really serious.

So now I’m wondering—do y’all think there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of corruption scandals in the last twenty years? Or is it the Recency Illusion, and most of this sort of thing gets forgotten very quickly? Or have our standards for corruption become stiffer, so that the sort of thing that would never have made the papers a generation or two ago now are prosecuted in court?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


At the local or state level, it's the Recency Illusion. It ebbs and flows, of course, but I don't think it's any worse than what has come before.

At the federal level, in this administration, the scale and extent of the corruption is astounding. Or, if you accept corruption as a non-measurable taint, the scale of economic gains and losses due purely to corruption is astounding. The blatant contempt for the rule of law has also seemed out of keeping with the past, when corruption was something to keep out of the public eye, something to deny, something to express shame or outrage over. Now it's rabidly defended, and does lasting damage to our society.

To follow Michael's excellent comment:

What we are seeing in the federal government in the Bush administration is corruption raised to the level of ideology.

The corrupt politician generally does not want to damage the political and social fabric unduly, because that is the gravy train from which the corrupt politician eats.

The Bush Administration's practices smack more of piracy than corruption, in that sense. They profit from pillage and plunder rather than by graft. They probably imagine themselves to be predators rather than parasites. Insofar as power matters to them more than profit (as may be the case for someone like Cheney), their corruption also has different consequences than the garden-variety pocket-lining of the Blagojevitch type.

Yes, I didn't mean at the federal level, which under Our Outgoing President and his secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents has been of an unprecedented scale. As you point out, Chris, it's a quantitative difference so vast that it is effectively a qualitative difference as well. And there's some qualitative differences, too. And the Republican Party in the Federal Legislature seems to have been more than usually corrupt, and in exciting and inventive ways.

It's the state level that seemed to me unusually active (or public), with an unusual number of Governors and other statewide officials getting jailtime. But I don't really know much about the history of jailtime for governors in the forties and fifties, f'r'ex.


At the state level, i think it's the Internet Illusion, more than recency. I knew how corrupt Texas politicians were when i was growing up because i read Molly Ivins. If similar things were happening in other states, how would i have known? I mean, sure, it might have made papers in other states, but it might not have, or i might not have noticed or cared. Basically, we think there's more corruption these days because we all read Josh Marshall's blog.

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