Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Corruption

The New York Times has a pretty good article on corrupt boss Jack Warner. Warner, for those of us who are unfamiliar, is one of those political bosses in poorer countries who extracts his take from just about everything—Warner’s big thing (besides running the government of Trinidad & Tobago) is soccer: he was an executive committee member of FIFA, the President of CONCACAF (otherwise known to normal people as “North America”), and so on. This gave him quite a few opportunities to extract kickbacks, appoint buddies, steer business, etc., which of course he availed himself of mightily.

That’s not good for soccer in general, of course, but I’m not so sure it’s quite as bad in general as it’s made out to be (politically, at least). I read an interesting argument in a book whose title I forget but probably still own that posited that political corruption is actually not all that bad: it’s not as if the money from bribes et. al. disappears. Instead, it’s reinvested. If corrupt official X does a sound job reinvesting the cash, then the economy prospers even though some businessmen might have lighter wallets than otherwise. It’s possible to carry this argument out too long, but it’s worth thinking about. Certainly countries like Japan didn’t exactly lack for corruption during their upward growth phase, and China, India and Brazil are often spectacularly corrupt.

So in many ways I’m not surprised to see plaudits like this:
“He has a reputation as a doer, helping the dispossessed,” said Rita Pemberton, who is the head of the history department at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. “He has made the front pages of the newspapers, helping this one and that one — people whose houses were falling or dilapidated — and adopting children, the kinds of things that win you support at the ground level.”

If you take a lot of money, you’d better be providing services. In politics, that’s being personally accountable. To cite another book—I read the memoirs Plunkitt of Tammany Hall for a history class, and what’s striking is the level of intimacy and responsiveness politicians had to have in order to keep the wheels of the machine grinding. I’m not sure it can be precisely measured, but the responsiveness seemed much greater than people have these days in the U.S.

I’m quite certain in the long run corruption needs to be cured, but I’m not sure it’s a right-this-moment problem for many developing countries.

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