Thursday, May 19, 2005

Corruption in our homeland
..why, who, what, etc.

My definition here: Corruption is the use of public office for private gain.

If you want a job, in a land where jobs are hard to come by, then you have to pay for it. If you want your house saved from the neighborhood fire, then you have to pay for it. If you want to have your documents expedited, then you have to pay for it. If you want a driver’s license without taking the test, then you have to pay for it. If you want to pay less or no taxes, then you have to pay for it. These are just a few (minor) instances of corruption in all dealings between the public citizen and government employees/officials, which everyone, I guess, has heard, read or experienced first hand. Sometimes in social gatherings we talk about it, laugh about it, get mad about it.....

Here I attempt to cogently analyze and understand corruption in our homeland where it is seen and seems accepted as a way of life. Specific details of big, numerous, current or historical instances of government corruption by the military and politicians -then and now- will not be discussed here lest we get “lost in the trees” and not see the forest.

Corruption is a symptom, not the disease. It seems rampant corruption is a typical symptom of a social cancer at the heart of previously colonized countries and that includes our birth country and as some of you may be aware, it is among the countries with the highest corruption index. Just like the disease, this social cancer requires radical treatment; not from a corrupt military but from informed and active citizens (it is another topic though).

Also, it is true that corruption exists in any society, in matter of degrees. Even here in the USA, our adopted country it does, but the existence of an economic democracy among the populace, the presence of a significant number of informed and active citizenry, the active imposition of and thus respect for the law, under a democratic system of government with its checks and balances, prevents its spread.

Obviously, corruption that is widespread creates a climate of moral degeneration and makes a mockery of government. It is a symptom of government incompetence and in itself undermines the government’s ability to rule. Corruption is rarely uncovered – or when uncovered – often those responsible for eradicating it also became corrupt. Even if they did not become corrupt themselves, evidence was hard to come by.

If the bribe-giver had actually received the service he paid for, he was a satisfied customer and so kept his mouth shut. If he was a victim of corruption, he could not prove it as there are no written contracts for corrupt deals.The effects of corruption are such that it does not only weaken government and undermine social discipline at all levels. It is also another mechanism by which inequalities are created and increased.

Some say corruption is caused by low salaries in the public sector and could be cured by increasing them. This may or may not be true. If you pay people more, it is quite possible that they will develop even more inflated expectations and charge more for bribes. Corruption increases pay differentials: it gives it free, unseen pay rise to people already earning many times the poor man’s income.The corrupt individuals, especially those in high governmental positions, comprise the kleptocracy, and are using their political power to extract an economic surplus for themselves.

For those at higher positions, the bigger the stakes to be won. They turn political (or military) power into economic power, which make their political power even stronger. Import licenses, government contracts, jobs, educational success are given out not according to rational principles such as need, ability or rank in a bid list, but according to who can pay most. Thus, reinforcing the fact that corruption from the user’s point of view means that money talks.

The rich and the connected (kumpadre/kumadre/relative and/or kababayan, friends, etc) can buy or get themselves further advantages over the poor. They can buy themselves exemptions from laws designed to redistribute some of their wealth and income to the poor. Corruption diverts social reform. It contributes to mass poverty (and elite wealth). It perverts development. It undermines the entire economy of the country. It makes a mockery of rational planning.

It leads, for example, to substandard engineering that costs more in lives than it shaves off in materials as indicated by say, a Ruby Tower or a new road that easily collapsed or deteriorated. (If my memory serves me right, recently in Tondo a relatively new 5-storey building tumbled down!).

Loyalty to family, town, province or region comes before loyalty to the country or nation (“tribal” mentality). The “get-rich-quick” mentality borne out of local customs of gift-giving in return to favors spread as people jockeyed for status in the only universally acknowledged manner: material ostentation. A marked tendency towards putting greater premiums on material values, and a growing craze for getting rich quick by all means, fair or foul.These explain the greater propensity to corruption.

The opportunity for corruption is provided by the poverty of the economy and the complexity of bureaucratic regulation. The government controls so many precious scarce resources, from jobs and houses to contracts and licenses. These things have a fixed price but demand for them far exceeds supply so they can easily command a premium price. If a business man is willing to pay a bribe, he sees it in the nature of an investment which will pay off a profit like any other, helping him evade taxes, charge excessive prices to the public or the government, or use less and/or inferior materials than the law stipulates.

The extra profit that “justifies” the “investment” (bribe) is milked from the masses. Either the country loses revenue that could be spent on development, social programs or the public pays more for the goods. The bribe only appears to come from the businessman’s pocket: in reality it is extorted from the general public. And wherever power-holders and policy-makers become rich through corruption, the policies they make are less likely to threaten wealth or alleviate poverty.

Politicians, bureaucrats or military leaders who own estates will not vote or support in favor of more preferential treatment for small businesses (who may compete) or land reform. And when politics comes to be considered as a path to wealth as well as power, it tends to attract fewer idealists and more opportunists, whose presence speeds up the degeneration process.

"The quest for riches darkens the sense of right and wrong." -Antisthenes, c390 BC

"No man should so act as to make a gain out of the ignorance of another." - Cicero, c63 BC

"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul." - Matthew 16:26 c 80 AD (reminder to those who claim Christianity)

"He that will be rich before night may be hanged before noon." - Roger L-Estrange, 1692

"Rich men without convictions are more dangerous in modern society than poor women without chastity." - George Bernard Shaw, 1898

"It is difficult but not impossible to conduct strictly honest business." - Mohandas Gandhi, 1946

"It is good business men that are corrupting our bad politicians." - Joseph W. Falk, 1956

"People will swim through shit if you put a few dollars in it" - Peter Sellers, 1975

”Ethics is not a branch of economics." - Yerachmiel Kugel, 1977

"Nothing is illegal if 100 businessmen decide to do it." - Andrew Young, 1978

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