Having lived and worked in China for almost a decade I can legitimately claim some expertise as to how corruption works. I never participated, mind you, and strictly forbade my staff from doing so, but the concept of paying to play or buying favors is hard not to be exposed to there.
And now, of course, the topic of corruption is in the news with the report that roughly half of the people outside of government who had a private audience with Hilary Clinton while she was Secretary of State had made significant donations to the Clinton Foundation.
Media battle lines were quickly drawn about where you’d expect them to be. The most common defense of the Clintons was that while the data might give an appearance of potential impropriety there was never any evidence to suggest that favors were actually granted. No harm, no foul, as they say in sports.
That’s roughly akin to noting that while the canary is no longer in his cage and the cat is sitting next to it with a smug look on his face, that doesn’t prove he actually ate the canary. It could be coincidence.
The fact is that it is almost impossible to EVER prove corruption. That’s just not how it works. No corrupt official or procurement agent ever asked for money or favors. That would be stupid. But they don’t have to. It’s understood. And there are always others who handle the nitty gritty details.
If you oversee a procurement team and you believe one of the buyers is accepting inappropriate gifts from a vendor you will never prove it. The vendor won’t walk through the front door with a bag of cash. And unless they’re clueless, the offending buyer isn’t going to start throwing money around like they have more than they should.
Even the most well-intentioned procedural checks and balances, such as the requirement that buyers solicit at least three competing quotes, will have no impact on a determined miscreant. Competing quotes are easy to get. The vendor in question can probably arrange them for you. He may even be able to keep it all in-house through the use of shell companies set up for the purpose. You’ll never know.
This is all common sense. And that’s what bothers me most about this whole debate about the Clinton Foundation providing access to the Secretary of State. The people offering this defense know they are defending an indefensible position. They are smart people. They’re just hoping the public will move on.
And it will, if history is any indicator.
But that’s where the real damage occurs. Because in order to move on we, the public, must compromise the very essence of public integrity. We have to accept that it either doesn’t matter or that the burden of proof really has not been met, even though, by definition, it never can be.
Integrity is the cornerstone of a progressive culture. Without it there can be no cultural progress, no compassion, nothing that is worthy of our respect and our allegiance.
But integrity is a fragile thing. Once it begins to erode, the erosion is difficult to stop. Anything can be rationalized if you’re willing to drink the koolaid.
As I have noted before, I support neither of the two major party candidates for president. I think we can do better. And, to be sure, Trump is not innocent on this issue. If my own daughters slung accusations around the way he does we would have a serious talk.
Neither candidate, however, if elected, could ever do as much damage to our country as the erosion of public, political, and media integrity. Eventually we will lose our collective souls and the flames of our collective destruction will soon follow.
And for what? Because we don’t like somebody? Because we think someone is entitled to something no one can be entitled to? Or worse yet, because we believe that we are supporting the best outcome for our own interests?
I obviously have no evidence that any favors were ever granted to anyone for their contributions. That would require knowledge of what might have happened if no favors were granted. And that is literally unknowable by definition.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we should stop talking about the importance of integrity at every level of society and politics. That would be a political favor that should be granted to no one running for such an important office.
We should demand more.
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