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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rewarding Corruption

For political corruption to flourish, there must be both an opportunity for participation in corruption and a payoff for doing so. In short, in a sort of "gut-level" cost-benefit analysis, there must be a positive balance for those who engage in corrupt practices. It must pay more to be crooked than it does to be honest.

Of course, one can always make a fast buck if they have no morality. Yet honesty still creates a premium in such considerations. I don't believe that most people (at least outside of New Jersey) run for office just to get rich. I believe they run for legitimate reasons and then get corrupted by the "game" of politics. That's the point. A corrupt system creates corrupt politicians. An honest man doesn't stand a chance - or at least not a chance to stay around long enough to do something. The system slowly and undeniably bends people to its norms. That's why so many corrupt politicians and businessmen seem genuinely baffled when they go to court. In their eyes, they really haven't done anything wrong - they just played the game by the existing rules.

One thing that makes playing the game so appealing is that the price of being honest is prohibitively high. A State Legislator in New Jersey only pulls in $49,000 (but it is considered a part-time position). If a person were to actually try to do what is considered the "right" thing in every other state of the union - which means hold only one governmental job (usually the highest level) - they would have to try and exist in New Jersey on less than $50,000. That is actually some $4,000 less than the median income in New Jersey. By way of contrast, these individuals approved a budget of $28.3 billion for the last fiscal year. So our legislators are charged with a budget that exceeds their own salary by a factor of 566,000. How many would pay a man a dollar to supervise $566,000 fund? $10 to manage $5,660,000? $100 to manage $56,600,000?

It isn't just a question of salary and budget, though. One of the responsibilities given to State Senators (at $50,000) is to confirm gubernatorial appointees who will make (in some cases) three times that amount. Is there any better way to curry favoritism?

Well, actually, there is. You allow the state legislators to keep state and municiple jobs. So, the mayor of Union City (Brian Stack) is also a State Assemblyman. Now, I can understand why the citizens of Union City might want someone in position to favor their city in state negotiations for contracts, but Mr. Stack's district includes much more than Union City. But the real problem is in campaign financing.

Before I go on, let me state: None of this is to be taken as an attack on Mr. Stack or his character. I have no idea what his role in any negotiations are. I'm just using him to illustrate the point I am making.

"Pay-to-play" is the practice of a contractor making a campaign contribution in an attempt to influence a legislator's vote on awarding that contract. This is a huge problem in New Jersey. Holding dual offices makes it an even bigger problem, though. If I want Mr. Stack to give me a state contract, I may be limited as to how much I can contribute to his state campaign. Ah, but his municiple campaign is a different matter. I can actually give money by the bushels to him, which he could lend to himself or make contributions to himself or just spend in a general manner. I have, in fact, bought a state legislator by buying a mayor. (Again, none of this is actually directed at Mr. Stack.)

This flourishes because the system is set up to make it flourish. When billion dollar contracts are handed out by people who make relatively little and hold a lower level job that directly benefits from that contract, it is almost impossible to remain honest. To fight this system, a candidate would have to screen each donation very carefully to make sure no contractor, their spouse, child, best friend, parent, or any other relative made a campaign contribution. Why go through all this trouble when all it will do is make your live on a smaller salary?

Something is rotten in the Garden. It's time for some sunshine.

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