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Corruption – It Couldn’t Happen Here

San Miguel de Allende (73 of 1220)“There’s too much corruption” said the cab driver. “It’s everywhere. People like me don’t stand a chance.”

We conversed in Spanish as Lalo wound his way through the narrow streets of San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Central Mexico. Between heavy traffic and an excess of tourist for the holiday weekend, it was apparent we’d have plenty of time for our discussion of the life of a small business person in this beautiful city.

A cab driver in this and other cities in the area rents the cab. He has to put his own gas in the car, wash it and do the minor maintenance. The company takes care of any major repairs. Depending upon the demand for cabs on any given day, Lalo might or might not clear enough to pay the company. It’s in his last hours of work that he gets enough business to feed himself and his family. Lalo works twelve hours per day, six days per week.

His frustration grew as he told me how the city limits a cab owner to only two vehicles. “It’s their way of making sure no one can build an empire and that everyone has an equal chance” he railed. “But the owner of my cab has two. His wife has two. Each of his kids has two. His mother has two. It’s just corrupt” he grumbled.

“The government allows only 355 cabs in the city, but if they decide to allow 360, who gets the new permits? Whoever puts the money in the right palm” he said. A sense of hopelessness seemed to ride with his words.

“Don’t you think it’s just human nature? It probably goes on everywhere” I suggested. He said it would be hard to believe.

“There are parts of Russia where you get shaken down every few miles when you’re traveling” I told him. I remembered the frustration of having to pay multiple bribes in southern Russia just to get to my destination.

“Everywhere you look, there’s corruption” Lalo lamented.

I’ve been around long enough to see more than my share of corruption within the boundaries of the United States. Politicians, police, union bosses, building inspectors, judges – we’re not immune here. But if you search any one of the numerous lists of “corruption indices” of nations around the world, we’re usually pictured as the clean and pure people. It’s said we have far less corruption than countries like Mexico.

I sat on the roof deck overlooking the city that evening pondering the question. Are we truly less corrupt in the good old U.S.A? As I tried to reconcile the perception with the realities of what I have personally observed over the years, the explanation began to become clear in my mind.

Yes, we are not as corrupt here in the United States. However, it’s only because we’ve legalized corruption. We made it acceptable, even honorable. If we want favorable treatment in the business world, we don’t (always) offer a simple cash payment, a.k.a. “bribe”. We simply “meet” with the decision maker. Admittedly we meet over dinner (which we pay for). The dinner follows the golf round (which we pay for) at Pebble Beach. After a night on the town, we take the decision maker out for a cruise on the yacht (which we pay for). We get the business, but only because our presentation skills are so good. And then to top it all, we write all these expenses off our tax returns (which you pay for).

Is that corruption? No, that’s just the way we do business. There are a million variations on the theme, but we’re squeaky clean and as pure as the wind driven snow.

bribe1But still, obstacles remained. If we wanted to “buy” a politician, it was getting difficult. Enter the U.S. Supreme Court and “Citizens United”. It’s no longer corporate bribery; corporations are “people”. They’re no longer bribing people; they’re simply exercising their First Amendment right of free speech, just like other “people”.

That isn’t good enough. Limits to campaign contributions are (if you believe the lemmings in the Tea Party) a further restriction of a person’s First Amendment rights. There’s no limit on the amount of free speech you can exercise is there? Special interests and powerful corporations can pour massive quantities of money into the coffers of the politicians that serve their interests. It’s not corruption. It’s standard operating procedure.

Who are we trying to kid? Call it what it is – corruption. Just because we’ve dressed it up in a nice suit and tie and whistled a patriotic song, doesn’t make it anything else. It’s down and dirty corruption no matter how you cut it. As an individual citizen, I’ve got no voice. Even if I wanted to buy a ticket to my congressman’s ear, I can’t compete with the big guys in the bidding process.

And we wonder why the country has been so polarized. The Tea Party lemmings are duped into doing the bidding of the special interests not realizing they’re fighting against their own interests. The other side fights frustration and disenfranchisement which pushes it harder toward the other pole.

I long for the good old days like they have in Mexico. Down there, if you to want to own a politician, you have to buy him the old fashioned way – money in the palm. Why do we have to make things so complicated?


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