Last week, I meant to bring up a column by Megan McArdle. I don’t often make someone else’s blog writing my point of departure, but this post got under my skin enough that I keep coming back to it mentally. McArdle argued that political barbs directed at the scandal that made the news last week regarding corruption in the Mineral Management Service within the Interior Department were functionally equivalent to the flap over Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” comment.
If I parse the entry carefully enough, McArdle seems to acknowledge that the first is “substantive” and the second not, but then seems to think that raising a political objection to the first is the same as the second: banal, business-as-usual, and unworthy of further discussion or reporting.
That’s an epic fail on the Sesame Street “one of these things is not like the other” exercise. That’s how we got into much of the mess we’re in right this very moment, on so many levels. This is the consequence of this sense that all government is equally and indifferently corrupt and non-functional, that none of what states do for good or ill turns on the competency or morality of any particular political leadership but is instead a generic and invariant result of the nature of bureaucratic states. That a report of corruption or administrative incompetence is like a report of the weather or the tides, an expected and everyday event with its own cycles.
This is another of the many things that observing Zimbabwean politics from the mid-1980s until now taught me. I’ve just written that social and political change below the surface of formal diplomatic events and agreements matters most. But Zimbabwe also taught me that the bad decisions of bad men and women can by themselves make all the difference in the world. Nothing was inevitable about Zimbabwe, and most of what it has become is squarely the responsibility of the top political and social elite that gained power over the 1980s. What happened was not “all states fail”. It was “some people failed, and dragged everyone else down to hell with them.”
Corruption is a pervasive political and economic reality across the world. It’s a basic part of the modern order, whether the place we’re thinking about is a small ex-industrial city in New England or a postcolonial African nation. But it has its tipping points where it slides from being an entropic force that we struggle constantly against to being a dark tidal wave that roars over our heads and drowns us all. Those lines are crossed by the wrong people at the wrong time doing things more poorly, more venally, more destructively than others. And perhaps more, those lines are crossed by the indulgent and indifferent attitude that says, “Oh, the public interest was sold out for some momentary cheap thrills in an administration endlessly indulgent of such behavior? Dog bites man, you know, shocked there is gambling going on here and all that.” Corruption becomes omnipresent, pervasive, irresistable when it is ok to say and believe that we all do it, that everyone does it, that it’s a non-issue, that it’s as unimportant as a bit of meaningless hot air over trivial words.
There are some dark waves threatening our collective heads today. If they come crashing down, it will be in no small measure because bad people made bad decisions with their own immediate political and personal interests at heart, while some onlookers serenaded them with sweet fiddle music all the while.