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Voices / Column

The monkey business of corruption

A complex and compelling topic that knows no boundaries

Saxtons River

In part because the subject intrigues me, I’ve been trying to answer the question of why corruption, moral and otherwise, is so prevalent in human nature.

None of us comes into the world corrupt, morally bankrupt, or cruel. So what is it that makes so many of us fall prey to this dangerous and disillusioning character flaw?

Try as I might to tease out an answer that would satisfy my curiosity about this facet of human psychology, I have yet to posit a theory, even after researching the subject online using search terms like “power and pathology,” “moral corruption,” and “Tammany Hall.”

My interest in this topic was sparked by a difficult personal experience involving local politics, but it peaked when the scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke, and it was exacerbated when I read about similar machinations by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

The Christie debacle has received wide media coverage, while Walker’s questionable behavior has stayed below the radar, for the most part.

But it seems that thousands of emails and hundreds of court documents released in February strongly suggest that Walker and Christie have much in common, including the fact that there’s been a lot of monkey business going on inside the respective offices they oversee.

In the Walker case, it seems that staffers were mixing government and campaign business to the extent that several of his aides have received criminal convictions.

Not that corruption is always political. In a stunning example of corporate corruption, a recent New York Times story revealed that a federal lawsuit had been filed charging for-profit schools with fraud.

It turns out that Premier Education Group, owner of more than two dozen trade schools and community colleges operating under several names in 10 states, has been charging fees of $10,000 and up for programs that don’t prepare students for promised careers.

What’s more, the company has been falsifying records to qualify for grant money and other funds. Students report that representatives of the schools they attended lied about certifications they would receive upon completion of a program.

Some students and teachers testified that people without high-school diplomas had been admitted, and in one case, a man convicted of a sex crime was accepted to study massage therapy.

* * *

Corruption is a complex and compelling topic that knows no boundaries. It happens in every country — with the possible exception of Bhutan, until it opened up to the outside world — and across all cultures.

It has no age, race, or ethnic parameters (although there might be gender disparities), and none of us fully understands why so many people seek personal gain through such behaviors as bribery, extortion, nepotism, graft, and embezzlement. The world, it seems, is full of Bernie Madoffs.

Take the Sochi Olympic games, for example.

An estimated one-third of the $50 billion spent on that event — an amount greater than all the other winter Olympics to date combined — was allegedly lost to embezzlement and kickbacks, according to the Institute of Modern Russia in its online report “The Reverse Side of the Medal.” But then, what else is new in Russia?

Afghanistan is ranked as the third-most-corrupt nation in the world after North Korea and Somalia, largely thanks to its American-educated president, who is known to govern through patronage.

And in Nigeria, an upsurge in corruption has resulted in long lines at everything from gas stations to passport offices. Port congestion is said to be rampant and, with a nod to New Jersey, police extortion at toll gates and traffic slowdowns on highways are common.

* * *

The litany of petty and grand corruption around the globe goes on ad infinitum. So why, we must ask, do so many people put personal gain above the public good? Why are huge numbers of people willing to cheat others as a means of gaining success or recognition or material comforts? What does it all say about our collective humanity?

I still don’t have any answers. All I know is that Lord Acton, a.k.a. John Dalberg-Acton, was right when he noted, in the 19th century, that “power tends to corrupt [and] absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an insight he had upon recognizing that civilizations fall into decline when they fail to use power wisely.

History teaches us that power is no friend of intelligent inquiry or discourse, and that it wreaks havoc on the good traditions and institutions it is meant to respect and honor. It also reminds us that power becomes its own god.

Mahatma Gandhi once noted that “corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy.” To that, I would add, corruption ought not to be such a vibrant piece of the human psyche.

But the questions remain: Why does corruption prevail in matters of governance, commerce, and individual exchange? Why do we become indifferent to it? What can end such “business as usual?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #249 (Wednesday, April 9, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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