Americans pride themselves on being different from other nations and of course they are. But so are other nations different from each other and from us. Each has a language, a culture, a history. Each has an official story about itself that is most likely pretty mendacious, and a more honest story that is not often heard. Our being different from others does not make us different from them.
But, of course, we also think that we are better, although in many ways that is not true. Other countries provide better healthcare for less money than we do. Other countries do a better job educating their children. Other countries have made greater strides in the treatment of indigenous peoples or in reducing greenhouse gases. We are not as good and certainly not as superior to others as we keep telling ourselves.
These observations come to mind in connection with a great deal of publicity regarding corruption in Ukraine. A colorful collection of Americans of the impressive moral caliber of Rudy Giuliani go back and forth to Ukraine ostensibly to help them overcome the threat of corruption.
That’s worth a chuckle or two, not only because Rudy Giuliani is not a model of the upstanding citizen with remarkable integrity, but more importantly because corruption pervades transactions in our country just as it does in the Ukraine.
Corruption may be different here. It has certainly changed. 50 years ago when a Chicago policeman stopped you for a traffic violation you would hand him your driver’s license wrapped in a $20 bill and that would take care of it. Petty bribery – and not so petty bribery – were daily events. Corruption today is somewhat more sophisticated and not quite as blatantly public. But corruption is a problem here as it is in most, if not all, countries of the world.
Our court system employs judges, and magistrates who deal with lesser problems. Both of them are appointed by the governor of each state assisted by a Governor’s Council and appointments do not only depend on the merit of the candidate. Being the friend of the governor or of the Lieutenant Governor definitely helps. In some cases it is said to be more important to be well-connected than to be a competent lawyer.
Local government, state government, and the federal government all spend large amounts of money purchasing supplies from pencils and erasers for the schools to battleships and sophisticated military planes that cost multiple billions of dollars. Often these purchases are made without proper bids from competent suppliers. A friend of the city, the county, the state, or the Feds gets the contract. There is good money to be made by connecting suppliers to buyers. Multiple suppliers will rig their bids so that everybody will get a part of a lucrative contract.
In the United States approximately 160 million people are in the workforce. Full-time or part-time, they go to their jobs and get paid by the hour or by the job. Merit alone does not determine who gets hired or fired from a job. Recently a story circulated about a person who had worked in a funeral home for 20 or more years before she came out as a transgender woman. She was promptly fired in spite of having done an outstanding job for many years. The customers, according to the employer, would not have patronized a funeral home where they negotiated caskets and wakes with a transgender woman.
The employment history of African-Americans is a more striking example of how little merit matters in getting a good job. The same of course is true of all women who are still being excluded from many excellent jobs.
In many countries it is well known that corruption is a serious hindrance to economic development but the government does not take action, presumably because it is complicit in the corruption. The United States is no different. Goldman Sachs and other banking firms are widely considered responsible for the 2007 – 2008 economic crash that did enormous damage to many working families who not only lost their jobs but also their houses and what little wealth they had managed to accumulate over many years of hard work. Goldman Sachs and the complicit enterprises have been investigated by the government. But nothing ever happened. They have been investigated since then for domestic and international suspicious dealings but nothing ever happened. If your financial transactions are complex and large enough and if members of your firm circulate in and out of government, you can operate pretty much with impunity. The many families who lost their homes were not responsible for the crisis. The financiers who were received bonuses from the banks where they worked.
We could go on and on pointing to corrupt practices. Healthcare of poor people, of people of color is not as good as healthcare of people with money. The education offered to poor black or Hispanic children is not all of the same sophistication and excellence as the education of white above middle-class children. Opportunities are not distributed equally. The oft repeated claim that our society is a meritocracy is a blatant lie and everyone knows it.
Patriots, or better pseudo-patriots, will insist that corruption in the United States is not as profound as in, say, India. That may well be true but is surely totally irrelevant. Are we really going to continue tolerating and encouraging corruption on all sides in the US until the people in India clean up their act? Are we going to keep bragging about our meritocracy, which does not actually exist, until all transactions in the Ukraine are beyond reproach? That is obviously a silly question.
Whether we are more or less guilty of corruption is not interesting. What is worthy of being said loud and clear is that integrity in politics, in business, in many other areas of our society is sadly lacking. The problem is in some ways more serious than it is in Ukraine or India where the existence of corruption is generally accepted. Our political leaders, our candidates for public office, rarely if ever target corruption. It has not become a public issue yet except in the polemics between opposing political parties.
There is no hope for ever cleaning up our economy or society so that everyone will truly have an equal chance as long as we are not willing to acknowledge how corrupt our current practices are.