Sunday, December 14, 2008

Power corrupts

I have friends in politics and civil service; friends who I think are honest and hardworking. I think it is impossible to ignore though, the prevalence of dishonest conduct among politicians. Today Rod Blagojevich is the national poster boy for political corruption, but in almost every town and hamlet across this country there is a similar story of someone who betrayed public trust.

Civil servants of every color and creed, of every economic background and religion, and at every level of the food chain seem to fall victim to greed. Campaign trails are filled with promises of rooting out corruption, total transparency and good intentions. The road to hell?

The corrupt politician has gone the way of the sleazy used car salesman - an accepted cliche. Every one assumes their government representatives are less than honest. Just read through your local paper's editorial section to know how much faith your neighbors have in your mayor or councilman.

Is there something intrinsic to politics that makes corruption par for the course? Are the politicians that stay above the fray just better at the game? It certainly does not take a genius to know better than to make crooked deals and dates on the phone a la Blagojevich and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. So are 'honest' politicians merely smarter politicians?

What is the answer to corrupt politics? More checks and balances, including term limits is most certainly the place to start. We should also consider what politicians make. Politicians - particularly those with administrative responsibilities - manage billion dollar budgets, make decisions that affect thousands of government employees and millions of residents, and interact with businessmen who make many times what they make. While the annual salary of mayors and governors range widely with city and state size and population, municipal administrators typically make more than those elected. Senators make $162,100 per annum. Clearly not the kind of work one goes into for the money. The president of the United States makes $400,000 - far more than the average national salary, but less than most CEOs. It is not surprising that politicians look for the perks - and not just the ones that make up the official compensation package.

In Miami-Dade County, commissioners have been trying for years to convince voters to change the County Charter to give themselves a salary increase. Their current salary of just over $6,000 is obviously not a living wage and regularly raises questions of questionable other employment and conflicts of interest. Every time the matter has made its way unto the ballot, voters have overwhelmingly rejected the increase - suggesting residents want the county legislators to do the work out of the goodness of their hearts. Time and time again, commissioners have shown that goodness cannot be relied on.

No doubt, some politicians will be astute enough to get past any number of checks and balances and some will be dishonest no matter what they're paid. Even knowing well the stories of crooked politicians who languished in prison wont deter some people. It is, after all, not merely the pursuit of wealth that corrupts. The power to do good, which public office presents, is in itself a corrupting force.

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