Corruption and Governance

Corruption is hard to even bound and catalog, and even harder to eliminate. Here are some obvious alternatives.

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One of the reasons for corruption being endemic almost everywhere is the huge number of ways it can be conducted. Virtually anyone in governance who makes decisions with some discretion or options can be subject to it. This means government of any level, and also large bureaucracies that have governance over some limited domains, such as purchasing agents. A list can be made that seems to go on forever: judges involved in deciding on evidence or sentencing including incarceration and fines, police with minor offenses or when scrutiny is not present, permit controllers and inspectors regarding both timing and details, license grantors, prosecutors with discretion to pass on cases or plea bargain or try, detectives with a choice of cases to attend to, contractor selectors and those who approve on change orders, infrastructure designers and approvers including eminent domain questions, materials specifiers, those establishing tariffs and taxes and fees, medical personnel deciding who will be treated and who will not, lawyers able to mount an effective defense or offense or simply go with an ineffective one, those who route traffic, those who bargain for wages and benefits, those who organize protests or do not, those who choose sites for expositions or conferences or major sports events, and many, many more. This is simply a partial list of those who might have the opportunity to seek out or respond to corrupt offers.

The mechanisms for corruption can be diverse as well: secret meetings between the parties or agents of them, communications via public means or private means, in code or unencrypted, with payoffs specified or left vague, basic understandings of how things work that do not require meetings, and certainly others. Guarantees might exist or not. Partial payments may happen or not.

Payoffs, that which the decision-maker receives, can be legal or illegal, which depends on the laws of the jurisdiction involved. Some almost humorous situations exist where the potential corruptee, to coin a word, is also responsible for anti-corruption law, and so can leave loopholes to avoid any illegality for his/her chosen method. Payoffs can be direct or disguised as something for services rendered, either around the time of the corrupt act or later, even much later. The payoff might be a promotion, such as a judge to a higher seat. The payoff might involve a friend or relative of the corruptee rather than the corruptee him/herself. The payoff could be a legitimate cover, such as a book advance for something that will be ghost-written as part of the payoff. The payoff could be in the form of donations to any cause at all, one which benefits the corruptee or his/her friends or relatives or anyone they favor.

Corruption can be done as a barter trade, where one decision-maker does something for another, who returns the favor. It could involve a triangular trade, where A makes a decision to benefit B, who makes a decision to benefit C, who makes a decision to benefit A. There is almost no limit to the ways that corruption can happen, who can be corrupted, how and when the benefits arrive for the corruptor and how and when the payoff arrives for the corruptee. It could be as simple as a bottle of vodka for a form being filed properly or a billion-dollar tax break. It could be an expenses-paid vacation at a tropical resort or a box seat for a sold-out sports event, all in exchange for simply purchasing something or causing something to be purchased. It could be a new home at half price in exchange for a permit to build a hundred homes in a restricted area. It could be a political donation in return for using one’s influence to mask something that might otherwise be objected to by the public. It could literally be anything.

In a socio-economic system that is being devised to be an improvement over existing systems, how should corruption be handled? First off, should it simply be ignored, and the socio-economic system be constructed to be as immune to it as possible? Alternatively, should it be a main focus of the design, which mechanisms employed to reduce it? Is it even possible to minimize it, given the variety and diversity of ways in which it can occur?

One aspect is that it does take some time to set up, if on a large scale. A new appointee or electee might not be ready to commit such acts, and time is needed to soften his/her resolve to remain free from such a taint. Others might be quite ready from their first day to compromise their position. Besides the readiness or unreadiness of new position-holders to commit to corrupt actions, there might be some time needed to develop the trust involved and to generally determine how to manage the corruption. New agreements would need to be set up. Thus, some partial amelioration might be obtained in a system which requires frequent change of individuals for any position which might be subject to corruption.

Short duration appointments also eliminate one motivation for corruption, which is to secure the position for long periods. If the socio-economic system forbids this, then there is no need to utilize corrupt means to preserve a position. Although a loss of efficiency is unavoidable, that loss needs to be traded off with the gains that less corruption provide.

What exactly are the losses caused by corruption? Possible losses are as diverse as the types of corrupt actions that could be taken. Consider first purchasing and contracting decisions. If there is simply a loss of some percent in costs, this would be almost not worth much effort to stop. If the corruption could lead to a doubling or tripling of costs, then there should be some efforts to catch it and stop it which might entail a cost of a tenth or so of the total cost involved. These efforts would involve verification of designs, testing of materials, and inspection, inspection and inspection.

The other side of this aspect of corruption is that of the consequences of being found out. If there are almost none, then corruption is being aided and abetted by the system. If they are severe, the opposite situation happens. One part of this puzzle involves specifying who can discover and investigate the corruption, which includes whistleblowers. A thoroughly corrupt governance apparatus will punish any attempt at whistleblowing, so there might to be said to be a critical mass factor in corruption. When it becomes too entrenched and widespread, it will act to preserve and protect those guilty of it.

This feature means that there might have to be anti-corruption actions that are very different in a situation where almost no one is corrupt as compared to one where almost everyone in governance decision-making is. For the low incidence situation, whistleblowing and the protection provided to those who do it should be a serious deterrent. But for the high incidence situation, something outside individual action will be the only course possible. A periodic review of all possible corruption situations by investigative teams with broad powers would seem to be the only way to clear up a network of corrupt individuals.

One typical slogan used for the battle against corruption is more transparency. Some types of payments leave trails, such as financial transfers or sales of items for less than they are worth. Other types of payments leave none whatsoever, such as the promise of a promotion within some number of years following a judge’s decision on some matter. Since promotions are largely a matter of some single or multiple individuals’ review of qualifications, they are not subject to any transparency checks. Nor are extraordinarily high payments for simple services, as the selection of the amount to pay for a service of any notable is subject to the whim of the payor, and who can decide if such amounts are reasonable. Thus, some corruption is beyond the reach of any agency, as it is wholly within the bounds of potentially non-corrupt transactions, and the intent might have been not recorded or if recorded, well hidden. The other side of this unassailable corruption is when the corruption is perfectly legal, there being no law against the particular type of arrangement made. It is particularly unassailable when the same group which uses a particular type of corruption is the group which writes the regulations or laws which define the boundaries of behavior that is acceptable or not.

This last problem can be remedied in a new socio-economic system by ensuring that anti-corruption laws are written by a specialized task force which does not have any other responsibilities that could lead to them being subject to anyone’s desire to corrupt. They simply take action when needed.

Thus, anti-corruption activities include: forced short duration of any position where corruption might arise; protection for whistleblowers; a periodic special task force for investigating corruption with no fixed agenda but the responsibility to look for it everywhere possible; a specialized legislative task force with no other responsibilities than to write laws to prevent corruption, including transparency requirements and also boundaries on acceptable behavior. One further step is to made the holding of such a corruption-prone position sufficiently worthwhile, in and of itself, so that anti-corruption measures will not severely diminish the cadre of applicants. It does no good to have a strong anti-corruption tenor if it means that there are hardly any capable people interested in undergoing the scrutiny necessary to hold such positions.

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