A friend of mine sent me an
article by NYT columnist Gail Collins. While I'm not familiar with her, the
article's topic of government corruption has been on my mind a lot lately.
I live in a Detroit suburb, and the big joke of 2008 was when the city's
mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sent to jail. Signs appeared everywhere that read,
"Detroit: A City So Tough, Even Our MAYOR Is In Prison!" The
trial brought out details of rampant corruption, but this is nothing new to
Detroiters who vividly recall the long, twisted reign of Coleman A. Young, the nepotism, illegal surcharges on utility bills and shady, off-the-books
dealings with oil companies.
Ms. Collins wrote about all of the responses she got when she wrote about which city had "the most awful political culture," comparing Illinois to New York. Many readers were outraged that THEIR city wasn't included! Politicians are no longer trying to be subtle. Obvious corruption, it seems, is epidemic.
She goes on to say -- "we should try to figure out how to make the evil-doing go away rather than reveling in it," and offered some suggestions as to how such a feat might be accomplished. She concludes by saying, "I would like to see all legislators be required to live in a large dormitory with lumpy beds whenever they're in their state capital. And to eat all their meals in a cafeteria that serves a lot of chipped beef." This started me thinking that she might just be onto something here! I mean, It's amazing, isn't it? Like a Freudian textbook; the very personality type drawn to power is turning up in mayor's offices, governors mansions and state capitals everywhere. So why is anyone surprised?
I have always maintained that calling anyone except, perhaps, the President anything but "public servant" is a mistake. When you start tossing around terms like official, leader, lawmaker, and especially your honor, those in office tend to start buying it. To me, they are a step BELOW garbage men. They sit on their asses all day, pushing around paper, pontificating and doing glorified homework assignments. If they disappeared for a week, month or a year, nobody would miss them. My garbage man, on the other hand, actually does something for me! If he disappeared for more than a week or two, EVERYBODY would be complaining!
Public servants need to be reminded, by their job title at the very least, that they are there to serve, not dictate. They represent ME, and are obligated by their office to consider my concerns when considering or introducing new legislation. Granted, I'm not their only constituent, and if my opinion is a minority one, then they must consider the weight of the overall will of The People. It is also true that the majority isn't always right either, and a public servant can and should consider the weight of, say, scientific arguments, when applicable, and reason. This is their full-time job, so they have all the time in the world to do this kind of research! They may also have tech-savvy interns to help them.
Ah, but then there's that ever-present root of all evil -- money. And this is where so much goes wrong. Special interests (a.k.a. corporations who want their way, not to be confused with groups of organized constituents) will seek to influence an otherwise impartial public servant/legislator so that they'll gain some advantage, such as being allowed to pollute without penalty, skirt zoning requirements, or escape from anti-trust laws, etc., using wads of cash. Contrary to what some believe, this will happen whether or not we pay these public servants well, or if we treat them like paupers. So there is, of course, only one way to fix this...
Pay them little or nothing. Public service should be just that -- service. We send kids over to Iraq and Afghanistan to face enemy fire and death and pay them sub-minimum wages. It's only reasonable that we pay glorified paper-pushers even less.
History, both ancient and recent, has shown that the "attracting the best talent with higher wages" theory is rubbish. Dedicated people will still flock to fill the position, but instead of criminally inclined power mongers, those positions will now attract people with a genuine impulse to help their fellow man. (Like many of our underpaid police officers and firefighters.) A gangster mentality would be replaced by a Peace Corps mentality.
We could safeguard the system even more by making public servants dependent on their jobs! How so? By taking a lesson from churches. In many church denominations, when a new pastor/minister is needed, they put the word out and are bombarded with applications; yet most churches pay very little, at least in cash. Instead, they provide the pastor with a nice home, a vehicle, and a stipend for groceries and other essentials. In those churches that operate this way, it's atypical for a pastor to do anything criminal, or risk being fired, because now he loses everything! The kids are yanked out of their school system, the paltry income stops and he doesn't even have a car to sleep in!
Can you imagine if we did this with our legislators? Give 'em a bungalow, a Ford Focus and a gas card, and tie their life to staying honest. Periodically audit their bank accounts to look for evidence of bribes and payoffs -- all part of the job. Make public service be SERVICE. Only after a certain amount of service should any lifetime benefits be offered, akin to the gold watch when one retires from a private sector job. Reward honesty and integrity so that the incentive to do what's right overrides any short-term benefits from graft and corruption.
And last, but certainly NOT least -- and the hardest one to pull off -- cancel the so-called "Santa Clara Decision" (something only the Supreme Court can do), rescind corporate "personhood" when it comes to civil rights, and disallow corporations ANY representation via lobbyists. Disallow any corporate contributions to any candidate, party or political group.
Corporations are for-profit groups, and as such, should be neutral when it comes to politics. Nobody's free speech rights are violated, as all owners, staff/employees and associates of any given corporation still can vote and contribute as individuals. A business owner is still free to let candidates tour their plants and shake hands, and even have assemblies where he/she can extol the virtues of a candidate or policy and ask their employees to support it. Nothing really changes, with the excpetion that corporate money is removed from politics.
Combine this with TRUE campaign finance reform, where private money is removed from the political process as well -- so that the super wealthy don't have any advantage in the political process either -- and we can purge the current system, turning it back into something our founders might recognize as the democratic republic they originally fashioned for us.
We can make this happen, but only if we have the will.