27 May 2015

Corruption and greed in government

Frustrated with legislative and gubernatorial inaction in the face of embarrassing scandals, the attorney general of New York State takes a proposal to "End New York Corruption Now" to the people through the pages of the Albany Times Union. With the erstwhile Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader both awaiting trial on corruption charges, Eric Schneiderman offers a mix of the most-proposed remedies. He would reduce the amount anyone can donate to candidates while reducing perceived loopholes and restricting donations by lobbyists. He would expand his own capacity to prosecute "public corruption." He would minimize conflicts of interest by forbidding outside employment for legislators. So far, so good, but Schneiderman's proposal of a pay raise for legislators may cost him much of his readers' good will. He proposes it as if it would compensate for the ban on outside employment, arguing that legislators should "be paid like the full-time professionals they are." Merely to describe them that way will scandalize some readers, especially if they see the entrenched power of a "full-time professional" like Sheldon Silver, the disgraced Speaker, as a big part of the problem. Ideally a legislator should not care what he's paid. In olden times politicians often described elected service as a sacrifice of their personal interests for the public interest. It shouldn't be that drastic a sacrifice -- in fact, there should be honor in and from service -- but we don't want people to aspire to elected office out of any expectation of a big payday. The notion that politicians won't be tempted toward corruption if they're paid enough up front is naive. If what he's paid is a factor at all in his ambition, we can expect that he'll look for any opportunity he can to make more money while in office. But Schneiderman may expect higher salaries to draw a different and ideally better class of people into politics by making it more worth their while. If so, what he really should do probably is outside the purview of anti-corruption legislation, since it would involve reducing the cost of waging a political campaign.

Like everyone of like mind, Schneiderman attacks the supply side by proposing limits on what people can contribute. That's fine, but something else has to be done on the demand side to reduce costs or level the playing field. Campaign advertising must be made affordable to any credible candidate -- perhaps as determined by petitions -- or else it must be banned in the name of fairness lest the rich drown out the poor. But if such an idea is too tough a sell for some civil libertarians, perhaps a change in attitudes across the board would be easier to achieve. For starters, could we once and for all give up the idea that people who "know how to run a business" automatically make good legislators or executives, or that governments should be run "like a business?" I ask because I suspect that people who don't know how to run a business, or to run a government like one, would never think of the corrupt schemes we keep hearing about. It simply would not occur to many people to seek profit from elected office, because the profit motive isn't the primary thing in their lives. To others that may seem irresponsible, but maybe there's a sort of modesty in that attitude, as well as a possibly superior sense of responsibility, that we could use in government. Such people, most of whom can't afford political ambitions, may be less prone to corruption in office, but anti-corruption measures alone will not empower them. Radical reforms that would empower such people might actually make the sort of anti-corruption measures Schneiderman proposes unnecessary. So, Mr. Attorney General, what more have you got?


Anonymous said...

Again, I see nothing in his proposal that would punish found guilty of corruption or abuse of power. I should think that would be ample deterrent to know that, as a politician, if you get caught in one of your schemes, not only do you lose your office, your right to hold public office and your tax-payer sponsored income, but you will lose your freedom and spend years in a maximum security prison where you may be subjected to the literal version of what you figuratively gave your constituents.

Samuel Wilson said...

Agreed. Schneiderman talks about making it easier for the state to prosecute politicians -- Silver and Skelos were brought down by a federal investigator -- but he'd probably make more of an impression with the people he presumably wants to reach with his op-ed if he'd get more punitive in his rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

"... "be paid like the full-time professionals they are."
They are not full-time professionals. The legislative session runs from January to June. Of those 6 months, the "professionals" take about a total of 1 month off, so out of 12 months, they are only in Albany for about 5 months. That is no where near "full time". As for using the term "professional", I have to chuckle. Working for the legislature, I get to see the egos at play. Some of these people do, indeed, act as professionals ought, but many of them act more like petulant, spoiled teenagers.

They may not be the politicians NY needs, but they are the politicians NY deserves.