Tag Archives: corruption

Let’s focus on Christie, starting with his past…

In the on-going realization that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was at least indirectly implicated (for systemically poor staffing choices, if not his personal involvement) in the illegal closing of most of the lanes of the George Washington Bridge, there’s been a shifting of sorts in how the issue has been discussed. With a large amount of information now released, and Christie’s office’s  intentional involvement confirmed, a lot of the criticism has actually moved from him and his staff towards those defending them. That’s not a necessarily counter-productive way of addressing the issue – after all, well-respected figures giving Christie a pass is an issue, but let’s not lose track of the radical revisiting of Christie’s record that this scandal calls for.

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For instance, what was the above? Was it really just a baffling endorsement? Or was it the result of a threat or fear of a threat? Beyond that and a million other odd “coincidences” that appear to have followed Christie throughout his years as governor, there’s also the small unknown matter of how he retained his job as a United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. In that case, Christie’s political actions are documented, and in short, it’s been established that he maintained a fraudulent corruption case for as long as possible in order to harass a Democratic state Senator.

Political cartoon showing democratic donkey telling a sprinting Christie
(Let’s not even get started on this understanding of the issue, that ignores both the corruption and its defenders in the press, from here.)

The current scandal has brought many of these old memories up, of Bush-era venality which extends as a consistent pattern of corruption to this day. The political discussion should, at least to some degree, remain centered on Christie, but what’s more, we need to acknowledge how the situation has changed. The question we need to ask ourselves is no longer whether Christie is corrupt, but what corrupt activities he engaged in either personally or through his staff.

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And you’ll like it!

TW: anti-Roma violence

So a few people have been abuzz over the recent Hungarian constitutional changes. There’s pretty clearly a precarious political situation developing in that country, as the inability to use existing hate crimes laws to prosecute anti-Roma hate crimes shows (sorry it’s only available in pdf format). I have significant qualms about the agendas pushed at times by Der Spiegel (which has supported the politicized aid stipulations put upon Greece) and by Human Rights Watch (which had many high-ranking members lobby for the Iraq War), but their reporting puts together a rather worrisome picture of Hungary’s current trajectory. Ignoring their prescriptions to the problem (since both organizations have proven all too fallible in terms of determining the correct course of action), their descriptions (which are corroborated elsewhere) tackle very different dimensions of the developing problems.

(A 2012 vigil for a 2009 killing of a Roma man and his son in Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary, from here.)

Der Spiegel’s coverage is quite clear: one issue is how Hungary is effectively creating an incentive for those educated there to stay and work there for at least a few years following their post-university entrance into the labor force. As Der Spiegel puts it, it’s a “measure meant to curb the emigration of highly-educated workers and academics”. That seems imminently reasonable for a comparatively small country with highly liberalized immigration laws that allow workers to be easily poached by other EU nations. The article briefly lays out a few other changes in the same section of new laws that the parliament has now effectively written into the constitution, but it doesn’t exactly dwell on their purpose or function.

That’s where the Human Rights Watch’s piece comes into play. It doesn’t actually examine the impacts on immigration much at all, and instead cuts straight to the heart of how life within Hungary will be impacted by the assorted other changes. In short, the results don’t sound very good. A few Fidesz (the currently governing party) officials have put out English language explanations which I won’t link to provide them any more coverage, but suffice it to say, they’re claiming that new language defining families with explicit references to sexual reproduction are no cause of concern for queer Hungarian families. They’re claiming that the Hungarian state’s preservation of a vague commitment to provide housing makes up for the de facto criminalization of homelessness. They’re pretending that preferential support of certain religious groups over others is something other than religious establishment. They’ve passed over the fact that among the new changes also allow the National Judicial Office to transfer cases (particularly political corruption cases) to inexperienced rural courts that are rarely reported on.

Many politically-active Hungarians have been raising the alarm for some time now that a tide of antisemitic and anti-Roma sentiment was rising, but that seems to have been part of a larger vision among conservative Hungarians of a better Hungary with “proper” families, no undesirable homeless, and no corruption (within eyesight or earshot). An apparent lack of Jews or Roma was merely one facet of how society needed to be reformed in their view. But what’s more, that vision comes along with laws designed to keep many younger Hungarians stuck there with them. You’ll partake in their utopia, and supposedly, you’ll like it too.

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Does corruption actually mean anything anymore?

If you’re even somewhat familiar with development studies or issues of international poverty, you’ve likely heard quite a bit about corruption in the past few years. From academic research which argues that corruption “dissipates essential resources and produces poverty” to Forbes articles that state that corruption “delays, distorts and diverts economic growth”, everyone seems to agree that corruption is slowing international development if not directly causing poverty.

I’ll be the first to admit that I think there is an actual argument to be made that corruption, while a broad category of crimes, is a negative force in many societies. Generally, it’s the illicit and unreasonable transfer of public resources into private hands or the garnishing of individuals’ resources which threatens to shut down what economists have called the virtuous circle. That said, with a recent Foreign Policy magazine piece, however, I think corruption-focused explanations of slow or otherwise lacking development have jumped the shark, linking diverse social forces and unpopular policies together as “corruption”.

To its credit, the article does point to a few scandals that are actually cases of corruption. After a lengthy description of the higher growth rates and economic successes in the first few years under the current Indian government, the article notes that now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “sits atop a mountain of dirt” and has elicited massive protests against corruption during his term. It then goes on to cite the Business Standard, which has reported that local records-keeping in the new rural jobs program (NREGA) has been fraudulent. Local officials have over-reported the days of labor provided, and pocketed the additional days’ pay. Foreign Policy then notes that the corruption surrounding the program has led to a ballooning of costs, causing the federal government’s deficit to markedly increase.

But immediately after this clear example of a corruptly run program that has been transformed from a huge assistance to rural workers into an unproductive cost for the whole of India, Foreign Policy continues, “Singh’s jobs program is not the only indication that India is resurrecting its statist past.” Apparently, readers are intended to see NREGA as either innately corrupt as it’s a government program or the description of corruption that was the backbone of the previous paragraph as merely incidental to the sinister statism of NREGA. One of the first examples provided of the returning statism, however, is the scandal surrounding Indian-made Aakash tablets – which the Fast Company article cited by Foreign Policy unambiguously depicts as the Indian government being fleeced by fraudulent private contractors. How this pertains to a state-focused developmental strategy (when the state subcontracted much of the process) or corruption (when the state is presented as having selected a particular company purely based on price) is left unclear.

Instead, the readers are whisked away to a litany of environmentally-themed complaints – namely that Vedanta-owned mines have been shut down. Of course, the government isn’t presented as siding with the mass protests against those mining operations, but merely being vaguely “statist” and perhaps by implication “corrupt”. The actions of the Indian government are honestly to be expected, given the lengthy history of calamities for public health and safety (Warning: discussion of Union Carbide leak at Bhopal) as the result of lax environmental policies at foreign-managed factories, mines, or other industrial centers. That’s to say nothing of the clear push from the public for domestic and democratic control of India’s natural resources.

From that discussion, the article shifts away to former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who opposed giving Walmart a partial share in domestic clothing stores. That naturally leads the article back to its original point on corruption – namely with Mukherjee’s role in legislating a retroactive tax on British-owned Vodafone in direct opposition to an Indian Supreme Court ruling. The article at least briefly acknowledges that what Vodafone is being pursued for is in effect international tax evasion on a massive scale even if it failed to acknowledge the Indian Supreme Court’s history of bias towards the wealthy. Still, the article fails to overtly recognize that this incident is hardly corruption, even if a worrisome challenge to the rule of law and certain democratic norms. Corruption is a specific problem, independent from upsets in governmental chains of authority or legitimacy.

But that’s ultimately the effect of this article – a confusion of what corruption even necessarily means. The final paragraph that describes the endemic corruption in India contains confusing passages, such as:

“As for corruption, though Singh’s personal decency remains largely above reproach, nobody can say the same for his government. On Singh’s watch a new ‘resource raj‘ has risen from the ashes of the license-permit raj, in which the government, not private business, decided everything from the location of a factory to how many widgets it could produce.”

How the state-centered development through a “resource raj” is innately corrupt is left unsaid. Woven into the description of corruption in India is a criticism of numerous political practices (most clearly regulatory state programs and the challenges to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy) that aren’t necessarily corruption, per se. Confusingly, many protests against the Supreme Court have been founded on seeing it as abetting corruption, yet this article implies that legislative efforts on those issues are in fact examples of corruption themselves. The only two examples of actual corruption in the article – the scandals surrounding NREGA and the “2G scandal” – concern the inexcusable failures of the few federal programs aimed at helping rural and poor Indians. The article then lists other efforts that are “corrupt” – subsidies to domestic industries to make former luxuries accessible to the average Indian, attempts to empower local communities with occasional control over mineral and other public resources, and efforts to address tax evasion by wealthy companies with monopolistic power over the Indian market.

Corruption seems to have become an elastic term that can be used to justify classist attacks on policy, while occasionally noting actual cases of bribery of or fraud by public officials. Even that Foreign Policy article itself begins to admit this in its conclusion, disparaging that Prime Minister Singh’s policies have secretly always been “solidly redistributionist” as if redistribution of wealth would be a terrible proposal in a country with a huge and growing gap between economic classes. The article likewise argues that these “statist” and “redistributionist” notions are the result of the Congress Party which (as the article laments) remains convinced “that India needs welfare programs more than it needs jobs”. In ignoring that the leading corruption scandal was a program designed to create temporary employment, what will the writers for Foreign Policy call Prime Minister Singh next? The food stamp Prime Minister?

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