Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Bribe By Many Other Names

When is a bribe a bribe? When is it a token of appreciation? And when is it a campaign contribution? Finally, why should engineers worry about these questions?

All engineering involves money, and wherever lots of money flows, you can find people who will try to get some in nefarious ways. The news that provokes these thoughts concerns one Brent R. Wilkes, a U. S. defense contractor whose enterprises have included a company that converts paper documents into digital form, and another that offers a noise-suppressing technology for military radio communications. In the nature of things, Mr. Wilkes has undoubtedly hired and paid engineers who work for these companies.

The reason Mr. Wilkes is in the news is that in order to procure defense contracts, he paid over two million dollars in cash and gifts to U. S. Rep. Randy Cunningham of California, who confessed to the bribes in a plea bargain with Federal prosecutors. Rep. Cunningham was sentenced to prison. Mr. Wilkes, for his part, feels that he himself did nothing illegal and was simply playing the game by the rules he learned. Unless a contractor pays for preferential treatment in the form of “earmarks,” according to Mr. Wilkes, he doesn’t stand a chance. The New York Times reports that over 12,000 such earmarks were inserted in this year’s Federal spending bills, amounting to a total of some $64 billion, and the number of earmarks is rising every year. Of course, not every earmark is the result of a bribe, but some clearly were.

Suppose you were an engineer working at one of Mr. Wilkes’ companies. Should this affair bother you? The writer of this blog has received in-kind support (not money) from a research center in Massachusetts that was set up via a funding mechanism that could be considered an earmark, so the question is a personal one. The answer depends on your ideas about how government should work, and what representative democracy really is.

Western democracies trace their roots to ancient Greece, where the Athenian democracy gave rise to the most influential culture the West has ever known. Plato could be called the first (and probably the best) political scientist. In The Republic, he put forward his views on the different types of government and the strengths and weaknesses of each. While it is impossible to know what Plato would think of the government of the United States today, if he were looking at how things are really done, as opposed to how we say they are done, he might well classify it as an oligarchy.

Plato defines an oligarchy as “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.” Although ownership qualifications for voters and poll taxes have been abolished in this country, we now have a system that still requires candidates for state and Federal office to raise millions of dollars, becoming temporarily rich if only for the duration of the campaign. Why? Because without cash, no one can pay for campaign ads. And since it is easier to raise money from rich people than from poor ones, guess who gets special attention at the very least, and occasionally, illegal favors such as Rep. Cunningham granted in the case of the bribes from Mr. Wilkes.

We should distinguish between legal campaign contributions made to a candidate on the one hand, and illegal bribes paid for specific legislative favors on the other hand. Unfortunately, members of Congress don’t always distinguish between the two. The point is, whether legally or illegally, money has come to have a peculiarly loud voice in U. S. government today, overpowering the voices of people who suffer injustice but don’t have money to do anything about it.

Well, what of it? Is that so bad? Plato thinks it is: “. . . in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured.” He says that just being rich doesn’t make you wise in the ways of government. All it shows is that you know how to get rich, or at least to keep the riches you inherited. The rich rulers’ “fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes.” And “oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and great poverty.” You don’t have to look very far to see both of those effects in action today.

Now, Plato doesn’t say that an oligarchy won’t work. It will, after a fashion, but if you live in an oligarchy, you should get used to certain drawbacks. Less taxes for the rich and extremes of wealth and poverty are two. The rich having virtually all the effective power is another. The worst, he says, is that being poor makes you a kind of non-person, without influence or the hope of justice.

The founders of this country did build in some property qualifications for voters in Federal elections at first. But the wave of Jacksonian democracy that swept through the country in the early nineteenth century did away with most of them, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s abolished poll taxes. At the time, people thought these were good things. They brought the country closer to the ideal enunciated by Lincoln: government of, by, and for the people, not just for some particular favored group with well-funded influence in Washington. Of course, well-funded groups with influence in Washington have been with us always. But the balance between radically egalitarian democracy and highly discriminatory oligarchy has swung back and forth over the years.

Right now, it is swinging pretty heavily toward oligarchy. If you see this as a good thing, or at least an inevitable feature of the way things are done nowadays, then maybe you would not feel a qualm at reading about the adventures of your company’s founder in the realm of bribery. After all, it seems to be only an extreme form of making campaign contributions, and who can draw the line? But if you think bribery and corruption are corrosive to the body politic and need to be fought at every turn, then you won’t be so happy at the news. Maybe you’ll quit and go into politics yourself. The least you can do is vote, and not just for the candidate who runs the most campaign ads, either.

Sources: The New York Times article on Wilkes is at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/washington/06wilkes.html. Plato’s The Republic can be found at http://www.literaturepage.com/read/therepublic, and his comments on oligarchy are from Chapter 8. I thank Jeff Bogumil, former president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, for drawing my attention to this matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment