With global markets come global politics

February 07, 1997|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- The seedy drama of Asian money in American politics can be interpreted as a morality play showing how corrupt our politics has become. But the current fuss over foreigners bearing gifts is a timely warning that our political fund-raising tactics are opening us to world-class corruption.

In almost all parts of this wide-open world, moneyed families routinely adopt the politicians or generals, the holy men or other ideologues, who take governmental power. At a lower level are DTC payments to regulators and bureaucrats with the day-to-day power to speed up or slow down development and profit-taking. That is the norm, ''the system,'' from Brazil to Borneo to Belarus ++ -- and to a lesser degree, in countries as developed as France or Japan.

Payoffs, bribes and silent partners are considered the price to be paid (often quite willingly) for the maintenance of order and the protection of property and profits. But what is business in most places is a felony in the U.S.

It is amazing that there is so little corruption in the governments of the United States. This is an American paradox: In the capital of capitalism, where money is king in spirit, the men and women with the most power, from president to patrolmen, are relatively poor in this richest of all lands.

There is almost a pattern to our political crime -- or two patterns, one for each of our political parties. Republicans, men of means, get in trouble in public offices for doing what they did in the private sector, seizing investment opportunities, doing a little insider trading, the usual stuff. But what is legal or tolerated in private business is often against the law for public officials.

A part of the job

Democrats in the public sector often live beyond their means, hobnobbing with favor-seekers who pick up the check after a good meal or a few days in the sun. Some of those office holders and bureaucrats get used to that higher life and think of it as part of the job. Then comes the day when they face college tuitions and do not come close to making the kind of money ($25,000 a year per child after taxes) it takes to send their children to the schools of their high-life buddies.

The temptation is obvious. Whether the civil servant is a policeman or a legislator, his or her services are worth a great deal to people who can afford to pay for anything from parking in a restricted zone to a word or comma in a law that can generate millions in private profit.

Now, the United States and its leaders are promoting and seeking profit everywhere on the planet. The global economy and all that. That's great stuff for the moneyed families. So, they say, what about some global politics? Can we get to the president? Maybe a mayor, a senator or two?

The answers to those questions are confusing, so far, to the foreigners bearing gifts. Very few Americans in public position .. are on the take. And very few Americans representing global corporations are willing to violate U.S. law by offering bribes to foreigners. Or, perhaps, it is that in our kind of price-competitive capitalism, the margins of profitability are too small to absorb the percent or so cost of world-class corruption.

Puritan ethics, specific laws, open decision-making, two-party political competition and the intrusive journalism of the U.S. may inoculate us from the crippling corruption of Pakistan or the Philippines. But global markets will bring some level of global politics. In the end the most corrupt countries will become less so, and the least corrupt countries will become more corrupt.

That is not good news for Americans. It is clear that foreign businessmen carrying the world corruption virus have figured out where we are most vulnerable. Our systems of political fund-raising are a disgrace, ripe for outbreaks of world-class corruption we have rarely seen hereabouts.

Leaders of both our political parties, from President Clinton down, are not men and women who would take envelopes of cash for themselves. But they have been enthusiastically pushing the envelope of legality in soliciting checks for their national committees. That is bad news. We should make haste to clean up the pits of political begging and government-for-sale before, not after, we learn how the rest of the world steals.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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