There’s a favorite story in my family that goes something like this…
My father-in-law, a Frenchman, had just arrived in Latin America. He made his way to the government offices in the capital to get his papers in order. Upon arriving he was met by a polite doorman who, noticing his accent, addressed him as “Monsieur.” My father-in-law explained his business in broken Spanish and asked for directions to the government offices he needed. The doorman smiled a benevolent smile and, looking around at the throngs of people standing in various lines, asked him, “Do you have about $100 in cash in your wallet, Monsieur?” “Yes, I do.” “Very well, follow me.”
The doorman took my bewildered father-in-law from office to office, picking up forms, having forms stamped, speaking with officials. At each stop the doorman would ask for a few bills, the bills would be discretely handed over to a clerk or official and the transaction would take place. While others (undoubtedly lacking in cash) waited in long lines, my father-in-law and his bills kept moving.
After a number of visits the “Monsieur” had his official papers and no cash. He wondered at what had just happened. Later he would learn the phrase “paying the toll.” At each stop, the savvy doorman would bribe someone to move the case ahead. No one saw it as corruption. It was just the way things were done. The government paid everyone so poorly that the only way to survive was to live off the bribes and the favors.
The “Monsieur” also learned another phrase which most Latin Americans know by heart: “No me den, ponganme donde hay,” (“Don’t give me any, just put me near it”), a reference to the widespread use of politics and government offices to make money.
In North America we have become accustomed to looking askance at these questionable practices of other nations. We pride ourselves on the transparency and democracy of our system. What superior ethics we imagine we have.
Yet, if we look at recent events, can we still think of ourselves as incorruptible? Isn’t the phrase, “don’t give me any, just put me near it,” a fitting motto for the Enron executives, the WorldCom officers, the financiers involved in insider trading selling their stocks at inflated prices while their companies and employees went down the tubes?
When September 11 happened we thought our nation’s well being and stability was threatened by impenetrable outsiders, madmen motivated by jealousy of our “superiority.” History will show, however, that our economy came to the very edge of collapse because of the arrogant white-collar power-brokers who took the country for a ride, decimating pension plans and the confidence of the world in the United States. Greed, corruption, and a consumer society obsessed with wealth and power turned out to be our greatest enemy, a devastating weapon.