Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Vice is but the Shadow of Virtue

If it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them
from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil
cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Corruption is usually thought of as bribes, whether small or large, paid to someone who is in a position to cut corners for the buyer, often in the context of dealing with some large bureaucratic organization that has a decision-making power in some market and/or governmental matter.

The picture that emerges from “Dirty Business: Exploring Corporate Misconduct,” by Maurice Punch, is of hierarchical organizations such as corporations or government agencies which over time develop an internal culture and a feeling that they understand their mission and operation better than the outside world. Moreover, strict, by-the-book, hierarchical function is not really the way human nature works, and it can also be very cumbersome in a large organization.

Thus, for several fundamental reasons, the people who operate the organization cut corners, mostly small and innocuous ones, in order to make things work. Punch sums up the situation thusly: “The organization is the villain; our inability to control it is the essential message of this book and that represents a substantial challenge for society.” (p. 214)

Based on a review of the literature and notable case studies, Punch defines 6 types of deviance as a way of characterizing this continuum:
- informal rewards to individuals – perks, often non-monetary
- work avoidance/manipulation – not working at work, gossip at the water cooler…
- employee deviance against the organization – absenteeism, theft, sabotage, fraud…
- employee deviance for the organization – fudging the law for profit
- organizational deviance for the organization – letting marketing trump engineering
- managerial deviance against the organization - embezzlement

Thus, corruption is not one simple obvious thing but rather a continuum of departures from law, regulation, and/or policy that range from harmless to lethal. Ken Silverstein reports in detail (in Harper’s as well as in “Turkmeniscam”) on facts which create a picture of corruption among Washington lobbyists and Congress. Corruption is also endemic to the criminal justice system, notably in law enforcement's code of silence.

Law enforcement and the military are particularly susceptible to the corruption that follows when the ends are used to justify the means. The war on drugs is a prototypical example. It appears that Jewish traditions also include the code of silence common among police and gangs.

Accountability is widely hallowed, but whistleblowers who break a group's code of silence and cause embarrassment are rarely appreciated, and when scandals do become public, it’s usually those lower in the hierarchy who take the rap for the organization while top leadership may not even get a slap on the wrist. Fear of public embarrassment and of loss of reputation/trust often motivate organizational tendencies toward excessive secrecy. And subordinates whose survival depends on their jobs feel understandably reluctant to share inconvenient truths with top leadership which rarely wants to hear them. 

Punch also addresses the tendency of government agencies to prefer to negotiate with regulated and errant industries, rather than adjudicate and apply proportionate penalties which may require mountains of paperwork. This can lead to 'regulatory capture,' especially when the agency has a dual mission of promotion and regulation, such as the USDA or the NRC. Industrial corporations can easily be seen as too essential to risk damaging, even if they may not be too big to fail. After all, most regulated industries provide important products as well as jobs. And the trend of U.S. companies taking up official residence in tax havens makes regulation even more challenging.

Both the size of an organization and the size of the monetary market system create distances between producer and consumer, as well as between centralized governments and individual citizens, that make transparency impractical. Widespread fixation on monetary profit, as well as the passage of time, induce mission creep away from the original non-monetary purpose. When the ends are used to justify questionable means, the latter can be expected to sabotage the former. "The means are the ends in the making."

And increasingly sophisticated advertising, PR, and bread-and-circuses news confuses most people, and blurs ethical boundaries even more. Swimming in a sea of propaganda, too few develop good bullshit detectors.

In a local Sacramento conference in 1991, Garrett Hardin shared with this writer his conclusion that any group of people larger than about 25 would begin to develop cliques among themselves. And prehistorically traditional tribes and villages tended to remain small, perhaps at most several hundred, being limited by ecological resources and human wisdom. Thus, the larger organizational sizes seen in the last few centuries, as well as prior exceptions such as Rome, Alexandria, the Aztec and Mayan cities, or imperial China, are rather different than the experience of the vast majority of humans who have ever walked the earth.

So the large organizations—cities, states, countries, multinational corporations, etc.—which now form the majority of most people’s experience, create a political and social environment very very different from the environment in which we evolved. It seems very likely that such large, centralized, hierarchical and authoritarian organizations could never have arisen, nor reached the current extent of power at a distance, without cheap fossil fuels.

Relative to muscle power, a human would have to work for a good 100 hours straight, and a horse about 10 hours, to generate the amount of energy available from a gallon of gasoline. Thus, fossil fuels create a physical/biological context such as huge corporations and empires which are radically different from the groups which we are evolved for.

So what's the solution to the challenge of stepping back from bigness and recreating local control and relocalization with the kinds of checks and balances that will minimize cheating and corruption?

One likely path is offered by Elinor Ostrom et al in the 8 criteria they have discerned for reliable long-term sustainable management of common-pool resources:

1. Clear and accepted boundaries of the group of users and of the common resource
2. Rules governing use of the common resource match local conditions & needs for labor/money inputs
3. Most of those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules
4. Those who monitor the health and harvest of the resource are accountable to the users or are the users
5. Rule violations receive graduated sanctions that depend on seriousness and context
6. Local, low-cost and prompt means are available for dispute resolution
7. Users have long-term tenure rights, and distant centralized authorities respect the rule-making rights of the group of users

For common-pool resources that are part of larger systems:
8. Harvest, use, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution and governance are organized in multiple layers of nested institutions. 

But bottom-line, people have to tell each other the truth, and first they have to be true to themselves. No society, government or economy can thrive without common honesty. The pursuit of happiness is hobbled when cheaters prosper.