Nov 25, 2016


May 25, 2015  Rota, Spain
Everywhere we look we seem to find evidence of corruption.  Here in Spain there are continuous cases of politicians, bankers, and businesspersons involved in shady and illegal transactions.  The United States is even more corrupt.  The corruption is virtually systemic although the media is a part of it all and therefore it doesn't get the attention given to corruption in Europe.  It is very common for ordinary people to wring their hands and complain about how rotten the system is.  And it is.

So there is a great temptation to blame the wealthy, the bankers, the politicians - those who are obviously benefiting from the corruption. But wait a minute.  I am going to assert that Western Capitalist society is corrupt from the bottom to the top - few people excluded.

There was a time when personal integrity was fundamental and so common that, those who had demonstrated a lack of integrity were virtually shunned.  I remember as a boy stories of people who walked miles through the snow to return a few pennies given in error as change during a transaction.

I was hugely impressed by the documentary movie on the American Civil War presented by Ken Burns. In it he read letters by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, written from the battlefield to their families.  Many of them were going into battle the next day in battles that could be expected to wipe out 80 percent of their infantry units. So the soldiers were saying goodbye with the expectation of almost certain death the next day.  In their letters, they spoke of their dedication to the cause for which they fought and of their loyalty to their comrades in arms. Their eloquence and nobility seemed so strange to our modern ears.

In those days, American was still a rural society and our personal values were those of a people who knew their neighbors.  We were people whose relationships were almost always with others that they knew. Strangers were rare and perhaps a little suspect until better known.  Here in Spain people lived in villages in which they knew everyone.  So the integrity of an individual was well known - and respected if worthy.

But over time, we became an urban society.  We deal continuously with strangers.  We pass through the street without knowing anyone that we see.  In small towns, some of the old culture lingers among groups of neighbors.  But in general, we are much more anonymous.  If we do something selfish, immoral or even illegal, those who see us will not know that.  There are fewer informal consequences for our actions.  If we are not officially caught with our hands in the cookie jar, we just got away with a cookie.

Gradually our personal values shifted.  We became more selfish.  It became a virtue to advance oneself and ones friends without much regard for the consequences of our actions on invisible others. Here in Spain, a person who knows how to play the system is considered a "listo"... a person who knows how things work and knows how to take advantage.  Being "listo" has both good and bad connotations, but the most successful people are generally the most "listo".

When I studied Law, my fellow students were there to position themselves to make a good living. There were a few idealists like me who wanted to make society more just, but most were there as a stepping stone to a comfortable life.  And who can blame them.  It is not a bad thing.  But law is based on an adversarial process where the lawyer does everything possible for the client on the theory that the other side is also going to do everything possible and in the legal battle, the truth will come out.  Well, in the real world, more money buys better representation and more money usually wins. Lawyers are accomplices in legal robberies.

Over time, lawyers have taken large corporate clients whose profits are frequently not in the best interests of the general public.  Whenever a corporation has some kind of crisis, they call in their lawyers and public relations specialists before making any kind of statement. This is the kind of corruption that draws public attention.

Our system is now so corrupt that reform seems almost hopeless.  There are few people in power who don't have a stake in the status quo.  The media seems dis-inclined to ferret out corruption. The corporations are firmly in control. And the executives of a corporation have a fiduciary duty to realize maximum profits for their shareholders.  If they were to reduce profits in order to reduce pollution, the executives could face lawsuits from shareholders. So nothing is going to change until the public becomes really enraged - but really enraged.

But at the same time, we need to look to our personal integrity. If we are willing to accept in ourselves actions which are self-benefiting although damaging to others, then we are part of the problem. So, lets get enraged but clean up our own lives first.