When a non-American scholar I admired let slip a casual reference to "American corruption" a few years ago, my chauvinistic pride was wounded. This isn't Mexico, after all, or even Italy, where bribes are the normal social lubricant. Still, an unsentimental examination of government dollars at work seems to confirm my friend's observation.
A small example: The U.S. government has announced plans to spend $340 million on an advertising campaign to promote the Census, including $2.5 million for ads during the Super Bowl. Though the nation has been collecting this data for 220 years, it seems we now need commercial jingles to complete the forms. Or could there be another agenda? The government, reports The Hill newspaper, will target $80 million of those dollars to racial and ethnic minorities and non-English speakers -- groups that vote disproportionately Democratic. Nor will Democrats permit efforts to limit the count to those here legally. An effort by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to exclude illegal aliens from the count went nowhere.
Illegal aliens don't (usually) vote, of course. But when they are counted in the Census, they do affect representation in the Congress. So some of the money you pay in taxes will go toward increasing the legislative clout of one party.
That same party has seen to its own perpetuation in other ways, too. Consider the $787 billion stimulus bill. Veronique de Rugy and Jerry Brito of George Mason University report that "a total of 56,399 contracts and grants totaling $157,028,362,536 were awarded in this first quarter for which Recovery.gov reports are available. The number of jobs claimed as created or saved is 638,826.54 -- an average of $245,807.51 per job."
But it gets more interesting. "There are 177 districts represented by Republicans and 259 represented by Democrats," they write. "On average, Democratic districts received 1.6 times more awards than Republican ones. The average number of awards per Republican district is 94, while the average number of awards per Democratic district is 152." Democratic districts also received nearly twice the dollar value of funds as Republican ones.
While the stimulus was sold as a solution to unemployment (it was supposed to keep the rate from going above 8 percent, remember?), unemployment has continued to climb since passage. That's not surprising when you consider that the overwhelming majority of funds (116,625 grants) have gone to governments, not the private sector (13,080 grants).
Nor does the allocation of stimulus funds appear to bear any relation to unemployment levels. North Dakota, with an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, reports 356 jobs "saved or created" with stimulus funds, more than many states with high unemployment rates. That is, if we can trust the data. It's important to bear in mind when discussing these numbers that large numbers of grantees listed on the administration's website Recovery.org (10 congressional districts in Ohio, one in Connecticut, several in Iowa and South Carolina) have proven to be nonexistent.
Some private contractors have done handsomely, though. Mark Penn, the Democratic pollster, received a contract worth $5.97 million to work on a public relations campaign to promote the national transition from analog to digital television. His firm worked for 39 days to "bolster the reach, penetration and impact of the FCC's DTV readiness messages in selected markets, specifically among the groups that had been determined to be the most at risk." It saved three jobs!
Yes, everybody does it, and Republicans are not pure either. But that's not the whole story. Conservative voters, unlike many Democrats, do not regard government as a scramble for booty. When Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., exchanged his vote on health care for a deal that would exempt Nebraska from Medicaid increases in perpetuity, only 17 percent of the voters in that conservative state approved. Nelson, who won with 64 percent of the vote in 2004, is now trailing his likely opponent by 30 points. The Republican Gov. David Heineman spoke for his state when he told Politico, "The last few days have made Nebraskans so angry that now it's a matter of principle. The federal government can keep that money."
There is no way to make government decision-making anything other than political. As James Madison reminded us, governments would not be necessary if men were angels. The best course is what the Democrats most aim to thwart -- limiting the scope of the state and its aggrandizing tendencies.
We're not Mexico, but we have corruption, all right.