In case you have been living at the bottom of the proverbial mineshaft, or possibly studying for finals, the Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has been arrested. His most interesting offense: soliciting bribes for -- in other words, attempting to sell outright -- Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
Obama wanted him to name one of his (Obama's) assistants, Valerie Jarrett to the seat. When Blago asked what he would get in return, he was told "appreciation." A modern,sophisticated politician would play along and wait for the "appreciation" to come his way. But no.
Blago's reaction, according to an ABC news story relayed at Reason Hit and Run, included the following:
"I've got this thing and it's f***ing golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for f***in' nothing..." [said Blagojevich].It seems another candidate for the appointment had offered him a million dollars.
Told by two other advisers he has to "suck it up" for two years, the FBI says it heard Blagojevich complain he has to give this "motherf***er [the president-elect] his senator. F*** him. For nothing? F*** him."
The governor is heard saying he will pick another candidate "before I just give f***ing [Senate Candidate l] a f***ing Senate seat and I don't get anything.
This is crude, blatant corruption, but it seems to me that in its smooth, sophisticated way, what Obama was doing was corrupt as well. By law, these interim Senators are appointed by the governor of the relevant state, not by the senator who is resigning, and not be the president or the president-elect.
In requesting Jarrett as his successor, Obama was asking for something to which he had no legal right. By the tacit assurance, which the modern, sophisticated politician understands well enough, that those who play along will be taken care of, he was in effect offering something in exchange for it.
The difference can be put in the language of economic anthropology. By refusing to hand over the goods unless specified, sufficiently attractive payment is made, the governor was engaged in a trade. By requesting the goods, with the understanding that some non-specific future benefit to be decided on by the donor will come the recipient's way in the future, Obama was engaging in gift-exchange.
Both are forms of exchange. There are powerful arguments against trading political power for stated amounts of goods and services, but the best ones are also good against the other sort of exchange as well. In other words, what Obama was doing is wrong in basically the same sort of way as what Blago was doing. That's why we have a lot of odd-sounding laws against lobbyists buying lunch for legislators and policemen accepting gifts from people they serve.
Of course there is one big difference: What Obama was doing is not illegal and in fact is constantly going on in our system. It was by similar methods that JFK got his brother Teddy into his Senate seat.
In the days of George Washington Plunkitt, the tendency of officials to be corrupt was understood. The solution then favored was to not give government too much to do, so that the inefficiency, venality, and hypocrisy of officials could not do too much mischief. The solution now favored is to pass laws against every possible transgression and then to kid ourselves about what is really happening.
Blago is a crude jerk, but he does have one virtue that crude jerks do have: a certain sort of honesty. He gives us a glimpse of what is really always going on.