Government Corruption Is Contagious

The sleaze starts at the top

The sleaze starts at the top

When WC reported to Northwestern University Law School, in downtown Chicago, in the Fall of 1972, the very first thing he saw, before even getting out of the taxi from O’Hare Airport,1 was a Chicago Police Department officer being bribed. The cop had been giving a ticket to a man whose car was parked by the fire hydrant on Superior Street. The man got out his wallet, and peeled off a bill. The cop kept writing the ticket. The man peeled off another bill. The cop kept writing the ticket. The man’s shoulders sagged a little bit, and he peeled off another bill. The cop took the money, put away his ticket wallet and walked away.

WC and his taxi driver watched the whole thing. WC asked his driver, “You see that happen often?” The driver responded, “That’s how we do things in Chicago.”2 The second day of classes, we had a field trip to meet the Cook County Presiding Judge. The third day, the judge was indicted for soliciting and receiving bribes.

It was the waning days of the first Daley Administration, and the Daley Administration was really, really corrupt. No one ever charged Hizzoner with a crime, but his inner circle, much of the board of alderman, many municipal judges and hordes of municipal bureaucrats and police were caught and convicted.3

WC recalls a long, painful interview reported in the Chicago Tribune of a rookie Chicago policeman, who had been charged and plead to soliciting and receiving bribes. “Everyone did it,” he said. His bosses, senior police, all his colleagues. “It’s what I saw being done. I did it too. I knew it was wrong, but it was what was done.”

An that’s the thing about corruption: it’s contagious. It spreads.

Psychologists and sociologists have studied this. A recent study by Dan Ariely and Ximena Garcia-Rada showed that exposure to corruption increases corruption, even among those who reject it. Just being offered a bribe can make you more inclined to cheat. They conclude,

Sadly, a single bribe request will affect the requester and the recipient. And notably, its dominolike effect can impact many individuals over time, spreading quickly across a society and, if left unchecked, entrenching a culture of dishonesty.

Their work suggests that cultural norms and legal enforcement are key factors in shaping ethical behavior. Strong cultural norms against corruption and strong criminal prosecution when it occurs are the best way to manage the problem.

Which takes us to Donald Trump. He has altered our cultural norms. He cheats to make business for his hotels and golf courses, and to create opportunities and revenue for his Trump Organization and his children. He lies. About everything. The Mueller Report’s evidence of obstruction of justice. The Trump Foundation. Trump University. He is incapable of apology. In his desperate attempts to appeal to his base – and it is base – he lauds nazis and racists, panders to conspiracy theorists and makes unrelenting petty, personal attacks on anyone he thinks is his enemy. Trump’s business practices were suspect before he became president. Nothing changed on his election. Trump has normalized corruption.

Is it any wonder that we see corruption in other members of the Trump Administration? Joe Balash? Ryan Zinke, the disgraced Secretary of the Interior? Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of military aircraft for eight trips that cost taxpayers almost $1 million? Disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt taxpayer-funded personal travel, questionable spending decisions, use of aides to conduct personal errands and other matters? Attorney General William Barr’s Trump resort party. The list goes on and on.

The President of the United States is not only an extremely powerful position; it’s also a role model. And right now that role model is corrupt, and the taint, like ink in clear water, is spreading.



  1. This demonstrates how naive WC was on arrival in Chicago. No one sensible takes a taxi from O’Hare. You take a shuttle or, now, the “L”. 
  2. Actually, what the taxi driver said was more like, “Dat’s da way we dus tings in Chikawga,” although it’s generally accepted it’s impossible to accurately reproduce in writing a really thick, South-of-the-yards” Chicago accent. Studs Terkel came closest. 
  3. For an authoritative history of the first Mayor Daley, read Mike Royko’s excellent Boss

One thought on “Government Corruption Is Contagious

  1. The Narcissist in chief continues to be on a path to have a future word synonym coined in his “honor”. “trumpism” could well be the new term for extreme narcism in the near future. I wonder how much of Trumps “trumpism” drives the turnover rate in his administration, the revolving door between his admin and big corporations (as you know many outgoing were supposed to be regulating the corporations that start paying them as “employees”) and in general his and many of his appointees disregard for serving the people they were elected or appointed to serve. What little I know of John Daley would seem that he John Dillinger and perhaps Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolph Hitler seem that much of the “issues” they had stemmed from “trumpism”.

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