How to Tell if Graft is Honest? Does it Matter?

Yoni Appelbaum offers an interesting article speculating whether Donald Trump is seeking to bring back “honest graft.”

A few disclaimers.  I’m a big fan of the idea, at least, of “honest graft” and, in fact, I don’t think it is possible to conduct politics without some form of graft.  However, what exactly it means for graft to be “honest,” I might have some issues with.

George Washington Plunkitt, who is usually credited with inventing the term “honest graft” described it as, in effect, the politician taking a cut while serving the public interest. In other words, the machine boss might ensure that the working class people get decent wages by pulling the appropriate strings.  For his endeavor, he gets to enrich himself by taking kickbacks.

But all politics features some form of redistribution and “kickbacks”:  those who have power naturally accumulate wealth, either for themselves or for their allies, through the conduct of politics.  Accumulation of wealth motivates people.  Even if it is not the final goal, rewarding people via wealth provides an excellent means to incentivize them to take certain actions or to keep them content, at minimum.  This is true regardless of the polity, regime type, or whatever.  Meritocracy is no exception to this generalization:  Andrew Gelman, in one of his many insightful and perceptive moments, described “meritocracy” as a system where the people with “merits” (whatever they are) have the right to give stuff to their friends and family.  Or, in other words, all politics are systems where the power to engage in graft is distributed according to some set of rules.  We might accept meritocracy if only we believe that the access to “merit” is somehow equitably and sufficiently randomly distributed so that almost anyone has a chance to benefit from it, i.e. if it is sufficiently “open and honest.”  If “merit” becomes a codeword to keep the rabble out and redistribute the goodies only among a select cabal who know the secret handshake, it becomes “dishonest.”

In other words, what makes graft “honest” is not whether the actions are noble or not–who knows what that means–but rather, the breadth of the beneficiaries.  Meritocracy may or may not be “honest,” regardless of how qualified and deserving the beneficiaries (think they) are.  If only a tiny fraction of the people get benefits and they get to keep the benefits only among themselves, no matter the nature of their “merits,” this is not exactly an honest graft.  Often, the way the “meritorious” justify their own merits furthermore ensures that their graft is, indeed, dishonest:  I need to only remind the reader of the strange evolution of “evolutionism,” exhaustively documented by Stephen Jay Gould, as a self-justifying semimythological propaganda that deviated quite far from its scientific roots for the benefit of the self-claimed “meritorious” grabbing all they could for themselves and keeping the “undeserving” out.  A lot of Panglossian wonkism, by serving to justify the status quo in the rose-colored interpretation of the data and myopic and uncritical reliance on theories (that decided take little or no interest in seeking how the truth is actually different from the theories) serves much the same role.

In a sense, this is as much a crisis of “science” as for politics–as the two must merge when “science” becomes a servant of politics.  By becoming exclusivist and elitist, “science” itself has become undemocratic and “dishonest.”  While people generally trust “science,” the same does not appear to be true with regards the politicized aspects of science–“social sciences” in general, climate sciences, and for a significant number of people, evolutionary biology.  It is not a function of “ignorance vs. knowledge,” but the consequence of politicization:  they serve what their critics see, rightly, as “dishonest” form s of graft justified by a bunch of gobbledygook that may or may not be factually accurate…but whether they are true or not is irrelevant.

What made G. W. Plunkitt’s graft “honest” was that the benefits his regime dispensed were obvious and understandable.  He gave his supporters good wages, clean streets, and whatever it is that they valued and he made sure that he and his machine were responsible for them.  What is it that the wonks offer that the voters actually can understand and value?  They cover themselves in data and theories of many colors whose relevant is completely lost.  They demand real and significant sacrifice for goals whose aim is not readily understood by their audiences who see little or no benefits for them.  To paraphrase Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character from Jerry Maguire, they don’t need explanation.  They need to be shown what’s in it for them, in an honest and easily understandable fashion.  This is what makes a graft honest.  If you cannot, then offer them something else that they CAN understand.  If you don’t want to do that, then you’re a liar, crook, and a thief, however noble and “honorable” if your true intentions are–perhaps a stupid liar, crook, and thief, if you don’t even enrich yourself with the loot you’re effectively stealing through your dishonest graft.

Honest graft is what made American democracy work.  Politicians delivered goods that their supporters understood and appreciated in every corner of the country, whether they were mere side payments for larger projects or ends in themselves.  This is how the coalition behind the New Deal, the Great Society, the Cold War foreign policy, and the Reagan tax reform was created and maintained.  However, this made “great ideas” expensive.  In a sense, Matt Stoller’s recent excellent article in The Atlantic was  how exactly the honest graft became unfashionable in American politics last few decades.  If the goal of politics is to make great policy in the abstract, why do you need to pay off a bunch of farmers who have nothing to do with that policy?  Side payments to the farmers become a waste.  The institutions that allow farmers to collect payments become a waste.  The farmers themselves become a waste.  Thus the stage is set up for rigging the institutions, to allow the minimum winning coalitions, in every possible sense, to maximize the gains for themselves.  Of course, the farmers won’t stand for it, and they will try to fight back.  This is how society destabilizes itself.

This is also how the Soviet society unraveled when its economy fell apart, in a sense:  every economic enterprise in USSR ran, in addition to their economic functions like building truck engines, all manner of basic services that sustained the lives of their workers that had nothing to do with their primary function–including their apartments, heating, schools, food, clothing.  This was not exactly unique to USSR–“company towns” were pioneered in 19th century Britain and were relatively common in United States as well during the early Industrial Revolution.  The reason factory towns largely disappeared in the West was that it made little sense for private enterprises to take on so many extra responsibilities at a great cost:  either they were abandoned, leaving the workers to find what they could on their own, which, generally was not a bad thing; or they became extremely exploitive and abusive–which, thankfully, did not need to be permanent in many cases when the workers could pick up and leave for better opportunities, as long as free movement of labor was not restricted and the opportunities existed (this, in turn, was why the Great Depression came to be such a crisis:  the opportunities that could serve the needs of the many have-nots no longer existed).  In the Soviet Union, neither free movement of labor nor profit motive existed so that a less abusive even if highly inefficient (and certainly not profitable) form of factory towns.  But once the planned economy fell, all the services, which, over the decades or even centuries of Russian history (since the Czarist era was also highly communitarian–Russia never had a capitalist society, as they say), became all the more essential for livelihood of its citizens, could no longer be maintained. As the Russian saying supposedly goes, “hungry people are evil people.”

Hungry people, literal or proverbial, don’t need “dishonest” lectures.  They want “honest” food, again, literal or proverbial.  Decrying them for being evil, without addressing the hunger, misses the point.  Making the “food” dependent on “dishonest” wonkism, which many of the establishment politics seem eager for, whether of the left or the right, is exactly how society will unravel.  Trump got in to White House because he promises to be “honest,” which is to say he will enact policy that will provide obvious benefits for the masses without wrapping them up in “dishonest” gobbledygook.  Will he deliver?  Who knows.  People who did successfully deliver “honest” benefits often did so in too brutally “honest” a manner–I’m thinking about the five-year plans of Stalin and Park, and they left their societies utterly divided for decades after their deaths–but nobody can dispute that they produced amazing results.  We will not see something quite drastic from Trump, but, even if he is honest–especially if he is honest–it will have its moments of dismaying brutality.


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