Friday, September 15, 2006

seamy underbellies

Last week Libby Hellmann and I were on a library panel discussion in Romeo Michigan, north of Ann Arbor and northwest of Detroit. Also on the panel were Marcia Talley, Nancy Martin and Nina Wright. Libby brought up Chicago politics and Chicago’s “seamy underbelly.”

What, I asked, was a seamy underbelly? Underbelly you could understand, what with mean streets and alleys and plots hatched in secret places. But seams? Like coal seams? Some thought it was streaks of dirt.

Later that day, I e-researched and found that the word “seamy” came from the perception that the inside of a coat, where the seams hide, was unpleasant and also attracted lint, dirt, and crud of that sort.

This clumsy segue leads to the big question. Yes, Chicago has a seamy underbelly. There is a lot corruption, bribery, and political chicanery here. But the city works. It is clean. The streets are mostly safe, as I can tell you. I walk a lot, for writing ideas, and I don’t feel threatened. The police response time is good. The police are well paid. There was a time, long gone, when Mayor Daley The First said that you didn’t have to pay cops much because they could always steal. Those days are over.

So here’s the big question: Can you excuse corruption when the total result is a city that works? Is it possible that if all city transactions were as regulated as post office employees, little would get done and we’d all go postal? Does corruption in modest amounts grease the wheels?

Yes, I know. We’d like a city that works without the corruption. I’d like a magic wand to wave over life, too.

This is one of those many, many questions I just don’t know the answer to. Or is there an answer? Grant me my premise for a moment – a city that works with corruption versus a city without corruption that doesn’t work so well.

Outside my window, a couple of dozen sailboats are sliding around on Lake Michigan. Tour boats are following their usual courses. The buses are running on time. The streets are clean.

Maybe this all shouldn’t work as well as it does.

Somebody out there, please respond.

Barbara D'Amato


ab said...

Obviously you want "yes" as an answer! It would be easy, but I am sure you would come back for another answer anyway.

I don't know Chicago - where does the corruption come from? What is the foundation for it? Can that be changed? And where is the line between "I owe you one" and corruption? If there is one?

Anonymous said...

I think that "ab" is right to ask "where is the line between 'I owe you one' and corruption." Seems to me that we've become too hypersensitive, and that much of what in other contexts is an ordinary way of doing business is too swiftly labeled "corrupt" in the government context. I'm not talking about big stuff like Haliburton contracts in Iraq -- I think we can agree that something went seriously wrong there. But I am thinking about more usual day to day situations that a city government has to deal with.

We are sometimes too process oriented, rather than just just looking at results. Not to say that process doesn't matter at all; it does of course. But good process by itself is should never be the goal of city government.

Interesting article on the front page of yesterday's USA TODAY about how some small cities are outsourcing city government. Some discussion of the theory of this, some agony about stuff like the loss of "open-meetings laws" -- not a single word about the acutal effectiveness of "private" city government. (A supplemental article inside had only a little discussion of short-term results in one city.) I'm not necessarily taking a position on this, but I do think that this kind of coverage is, itself, telling.

-- Jim Huang

Barbara D'Amato said...

I'm delighted that ab asked where the corruption comes from. If we're talking about payoff for contracts, the companies are willing to pay to get the work, and of course the price of that will eventually be paid by all of us taxpayers. But the work often gets done well, judging by Chicago.

Wonderful to hear from Jim Huang. I'll look at the USA TODAY article. What an interesting idea to outsource city government. Does that mean maybe professionals will do it, not just the most recent group that's been elected? And people who are not woven into the old pol network?

Barbara D'Amato

Jonathan E. Quist said...


The process of awarding such an outsourcing contract is, in and of itself, a fertile bed for potential corruption.

Is it possible to have a working city without corruption? I believe the answer is, most probably, "no". Not because the corruption is a necessary part of a well-functioning city, but because it is inevitable in any organization of the size required to run a city, due to the nature of the human beast.

I do not believe this is a pessimistic or defeatist position. Certainly, one of the ideals we expect in government is minimization of corruption, and the means to eliminate it when found. But you have to choose your battles. There is no such thing as "perfect", and there is a point at which the cost of making the system incrementally "more nearly perfect" far outweighs the added benefit of doing so.

Yeah, we really don't want the old system which allowed some individuals to collect city paychecks for multiple jobs worked from the Wrigley Field bleachers. But if a qualified person got a job because they knew someone who could lay their application on the top of the pile, I'm not entirely sure I have a problem with that.

Take the Boston Big Dig as a case in point. A company supplied substandard concrete to a $14 billion public tunnel project. If convicted, those responsible should spend the rest of their natural lives in jail. Then be wired to life support for another 90 years. We have a responsibility to be indignant about such cases.

But if a freeway is built well, on schedule, at an acceptable cost, how much indignation is required for a handful of Bears season tickets? (ficticious example)

If we were to tot up the numbers, and figure out how many dollars are sucked out of our pockets each year by the futures markets that stand between producers and consumers of oil, electricity, frozen concentrated orange juice, etc., I suspect the numbers would be far greater than the cost of public graft. But it's legal, and nobody seems to mind.

Go figure.

kris vezner said...

Maybe it should work better. If the public money bled off in patronage were directed toward the administration of city services and the implementation of city planning, you'd think it would have to work better.

Ah my white collar bias. Public corruption is bad on a number of levels and you always want to go after it. But human nature being human nature, you will only be able to control and not completely eliminate it. The recent prosecutions of Chicago city officials tell me that Chicago could use further public corruption prosecutions.

Sorich rebuilds a machine for Daley. The Hired Truck program pays $40 million a year for trucks that do nothing. A balcony collapse in Wrigleyville kills a dozen people while the unqualified 19-year-old son of a top union official is a city building inspector. Still a ways to go there before we're back down to just some Bears tickets for a contract.

Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill said...

How well does corruption really "work?" Maybe the city seems to work well, but how about the citizens who are harmed by corruption? The honest bidder for a job who is passed over because a bribe is given? The honest applicant for a job who is passed over because of a favor by another applicant? The person who sacrifices badly needed cash because they only way they can get the job done is to bribe?

In my view, corruption breeds corruption. I'll trade a city without it that works less well than a city that does every time.


Michael Dymmoch said...

A lot of what's defined as corruption has only recently been designated illegal. Human interaction hasn't changed much since Cro-Magnon times. We prefer doing business with those we see as like us, who are familiar, or who will make it worth our while. It gets dicey because power corrupts and those in power often lose sight of whom they're supposed to serve.

In my ward (Burton Natarus's), we get great city service, but most of the residents know how to apply pressure if the garbage isn't collected or the streets aren't cleaned. That pressure isn't corruption--we see what we get as what we pay taxes for. (That doesn't mean there aren't things happening that we'd lobby against if we knew about them.) But we get action on the things we care enough to monitor.

There's an observation literally written in stone over the door of the Highland Park, IL city hall: THE SALVATION OF THE COMMUNITY IS THE WATCHFULNESS OF THE CITIZEN.

Most people can't name their elected officials, much less what they've been up to. Shouldn't they share any blame when "corruption" occurs?

Highland Park, by the way, contracts out many of the services city employees used to provide. Contracting services out only works properly if someone is keeping track of the contractors and the city officials who are supposed to be overseeing them.