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Corruption Then and Now

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Cash is king.

Cash is king.

Officials on the Take

Judges, police officers, and politicians take bribes. Yes they do. There are many others who find ways of skimming public money into their own hands. Corruption is as old as government, which first appeared about 5,000 years ago.

In the 18th century, English writer Samuel Johnson observed: “Whatever is the cause of human corruption, men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt, that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.”

Corruption in Ancient History

During Ancient Egypt's first dynasty (3100-2700 BCE), there were complaints that the judiciary was corrupt.

In Ancient Greece, the priestesses at the Oracle of Delphi could deliver favourable predictions of the future in exchange for money. This prompted Aristotle to comment that even gods could be bribed.

Corruption writ large was a contributing factor in the fall of one of the greatest empires in the history of the world. In Ancient Rome, judgments in court cases were for sale.

“The Praetorian Guard—the emperor’s personal bodyguards—assassinated and installed new sovereigns at will, and once even auctioned the spot off to the highest bidder” (history.com).

Military commanders diverted funds intended for their troops into their own pockets.

Corruption has been rife throughout the history of China and it flourishes today. Frank Dikotter is a history professor at the University of Hong Kong. He says: “Corruption is the oil that makes this deeply defective machine possible. Corruption is not just a little bit of grit in the machine. It is the backbone of the economy of the country.”

“At least one in every two people in India have paid a bribe in the past year, according to a new national corruption report, which branded the practice 'part and parcel of daily life'.”

— Jessie Yeung, CNN, 2019.

The Indulgences Racket

In 1517, Martin Luther attacked the shakedown through which the Roman Catholic Church extorted money from worshippers. The people were told they could buy their way out of the torment of burning in hell; all they had to do was buy a safe conduct pass from the Vatican.

Perhaps you couldn't afford the full get-out-of-hell card. No worries, the Pope had other budget-priced plans that could cut down your stay in purgatory. There was no need to confess your sins and seek forgiveness; cash placed in the right hands ensured relief from God's judgment should he have noticed the affair you were having or the goat you stole.

Pope Urban II started the indulgence system in 1095. He established that by doing good deeds, a sinner—and everyone was a sinner—could wipe the slate clean of his bad deeds. Robert Wilde (ThoughtCo.com) writes that “the church claimed they could calculate to the day how much sin a person had cancelled.” The bargain was used as a recruitment incentive for people to join the Crusades.

Then the system became corrupted. Instead of undertaking some inconvenient task, perhaps some money could achieve the same goal of neutralizing past wickedness.

Martin Luther had allies in his campaign to clean up the indulgences and soon the church split into Protestantism and Catholicism.

Similar religious swindles are rife in today's society, with charlatan faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers relieving the gullible of their money.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Adventures in Corruption

  • Sir Thomas Rumbold was the Governor of Madras, India from 1777 to 1780. In that exalted post he managed to enrich himself massively, while first taking the precaution of buying a seat in the Houses of Parliament to inoculate himself from prosecution.
  • In 2018, 41 members of the 45-member Malang city council in Indonesia were implicated in a political graft system.
  • On January 6, 2021, Kimberly Guilfoyle gave a less-than-three-minute speech introducing her fiancé, Donald Trump Jr., at the Stop the Steal Rally. She was paid $60,000 by Trump's Official Election Defense Fund through intermediaries. The defense fund collected $250 million from donors to pay for Trump's legal costs in challenging the result of the 2020 presidential election, not for “grift” (Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren's word) to members of Trump's inner circle.

The $411 per-Second Speech

The Swindling Leaders

In modern times, autocratic rulers have cranked up the theft of state funds to extraordinary levels. According to a World Bank estimate, more than $1.5 trillion changes hands in the form of bribes every year. The graft ranges from the building inspector who is paid to not notice the use of shoddy materials up to the monumental stealing committed by top government officials and leaders.

Herewith, just a tiny fraction of recent corruption cases:

  • In 2017, police in Brazil rolled up a corruption scheme that involved siphoning money out of the state oil company, Petrobas. Politicians and business executives in 11 countries were caught in the fraud and Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was given a 12-year prison sentence.
  • Oil was discovered in Equatorial Guinea in the late 1990s. Today, the people of the West African country live on less that $1 a day, while the president, Teodoro Obiang, and his family have “Turned corruption into an art form” (Human Rights Watch). The government builds useless infrastructure projects—empty five-star hotels, roads to nowhere—involving companies owned by the Obiang family. For a project costing $10 million, the Obiangs bill the government $50 million.
Dirty money.

Dirty money.

  • Andrej Babiš was voted out of office as prime minister of the Czech Republic in 2021. This followed protests about a company he controlled receiving $19 million in European Union agricultural subsidies. Known as the Czech Trump, Babiš bought two villas on the French Riviera through an offshore investment company. He has, so far, managed to wriggle out of all prosecutions.
  • Comedian Jimmy Morales won the presidency of Guatemala in 2015 under the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief.” Soon, members of his family and his close associates were arrested on charges of money laundering and corruption. After his presidency ended in 2020, Morales made a deal in which he would receive immunity from prosecution while members of his administration would not.
  • In 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump closed his charitable foundation after allegations of shady dealing. New York State's Attorney General Barbara Underwood said she had uncovered “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation—including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more. This amounted to the Trump Foundation functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump's business and political interests.”
  • In the current big leagues of corruption, top place probably belongs to Russia's leader Vladimir Putin. We can only guess at how much Putin has stolen from the Russian people, with net worth estimates going as high as $200 billion; this on a salary of $140,000 a year. He has established a system in which his cronies pay part of their illicitly gained funds upwards while moving much of the rest of it offshore.
Putin's palace. It's amazing how far an annual income of $140,000 can be stretched.

Putin's palace. It's amazing how far an annual income of $140,000 can be stretched.

Bonus Factoids

According to Transparency International, a group that tracks corruption, the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, with their score out of 100, are:

  • South Sudan (11)
  • Syria (13)
  • Somalia (13)
  • Venezuela (14)
  • Yemen (16)
  • North Korea (16)
  • Afghanistan (16)
  • Libya (17)
  • Equatorial Guinea (17)
  • Turkmenistan (19)

The 10 least corrupt countries are:

  • Denmark (88)
  • Finland (88)
  • New Zealand (88)
  • Norway (85)
  • Singapore (85)
  • Sweden (85)
  • Switzerland (84)
  • Netherlands (82)
  • Luxembourg (81)
  • Germany (80)

The United States ranks 27th with a score of 67.

Sources

  • “Indulgences and Their Role in the Reformation.” Robert Wilde, ThoughtCo.com, April 28, 2020.
  • “8 Reasons Why Rome Fell.” Evan Andrews, history.com, January 29, 2019.
  • “Massive Corruption Has a Long History in China.” Nathan Vanderklippe, Globe and Mail, August 1, 2014.
  • “How Equatorial Guinea Turned Corruption into an Art Form.” Human Rights Watch, June 15, 2017.
  • “Guatemala in Crisis After President Bans Corruption Investigation Into His Government.” Rachel E. Brown, theconversation.com, January 29, 2019.
  • “From Our Ancestors to Modern Leaders, All Do It: The Story Of Corruption.” Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada, theconversation.com, September 7, 2018.
  • “25 Corruption Scandals That Shook the World.” Transparency International, July 5, 2019.
  • “Donald Trump's Troubled Charity Foundation to Shut Down.” BBC News, December 18, 2018.
  • “1 in 2 Indians Paid a Bribe at Least Once in the Past Year, Survey Finds.” Jessie Yeung, CNN, November 27, 2019.
  • “Corruption Perception Index.” Transparency International, 2022.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor