Friday, October 30, 2009
Transparent Motives, Transparent Government, Transparent Expectations
Some time ago I did work for a man who was promoting a truly radical idea regarding the act of negotiation between two competing nations. Ostensibly it was an attempt to provide a kind of complete transparency that left the camera on every word, gesture, or strategic move made by both parties while each was seated around the bargaining table. Though the notion was certainly composed of the best of intentions, it was also highly unlikely to find adoption among almost every country that believes behind-the-scenes diplomacy is the surest way to achieve a country's fullest desires. While I admit it would certainly be interesting to hear every word Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks while in the process of active deliberation with other countries, it's much too soon for C-Span to worry about needing to considering adding another channel, one queued up specifically to cover diplomatic efforts in real time.
For those who push sunshine laws and greater transparency in government, the question before us is whether the government has an obligation to keep its internal matters protected from public view, even when they concern pending investigations into political corruption. I find it interesting how the existence of these laws adheres mainly to government agencies and are rarely, if ever expanded to include the private sector. The implication is that private business has some intrinsic right to lock out prying eyes (if not a sort of purity) that tax-payer funded endeavors do not. It has been my own experience that every corporation or government entity which I have worked for prefers to use internal means whenever possible to deal with public relations snafus. I am reminded of one of the arguments stated by those who advance vegetarianism, which states that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all forsake eating meat. In this context, if corporations, government entities, and even school districts had glass walls, we'd all certainly be nauseated at the spectacle.
The European perspective regarding is this matter is much different than our own. Though we gripe about the abuses and excesses of our elected representatives, we still assume that they should and will adhere to a code of ethical conduct that they are sworn to uphold. In great contrast, attitudes across the ocean assert that public officials, regardless of party are uniformly corrupt, and as a result, one should never expect, nor be surprised when they are revealed to be just so. This past Presidential election saw Candidate Obama saying all the right things regarding the influence of lobbyists and lucre on the political process and I, like the rest of you, stood and applauded with great vigor. Since then, I have not changed my stance, nor my belief in the President, but I recognize that the challenges before us are much more complex than I could have ever imagined. I'm not sure I could ever become as jaded or fatalistic as our European brothers and sisters, nor do I think we as a people could ever reach that state, either. Though we deny it, we are still a romantic, idealist people at heart. If that were not so, we'd keep the same party in control forevermore, and cast our ballots more in a spirit of harm-reduction than in hope. We are much more inclined to resort to a "throw the bums out" kind of logic and eagerly toss one party out to insert the other, expecting that change alone is the correct remedy.
Regarding businesses dealings, particularly with large corporations, we can always be reliably counted on to switch to a competitor if unsatisfied for whatever reason or another. Free-market advocates cite this as being proof that capitalism works by providing choice to the consumer. That might be true at face value, but underneath the facade of sweetheart deals and offers we can't refuse are blatant monopolies, CEO pay raises in times of recession, and a litany of other objectionable practices that are quietly hushed up and "dealt with internally". I have no doubt that if by some miracle each on-going citation of illegal, unethical, or immoral dealing were magically made common knowledge and leaked to the press, we'd all end up with a collective stomach ache of epic proportions. That it takes government stimulus money funded by taxpayer money to be the deciding factor which reveals the most significant of these offenses shows us just where our skewed priorities lay. Governments cannot be corrupt even a little, but corporations can be corrupt up to a point.
Public school systems, a subject of which I am fairly familiar, are masters in sweeping problematic matters under the rug. To cite an example directly pulled from today's headlines, for every reported instance of teachers engaging in sexual relationship with their students, there are probably one hundred that never reach the attention of the media. Rules and regulations grant principals and administrators the ability to dismiss problematic employees without even needing to explain why, a practice that is designed primarily to save face for both the recently employed and those in charge of hiring said individual in the first place. It is also a long-employed means of damage control, since the very threat of a lawsuit by a disgruntled parent or group of parents is frequently substantial enough for school systems to settle out of court rather than go to trial, even if the complaint is patently bogus. That school systems cave too soon when corporations rarely have any problem proceeding directly to litigation also reveals much about what spheres of our lives we feel as though we have some degree of control and which ones we feel utterly powerless to influence one way or the other.
It is easy for us to wish for transparency when we are on the outside looking in, but those of us in authoritative roles in our own day jobs understand that every situation isn't nearly as cut-and-dried as management versus employees. Nor as it as simple as consumer versus company, parent versus superintendent, or even government servant versus constituent. This is not to say that transparency shouldn't be our ultimate goal, but if we seek it, it ought to be uniformly applied into every area of our daily lives, not merely set out in a very limited way that easily suits someone's talking point. Candidates and whole political movements have lived and died by channeling populist anger at government waste and graft, but to apply this to only one highly limited segment of American society does us all a grave disservice. We may not say this directly, but when we silently condone the unacceptable practices of any major force in our daily lives, we are implying that such behavior is fine by us. We want public government to be lily white but we rarely speak out against private enterprise until it is consumed by the foulest, blackest cancer of greed and licentiousness. We need to understand that it is a rationalization to assume that corruption in business or in any endeavor is not nearly as awful if it uses someone else's money supply up front and, above all, isn't taken out of our latest paycheck. Eventually everyone hurts but unlike tax revenue, the results cannot be easily measured and inserted into an IRS income tax form. The impact is a far more insidious one and it impacts more than just dollars and cents.