2019年11月22日 星期五

The Interpreter: Corruption, Explained

The simplest way to understand impeachment

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: The one big question at the heart of the impeachment hearings: how to define corruption.

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What Is Corruption, Anyway?

Fiona Hill and David Holmes being sworn in before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.Damon Winter/The New York Times

All eyes this week have been on the impeachment hearings, where a series of public officials testified publicly about President Trump’s negotiations with Ukraine.

The central issue of the hearings, once you get beyond the arcane legal theory debates about the proper role of impeachment, is whether President Trump was corrupt in his dealings with Ukraine. (As a reminder, he is accused of withholding a foreign-aid package to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation that would help him politically.)

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We have some good news: You don’t actually need to understand the technocratic details of aid policy and diplomacy in order to grasp the central issue here. Sweep the specifics aside, just focus on what corruption is, and it all gets a little clearer.

Corruption, in essence, is a theft of the value of a decision. When someone is supposed to be acting on behalf of an institution, but instead acts on behalf of themselves, they prevent the institution they serve from getting the full value of their choices.

To illustrate what that means, take a story you’re probably already familiar with: the college admissions scandal, in which wealthy parents were caught bribing their kids’ way into schools like the University of Southern California.

That scandal was all about the value of a university admission decision. That isn’t something we usually think of as being for sale, but universities still get a lot of benefits from being able to choose which students they admit. Admissions decisions shape a school’s academic profile, its relationships with wealthy donors, its sports teams’ success and more. That, in turn, can have an impact on the school’s rankings, endowment and more.

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In the bribery scandal, parents bought their kids’ spots by paying the coaches who were supposed to be selecting student-athletes — bribing them to make decisions for the benefit of themselves and the rich families, rather than the universities whose interests the coaches were supposed to be serving.

Public corruption works much the same way. Government decisions are valuable. And governments rely on public officials to undertake them for public benefit rather than their own individual interests.

Which brings us back to the allegations against President Trump. Some of his defenders have argued that even if the allegations are true, they’re no big deal, because it’s normal to attach conditions to foreign-aid packages. Joe Biden, they note, put U.S. loan guarantees on hold in order to get Ukraine to step up corruption prosecutions.

But it’s easy to spot the difference between those situations by applying the theft-of-decision definition. Mr. Biden temporarily blocked the loan guarantees in order to achieve an American foreign policy interest — improving Ukraine’s stability by cracking down on corruption. The conditions weren’t to benefit him personally.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is accused of putting conditions on aid for very different reasons. Multiple officials have now said that they believed the president attached a “quid pro quo” to the aid package because he wanted to obtain a political benefit for himself: weakening a potential rival in the 2020 presidential election. (Mr. Trump has denied that there was any quid pro quo.)

The United States’ foreign aid is supposed to further U.S. policy goals — a valuable thing. Mr. Trump stands accused of trying to steal that value for himself. The question for the hearings is whether or not that’s true.

What We’re Reading

  • How to persuade more Saudi men to support their wives’ careers? Tell them their friends already do.
  • Most anti-vax ads on Facebook can be traced to just two buyers.
  • This week’s addition to our ongoing “Oh no, our democracies!” reading list: “Crises of Democracy,” by Adam Przeworski.

How are we doing?

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