Boardwalk Empire, Corruption, And Incentives For Public Servants

Posted by – October 18, 2010

Like described by Abby Jean on the Feminists with Disabilities blog recently, I’m obsessed with public policy.

It’s true. I am a policy wonk. I am endlessly interested in it. I read about it, think about it, talk about it and … write about it. (As in, what I’m doing right now.) And I do all of this because I think it’s immensely important. Crucially important. Vitally important.

Public policy is how the government – whether local, state, provincial, federal, or any other level – takes action on a particular issue. It covers a whole huge range of potential state actions – allocating and spending money, setting and enforcing professional guidelines and standards, creating agencies and staff, structuring tax incentives, even defining what constitutes criminal behavior. That’s an extremely big category that clearly has an enormous and unparalleled effect on the world.

Excerpted from I Love Policy | FWD (Feminists With Disabilities) by Abby Jean (not me)

I am captivated by political decision making, how it works and the impact it has on our lives. True, I am super nerdly; I can’t read something or watch a movie without ideas about the history of policy and the effects it has had firing around in my brain. That means the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire is like catnip for me. It brings the history of the ’20s and its politics to life in lush, vivid photography and provides fascinating context and insights into Prohibition, the mafia, suffragettes, corrupt politicians and politics of the era, fashion, the flapper girls, and the feminism of the era. The intense dissimilarities and the intense similarities the ’20s have with life today also really draw you in. Recently *yet another* economic study confirmed that the 2000s have the most unequal division of wealth in U.S. history, excepting the 20s. Unprecedented corruption is similar, struggles over prohibition similar too. What isn’t similar is the feeling of free-wheeling American personal freedom, including the “feminine liberation” of the time that went the way of the stock market after the Great Depression, and the economic boom that brought incredible opportunities–people are super nostalgic for those dissimilarities.  I heart the show; it’s triggered a major ’20s obsession for me.

I especially liked last week’s episode, it took us inside the back room and explicitly explored policy and the politics of divvying up new state-level funding for highways; we got an anatomy of the back room deal.   Notorious Jersey City machine boss Frank Hague was pitted against the show’s principal protagonist (and anti-hero) “Nucky” Thompson, the machine boss of Atlantic City, and Republican Senator Walter Edge trying to arbitrate between them.  Hague wants all the road appropriations to go to Jersey City, and Nucky wants everything to go to Atlantic City, where he says he has new hotels (at this point in the timeline, the Ritz-Carlton Atlantic City had recently opened) but tourists can’t get to them because the current roads to South Jersey are so muddy and inadequate.  Both men are corrupt bosses used to getting everything they want (and expect to skim off a nice slice of any new funding for themselves) and compromise is difficult to impossible.  Nucky pretty much created Edge’s political career, serving as his campaign manager and using his money and connections to win him the gubernatorial race (then he moved from the governor’s mansion to the U.S. Senate) so Nucky expects him to go to bat for Atlantic City, but Hague tipped the Democratic vote for Edge, crucial to win anything; Edge has presidential ambitions and can’t afford to alienate either of them, so he plays the diplomat.   The fact that Nucky, Hague and Senator Edge were all REAL POLITICIANS and that the dynamics at play are real (Nucky really was Edge’s campaign manager, etc.) makes it all the more riveting.

Here’s a clip from that scene.

Fair Use law lets me use this copyrighted material because its 1) a really brief clip and 2) used for the purpose of critique (i.e. it’s legal for the same reason Roger Ebert or Jon Stewart showing a clip in order to comment on it is legal).  See Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.

80 Second Clip from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”: Back room Dealing

Coarse language warning: Nucky drops many F-bombs on Frank Hague in this clip, he thinks Hague just wants “a payoff” and is really frustrated and angry.

So,  after watching this scene, my policy mind started buzzing.  The corrupt incentives of the 1920s were perhaps different than the corrupt incentives of today. Both Nucky and Hague are motivated by corruption, but that corruption is motivating them to fight really hard for highways going to their respective counties (unquestionably a benefit for the economy and the average voter).  In cases like this, is corruption helping the public?

These are the questions I wrote this post to ask: Did the certainty that they would get a hefty slice of any new project make them fight harder than politicians today to get projects for the public good?

Should we incorporate such incentives into the current system, like bonus pay or free stuff or public accolades if a politician helps the general population?   Because right now, we have a system of open, legal bribery; ALL the incentives and thus, inevitably, ALL the policymaking energy is lined up against efforts to help normal constituents, and lined up for the special interests that give money to elect candidates. I always refer to this as giving “campaign bribetributions.” It’s essentially bribery, it totally skews the system so that the corrupt incentives make the government serve powerful private interests first and the public good only accidentally, but it remains completely legal.

At least in this scene, the corrupt incentives make public officials do something for the public good. I am desperate to address the crisis of campaign bribetributions making government only serve moneyed interests (not democracy but bribeocracy). If the powerful will never let us remove campaign bribetributions from our system, how do we realign the corruption to serve the people NOT just narrow interests with fat stacks of $$$$???

Nick

It's all about the Benjamins.

  • Dan S

    Money is like water and will always slip through the cracks to the depths of hell…so, what can be done? Term limits, anarchy, absolute power in some rich gal/guy? How do we get around those making the rules to change the rules which only they can change….constitutional convention?