There’s a strong case to be made that corrupt behavior in Guatemala in the form of paying bribes at the borders (and anywhere in between) is both beneficial and on moral high ground.

“We’re not here to save the country from itself, just to get the job done.”

My traveling companion snapped those words at me as we worked to “smooth out” some auto paper “irregularities” at the border. Upon hearing them, I had to stop and reflect, even though in the past I’ve bribed my way from Syria to China, surely lesser nations morally. Maybe we ‘holier-than-thou’ foreigners casting aspersions in Guatemala, and innumerable places like it, are missing the point on bribery.

Before moving to define the issue in depth, I’d like to dismiss a silly argument that always seems to crop up at the beginning of an otherwise serious debate: “How dare you be so hypocritical as to discuss corruption elsewhere when your own country (the United States) is corrupt?”  Of course the United States is corrupt; all nations are. Just because Transparency International concludes that the Scandinavian countries are “clean” doesn’t mean that they are free from corruption, it just means that T.I. hasn’t yet figured out how they are corrupt and how to factor that kind of corruption into the rankings. If there are 215 countries, there are 215 corrupt countries, Q.E.D. Rounding out the top of T.I.’s “clean” list are Sweden, Norway, and more recently Iceland, all of whom in recent history have experienced total banking system collapses, and we defy you to show us a financial system blowup that wasn’t catalyzed by some particularly effective grease somewhere in the system, usually at the top (see Sachs, Goldman, et. al. under the “Current Events” heading in your favorite news source).

In the U.S. there is officially almost no corruption, unless you happen to be anywhere in Illinois, or Louisiana, or California’s 50th congressional district (also known as whitebread San Diego), or the Puritan state of Rhode Island, or happen to know one of the 14,000 registered federal lobbyists (U.S. Senate alone), or one of the 6,000 U.S. corporations employing lobbyists. But the point is this: on any given trip to the local Department of Motor Vehicles, it is highly unlikely that someone will approach you in line and say something to the effect of “You know, there is a much quicker way to get this done, if you’ll just follow me into the parking lot.” Your correspondent’s personal experience stuffing envelopes with $500 each to get an occupancy certificate in Baltimore notwithstanding, there remains very little official corruption of what we’ll call the “petty” kind, as opposed to the embedded and apparently socially and ethically acceptable “institutional” kind, in the United States.

Maybe there should be more.

Before professing your knee-jerk distaste for petty corruption, ask yourself this basic question: “Would I rather go through an official process that lasts up to two days but costs little or nothing, or pay an expediter $50 to turn it into a 20-minute seamless exercise in efficiency, with the same result?” In Guatemala we have that choice, but in the U.S. and other parts of the civilized, western world we do not. We are forced to take a number and stand in line for three days while the large woman behind the counter paints her nails and discusses her loveless life. Social utility. And we all know that Guatemala is a country with vast difference of degrees of wealth. If Robin Hood could understand the social utility of wealth redistribution, why can’t we?  In the case of a few well earned Pesos or Quetzales pressed into the palm of an obliging public servant, officially subsisting on the grandiose wage of $300 per month, it’s simple redistribution according to the will of the first-person distributor – rather than the whims of a politically fickle central government.

In the United States, speaking of ‘holier-than-thous,’ foreign corporate practices are governed by spurious enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, as snickering corporate executives refer to it. Written (probably during those wondrous, morally unambiguous and nationally disastrous Jimmy Carter years) to try, by beginning at home, to regulate the moral behavior of the world’s corporations. And because of that act we were just stung again, this time by those wily French with a bid to snake, successfully, General Electric out of a nuclear reactor contract in the notoriously uncorrupt Philippines. But the FCPA triggers a boring annual lecture by an otherwise incompetent corporate lawyer once a year to parse “Pay them to do what they should anyway, but don’t pay them to do what they shouldn’t.” In case the bottom feeders who inhabit corporate lawyers’ slots can’t figure that one out, some clear thinker — or maybe my kind of wag — when the FCPA was written, even referred in the written legislation to “grease payments.”

With all the current hand-wringing about the national economy in that august and incorruptible body called the United States Congress, maybe it’s time we adjust our Western attitudes toward corruption of the petty kind. Talk about export-led growth: “Hey China, how about a couple of new American-built (non-weaponized) nuclear reactors at $10 billion each?  Just walk with us out to the parking lot and we’ll slip a couple of spare F-16s in your pocket.” Let’s see the haughty French “outbid” us on that deal. Economic utility.

Should we bribe in Guatemala? Well, my border critic got the “job” done, and we made our Mexican hotel in time for the NCAA basketball final (possibly the best ever), re-crossing the border the next day with suspicious celerity, despite the customs officer’s initially Heller-esque protestations that by our passports we were already in Guatemala, so we couldn’t possibly be coming back. Talk about social utility of the very highest order.

But I still have this lingering Calvinistic notion that I am one step closer to Hell.

Guatemalans call their mayors and Congressmen “diez porcientistas” or “ten percenters”, charging 10% on anything with numbers attached that passes within signaling distance of their fiefdoms. There’s a trend, when their duly elected officials get too close to the trough, not to re-elect “veinte porcientistas” or twenty percenters, so the process is self-regulating. This phenomenon also guts the argument that goes “Well, the Maya did it,” since the Maya used base 20, and there is no known glyph showing anyone losing his head over receiving 21% instead of just losing the ball game.

Our car example may have had no wider consequences save that we got to enjoy every second of a particularly good NCAA final, and the tip jar at our favorite border crossing had a little less air in it, but there are also strong social and economic utility arguments in favor of petty bribes. Let’s examine the case of rice. Rice in Guatemala is about US$1.25 a kilo. Rice in Mexico is about $.80 a kilo. It is illegal to import Mexican rice into Guatemala. Is it therefore corrupt to bribe a Guatemalan official to look the other way when a container 20,000 kilos of Mexican rice “avoids” customs on its way across a man-made totally artificial line on a map to beleaguered consumers? I say “No!” The guy looking the other way may have a new 42 inch flat screen TV, but the stretched Guatemalan households at the container’s destination will save $5,000. Corrupt? Or just possibly a moral decision? I say it  provides immediate economic utility of the most beneficial kind — direct to the consumer. And national social utility. This logically airtight argument extends to gasoline, eggs, Coca Cola, Colgate and all those other items so essential to our lives here in Guatemala, especially beer. Beck’s and Heineken cheaper than Gallo?  Now there’s an area that could use a little large-scale cross-border grease.

What exactly is a bribe, anyway? When Caterpillar slips an Illinois congressperson an envelope full of cash to vote to keep out French (those wily French again) construction machinery, is that a bribe?  Or is it precisely what he was elected to do?  Henry Kissinger is adamant that nations do have interests, which, not just coincidentally, is why they are called national interests. Even a lawyer might accidentally grasp that one. Actually Kissinger, perhaps the most practical person ever to have been Secretary of State, is just articulating a mammoth worldwide argument for the primacy of the social utility of grease.

“To bribe or not to bribe?”

Even Shakespeare apparently totally missed the point when he wrote in Julius Caesar, “Shall we now contaminate our fingers with base bribes?”

Come on, Will baby, lighten up and join us at the Mexican border.

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