A little noticed news story raises an interesting question. A significant percentage of an entire California police department was arrested for corruption and extortion, including the retired chief and the acting chief. CBS News reports:
KING CITY, Calif. — One-third of a central California town’s police force was taken off duty after several officers were arrested in a scheme to take for themselves the impounded cars of some poor Hispanic residents, authorities said.
In the scheme, vehicles were impounded and towed, and when the car owners couldn’t pay the fees, the vehicles were sold or given away for free to some officers, Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said Tuesday.
Four King City officers – including the recently retired police chief and the acting chief – have been arrested in the scheme.
They’d impound cars — towed away by a firm owned by a relative of one of the cops — and sell or keep the vehicles for themselves. But how could such a situation have come to pass?
The situation illustrates what happens when corruption acquires the critical mass to take over an entire organization until there are essentially no internal controls left to stop it. Then the entire edifice rots uncontrollably and the process continues, unhindered by self-restraint until some external check brings it to a halt. In this case there were external controls which were eventually triggered and caused the arrest of the city police force.
When an institution’s internal controls failed completely it just keeps chugging along, like a runaway automaton, until Professor Arithmetic and Engineer Murphy step in to pull the plug.
On a very large scale this phenomenon describes why a Hitler, Napoleon or Stalin can do so much damage. Having overwhelmed the checks and balances of their respective countries, nothing could stop them until the very forces of the universe seemingly applied the brakes. This metaphor has often been used to describe the defeat of Napoleon in 1812. The great commander advanced inexorably to Moscow until he fell back starved and defeated — but by whom exactly? According to one point of view it was not Kutuzov (who remembers him?) that defeated the French Emperor, but Russia itself. Time, distance, cold and attrition, plus the inability of Napoleon to restrain himself, annihilated the Grand Armee.
These same factors, on a much more tawdry scale caused the downfall of the King City police force. They just went too far; didn’t stop, couldn’t stop until the whole shebang went over the cliff. They forgot there were other forces in the universe, forces they could not control and one day these universal forces showed up on their doorstep. Looking down at the smoldering wreckage a bystander can’t help but wonder: what were they thinking? Maybe they were thinking that in this age of spin the facts can be overruled by the lie.
It can’t. Time, distance, bankruptcy, and growing resentment eventually claim their due. But the supremacy of facts surprises people who have grown up in the belief that everything can be “fixed”. In the movie the “Godfather”, long-time henchman Genco Abbandando appeals to the Godfather to fix his cancer. “Stay with me Godfather. Help me meet death. If he sees you, he will be frightened and leave me in peace. You can say a word, pull a few strings, eh? We’ll outwit that bastard as we outwitted all those others.” It is perhaps a dying man’s ravings, but there was half-belief in the fixability of everything nonetheless.
The Godfather versus Death? Don’t be ridiculous. Well how about Detroit versus Aritmetic? Think that’s any less ridiculous? Yet the belief that politics can overturn sums runs strong and was expressed two days ago when Detroit pensioners protested the fact that their pensions could not be paid by a city with no money.
Leaders said a plan of adjustment announced last week that would slash some city pensions by 34% was unacceptable and racist. They submitted to the bankruptcy judge their own “People’s Plan for Restructuring Toward a Sustainable Detroit,” a 10-page document showing how Detroit’s crisis could be resolved without hurting city retirees and residents, they said.
Short answer: Big banks and bondholders should accept losses, said Cecily McClellan, 61, a Detroiter and city health department retiree. Applauding and shouting approval as McClellan spoke were about three dozen people gathered at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church.
While one can sympathize with pension holders who are facing destitution and who may not be directly responsible for their predicament the question remains: how can politics overrule reality? What happens when the bondholders go bankrupt too? Who’s going the bail the bondholders and the bank? Well the government, right? That’s who’s going to bail them out. You see, Genco Abbandando wasn’t so dumb after all. He only believed the Godfather could cheat death. Detroit thinks you can cheat Arithmetic.
Detroit has not had a Republican administration nearly within living memory. If the city has been brought to its knees it was by some other force than the ineffectual Kutuzov-like efforts of the GOP. The Republicans were too weak, too inept to throw a wrench into the workings of Motor City. Perhaps the primary cause of their downfall was Detroit itself; having disabled its own internal restraints it simply did on a larger scale what the King City police force did. It ran amuck and cannibalized everything until something went snap.
Charles Hughes Smith has a model which describes the rise and collapse of an unsustainable empire. In the beginnings of an empire the program budget is much larger than administrative costs. It is lean and effective. But as it expands the administrative costs grow proportionately faster than the program budget. It gets fatter and less efficient. As it runs out taxable resources the budget remains flat but administrative costs still continues to grow as a percentage of the total. When it finally reaches the point of implosion administration comprises nearly the whole budget except for a veneer of spin. It has hollowed itself out and collapses from its own incompetence.
Maybe there’s a moral in there somewhere. Probably it is this: do you know if your car is being towed away?
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