The US government is spending $2 trillion dollars for a corona virus stimulus, probably more in coming days. They (correctly, IMO) decided to launch the program as soon as possible, instead of spending the usual time to make it iron clad. That means the program is extra ripe for abuse, so to make up for it, one would hope that the government will beef up the oversight after the fact to go after abuse. But we also know how Trump has a difficult relationship with any normal oversight, from the “I’ll be the oversight” statement to a dismissal of inspector generals.

That is the context in which I was listening to a podcast the other day called “Trump, Inc.” In this one episode, they interviewed a new deputy executive director of the pandemic oversight committee to discuss how she sees the job ahead. I was glad to hear that such a committee exists, but more importantly the interview was a great reminder for me the subtlety of corruption.

This new deputy executive director comes across as a perfectly reasonable, experienced, intelligent person who is well qualified for the job. But whereas the interviewer wants to hear her say she will act independently and impartially, almost like a judge, it becomes quickly apparent that that’s not how she sees it. That leads to a click-baity “I can’t speak negatively about the president” quote.

Before you get enraged, though, I think the interviewer did an unsatisfactory job of appreciating and understanding her logic. It felt to me that her mental picture of the world is that the federal government is a defenseless baby and there are bad actors who are trying to take advantages of this baby, and it’s her job to reduce that. That makes sense to me. Her bandwidth is limited and she can’t catch every bad guy, so she needs to prioritize. I can totally see how a reasonable person could choose to focus on a large number of “slum dunk” egregious abuses where you can make a lot of progress, instead of going after a high profile political case that’s going to suck all your time and can cost her reputation and credibility.

At the same time, this willful negligence that the threat is only external to the government is frightening. By focusing on another area, she’s by omission choosing not to shed any light into a key area that a lot of people are rightly worried about. The tone and the atmosphere of this administration must be self-selecting a subset of reasonable people into these positions. There’s no bribe, no quid pro quo, no asking “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go”. Yet if you just look at the outcome it’s indistinguishable from a corruption.

And that finally brings me to my main point. I don’t think enough people understand this subtlety of how corruption happens. Go to Reddit and you see everyone arguing that corruption involves ill intent, as if cartoon villains. People at large doesn’t seem to comprehend that good people can make choices based on reasonable logic and good intent, but that still leads to a horrible consequence through inaction, choosing a certain priority, and so on.

The problem of not getting that subtlety is that your criticism of the other side ends up coming across to them as absurd and patently false. That’s the fastest way to get ignored. The dialog ends, nothing constructive comes out of it, and only a deepened divide remains.

I wish we the society could do better. I have high hope in the power of stories to make a dent in this problem, so it was extra disappointing that this happened in one of the NPR shows that I otherwise highly respect.

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