Sunday, September 17, 2023

George Washington Plunkitt Explained about “Honest Graft”

Tammany Hall Headquarters

I encountered a wonderfully brazen historical speech by a crooked politician on the subject of “honest graft.” Yes. New York State Senator George Washington Plunkitt, a cog in the Tammany Hall machine in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, said that he only committed “honest graft.” Let’s take a closer look at Plunkitt’s moral inversion, his vision of honest graft:
“Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.”
So, Plunkitt started his talk by saying that there is honest graft and dishonest graft. He explained that the crooked ways in which he made his fortune differed from the crooked ways that other politicians made their fortunes. With no trace of shame, Plunkitt gave a moral argument to justify public corruption. But how, one asks, can he make such an argument? The answer turns out to be simple. Indeed, politicians today give similar explanations. Well, maybe not explanations, but excuses. Surprised?

Politicians and Their Excuses

Yes, crooked politicians love to make excuses, don’t they? They continue to make plenty of excuses today.

During Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent impeachment trial, his lawyer commented that the man’s behavior was “ratty,” but “if campaign donations were bribes everybody in this town would be impeached.” (I could only wish.) Paxton was acquitted.

After former White House advisor Peter Navarro was recently convicted of contempt of Congress, former President Donald Trump blamed, not Navarro, who had obviously broken the law, but his accusers:
“I can’t believe that these Fascist Monsters have so viciously gone after the great Peter Navarro for defying the totally partisan January 6th Unselect Committee of political Hacks and Thugs.”
Similarly, arguing that members of Congress should be able to engage in stock trading, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi patiently explained that:
“We are a free-market economy. They should be able to participate in that.”
Excuses and more excuses, from both sides of the aisle.

If we could peek inside the hallowed halls of American government, what might we see? Insider stock trading, lobbyists wandering around Congressional offices with envelopes full of cash, a revolving door to the K Street lobbying industry, free luxury vacations—surely you don’t think any of this is new. Do you?

I, like most voters, would like my politicians to run their cities, states, and federal agencies in the best interests of the people. When folks start to make a fortune in politics, I ask myself, why they didn’t just become bankers or real estate brokers, which are legitimate careers, instead of pretending to be public servants?

Plunkitt’s Bold Defense of Corruption

So, let’s go back a century or so and see if we can learn more about this “honest graft.”

Plunkitt, who was probably no more corrupt than most of his era’s politicians, but much more brazen about it, is reported to have given a talk in the early 20th century about “honest graft.” Now, “honest graft” makes about as much sense as “frozen, melted ice” or “nonviolent stabbing.” All the same, my thesis is to talk about how people make excuses, and Plunkitt’s speech is a doozy.

Tammany Hall was the Democratic Party’s organization in New York City, which became corrupt in the late 1800’s and was a major political force through the early 1930’s. Plunkitt, a member of Tammany Hall, bragged about being corrupt and said that corruption was fine.

In fact, Plunkitt said:
“Tammany was beat in 1901 because the people were deceived into believin’ that it worked dishonest graft. They didn’t draw a distinction between dishonest and honest graft.”
Plunkitt’s rhetorical tactics were as simple as they were bold. First, he created a meaningless distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. Second, he equated honest graft with simple cleverness, which, I guess, he thought we should all admire. Finally, he pointed out that the beneficiaries of honest graft tended to be grateful for the kind ministrations of the crooked politicians who helped them prosper.

Next, Plunkitt talked (boasted) about how he used insider information to make money. As a member of government, he spotted opportunities of which other people would be unaware. Suppose, for example, that the city wanted to build another of New York’s excellent parks:
“Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

“I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.”
So, he used insider information to buy valuable land at discount prices and sell it to the city for a profit. For another example, he learned that the city was selling a huge pile of granite blocks, left over from a street project. Plunkitt planned to buy the stones and sell them for a nice return. His opponents arranged for out-of-state bidders to compete with Plunkitt. Plunkitt outsmarted them. He went to his competitors privately and told them that, if they let him bid without competition, he would give them all the blocks they wanted for free:
“I went to each of the men and said: ‘How many of these 250,000 stones do you want?’ One said 20,000, and another wanted 15,000, and another wanted 10,000. I said: ‘All right, let me bid for the lot, and I’ll give each of you all you want for nothin’.
“They agreed, of course. Then the auctioneer yelled: ‘How much am I bid for these 250,000 fine pavin’ stones?’
“‘Two dollars and fifty cents,’ says I.

“‘Two dollars and fifty cents’ screamed the auctioneer. ‘Oh, that’s a joke. Give me a real bid.’

“He found the bid was real enough. My rivals stood silent. I got the lot for $2.50 and gave them their share. That’s how the attempt to do Plunkitt ended, and that’s how all such attempts end.”
Plunkitt’s insider trading schemes worked out great for almost everyone. He made money while his competitors got free paving stones. His conspiracy cheated no one except the unknowing taxpayers. (The auction’s purpose, of course, was to ensure that the city would get a fair price for its paving stones. Oops.)

Finally, Plunkitt frankly reviewed how Tammany bought votes by raising the pay of city workers:
“Another kind of honest graft. Tammany has raised a good many salaries. There was an awful howl by the reformers, but don’t you know that Tammany gains ten votes for every one it lost by salary raisin’?

“The Wall Street banker thinks it shameful to raise a department clerk’s salary from $1500 to $1800 a year, but every man who draws a salary himself says: ‘That’s all right. I wish it was me.’ And he feels very much like votin’ the Tammany ticket on election day, just out of sympathy.’”
Plunkitt did not, however, merely defend graft. Even worse, he made corruption out to be a positive civic virtue:
“The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all right. Everything is all right. All they can show is that the Tammany heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft. Now, let me tell you that’s never goin’ to hurt Tammany with the people. Every good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend. Why shouldn’t I do the same in public life?”
Plunkitt’s schemes were complex enough to confuse the average voter, who would easily understand that bribery and extortion would distort the government, but who might not comprehend the baffling intricacies of insider trading.

Of course, similar things go on today. Members of Congress openly trade individual stocks. This is legal if disclosed. (“Put the American public first,” is the futile yell of Congressional ethics reformers.) Lobbyists wander up and down the halls of Congress passing out envelopes full of campaign contributions. Cash preferred, of course. The idea is to find ways to cheat the taxpayers without actually getting arrested. 

Is There Such a Thing as Honest Graft?

As a businessperson, do you want to get a concession on federal property? Well, good luck, have you made enough campaign contributions? Do you want to be the architect on a state building project? Outstanding! Be sure to get an architect’s license, prepare good bids, and make sufficient campaign contributions. Do you hope that Congress doesn’t cancel funding for the new military airplane that your company wants to build? Just hire subcontractors from the home districts of powerful members of Congress. Does the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about wish to build a new submarine? Don’t forget to name it after the home state (Ohio, for example) of a powerful senator, not some non-political sea creature (Nautilus, Albacore). (As Admiral Rickover said, “fish don’t vote.”) Problem solved!

Is any of that good for the government’s budget? Of course not. When powerful figures make public decisions for their own benefit, everyone else loses. But it is good old, time-honored, honest graft. All of that stands proudly in Plunkitt’s tradition. The United States currently rates with a corruption index of 31, well behind Denmark at 10 but far ahead of Somalia. We can do better. 

It’s sad when politicians lie about their crooked schemes. I think it’s worse when they brag about them.

What Can We Do? 

What we can do is, we can vote! Don’t get cynical. Cynical voters make the crooks happy. Cynical voters are crooks’ best friends. Be sure to vote, and remember to vote for the most honest (or least crooked) candidates you can find. Support anti-corruption laws. Please. 

Oppose the Citizens United case, which pretty much legalized honest (and dishonest) graft in the United States. But vote! If you don’t vote, they will never care about you. These guys commit graft for one reason only, and that is because the voters don’t stop them. And always keep an eye on your government. When politicians like Plunkitt tell you that they are crooks, please believe them. Honest graft is still graft. The operative word in “honest graft” is not “honest.” The operative word is “graft.”
By William D. Harpine

Earlier Posts about corruption and political speech:

Al Franken, the Loss of Truth, and the Problem of Credibility

Theoretical note: “Honest graft” is an example of the rhetorical trope called “oxymoron;” that is, a self-contradictory phrase. When a badly planned 1980 mission to rescue hostages in Iran ended with a fiery helicopter collision, President Jimmy Carter called the debacle an “incomplete success.” Donald Trump once talked about “truthful hyperbole.” Those are classic oxymorons, cleverly phrased to conceal the speaker’s true meaning.

Copyright 2023, William D. Harpine

Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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