A friend’s wife recently tried to bribe the DMV. I’m not sure of the
details, but I think her unsuccessful attempt was as clumsy as
including a couple of twenty-dollar bills when she returned her
written test for scoring.
She was lucky. The clerk ripped up her test and told her to
reschedule some other day. Even with an American citizen for a
spouse, her immigration status isn’t entirely settled, and the DMV
official might have made a lot more trouble for her.
When she told my friend what happened that day at the DMV, he
threw a fit. He reminded her that this is California, and not her
homeland. Petty bureaucrats don’t break the rules for strangers for
$40. My friend’s wife knows this. She comes from a country that is
routinely listed as the most corrupt in the world. Everyone, from the
lowliest village traffic cop to the president, takes bribes where she
comes from. The relative honesty of public officials here must be
one of the more bewildering aspects of her new home.
But she wasn’t completely wrong. In fact, her miscalculation may
have been one of dollars and not cultural mores. In the last 16
months, the feds have charged five workers at the DMV on
Claremont Avenue with taking payments of $100 to $500 to issue
fraudulent smog clearances and bogus licenses on behalf of
brokers, who themselves were charging $1,500 to $4,500 per fix. In
December, I sent my friend the small article reporting the most
recent guilty plea in the Claremont Avenue case. He showed his
wife, who said, “I told you so.”
I was reminded of this incident this week while reading a piece on
the origins of public corruption in the Economist. The article notes
that political scientists aren’t sure if poor countries are rife with
corrupt officials because they are poor in the first place, or if
corruption itself makes countries poor. Either way, the most corrupt
countries are also among the most fucked-up. We ought to be
grateful that our local bureaucrats can’t be had for less than $100.
When $40 gets you a driver’s permit, you’ll know we’re in trouble.