S1:E11 Knobs and Twiddly Bits

12 Aug 2020

Show Notes / Script

The United States Government implements laws to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse. We back these laws with policy, publications, administrative rulings, and occasional criminal prosecution. Professionally, and in public, we rarely use the word “corruption”. Whilst we can admit that some fraud, the occasional bit of waste, and rare abuse may possibly occur, we fail to recognize that all three terms are synonyms for corruption.

We pay taxes. We elect and or appoint people to positions of public trust. We have shared set of expectations (that we argue over). The expectation is that our taxes support our shared objectives. When funds divert to unfairly benefit one company or one individual, we recognize injustice.

It goes further than disappointment and a furrowed brow. In the late 1700s, we adopted a Constitution that codified fairness. This best-effort document makes a bold statement about people, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare, and blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity. Our simple tools involve paying taxes and voting.

Picture six cups, or six buckets, or six circles each getting love and attention and funding from our shared resources. One each for Justice; domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare, blessing of liberty, and posterity. Yes, let’s also invest in generations yet to come.

Our Investments

And all that business about for the people, by the people, etc – that’s the equality. Admittedly the Constitution has also encapsulated the worse of our treatment of people. At least in the Constitution, we’ve scraped the most offending crap: No land for you, no vote for you, and you, you are but 3/5 of another. We’re not there yet my friends.

We have about 6 million Americans who born in the country who carry U.S. Passports who are not fully franchised in the U.S. election process (curious? Think: Puerto Rico, District of Columbia, Guam, USVI, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa). We still have our own colonies – I mean territories who have reduced rights as Americans. If you are Puerto Rican and want to vote for president all you have to do is move to Florida (or any of the 50 real states).  

Shoulder Patches

Whilst on this tangent, let’s acknowledge that we have 54 national guard units. Guam, Puerto Rico, USVI, and the District of Columbia each have their own units serving as members of the United States Army. They each wear a shoulder patch that identifies their home territory – and none of them are represented in Congress or the Senate by a voting member. And most cannot vote for president. We can send them to overseas wars, place them in harms way, and deny them representation.

Are you a member of “We the people” if we deny you representation and the vote? No vote is no vote. You don’t count (unless we need a rifleman).

Alright, we need to acknowledge our shared failures on denying rights to 6 million Americans. Hey, that’s about another 2% of people added to the voting roles. You pick your perspective on this.

Option 1 - Ignore the Problem

We continue to deny full rights to 2% of our people.


Option 2 - Solve the Problem

We can be the generation that recognizes the rights of an additional 2% of our peoples. 

Separate but Equal?!?!

A quick history lesson: Our Supreme Court once made a ruling remembered as “Separate but Equal”. It was the 1896 decision called Plessy v Ferguson. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall helped overturn this decision. Apparently, denying rights to Americans is unconstitutional.

Five years later in 1901, that same august body, the Supreme Court published opinions on “Insular Cases”. The Supreme Court allowed the United States government to extend unilateral power over territories. Yet again, we incorporated “white man’s burden” into our legal system.

It was wrong then and it is wronger today.

We have some 330 million people to care for. We have Americans on islands in the Atlantic to islands in the Pacific, from north pole to the equator. We want our tax dollars to benefit us all and not land in the pockets of a few.

Corruption threatens democracy. Corruption threatens justices. Corruption threatens our streets. Corruption threatens our health care. Corruption threatens our legacy.

Our response to corruption involves a series of defensive lines guarded by sentries. These sentries are:

  1. Transparency (which I have also related to OpenData initiatives)
  2. Compliance
  3. Enforcement (and the occasional lack thereof)

The fourth sentry described in our book “Little Lie, Big Lie” is a fuzzy notion of a social contract.

We’ve weaved the themes of transparency, compliance, and enforcement through the various essays published during the spring and summer of 2020.

In the essay entitled: “What Missing Data Looks Like”, we discovered that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has not yet published arrest data as required by law. We then learned that several Boston Police officers have been scamming the City for decades. They file false timecards. Their lies result in a corrupt culture and defrauds federal law enforcement grants. We observed that there has been no effective enforcement locally or federally.

So, the enforcement and compliance knobs is set darn close to zero for these cops.

compliance 0, enforcement 0

In the essay: “Analog People v Digital People”, I explored the impact of compliance and enforcement on small businesses. In Vermont there is a HUD grant striving to help sole proprietors impacted by the Coronavirus. The process of scanning documents, uploading PDFs, completing online forms, and stepping through a rigorous federal process crippled a significant number of the people the program desires to help.

The enforcement and compliance knobs are set at 7 – just high enough to keep HUD happy and keep some, or most, bad guys out.

compliance 7 enforcement 7

At this level, the grant program survives only because there is a team of hard working and dedicated Vermonters helping each applicant through the process one step at a time. Yay for the home team.

compliance 8 enforcement 8

With the compliance knobs set a tiny bit higher, maybe 8, as for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funded by the CARES Act, we have hundreds and likely thousands of fraudulent claims getting funded. Yes, I’ll have some fund with these stories. They are sad and funny and not-to-clever. People buying toys and trinkets with funds designated to preserve payroll and keep people employed.

Then there is poor ole FEMA. In the essay “75% Failure Rate… Not Good, huh?”, it was just too easy to demonstrate that more than half of the organizations that receive FEMA disaster funds make critical mistakes. It is as if at the beginning of the process the compliance knobs are very low with verbal statement that compliance and enforcement are real.

enforcement 2 compliance 2

Then years later, someone actually turns the knobs up… and the flaws get revealed. Let’s turn those up to 9 now.

enforcement 9 compliance 9

Back in Mid-June 2020, we did an essay called “No Corruption Here… Is there?” where we looked at the firing of 6 inspectors general and how that may well re-shape the CARES Act oversight committee. In a few weeks, on Friday nights, the chief executive of the United States fired about 20% of the oversight committee members. With those actions in May and June, we watched a heavy hand turn both the enforcement and compliance knobs down.

Have we seen the impact of this yet?

I don’t think so.

In fact, I have absolutely no visibility into the flow of the trillions we are pouring on to the CoronaVirus response.

That’s because the transparency knob is down, way down. Like zero?

Transparency 0

With all of this fiddling with knobs and tiddly-bits, we’re creating a perfect environment for a magic show. Look here, don’t look here! Nothing up my sleeve. Distractions, and flashing lights.