Is this the way to curb global greed?

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Is this the way to curb global greed?

Madagascar, the large Indian Ocean island off the coast of southern Africa, had a special place in the mind, if not the heart, of Adolf Hitler.

During the 1930s, when Hitler and his henchmen were developing their hideous plans for the Jewish people of Europe, they at one stage looked at the tropical island as a place to which all Jews might be sent.

History took another path and the island remained a relative paradise.

Madagascar is an extraordinary site as you fly in.

If you have spent time in Africa you bring expectations of savannah, veldt and wide African skies.

Instead as you approach you see the vibrant green of paddy fields. On the ground you find black Africa has given way to an exotic mix of Asia, Africa and France.

Madagascar, through millennia of isolation, has become an ark for species that on the African mainland gave way to more competitive players in the Darwinian battle for survival.

Lemurs are under-achieving monkeys who thrive here in the absence of their more cerebral and ambitious relatives. Chameleons are another remnant of an earlier age which enjoy the island sanctuary.

In human affairs Madagascar has a patchy but by regional standards not too-troubled history.

Recently the always useful Trouble in Paradise headlines were rolled out for Madagascar as a battle for national leadership turned violent and claimed lives.

Now Marc Ravalomanana has emerged as President after a sometimes bloody power struggle over more than half a year. And the President has set himself to reform some of the island's troubles.

At the top of the list of problems to tackle is corruption and President Ravalomanana has an interesting solution to that vice as it applies to elected officials.

On the principle of feed them peanuts and you get monkeys, or possibly lemurs, the Prime Minister proposes boosting pay rates for parliamentarians.

At the moment they get USD 350 a month. He wants to multiply that by ten.

It's a thought, but is it logical?

Are people who are prepared to take a bribe on USD 350 a month going to be above reproach on USD 3,500? No.

 Are they less likely to take a bribe? Almost certainly, at least some, yes.

You don't have to go beyond today's papers to know that corruption is general and that it is not 'price sensitive'.

Alan Greenspan, the man with his hands on the levers of the US economy, looked up at a recent Senate hearing a spoke in puzzled tones of "an infectious greed" which had gripped the leaders of the American business world.

Greenspan had guided the American economic ship through the heady 90s when CEOs on USD 5 million dollar annual contracts worked to rev performance, or at least the books, to become CEOs on USD 10 million contracts.

They were admired then as the builders of a boom that would never end. Now they are seen as the hucksters who built a house of cards.

Whether Greenspan, having watched the whole exercise in turbo-charged avarice, is now entitled to be puzzled by the process is a matter for debate.

Greed is as American as cherry pie.

In one of the earlier ages of capitalist boom a giant on the landscape was Henry Ford. By combining the car and the assembly line Henry made money on a Gates-like scale.

As his wealth built up in unspendable quantities the mogul was asked by a brave reporter: "Mr Ford, just how much money is enough?"

Henry didn't miss a beat, replying: "Just a little bit more."

And the evidence that greed has no price is not by any means limited to the United States.

The gentle game of cricket is trying to restore its image after the revelations of a couple of years back that some leading players — already making about a million euros and more a year — were doing deals with bookies to add to that.

Everything in this world can be bought, from an illegal work visa to the World Series baseball.

But not everyone is corruptible and not all times are equally corrupt.

There are things that can be done to counter corruption and the sight of hand-cuffed executives in suits being pushed into the back seat of police cars is probably an image as likely as anything to make boardrooms and CEOs review their practices.

But the Madagascar option seems of only limited utility.

Paying members of parliament more without changing anything else is simply likely to promote a better class of bribe.

22 August 2002

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