How-are-the-mighty-fallen! dep’t: Bob McDonnell and the corruption that flows from inequality

The sad part about the McDonnell scandal is that the Governor of Virginia needed a Rolex as a status symbol.

I won’t pretend to be sad about the indictment of former VA Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. If I have any compassion to spare, I’ll use it on the children of poor families in Virginia denied medical coverage by McDonnell’s refusal to accept Federal money to expand Medicaid. I hope McDonnell and Chris Christie share a prison cell and come out dedicated advocates for correctional reform.

But there’s one deeply, deeply twisted element to the story that ought to worry all of us. McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, the successor of Jefferson. And he wanted a Rolex watch.

Now, I can understand a salesman who wants a Rolex to show that he’s a successful salesman. Money is how salespeople keep score, and without expensive wristwatches and suchlike how is anyone going to be able to tell a successful salesman from a wannabee? But if you’re the #$!@ing Governor of Virginia, what on earth do you need a Rolex for? As a status symbol? Isn’t t he title “Governor” pretty good status indicator?

One of the many problems that flows from increasing inequality of income and wealth is that the standards of the rich become the ruling standards. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford, when all the fundraisers’ wives – to say nothing of the female fundraisers – would be wearing a large fraction of the median annual household income. Does that excuse her committing extortion to get an Oscar de la Renta dress? Of course not. But it testifies to a corruption of manners that goes far deeper than corruption in office.

The extreme wealth of the rich is as great a public menace as the poverty of the poor, and great wealth is a greater problem than high income. Some of the way that money is made is destructive, and much of the way it is spent is even more destructive.

It would help if, at official functions such as inaugurations, our elected leaders and their families discouraged conspicuous waste among their guests and refrained from it themselves.

My $15 wristwatch from Target keeps excellent time, and – to my eye – looks pretty damned elegant.


But if I were a surgeon or an investment banker, I couldn’t afford to wear it. That, I submit, is a problem. And one part of the solution is for the President of the United States to wear, and let it be known that he wears, a cheap wristwatch. Not as important as restoring the estate tax, of course, but it’s a start, and it could be done tomorrow.

Update Lots of interesting ideas in comments. It’s certainly right that inequality increases the means of bribors as well as the vulnerability of bribees, but that’s a different point. It’s certainly wrong that status anxiety is simply “envy and spite,” though it might easily be a cause of envy and spite.

The most important point raised in commments that was missed in the original post is that one’s perceived need for display wealth depends strongly on one’s social group. If you hang out with rich folks, you look bad if you don’t have rich folks’ sort of stuff. The dominance of money in politics requires politicians to hang out with rich folks; otherwise they lose the “money primary” that filters the candidates in every election.

To apply this to my own case: If I were (which God forfend!) a dean rather than a professor, it would be professional malpractice for me not to drive a more expensive car and not to wear fancier clothes. And I doubt it would take long for my tastes to adjust to my behavior, to the point where I would feel ill-dressed in what I now regard as my go-to-meeting getup.

Yes, some people have tougher moral fiber than others: that’s a personal characteristic. How much strain is put on that fiber is a social question. Our current system increases the strain. That doesn’t keep me from disapproving of the McDonnells, but it does lead me to ask what we could do to decrease the pressures they felt and the pressures others similarly placed feel. That’s one reason the Clinton Global Foundation, for all its good works, creeps me out.