Sometimes one hears a story that sticks in the memory because it is profound. That happened to me several decades ago when a naval-officer friend of mine, we’ll call him
“Ron”, told me a true story about himself. He was on shore duty in Washington, D.C. and had, as is routine, submitted his request for a certain duty station before retiring. The duty station he requested was extra important to him because it was in the same area where he intended to retire. Getting it would mean that he could buy a house there and make the transition to civilian life painlessly.
For those not in the Navy a little background is in order. Officers’ billet assignments are made under the authority of a Washington-based admiral, the Chief of Naval personnel. He is the head of the Bureau of Personnel (Bupers, in the parlance), but the actual assignments are handed out through an appointed contact called a “detailer”. Detailers
are officers generally of the same rank as those they manage, but they hold a job that carries enormous (not too strong an adjective) importance to their clientele, i.e. officers striving for career-enhancing assignments and family-friendly locations.
Needless to say, having a job as a detailer is a plum assignment in itself. Just how much influence the individual detailer would have over an assignment was never spelled out, but it was assumed to be considerable. The U.S. Navy is not a democracy, by the way. That is why one’s assignment was delivered, quite correctly and literally, as “orders”.
Well, as his time for transfer approached, and as is permitted, Ron began to visit his detailer to ask about how his request was being processed. (Had he not been in D.C., this would have been done by phone.) For the first couple of visits his detailer gave him non-committal answers. Finally Ron said, look, this is really, really important to me. If I get this assignment, my life would really fall into place. Is there any thing I can do to convince you that I would be very good in this final job? The detailer said no, not that he could think of. But a few moments later in the conversation the detailer said, “Ron, you know what I really like? I really like those sugar cookies they sell down at the X store. Have you ever tried them? They’re great!”
The next few times Ron visited the detailer he happened to bring along a bag of the cookies which he left on the detailer’s desk. He got the job. However, I am quite certain that Ron never knew whether the cookies made any difference or not.
Was this a case of corruption? Can you buy influence with a few bags of sugar cookies? Was it evil of the detailer to wield his implied power this way? I have concluded no to corruption and evil and yes to influence. This was a case of human nature playing out. Ever since human tribesmen shared food with fellow tribesmen in times of need there has been commerce among us, commerce that promotes social identity while reinforcing xenophobia for those of other tribes on whom we do not rely. Tit for tat behavior is second nature to us. Diplomats use it all the time, exchanging gifts and complements with their counterparts from other “tribes” to lubricate cooperation and treaties. And it works, all out of proportion to the value of the tokens. Human nature. (If you need some context for the damage done lately by Wikileaks, then, here it is.)
I used to find Congressional pork expenditures reprehensible, but in retrospect I can see value in the give and take involved. Relative to the overall budget (when we have one), pork is small stuff indeed, and it often solves and provides jobs in small pockets of need. It can make a happy town and a pleased politician, and the nation is affected about as much as a pond is affected by a cup of water. Maybe pork isn’t so bad, and anyway, there’s no vaccine for tit-for-tat disease. It is pandemic.
Gee, I wonder if it would help if the Israelis gave Mr. Abbas some sugar cookies?