I was recently having a conversation with two very intelligent and politically well-informed people, both of whom were shocked when I said that I knew from first hand experience that parts of our federal government are not corrupt. My friends were shocked not because they believed me, but rather from astonishment that I could be so hopelessly naive as to not realize that our government is rotten to the core, a hopeless miasma of stinking corruption, with everyone on the take.

In a wish to help me through my unfortunate gaffe, one of my conversants helpfully pointed out that my experience was, by definition, merely anecdotal, and therefore could seem real to me while not actually bearing any relation to reality.

It took me quite a while to realize what was going on in the conversation, and then only a bit longer to take them through the nature of my experience. I explained that my experience has mainly been with the NSF. Over the course of many years, interacting with an extremely large number of program officers, I have found every one of them not only to be scrupulous in ethics, but to go quite a bit further.

For example, whenever a junior faculty member is naive or inexperienced enough to offer to pay for lunch, NSF program officers will invariably explain, in a patient yet respectful manner, that they must never take money from their academic colleagues for lunch, for travel, for housing, or for anything else. Sometimes the program officer will cite the exact governing statutes, just to clarify the point. More recently I have interacted with representatives of the Obama administration’s Department of Education, and have found them to be exactly the same in this regard.

After I explained all this, my acquaintances finally acknowledged that this constituted more than “anecdotal” evidence. But they still did not budge on my larger point, which was that such successful models of uncorrupt governance could, with diligence, find their way into other parts of the government.

On this last point, my friends simply looked at me with a combination of pity and fondness. I think their fondness was in remembrance of a time in their lives when they too had been so naive and innocent. Before they had come to view all government, with the exception perhaps of a few oddly incongruous pockets of integrity here and there, as a seething pit of putrescent rot, a thing of horror and pestilence, the work of the very devil.

2 Responses to “Anecdotal”

  1. Andras says:

    Government can be many things simultaneously. Take as an example the U.S. attorney scandal wherein U.S. attorneys were targeted by the Bush administration for being insufficiently partisan.

    One could use this scandal to exemplify honor and corruption, exemplary due diligence and failed leadership, clarity of vision and a conspiracy of obfuscation, all at the same time.

    Why, in a discussion about government, would there ever be any miscommunication?

  2. admin says:

    That is a very good question. In the immortal words of Olive Oyl: “We find this out, we find out everything.”

Leave a Reply