How Crime Keeps America Healthy, Wealthy, Cleaner and More Beautiful

{“The following piece was written by the late Mario Puzo from his little book of essays, “The Godfather Papers and other Confessions.”}

Mario puzo Godfather papers

I wrote this piece in 1966. I think it has some interest because it shows how the whole concept of The Godfather was germinating in my head. It’s always irritated me that most critics have missed the casual irony in my books, and I sometimes thought it was my fault as a writer. But I hated to lean on an idea, I hated to use intellectual concepts in fiction as some writers do, simply as a coat of paint to hide thinness of character and lack of narrative drive.

So in this piece I used all the obvious ironies, and when I came to the writing of The Godfather, I was much more oblique. So oblique in fact that most of the critics missed the irony in the novel and attacked me for glorifying the Mafia. This piece should prove that I was on the side of the good guys even in the beginning.

The piece appearing in 1966 was attacked as excessively cynical and a slander on police and fudges. In 1971 New York City’s Knapp Commission investigating corruption in law enforcement agencies backed up a great deal implied here.

How Crime Keeps America Healthy, Wealthy, Cleaner and More Beautiful

“CRIME” is good for America. Exactly that. Nothing more is implied. No oblique plea for social justice. No cynical “cool” critique jeering human greed. This is not a discussion of morals; such discussion has found its proper place and level in the jingles of rock ’n’ roll. No. What follows is a level-headed explanation of the dynamic force that makes our country the most affluent society on earth.

It must be said at once that not all criminals benefit society: muggers who smash old girls on the head to snatch purses; kidnap artists and stickup guys; rampaging rapists; these the world can do without.

It is not relevant here that their fathers deserted them, their mothers perverted them, the social system demoralized them. They are a minority in then-class and not productive. We have huge stone prisons for such types, crammed full it is true. But the economy is booming, we can build thousands more. And the electric chair is not just a Chippendale antique, after all. We can forget these troublemakers.

This is a brief for the “productive” criminal who, like insects exterminated by DDT-mad scientists, is later found to be necessary in preserving a mysterious balance in nature. The productive criminal could very well be responsible for the millions of split-level homes sprouting out of our nation’s marshlands, the thousands of new colleges opening their doors to bright-eyed youngsters, the countless automobile litters turned out in Detroit’s warren of lust-mad mechanical rats.

This is also an explanation to those happily bewildered house builders, delighted educators, and affluent automobile salesmen who continually ask, “Where the hell is the money coming from?” Puzzled by Civil Service people earning $150 a week who go for $250-a-month mortgages; by badly paid bookkeepers and gas station jockeys who send their kids to those colleges which pump out money as they pump in learning; and by department-store floorwalkers shelling out hard cash for new Buicks.

To be specific:
Every day newspapers print stories about the FBI scooping up shoals of government employees taking bribes; district attorneys who bring city housing and fire inspectors before the grand jury; elected officials resigning to accept a diplomatic post abroad in a nonsummonsable country. Smaller items tell of the indictments of bookkeepers, accountants, bank tellers and even ministers. All these unfortunates are called “white-collar” criminals and they are to our society what the finest manure is to an exhausted vegetable garden.

Consider there are 2,000,000 federal government employees, another 4,000,000 on state and city levels, plus many more millions of bookkeepers and other woefully underpaid employees who form the broad base of our economy.

On salary alone they could never afford to buy their own homes or send their children to college. If all these people (remember they are in the millions) accepted their fate, the economy would stagnate. The boom of the sixties would bust. But, luckily, most of these people spring from the old-country adventurous pioneer stock that dared to seek its fortune in a new land. It is not relevant that many of them had the police at their heels even then.

Starting with federal employees, it must be made clear at once that the vast majority are honest, hardworking and poverty-stricken. But there are a few rotten apples in every pork barrel. It has been conservatively estimated that 10 percent, or 200,000, have illegally accepted bribes. With state and city employees the percentage jumps to 20 percent, or 800,000, for a total of 1,000,000 “criminals” in public service alone.

Too much? Statistics, naturally, are not available; but figure this way. Everybody knows that most traffic policemen will accept a few dollars not to write a ticket. One cynical PTA parent has even proposed that the procedure—no idle chatter, dollar bills neatly folded inside a driver’s license—be taught in every high school’s “Driver’s Ed” course. And how many traffic cops are there across the United States? To say nothing of greedy sheriffs and vulturine justices of the peace. How much does the total graft come to? In New York City, where a new and innocent mayor, John Lindsay, has proposed a $50 parking fine to clear up traffic, it is anticipated that a few fortunate cops will zoom into the 90 percent income-tax bracket.

Not fair? Bribing traffic cops is not a crime and accepting that bribe does not make our police criminals? OK. What is not generally known is that in many of our greatest cities there is a payoff sheet in every precinct station house. On that sheet is listed every cop, from captain down, and next to his name is the amount he receives every month from the consolidated “clean graft” paid by criminals in that precinct.

Clean graft is bookmaker protection money, call-girl “rent,” store owners who break city ordinances constantly, confidence-man “fix” money. (Confidence artists never operate in any territory until the cops have been taken care of in advance. If the caper is big enough, the district attorney and the local judge will also be prepared for any slipups.)

No condemnation of such practices is intended. All this “black” money is put to good use and serves the American economy in the most constructive way.

Then there are the federal functionaries. Is the figure of bribe-takers too high? An inside joke among these employees is that “Federal Indictment Insurance” should and can be taken out as automatically as Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

It is time to refute the slander that bureaucrats are stupid. Wiseacre newspaper humorists and satirical novelists jeer at the mountains of red tape, gobbledygook language and unenforceable laws created by government agencies. But if everything were clear and instantly workable, who would pay graft? Bureaucrats would have to live on their salaries and that would take real genius.

The flip side of this technique is the top tax lawyer who patriotically works as a “dollar-a-year” consultant in order to write intricate loopholes in the law. This same expert hires himself out to a wealthy client and “finds” these same loopholes. There are no loopholes for people making a hundred bucks a week.

There are many things even the lowliest government clerk can do to help the public so it is not surprising when individual citizens are anxious to show their gratitude. (Internal Revenue agents can go blind, draft board clerks do lose draftee personnel files.)

In private industry such enterprise is as extensive, if not as dangerous. Bookkeepers are expected to flesh out meager salaries from the petty cash box. Department-store clerks, if they keep their heads, can cut their cost-of-living index considerably. Gas station jockeys can and do retire to Florida at the age of forty. And these people have something extra going. When they are caught, no FBI swoops down on them. Their employer, limp from figuring out how to cheat on his income tax and shove shoddy goods down his customers’ throats, is understanding and merciful. He fires them with perhaps just a word of hurt reproach.

There is one exception to the above—the famous “bookkeeper draw play.” Once or twice a year a headlined story appears in the newspapers on how an $85-a-week bookkeeper has milked her company of $200,000. The real story is that the employer has already run the business into the ground, looting the till for racetrack afternoons, mistress minks and winters in Miami Beach. So:

He sees the bookkeeper making a few bucks and pays no attention. He gives her more authority. Het tells her to sign the checks. He forgets to check the bills, invoices and incoming checks. He leaves it all to her. He may even introduce her to some young handsome bummers who need rent money. Then at the right time, usually after the bookkeeper has mustered enough courage to go up the middle with $967, the employer comes indignantly awake and has her arrested for stealing half a million bucks.

But how does all this help the American economy grow stronger? Why is it good for America? Because these policemen, government employees, bookkeepers, sundry clerks do not spend their “black” money on wine, women and song. They do not roister and revel. They are solid members of society. The money goes for a new house in suburbia where the kids can grow up untainted by crime-breeding slums. The money goes for college tuitions that will transform prospective welfare clients into society-enriching doctors, engineers and certified accountants.

The Wall Street Dow-Jones index goes up, thousands of jobs are created. These people pour adrenalin into our social system. They pay their bank debts and the bloodcurdling interest attached. They do not drink or fornicate to excess, and they support our policy in Vietnam. In short, they are not troublemakers. They just do not have quite enough money to get along.

Curiously enough, “crime” helps not only make America healthy in its body, but also makes it healthy in its mind. Take a truly honest person who stays honest no matter how violent the social stress. This worker had just been fired from his job, he has no bank account, his wife needs medicine, his kids need shoes. His meager talents preclude any brighter future. He is, therefore, naturally overwhelmed by the logic of becoming a criminal. However, because of a fine upbringing and moral training, he finds it impossible to make the logical choice. The resulting struggle, according to psychiatrists, is what makes schizophrenia modem man’s most popular retreat. Fortunately for society such extreme cases are relatively rare. People adjust. The following is a happier and more instructive case history.

Married, father of three children, this federal employee earned less that $100 a week. His wife treated him with the disillusioned, oblique contempt of a woman who has learned that love is not quite all in a happy marriage.

He could have partially solved his problem by sending his wife out to work, but he had read the famous Glueck report on juvenile delinquency which proved that four out of five children who get in trouble come from homes where the mother is employed.

Meanwhile the man’s ego was being destroyed. He became mean-tempered. He refused his children bedtime stories, quarreled with his supervisor to the point of blows and grew dangerously psychotic with resentment against a society that had not recognized its obligation to him.

Then by a stroke of good fortune he was transferred to a department where he processed government contract applications submitted by small businessmen. He was surprised and touched when these supposedly insensitive materialists treated him with friendliness and respect. A garment manufacturer sent his children a box of expensive clothing, factory fresh, for Christmas. Out of innocent gratitude, the government employee flipped this man’s contract application to the top of his work file.

Soon he had a brisk little trade going. For $50 he would process any application the same day it was received. This eliminated a wait of three months. For his clients it was a superlative bargain.

In five years this government employee climbed into the upper middle class. He bolstered the American economy by buying a split-level house and a new Buick to go into its garage. He took his wife to a nightclub every New Year’s Eve and his children to the World’s Fair twice a month. He has already started a college fund, and his kids will not be trapped on a low economic plateau that might make them a burden to society.

Most important of all was the change in this man’s personality. He became an absolutely charming fellow, more friendly, outgoing, considerate, as people are apt to become when they are treated with respect and paid what they are worth. Since his opportunity to take bribes hinged on his controlling all the paper work in his section, he became tremendously efficient and for the first time in a long Civil Service career earned a letter of commendation from his supervisor. He is one of thousands.

But perhaps this is all sophistry, being a wise guy. Isn’t bribe-taking despicable behavior? And, yet, what about those people who do approximately the same thing but have the expensive expert advice to do it legally? The retired admirals and general officers, war heroes all, what exactly do they do for the $100,000 a year they get from big industrial concerns?

And then, of course, there are the legislatures of our fifty sovereign states. A character in The Great McGinty says, “If you didn’t have graft, you’d get a very low grade of person in politics.” When the gentle Thoreau heard that the Massachusetts legislature had convened, he told a friend, “I must hurry to town to buy a lock for my back door.”

These are kinder remarks than the opinion of cynical experts that most state politicos are as crooked as a snake with diarrhea. Now it stands to reason that not all of them are dishonest; this may even be a case of a few rotten apples spoiling that barrel again. But it is common knowledge that if you want to open such certified gold mines as a racetrack, a liquor store or a loan company, you had better set aside a few percentage points for the more powerful guardians of the public interest in your state capitol.

So much for the obvious. Other “forms of left-handed human endeavor” are harder to justify. What about the bookmakers, the “shylocks,” the inhuman drug peddlers? The truth is bookmakers and “shylocks” lead a terribly hard life. They put in long hours and are subject to considerable anxiety. They are as much on call as doctors. And they, too, dream the American dream. They work to buy houses, send their kids to college, and since they are more romantically sentimental than the usual businessman, they plan ahead to buy their wives a valuable trinket.

In Claude Brown’s brilliant autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land, there is even a justification for the dreaded drug peddler. Brown states that in his experience the drug addict who kicks the habit and accepts the usual low-paying menial job offered to blacks then invariably slips back into addiction and takes his family with him down into degradation. But those who peddle drugs, who turn sellers instead of users, become otherwise respectable citizens, house their loved ones in a resentful suburbia and embrace the rewards of a sober middle-class life.

Even our great corporations have fought in their own fashion to help the American dream. Seventy percent of the top U.S. companies are convicted felons, their executives judged guilty of conspiracy to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. In one $300,000,000 bilking, a few of them even served two months in jail. One of them complained to a fellow prisoner that at least he didn’t go out on the street with a gun to hurt people. To which his fellow prisoner, a black serving ten years for armed robbery, replied in the same injured tone, “Hell, I never got my chance to break the Sherman Antitrust Act.”

Yes, because of all this hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of American families have escaped the crime-breeding slums of the cities. Hundreds of thousands of young men will become atomic scientists, lawyers, medical researchers, instead of frustrated clerks and dockwallopers.

There is also favorable historical evidence for our thesis. Prohibition raised a whole generation of Italian peasants into middle-class bootleggers. Who is more law-abiding today? Whose sons become major-league ballplayers in greater numbers? In what walk of professional life have they not made their mark? But perhaps this is too narrow, too special an example. Let’s get more scope.

In 1939 America was in the grip of the Depression. There was no work, people lived badly, few owned their own homes or cars. Then World War H broke out. Twenty, thirty, forty million people died, who remembers? Enough materiel to build a home for everybody was blown to dust. Enough man-labor hours were wasted to construct those homes, and more. Yet, because of that war and that waste, we live in unparalleled prosperity.

Again, this is not a moral discussion. It is, perhaps, a search for adjustment. If “crime” is good for America, what follows?

How are we to adjust to a society that permits cigarette manufacturers to cram cancer down the throats of 100,000,000 Americans?

How are we to adjust to a society that has the means to manufacture blood-cleansing machines that will save the lives of thousands of kidney-disease sufferers, but prefers to spend its money on new jet fighters?

How are we to adjust to a society in which industrialists sell deforming drugs and then, to protect their investment, use powerful lobbies to prevent government interference?

How are we to adjust to a society that drafts human beings to fight a war, yet permits its businessmen to make a profit from the shedding of blood?

How are we to adjust to a society whose chief official admits to lying to his people, and the world, on an action that could have led to atomic war?

Again, this is not denunciation, this is not a moral discussion. Such “crimes” are inevitable. But, as society becomes more and more criminal, the well-adjusted citizen, by definition, must become more criminal. So let us now dare to take the final step.

Is it not the duty of every American to live as selfishly and dishonestly as possible? What else will make the wheels of industry hum? The maligned businessman, fighting as ferociously for profit as sharks fight for a man overboard, was he on the right track all the time? Could it really be true that what is good for General Motors is good for America? Is the road to the happy life paved with lying, cheating and stealing? In our society the answer must be yes. And so “crime” is good for America.

For those who disagree, there is only one alternative. That society, cloaked in the robes of law, masked by religion, armed with authority sprung from the beginning of history, is itself the archcriminal of mankind.


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