Whose back are you scratching?

A state legislator who worked for a homeowners association introduced bills related to HOAs. The Gaming Commission chair votes on an issue involving the law firm for which he serves as counsel. Meanwhile, commentators froth about conflicts of interest.

They’re right, of course. But, well, welcome to Nevada.

Historian James Hulse aptly called this “a state without a conscience.” He was speaking mainly of Nevada’s hypocrisy about government and social backwardness—and he said it decades before Brian Sandoval and legislative Republicans set out to prove him right. But Hulse’s words could just as easily have been aimed at our politicians’ tendency to scratch the backs of their back-scratchers. Nevada is not unique in this area, but it does seem to have a special aptitude. Here’s why:

• There are fewer than six degrees of separation between just about everything around here. Nevada’s population is larger than ever but still small (35th among the 50 states), and the state still runs on personal relationships and juice. Not that such friendships are always bad: Sandoval’s staff includes college friends who succeeded at other jobs and are highly capable, if not downright shrewd. It also seems silly to keep qualified people out of a job simply because they are friends.

Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a gatekeeper—a close friend watching out for you and for confiding in—or reward loyalty. Rey Martinez managed Sen. Harry Reid’s first campaign—for student body president at Basic High School—and later was his Senate chief of staff. Gov. Grant Sawyer once had to fill a County Commission vacancy and finally told his friend Ralph Denton that he was the only appointment no one would question because everybody knew Sawyer owed him.

Because Nevada is so small and inbred, these situations are more noticeable than in other states. And it’s not unusual for them to backfire: Sen. Pat McCarran once said every time he gave somebody a job, he wound up with one ingrate and nine enemies. John Ensign had a close friend as chief of staff—and their families wound up close in ill-advised ways.

• Nevada—especially Las Vegas—has grown, but it has not matured. Cronyism feeds on a lack of self-critical introspection: Too often we don’t think twice about the things we do around here. (Sometimes we don’t even think once.) Meanwhile, we still overreact to criticism, real or perceived. Remember when Barack Obama never said people shouldn’t come to Las Vegas—just that bailout money shouldn’t be spent here and that those hurting economically weren’t coming here? Both statements made sense. Many elected officials who should know better said incredibly stupid things in response.

By contrast, when every reputable statistical measure shows that Nevada ignores or underfunds basic human services, some complain and move on, and the rest dismiss the criticism as unfounded. Too few ponder what our nonspending says about us as a society. Our culture in Nevada lacks introspection, largely because our economy continues to be based too heavily on instant gratification. And cutting education will only make that worse.

• The watchdogs have their own problems. The above line about education reflects a conflict of interest: I am a College of Southern Nevada professor and part-time UNLV instructor, married to a UNLV administrator. I can tell you that I’d feel the same no matter where I worked, but can you be sure of that? I hope so, but it brings up the point that those who write about these matters have their own conflicts of interest. Decades ago, some local columnists demanded payment from candidates or others they wrote about. The ethics have improved enough for all of us to attack conflicts of interests, although most of us have them.

Some years ago, I was having lunch at a restaurant when I saw a local columnist sitting alone. Soon, a prominent, controversial politician arrived. They greeted each other by hugging. That seemed strange—for a moment. Then I remembered that in my reporting days at the Valley Times, I was nicer to good sources than I probably should have been. And I suppose I’ve still got my potential conflicts today. It would be hard not to have them after more than 40 years in our town.

Few columnists had more conflicts of interest than Walter Lippmann, who, among other things, privately advised world leaders. But he expressed the standard for those who write and those we write about: “A man has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so.”

Suggested Next Read

Put Out the Green Light

The Latest (National)

Put Out the Green Light

By Nate Freeman, The New York Observer

On the farthest edge of Sands Point, Long Island, the house known as Lands End stood wind-battered and decrepit, its face scarred from years of relentless salty gusts ripping off the top of Long Island Sound. In its last days it lingered there on the shore, barely past the water, as a colossal relic from the long-gone Gold Coast. They say it was the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan’s house in The Great Gatsby.