Does the Social Value of Corruption Indicators Depend Solely on Their Accuracy?

We’ve had a series of posts this week (from Michael, Rick, and Addar) about the vexed question of how to measure corruption–including controversies over whether the popular perception-based measures, like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), do so accurately enough to be useful proxies.

But in addition to that discussion — and picking up on something Rick touched on in the latter half of his post — I think it may be worth raising the questions whether: (1) something like the CPI might have desirable effects even if the CPI score is not a particularly good indicator of true corruption, and (2) whether the CPI might have bad effects even if it’s actually quite an accurate measure. To be clear, my very strong predispositions are that we should try to produce and publicize accurate measures of corruption. But it’s at least worth thinking about the possibility that the social value of an indicator may not depend entirely on the accuracy of that indicator–and about what implications might follow from that observation. Continue reading

Corruption “Tells” — An Overlooked Factor in Determining Corruption Perceptions

Last month, the European Commission released a comprehensive report on corruption in the EU, based on two perception surveys (one of the general population and one of businesspeople) as well as existing public data. One of the report’s most striking findings was the prevalence of perceived corruption among the general public: over 75% of Europeans surveyed thought corruption was “widespread” in their country–even in countries where very few respondents had personally experienced or witnessed corruption.

The EU Report is not the first study to find a sizeable gap between people’s perception of corruption’s prevalence and their reported personal experience with corruption.  What explains this gap?  The two most common explanations are: (1) perceptions of corruption overstate true corruption (as perceptions may be swayed by sensationalistic media reports, and perhaps skewed by factors like ethnic heterogeneity and low social engagement, or because of different understandings of what “corruption” means); (2) self-reported experiences with corruption understate true corruption, because people do not respond truthfully to questions about their personal experience even when anonymity is guaranteed.

But there is another possibility, which highlights a limitation of studies that compare only general perceptions of corruption with direct, personal experience with corruption: These surveys typically fail to account for “tells” – observable indications of potential corruption. Continue reading

Perceptions of Reality: Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

Matthew wrote last month about the February competition the U4 Anticorruption Resource Center and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Affairs sponsored to spur creation of new measures of corruption.  What he did not say is that one subtext for the contest was the growing frustration with the use of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) to measure the actual level of corruption in a country.

This is not the fault of TI.   The organization is careful to say on its web site that its index does not measure the actual extent of corruption and goes to great lengths to explain how the index is constructed, stressing that it is a ranking of how corrupt countries are perceived to be using the opinions of business people and country experts.  Indeed the title selected, “Corruption Perceptions Index,” couldn’t be any clearer about what is being measured.  But journalists and academics frequently treat the index as if it measured actual corruption, rather than perceived corruption, or assume that perceptions match reality fairly closely.  And that’s where problems may arise. Continue reading

What’s Left Out of “Left Out of the Bargain”

A couple months back I finally had a chance to read the Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative (StAR)’s latest report, Left out of the Bargain: Settlements in Foreign Bribery Cases and Implications for Asset Recovery. It’s a very useful report (though a lot of the preliminary material is pretty dull, but fortunately fairly skimmable). The key descriptive finding is that “significant monetary sanctions have been imposed [in foreign bribery cases] with hardly any of the respective assets being returned to the countries whose officials have allegedly been bribed.” The overall tenor of the report is that this is a problem. Although the report uses careful, measured language, I interpreted it as as a call for more aggressive action to force companies that admit to foreign bribery to pay significant fines, penalties, or other damages to the countries in which the bribery took place (either to those countries’ governments, or to NGOs or special funds). The report discusses, and seems to endorse, a range of related measures designed to further this overarching goal.

I’m sympathetic with StAR’s objectives, and with the idea that more can and should be done to help the victims of corruption. But the Left out of the Bargain report suffers from a number of serious flaws—chief among them the failure to give more than cursory attention to the possible adverse incentive effects of promoting duplicative enforcement or substantial redistribution of settlement proceeds. Continue reading

Transparency International’s Muddled Use of “Corruption,” and Why It Matters

What corruption means informs what and how anticorruption reformers reform.

Unfortunately, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) dodges this important issue by averaging together the responses from polls employing competing definitions of “corruption.”  This is a problem because different types of corruption have different causes, have different effects, and require different types of remedies. Transparency International should disaggregate its index of perceived “corruption” into two distinct indices: one for perceptions of illegal corruption, and one for primarily legal (but distrust-generating) conduct, which could fairly be characterized as institutional corruption.  This change would make the CPI more precise, better educating the press, public, and policymakers who rely on it. Continue reading

Would the US Really Benefit from More Corruption? A Comment on Rauch

Jonathan Rauch’s recent Atlantic piece has a provocative title: “The Case for Corruption.”  Extending an argument about the unintended effects of international efforts to combat corruption to the domestic sphere, Rauch asserts that “in most political systems, the right amount of corruption is greater than zero. Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents.”  According to Rauch, the U.S. political system used to give party leaders several tools to enforce discipline: pork-barrel spending, earmarks, campaign contributions, committee assignments, and endorsements.  The problem, he says, is that these mechanisms have become too weak–that we do not have enough of the “honest graft” famously celebrated by the Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt.

Rauch makes a valuable point that pork barrel spending (including earmarks), though unseemly, might serve a useful function in facilitating deals.  But does this mean that some amount of “corruption” can be good, as his title implies?  Maybe not–it depends on your definition of corruption, and Rauch is using a very expansive, and perhaps misleading one.  Rauch also urges us to change current regulations to empower party leaders, and is persuasive–to an extent.   Continue reading

Are the Thai Anticorruption Agency’s Charges against the PM Politically Rash or Politically Shrewd?

In my last post, I discussed the recent charges brought by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Committee (NACC) against the current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, for failing to prevent corruption in the Thai government’s controversial (and recently discontinued) rice purchasing program. There are a few respects in which this case raises important questions not just for Thailand, but for anticorruption enforcement more generally. One, which I discussed last time, is the fact that the NACC has charged the Prime Minister not with engaging in corruption, but with (criminally) failing to prevent corruption. Another concerns how the NACC is managing – or failing to manage – the delicate and difficult politics of bringing charges against a sitting Prime Minister in the midst of ongoing political turmoil, in which the Prime Minister and her party remain very popular with much of the nation — and would almost certainly would have won the election that opposition protesters effectively blocked. My educated guess is that if you were to ask members of the NACC how the political situation affected their decision-making, they would say that it had no effect at all – they simply followed the evidence where it took them, without fear or favor. This is what anticorruption enforcement officials always say, at least publicly. I suspect they may actually believe it, and perhaps it’s (sometimes) true. But anticorruption enforcers operating in politically difficult environments often do, and often should, think carefully and strategically about the constraints and opportunities those environments create – Gabriel Kuris’s studies of the Indonesian KPK (here and here) provide nice evidence of that.

So, was the NACC’s decision to bring these charges against the Prime Minister at this moment a politically rash decision, or a politically shrewd one? It’s easier to make the case for “rash”, but at the risk of revealing my ignorance of Thai politics (or my ignorance more generally), I’m going to make a tentative case for “shrewd”. Continue reading