Matthew sparked a lively discussion last week on the use “of widely-repeated . . . statistics” that are in fact “unreliable guesstimates misrepresented as precise calculations—and at worst, completely bogus” in discussions about corruption. He cited the claims that “$1 trillion in bribes are paid annually” and that “corruption costs the global economy $2.6 trillion per year” as examples. The former, a wild guesstimate, and the latter not even that are routinely accepted as fact in media accounts and policy notes issued by development agencies and appear even in papers purporting to be serious academic works. I do not link to examples for two reasons. One, there are so many that I would have to choose which ones to cite, and I don’t want to be accused to playing favorites. Second, the links would embarrass the guilty by calling them out. But many readers will know of whom I speak, and those who don’t can easily compile a list of offenders thanks to the magic of internet search engines.
I think Matthew did those concerned about combating corruption a great service by prompting debate about the use of such numbers, and I applaud him and those who replied for moving the discussion forward. At the same time, I fear Matthew may have inadvertently pushed the discussion off-track with his observation in the opening paragraph that “in the grand scheme of things, made-up statistics and false precision are not that big a deal.” I say this because, in responding to Matthew’s post, readers focused on a single issue: how much help it can be in discussions about controlling corruption to throw around phony numbers.
If the only question were whether what can fairly be termed a “wild ass guess” about the extent of corruption or some type of corruption or the losses it causes or what-have-you is if it helps advances policies that will help stamp corruption out, then Matthew is right; “made-up statistics and false precision” aren’t a big deal. But suppose WAGs, by which I include both unsupported guesstimates and bogus numbers, are harmful too? That not only are they sometimes useful by drawing attention to the issue or prompting action, but that sometimes they retard the cause of combating corruption. Then what?
Below are two ways corruption WAGs can be harmful and a modest proposal for lessening that harm without calling a complete halt to their use.
First the harm. I see two ways corruption WAGs do damage.
* They create unrealistic expectations. My example here are WAGs about how much money a particular official stole while in office. Several years ago press accounts claimed that Daniel Arap Moi, a long-serving president of Kenya, stole “billions” while in office. This number was nothing but a WAG, as a careful reading of some of the stories citing it noted, but it was accepted as true by many Kenyans. So when, after a great deal of hard work, the Kenyan anticorruption agency recovered some $20 million of Moi’s money, many Kenyan anticorruption activists treated the recovery not as a good first step in the long-haul of clawing the money back but as evidence of a conspiracy between Moi and the agency. If, as these activists believed, Moi had really taken billions, then $20 million was “peanuts” or “a drop in the bucket” meant simply to give the illusion the agency was doing something. Not only did the comparison between the $20 million real dollars the agency recovered and the WAG that he stole billions fuel cynicism within Kenyan civil society, but it demoralized those in the Kenyan anticorruption agency involved in its recovery. I recall one telling me that he was no longer willing to put in the hours, and expose himself to a real risk of violence, by going after any more Moi money.
* They imply no progress is ever made. Year after year it is claimed that $1 billion is paid in bribes each year. Can it actually be that the tens of thousands of investigators and prosecutors who, like my friend in the Kenyan anticorruption agency, devote their working day to rooting out corruption at sometimes great risk to their personal safety have made absolutely no dent in the problem? Is it still the case that after the tremendous success in Brazil with the Petrobas scandal, the several former heads of Central American states now in the dock for corruption, the gains realized in China and other East Asian states, and the slow but real progress so many African nations are making that $1 billion in bribes still changes hands every year? That the efforts of so many have not even knocked a few cents off the total? Isn’t it possible that the constant incantation of the same corruption WAGs every year leave citizens and those in the trenches fighting corruption thinking the fight is futile? And doesn’t it go without saying that this is a terrible disservice to both?
If you are persuaded that using corruption WAGs creates real harm, then perhaps my solution will be appealing: fixing a warning to the use of any estimate involving corruption. In the halls of some academic institutions professor are now required to issue trigger warnings when they are about to cover material about racism or sexism or some other topic that might upset their students, and this blog regularly uses spoiler alerts when a post may give away the plot or the surprise ending to a story.
My modest proposal is this. All unsupported numbers about the size, impact, or other estimates of a dimension of the corruption problem be followed by this parenthetical note “[a WAG].” So if an advocate wants to claim that last year corruption cost the world economy $2.6 trillion, he or she can do so without guilt simply by writing: “Last year corruption cost the world’s economy $2.6 trillion [WAG].” The anticorruption community can police violations through letters to the editor, comments on blog posts, and complaints to publishers when the required warning is not affixed. Those called out can defend themselves by showing how the number was derived and why they believe it is not a WAG.
Most countries now require tobacco companies to put health warnings on their products, and many demand a calorie count be placed on food and beverage labels. Why not a WAG warning on corruption data?