Thanks to GAB Editor-in-Chief Matthew Stephenson, readers of this blog have known for years not to believe the many numbers thrown around about the global cost of corruption. As he has shown in a series of posts, (here, here, here, and here) and in a 2021 paper for the U4 Anticorruption Resource Centre with Cecilie Wathne, these estimates are, not to put too fine a spin on it, baloney. Or what I have somewhat scatologically termed WAGs (Wild A** Guesses).
Unfortunately, White House staff apparently (and disappointingly) neither read GAB nor follow U4’s work. That is the only explanation for why they would have let President Biden say at the launch the other day of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity that “corruption saps between 2 to 5 percent of global GDP.”
Fortunately, Washington Post crack fact checker Glenn Kessler didn’t let the President’s citation of what his paper termed a “fishy statistic” go unchallenged. Relying on Matthew’s and Cecile’s paper, backed up by a chat with U.S T.I. director Gary Kalman, Kessler termed the 2-5 percent statistic “so discredited” that it should have never been “uttered by the president of the United States.” The White House, he wrote, must in the future do a better job of vetting such “dubious” data.
While I trust White House staff will, I hope the error in no way hope cools theirs or the president’s commitment to upping America’s anticorruption game. After all, as the president also said at the Indo-Pacific launch, corruption “steals our public resources,. . . exacerbates inequality [and] hollows out a country’s ability to deliver for its citizens.” All unequivocally true. No fishy data required. QED
Thanks for highlighting this. I just want to emphasize a few things:
1) First, while I have not changed my view that the “2-5% of GDP” statistic is so unfounded that it should not be used, I want to stress (as my coauthor and I stress in our U4 paper) that we are not saying that this is an _overestimate_ of the costs of corruption. It could well be an _underestimate_. Or it could turn out to be accurate. While one can criticize President Biden (or, more accurately, his speechwriters) for using an unfounded statistic, it would be inaccurate to say that President Biden exaggerated the cost of corruption.
2) While I was glad to see that the Washington Post called attention to this inaccuracy, and gratified that the Post reporter made use of the U4 report that I helped write, the one thing about the Post piece that made me slightly uncomfortable was the “two Pinocchio” rating (out of four, I think) that the piece assigned. I get that these “Pinocchio” scores are gimmicks used to rate the egregiousness of falsehoods in political statements, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable in this context because the “Pinocchio” label implies a lie, or a deliberate attempt to mislead. That wasn’t present here. It was more like carelessness, coupled with the common (though misplaced) impulse to throw in big-sounding numbers when talking about a social problem.
3) I want to very strongly associate myself with the last paragraph of your post. Though it’s unfortunate that President Biden’s speechwriters threw in this bogus statistic, the substance of what President Biden said about corruption in this speech is true and important. More generally, the Biden Administration has been one of the best American presidential administrations in recent memory on the anticorruption issue. The citation of an unfounded statistic was unfortunate, but in the grand scheme of things is pretty small potatoes.