About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Professor Rothstein’s Reply to My Critique

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing several trends that I have noticed in some (certainly not all) anticorruption scholarship. The inspiration and focus of my critique was a post by Professor Bo Rothstein (on the Tufts Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy (CJL) Blog) which I thought exemplified some of the trends which I found problematic. Just a quick recap:

  • I think that too much anticorruption scholarship is fixated on definitions, and has an exaggerated sense of the importance of definitional debates. In that regard, I criticized (indeed, I characterized as “ridiculous”) Professor Rothstein’s claims that the reason anticorruption reforms had not been more successful is because people are not defining “corruption” in the right way.
  • I think that too much scholarship on corruption misunderstands and misuses social science concepts. Here, I took aim at Professor Rothstein’s assertion (which is hardly unique to him) that “principal-agent theory” can’t help us understand corruption, an argument that appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what a principal-agent problem actually is.
  • I also think that too much scholarship on corruption (and, frankly, too much scholarship generally) engages in sweeping and uncharitable dismissal of prior work and thought, often (or so it seems) because the scholar who wants to promote theory/hypothesis A feels the need to suggest that theory/hypothesis B has nothing whatsoever to offer. On this point, I focused on a less prominent but still important argument in Professor Rothstein’s post, namely his assertion that legal reform is irrelevant to the fight against corruption because all countries have “very good laws against corruption.” I took issue with this both because I think it’s wrong on the merits (all countries prohibit core forms of corruption like bribery, but there are huge and important variations in the nature of the specific relevant laws and legal institutions) and because I think such a quick rejection of the extensive and sophisticated line of research on the role of law in the fight against corruption was unhelpful, unnecessary, and counterproductive.

Because my critique focused on Professor Rothstein’s post, and because I had used strong critical language in advancing that critique, I offered Professor Rothstein an opportunity to write a response on this blog. He declined that offer, but he recently informed me that earlier this week he had published a response on the CJL blog. I am delighted that he chose to respond to my critique in writing. It will come as little surprise that I do not find his responses convincing in the slightest (for reasons I’m happy to elaborate if anybody so requests), but I greatly respect his willingness to take the time to write the response, so that our readers can follow the exchange and make up their own minds. Really, the main audience for this dispute consists of up-and-coming young scholars, who are making their own decisions about what kinds of work they want to do, what styles of scholarship and research topics will be most fruitful, and the like. I hope that these young scholars will find the exchange between Professor Rothstein and myself helpful in thinking through the kind of work they want to pursue.

Time-Sensitive Announcement: Call for Civil Society Organization To Join Letter on Corporate Transparency Act Implementation

Today’s announcement is meant specifically for readers affiliated with civil society organizations that work on anticorruption, anti-money laundering, and related issues (especially, though not exclusively, in the United States). As most of you are likely aware, last year the United States enacted the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is in the process of developing rules to implement that act. The formal period for public comment on the proposed rules has already passed, but in light of the recent revelations concerning the Pandora Papers–which highlighted, among other things, how trusts have been abused to hide illicit assets–a coalition of civil society organizations, led by Transparency International’s US chapter, is submitting a letter to FinCEN urging the adoption of appropriately vigorous rules. In particular, the letter urges FinCEN (and here I am quoting directly from the letter) to:

  • Maintain the comprehensive definition of “beneficial owner” expressly included in the CTA;
  • Provide for broad coverage of the types of entities required to register, including, but not limited to, all non-exempted trusts;
  • Limit the interpretations of the exemptions, as best as possible, to include only those that file beneficial ownership information elsewhere with authorities or are truly low risk for money laundering, terrorist financing, and other harms; and
  • Allow for timely and complete access to beneficial ownership information for all law enforcement and those with legal obligations to protect our financial system.

The deadline for signing onto the letter is tomorrow, October 13th. As noted above, the letter is intended to be from a coalition of organizations, rather than individuals, but if any of you out there are affiliated with civil society organizations that have not yet signed onto the letter, I urge you to do so.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Fernanda Odilla and Anwesha Chakraborty

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my colleague Nils Köbis interviews Fernanda Odilla and Anwesha Chakraborty, two researchers studying how technology can be used to assist bottom-up anticorruption efforts–particularly, though not exclusively, in Brazil and India. The interview covers a range of initiatives in this category, discussing their strengths, limitations, and future possibilities. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Three Reasons Anticorruption Academics Fail: A Commentary on Rothstein

Last week, Professor Bo Rothstein, one of the most influential senior researchers in the anticorruption field, published a blog post entitled “Three Reasons Anti-Corruption Programs Fail.” The post (which draws from Professor Rothstein’s earlier writings and his new book) sets out to explain why the anticorruption efforts sponsored by a combination of domestic reformers and the international development community have been a “huge policy failure.” The three reasons for this purported failure laid out in the post are (1) use of the wrong definition of corruption (2) use of the wrong social science theory to frame and analyze corruption, and (3) locating corruption “in the wrong social spaces.”

I am disappointed to report that I find little in the post that is correct. Professor Rothstein’s post does illustrate some important and ongoing failures in anticorruption thinking—just not in the way that he intended. Rather, the post inadvertently illustrates certain tendencies that afflict a certain strain of academic work on the corruption topic—tendencies that render scholarship on corruption far less useful to the world than it could or should be. I’m particularly troubled when I encounter bright young up-and-coming researchers who appear to be misled by these tendencies. So with all due respect to Professor Rothstein, I will use his post as a framing device to highlight the problems I see and to urge the new generation of anticorruption researchers to be mindful of them.

Before proceeding, an important note: Despite what I just said, and what I’m going to say in the remainder of the post, I like and respect Professor Rothstein. We have met on several occasions, and he has always treated me graciously. He was the driving force behind the founding and development of the University of Gothenburg’s Quality of Government Institute, which consistently produces excellent research and researchers. He is a prolific writer, and by all accounts a generous and supportive mentor, coauthor, and teacher. My objective in this post is most definitely not to entertain readers with the gratuitous academic blood-sport that is unfortunately too popular in some quarters. Yet at the same time, precisely because Professor Rothstein is such an influential figure in the field, his writings ought to be subjected to rigorous critical scrutiny, especially given the importance of the topic. This isn’t a game, and we must hold one another to very high standards, even when this means assessing harshly the work of people we generally like and respect. I suspect Professor Rothstein would agree with that last sentiment, though probably not with anything else in this post.

With that important note out of the way, let me highlight the three common tendencies in academic writing on corruption that Professor Rothstein’s post illustrates: (1) an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with definitions; (2) misunderstanding and misuse of social science concepts, particularly a fixation on capital-T “Theories”; and (3) sweeping and uncharitable dismissiveness of prior work and thinking on the topic.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Ensuring Integrity in U.S. Infrastructure Spending

Today’s guest post is from Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity (C4I), and Taylor Cerwinski, a consultant for C4I on various anticorruption and ethics issues.

The biggest item on the U.S. Congress’s legislative agenda right now is infrastructure. Last month, the Senate voted to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill focused on surface infrastructure and broadband projects, including $550 billion in funding for new projects. That bill is set for a House vote on Thursday, though the politics are complicated by the debates within the Democratic Party over the proposed $3.5 trillion federal budget bill that includes investment in “human infrastructure” via support of child care, education, healthcare, and other projects. While all eyes on Washington are focused on whether the Democrats will be able to hold together their progressive and centrist wings to pass both of these bills, there’s another important concern regarding the proposed infrastructure investment that ought to receive attention: the need for more effective oversight of how the money is spent.

While strong infrastructure is vital to ensure a healthy economy and thriving communities, the scope, complexity, and cost of the proposed infrastructure projects make it vital to ensure that there is clear and robust oversight, so that these projects are carried out in a fiscally responsible manner. Without such oversight, there is a substantial risk that infrastructure projects at the federal and state level will fall victim to waste, fraud and other abuses. Internationally, estimates of losses to bribery in construction are as high as 10 to 30 percent of construction costs. And the United States is not impervious to mismanagement and corruption in infrastructure projects. A review of prior high-profile projects such as the California High Speed train, the Central Artery Project in Boston (The Big Dig), and the awarding of contracts related to disaster relief and clean-up efforts in the aftermath of Katrina reveals cost overruns, fraud, and incidents of bribery and other forms of public corruption.

The infrastructure bill now pending before the House incorporates several measures to combat potential corruption. These include requirements that federal agencies award grants on a competitive basis, regularly publish reports on the implementation of grant programs, and fund oversight functions. While a good start, these measures do not go far enough. Assuming the infrastructure bill passes, agencies must—through implementing regulations and actual practice—go further to ensure transparency, accountability, and integrity in infrastructure spending. As a new Coalition for Integrity’s report on Oversight of Infrastructure Spending, there are a number of useful measures that would be helpful, including the following: Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–September 2021 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. Additionally, the bibliography is available in more user-friendly, searchable from at Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Corpus website. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Kate Bateman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Kate Bateman, currently a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan Program, and previously the Project Lead for the “Lessons Learned” program with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Our conversation, which in many ways complements our previous episode’s interview with Jodi Vittori, focuses on the role that corruption played in the failure of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan government that the U.S. and its allies supported, as well as the lessons that can be learned both from the overall experience and, more specifically, from SIGAR’s work. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Announcement: Call for Papers for Special Issue on the Political Economy of Corruption and Racism

Today’s guest announcement is from Professor Michael Johnston of the Colgate University Department of Political Science.

Corruption, in its various forms, has allowed racism to flourish in many ways; arguably racism can drive and facilitate corruption as well. The social and economic consequences of these intertwined problems can be devastating, not only for their immediate victims but also for communities at large.

Because of the many possible intersections of racism and corruption, and because academic debates on those connections are very much in flux, the Journal of Economics, Race, and Policy (JERP) invites submissions for a special issue devoted to this topic. Contributions might be empirical or conceptual, could focus on a range of issues, cases, groups, and places (not just the United States), and could take historical or comparative, as well as contemporary, approaches. Papers can explore the economic costs that arise when racism and corruption interact, corrupt incentives that help sustain racism – or other incentives that might inhibit it – and the ways in which economic and social policies might illuminate the workings of both sets of problems when they become institutionalized.

We believe this special issue of JERP can be the starting point for some important and productive debates.

Submissions are subject to the usual length and style requirements of JERP and would be evaluated through its normal refereeing process, as well as by the guest editors. Abstracts for the special issue can be emailed to the guest editors below, anytime until November 15, 2021.  A deadline of June 15, 2022 for submissions to the special issue can be made online via JERP’s online submission portal. The issue would likely appear in mid 2023.

The editors of the special issue are:

Oguzhan Dincer, PhD  odincer@ilstu.edu
Department of Economics
Illinois State University

Michael Johnston, PhD mjohnston@colgate.edu
Department of Political Science
Colgate University

All inquiries should be directed to the guest editors.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Jodi Vittori

After a couple of month off for summer vacation, I’m happy to announce that a new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Jodi Vittori, Professor of Practice and Concentration Co-Chair for Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Professor Vittori is an expert in the relationship between corruption and military affairs and security, and much of our conversation focuses on the role of corruption in the failure of the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan government that the U.S. and its allies had supported. In addition to the specific issues in Afghanistan, our conversation also addresses more broadly how military strategists, commanders, and diplomats ought to respond to corruption risks. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Anticorruption Bibliography–August 2021 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. Additionally, the bibliography is available in more user-friendly, searchable from at Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Corpus website. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.