Conceptualizing Bank Robbery: A Pedantic Parable for Corruption Scholars

Some years ago, an ambitious and idealistic young social scientist decided that she would put her newly-acquired research skills to good use by trying to better understand and combat some important social problem. She settled on bank robbery. Why? Well, partly her personal interest, partly her background, and partly coincidence: She had a friend whose hometown had been hit by a rash of bank robberies, and she had been reading newspaper articles about a high-profile bank robbery, and it just seemed like a good thing to work on.

She went to see a senior scholar in the field, a former editor of the Journal of Bank Robbery and chair of the International Association of Bank Robbery Studies. They had the following exchange: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Metaphysics of “Corruption” (or, The Fundamental Challenge to Comparative Corruption Measurement)

GAB is pleased to welcome back Jacob Eisler, Lecturer at Cambridge University, who contributes the following guest post:

A couple months back, Matthew Stephenson and Michael Johnston engaged in a lively debate on the question of if aggregate-level data of corruption is useful, focusing on the appropriate level of methodological skepticism that should be directed towards large-scale efforts to quantify corruption (see here, here, here, and here). While this debate touched on a number of fascinating questions regarding how to best treat data regarding corruption, it has drifted away from why Michael had a concern with overly aggressive quantification in the first place: Actually addressing corruption requires a “standard of goodness,” and the difficulty in coming up with such a standard explains why the social sciences have faced a “longstanding inability to come to a working consensus over how to define corruption.” In other words, when we talk about corruption, we are inevitably talking about something bad that suggests the vitiation or distortion of something good. It is difficult to conceptualize corruption except as a distortion of a non-objectionable political process—that is, political practice undertaken with integrity. This need not mean that there must be some shared first-order property of good governance; but it does suggest that there is a shared property to distorted or corrupted governance that must derive from some shared property of all politics.

If this idea of a “shared feature” is taken seriously, it would suggest those who argue for the value of comparative corruption metrics are making a very strong claim: that if you are comparing corruption within a country, or across countries, all the relevant polities and types of practice must have some shared feature, deviation from which counts as corruption. This shared feature in turn would be an aspect of governance. It could be any number of constants in human society – a constant feature of morality in governance, or tendencies of human anthropology. But in any case, this is a very distinctive and powerful claim, and one that requires strong assumptions or assertions regarding the nature of governance. To weave this back to the original dispute, our willingness to rely on quantitative metrics should depend on our level of commitment to our faith in this constant feature of politics that makes corruption a transferable, or, more aggressively put, “universal” thing. Our use of these homogenizing empirical metrics implies that we are committed to the robustness of the constant feature. Yet it doesn’t seem like this conceptual work has been done. Continue reading

ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ’: The Laotian Approach

The American Supreme Court’s recent decision that confusion over what constitutes corruption entitles former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to a new trial again illustrates how critical it is that “corruption” be precisely defined.  As Matthew explained yesterday, the Court in McDonnell ruled that the definition the jury was given to decide whether the former governor had broken the law was too broad.  The justices feared that were such a definition allowed to stand, public servants would shy away from doing their duties for fear they could be accused of “corruption.”  While Matthew argues that in McDonnell this fear was misplaced, there are instances where it is not.  Take Indonesia.  Bureaucrats there are refusing to spend billions of dollars on legally approved projects ranging from schools and hospitals to garbage trucks and parking meters because they fear it would open them to investigation for the vaguely defined corruption crimes as “abuse of office.”

As I have argued on this blog, the problem begins with the term “corruption.”  As passed down from Latin to Old French and into English, the word carries the idea of something that has spoiled or become impure.  Milk left in the heat too long sours or is “corrupted.” But while there is no mistaking when milk has gone sour, the endless debates over whether such (lawful) practices as private donations to political candidates are “corrupt” shows that when applied to politics and government, “corruption” is in the eye of the beholder.

But not all languages derive their expression for “corruption” from Latin, and thus not all languages are saddled with the subjective meaning the Latin imparts to the modern-day term.  Take ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ – the Laotian term for corruption. Continue reading

Guest Post: Fixing the Federal Definition of Bribery–From “Intent to Influence” to “Illegal Contract”

Albert W. Alschuler, the Julius Kreeger Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Law School, contributes the following guest post:

In the United States, the principal federal criminal statute prohibiting the bribery of federal officials, 18 U.S.C. § 201(b), forbids “corruptly” offering or giving anything of value to an official “with the intent to influence any official act.” Yet, as I argue in a recent article, defining bribery primarily in terms of the payer’s “intent to influence” is overbroad. The phrase “intent to influence” not only seems on its face to reach common and widely accepted practices; it also invites speculation about motives and may produce prosecutions and convictions based on cynicism.

There’s an alternative: The American Law Institute’s 1962 Model Penal Code defines bribery as offering, giving, soliciting or accepting any pecuniary benefit as “consideration” for an official act. As a Texas court said of a state statute modeled on this provision, the Code “requir[es] a bilateral arrangement—in effect an illegal contract to exchange a benefit as consideration for the performance of an official function.” More than two-thirds of the states now embrace an “illegal contract” definition of bribery; the federal government and the remaining states should follow suit. Continue reading

Guest Post: The British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme

Paul M. Heywood, the Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics at the University of Nottingman, contributes the following guest post:

In a recent post, Matthew recommended a speech by Robert Barrington, Executive Director of Transparency International UK, on the relationship between academics and advocates in the fight against corruption. I was very pleased to read the post, as Robert had given the speech at my invitation during the inaugural meeting of research projects funded under an exciting new initiative being jointly run by the British Academy and the Department for International Development (DFID). The Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) Programme, which I serve in the capacity of Academic Leader, is designed explicitly to address the interface between researchers and practitioners, with a fundamental focus on what actually works when it comes to fighting corruption.

Prompted in part by a highly critical report of DFID’s anticorruption approach by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – itself reproached for poor use of evidence (including on this blog) – and in part by its own commissioned evidence papers into corruption (here and here), DFID has partnered with the British Academy to launch a £3.6m programme aimed at helping us understand better exactly how and why specific interventions succeed or fail in particular contexts. Some may wonder why we need yet more research on corruption; indeed, that is precisely the question I was recently asked by Jeremy Lefroy MP when giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development inquiry into tackling corruption overseas: “I would have thought there was plenty of evidence around. In what way do you think the evidence base needs to be strengthened, or is this just creating extra work for people who look at these things?”

The question is a reasonable one, especially given the exponential rise in the number of books and articles on corruption published over the last quarter century (as reflected in Matthew’s ever-expanding bibliography on the topic). There are many answers that could be given, but one key factor is that much of the existing research on corruption has simply been too generic to produce specific recommendations on which policymakers can act. Although it is widely recognized that corruption is not just one thing, such recognition has often not been translated into research design. Notably, many large-n studies have used an undifferentiated concept of corruption to serve as either a dependent or independent variable, seeking to explain a host of specific failings across a very wide canvas. Where there have been attempts to disaggregate corruption, these have often proposed bipartite, rather than graded, classifications (grand/petty, political/bureaucratic, need/greed, and so forth). In practice, corruption is a much more complex phenomenon than such dichotomous approaches can conceivably capture. Four observations follow from this: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Blagojevich Case and the Line Between Corruption and Horse-Trading

Jennifer Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, respectively Executive Director and Program Coordinator for the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), contribute the following guest post:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently back in the news, but this time for something he didn’t do wrong, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 5 of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted in 2011. The appellate court’s decision hinged upon the distinction between illegal corruption and legal (if distasteful) political horse-trading, an issue recently touched upon in the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions (which Matthew discussed here). The outcome of the Blagojevich appeal shows that under current U.S. law, whether or not a public official’s deal-making is illegal depends upon what exactly the official is bargaining for. Political horse-trading–exchanging one official act for another official act–is not a crime under U.S. federal law, but exchanging an official act for a private benefit is. The decision in the Blagojevich provides a useful opportunity for thinking more generally about how the law ought to draw that difficult line. Continue reading

Why is Corruption so Hard to Define?

Last week Matthew wrote that too much time and energy has been wasted trying to define corruption.  While I agree, I don’t think sufficient attention has been paid to why so many spend so much time arguing about what “corruption” means.  Matthew pointed to the reason in one of the first posts on this blog but stopped just short of the explanation.   Let me take the last, short step in the hopes it will end the interminable, unproductive wrangling over definitions.

In the earlier post Matthew wrote that corruption “implies a deviation from some ideal state” and hence “involves an implicit or explicit selection of a baseline standard of ‘correct’ behavior.”  He went on to explain that in the corruption literature the three most common baselines are the law, public opinion, and public interest.   “Corruption” can then be conduct that deviates from what the law provides, that diverges from what the public thinks is wrongful, or that is at odds with the public interest.  The definition of “corruption” depends upon the baseline; each baseline, as Matthew explained, leads to a different approach to defining “corruption.”

With one slight emendation, Matthew is correct.  But I think making that correction is important for taking the analysis the next step and, I hope, ending, or at least reducing, fruitless debate over definitions. Continue reading

Corruption Is a Systems Failure, But Not All Systems Failures Are Corruption

As regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I try to avoid extended discussions about the definition of corruption (see here, here, and here). Of course it’s important to have a sense of what one is talking about, if only to avoid misunderstandings, but I tend to find extended definitional debates arid and unproductive. (As I’ve remarked before, when academics run out of ideas, they start arguing about definitions.) In my view, there isn’t a single “true” or “correct” definition of corruption—only definitions that are more or less useful, depending on the context. I’m generally perfectly happy with the fairly standard “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” definition. There’s some inherent vagueness (and perhaps some normative/legal judgment) built into concepts like “abuse” and “private gain,” but so what? There are lots of other open-textured concepts that researchers are able to study even though their boundaries are not completely sharp and clear (and where we must sometimes make do with arbitrary cut-off points).

Still, I do think one of the hazards of a term like “corruption” is the occasional tendency to define it so capaciously that it loses any specific meaning. There is an associated tendency to confuse or conflate the somewhat distinct meanings that “corruption” can have in different contexts (for example, legal versus non-legal contexts). So I think, despite my usual aversion to definitional squabbling, it’s occasionally useful to push back against the attempt to define corruption so broadly as to swallow up every way that an institution or organization can go wrong.

I came across an illustration of this in an opinion piece in last week’s Boston Globe (based on an associated post on the MIT Sloan Management Review blog) by George Mason Professor Gregory Unruh. Professor Unruh frames his piece using the recent arrests of various FIFA officials, but suggests that the focus on the personal moral failures of these individuals “muddles executives’ understanding of what corruption is and how it can be managed.” Rather than defining corruption in terms of the “dishonest abuse of power or moral depravity,” Professor Unruh advocates what he calls “the engineer’s definition”:

Any organized, interdependent system in which part of the system is not performing duties as originally intended to, or performing them in an improper way, to the detriment of the system’s original purpose.

This definition, Professor Unruh claims, makes “[i]dentifying corruption in … social systems [like businesses] straightforward.” I don’t think it does. Or if it does, it does so only by defining corruption so expansively as to make the concept essentially useless. Continue reading

A Victory for the Government, Justice, and Common Sense, in the Bob McDonnell Appeal

Over the past year, we had a few posts (from Jordan, Rick, and myself) about former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal bribery convictions. All of us took the position that McDonnell’s main argument on appeal—that his actions on behalf of a local businessman were not “official acts” (and that the loans and lavish gifts this businessman provided were merely for “ingratiation and access”)—was inconsistent both with the governing law and with the facts as presented in the trial record. (Lots of people, though, including two distinguished criminal law experts on my faculty, took the contrary position.) The issue is important not just for U.S. political and legal junkies, but also because the McDonnell appeal raises more general issues about how we think about the line between illegal corruption and legal (though perhaps sleazy) political wheeling & dealing.

As many readers are no doubt aware, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided the case earlier this month. And while courts don’t always get it right, this time they did: The three-judge panel unanimously rejected all of McDonnell’s arguments, and cogently explained why in this case the evidence was more than sufficient to support a corruption conviction. Indeed, while there are indeed hard questions about the appropriate line between legal and illegal forms of private influence on public officials, the McDonnell case was not even particularly close to that line.

A few quick observations about the Court of Appeal’ opinion: Continue reading

Guest Post: Typologies of (Anti-) Corruption — How Much More Boring Can It Get? Or Maybe Not…

Dieter Zinnbauer, Senior Program Manager for Emerging Policy Issues at Transparency International, contributes the following guest post:

Remember that childhood game, you say a word over and over and it seems to lose its meaning and just dissolves into a melodic sound? I feel similarly about trying to slice up the umbrella concept of corruption and sort it into practical, reasonably comprehensive, and distinctive subcategories – an endeavor that usually gets out of hand, consumes disproportionate amounts of scarce thinking-time and energy, and eventually leaves the participants more confused and in disagreement than at the outset. Yet quite recently I have begun to change my mind a bit about the unproductiveness of typologizing (anti)corruption. In fact, I have begun to derive some surprising enjoyment and inspiration from playing around with different ways to look at and classify different types of (anti)corruption. Here three examples: Continue reading