The Link Between Corruption and the Global Surge of Populism

“Populism” has been defined in many different ways, but the context in which the term is most frequently used today aligns with the definition proposed by Cas Mudde in The Populist Zeitgeist: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’” This formulation certainly captures the political style of the leaders discussed at last month’s Harvard Law School conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. And it certainly captures the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

A couple of previous posts have provided an overview of the Populist Plutocrats conference agenda and information about the video recording (see here, here and here). In this post, I want to use the conference discussions as a jumping-off point for thinking more generally about how populism relates to systemic corruption—both as a consequence and as a cause.

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Larger Governments Have Less Corruption (Part 2 – Possible Explanations)

In my last post, I argued that the familiar hypothesis—advanced by Gary Becker and others—that big governments are associated with more corruption is inconsistent with the available cross-country empirical evidence. In fact, though the results of different studies are not entirely consistent, the weight of the evidence seems to suggest that (controlling for other possible correlates), countries that have larger governments—defined primarily as those that have higher levels of government spending as a percentage of GDP—have lower levels of perceived corruption, as measured by the familiar indexes, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Again, there are some questions about the robustness of this negative correlation—some studies find that it is statistically significant, while others do not—but there’s enough supporting evidence that I think it’s fair to (tentatively) treat this correlation as genuine.

Perhaps in hindsight this shouldn’t be so surprising. Putting aside multiple regression and other fancy statistical techniques, if one just eyeballs the CPI “league table,” it’s clear that the group of countries that consistently score near the top of the rankings include lots of countries—particularly countries in Northern and Western Europe—with quite large governments (such as Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Iceland), while the bottom of the CPI list includes countries with very small governments. (Even if one excludes barely functioning states, like Somalia, the bottom group in the CPI includes small-government states like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Russia, and the Central African Republic). Of course, this by itself doesn’t tell us much, especially given the well-established correlation between GDP and the government spending/GDP ratio—but, again, multiple regression techniques that control for GDP and other factors show that the positive correlation is genuine, and the handful of favorite examples often trotted out to suggest that small governments are the key to lower corruption (like Singapore and Hong Kong) are in fact statistical outliers.

So let’s assume that, as most studies seem to show, there’s a negative correlation between the government spending/GDP ratio and perceived corruption. What’s the explanation for this?

The short answer is that I don’t know, and I’m not aware of any research that really nails this down. But here are a few possibilities, some cribbed from existing papers, others based on my own wild speculations: Continue reading

The Petrobras Investigations and the Future of Brazil’s Democracy: Thailand and Italy as Cautionary Tales

In March of 2014, when Alberto Youssef, the initial whistleblower for the now infamous Petrobras scandal disclosed his knowledge of the scheme to his lawyers, he prefaced his revelations with a grim prediction: “Guys, if I speak, the republic is going to fall.” While that prediction may have seemed melodramatic at the time, the recent turmoil in Brazil surrounding the Petrobras scandal and the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have led some to begin to question whether Mr. Youssef’s prediction might in fact ring true.

The Petrobras scandal may be the single biggest corruption scheme in any democracy, ever. By some estimates, up to US$5.3 Billion changed hands through inflated construction contracts and kickbacks to Petrobras executives and politicians. Even for a country accustomed to political corruption scandals, this case is unique in its breadth and scope. Dozens of Brazil’s economic and political elite have been implicated, including the CEO of the country’s largest construction firm (sentenced to 19 years in jail), and the former treasurer of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (sentenced to 15 years in jail), plummeting Brazil into a true political and economic crisis. The investigations transcend party lines: Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the House leading the charge for President Rousseff’s impeachment (for using accounting tricks to mask the nation’s deficit), has himself been charged in connection with the Petrobras Scandal. Indeed, this scandal appears to be a political reckoning, an indictment of the entire elite class in Brazil.

By most accounts, Brazil is a thriving democracy—elections are free and fair, and there is a multi-party system marked by vigorous competition between rival parties. Civil liberties are generally well respected. Protests against the government have been massive, but by most accounts peaceful and undisturbed by state authorities. But some have gone so far as to speculate that the unprecedented scale of this scandal may lead to a collapse of Brazil’s democratic system. At least one historical example suggests that this might not be so far-fetched: In Thailand, the political deadlock in 2014 following the ouster of President Yingluck Shinawatra on allegations of corruption and abuse of power ended with a military coup, and democracy has yet to return. Yet perhaps another, somewhat less dramatic but nonetheless troubling precedent is even more apt: In Italy in the 1990s, the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) campaign revealed endemic corruption and led to the collapse of the four governing political parties. In this case, while democratic elections continued, the political void left in the wake of Clean Hands was filled by new, corrupt actors like Silvio Berlusconi, and political graft remains rampant. Though Brazil seems unlikely to suffer a fate similar to Thailand, it is highly plausible that the aftermath of the Petrobras scandal might resemble the Italian experience.

Let’s consider some of the possible parallels between Brazil and Thailand, on the one hand, and Brazil and Italy, on the other.

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So Is Corruption the Problem or Not? Moses Naim’s Curious Inconsistency

OK, this may not be the most important thing in the world, but I noticed it and can’t help pointing it out:

Here’s Moses Naim (who humbly describes himself as “an internationally renowned columnist and commentator”) writing in The Atlantic last May about what he sees as the big oversight in Thomas Piketty‘s surprise bestseller on economic inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

[T]he problem [of inequality] requires a more complete diagnosis [than Piketty provides]. It is not accurate to assert that in countries like Russia, Nigeria, Brazil, and China, the main driver of economic inequality is a rate of return on capital that is larger than the rate of economic growth. A more holistic explanation would need to include the massive fortunes regularly created by corruption and all kinds of illicit activities. In many countries, wealth grows more as a result of thievery and malfeasance than as a consequence of the returns on capital invested by elites….

Corruption-fueled inequality flourishes in societies where there are no incentives, rules, or institutions to hinder corruption. And having honest people in government is good, but not enough. The practices of pilfering public funds or selling government contracts to the highest bidder must be seen as risky, routinely detected, and systematically punished.

Most of the roughly 20 nations from which Piketty forms his analysis classify as high-income countries and rank among the least-corrupt in the world…. Unfortunately, most of humanity lives in countries where … dishonesty is the primary driver of inequality. This point has not attracted as much attention as Piketty’s thesis. But it should.

All well and good. But here are Naim’s thoughts on the global anticorruption movement (from Foreign Policy) in March 2005: Continue reading