Objective Validation of Subjective Corruption Perceptions?

As discussed on this blog and elsewhere, one of the big concerns about the most popular cross-country datasets on corruption (the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), etc.) is that they are based (largely or entirely) on perceptions of corruption. As Rick noted in a recent post, and as the critical literature has pointed out ad nauseam, perceptions, while perhaps important in their own right, are not necessarily based in reality. Indeed, some recent research (including, but certainly not limited to, nice papers by Claudio Weber Abramo, by Mireille Razafindrakoto and Francois Rouband, and by Richard Rose and William Mishler) indicates that national corruption perceptions are only weakly correlated with survey results asking about individuals’ personal experience with bribery. This raises serious questions about whether the perception-based indicators are useful either for general assessment or for testing hypotheses about the causes or consequences of corruption.

But might there be more objective measures that could be used to assess whether the corruption perceptions indices are picking up something real? Off the top of my head, I can think of four quite clever recent papers that demonstrate a strong correlation between a subjective corruption perception index and some more objective measure of dishonest behavior. I’m sure there are more, but let me note the four examples that I can think of, and then say a bit on what this might mean for the use of perception-based indicators in empirical corruption research.

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Can Foreign Anti-Bribery Enforcement Statistics Help Us Measure Corruption Levels Objectively?

We’ve spent a fair amount of time, in the early days of this blog, talking about the challenges of measuring corruption cross-nationally. The well-known perception measures are useful to a point, but suffer from well-known drawbacks, chief among them concerns about how accurately perceptions capture reality. A recent working paper by Laarni Escresa and Lucio Picci, “A New Cross-National Measure of Corruption,” tries to get around these difficulties. Using data on enforcement of foreign anti-bribery laws like the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), Escresa and Picci they derive a new index, which they call the Public Administration Corruption Index (PACI), to make more objective cross-country comparisons in corruption levels. The paper is really clever and creative—but in the end I think it doesn’t work. Let me first say what I think is so cool about the idea, and then explain what I think are the biggest flaws. Continue reading