Adjusting Corruption Perception Index Scores for National Wealth

My post two weeks ago discussed Transparency International’s newly-released 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), focusing in particular on an old hobby-horse of mine: the hazards of trying to draw substantive conclusions from year-to-year changes in any individual country’s CPI score. Today I want to continue to discuss the 2017 CPI, with attention to a different issue: the relationship between a country’s wealth and its CPI score. It’s no secret that these variables are highly correlated. Indeed, per capita GDP remains the single strongest predictor of a country’s perceived corruption level, leading some critics to suggest that the CPI doesn’t really measure perceived corruption so much as it measures wealth—penalizing poor countries by portraying them as more corrupt, when in fact their corruption may be due more to their poverty than to deficiencies in their cultures, policies, and institutions.

This criticism isn’t entirely fair. Per capita income is a strong predictor of CPI scores, but they’re far from perfectly correlated. Furthermore, even if it’s true that worse (perceived) corruption is in large measure a product of worse economic conditions, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the CPI as such, any more than a measure of infant mortality is flawed because it is highly correlated with per capita income. (And of course because corruption may worsen economic outcomes, the correlation between wealth and CPI scores may be a partial reflection of corruption’s impact, though I doubt there are many who think that this relationship is so strong that the causal arrow runs predominantly from corruption to national wealth rather than from national wealth to perceived corruption.)

Yet the critics do have a point: When we look at the CPI results table, we see a lot of very rich countries clustered at the top, and a lot of very poor countries clustered at the bottom. That’s fine for some purposes, but we might also be interested in seeing which countries have notably higher or lower levels of perceived corruption than we would expect, given their per capita incomes. As a crude first cut at looking into this, I merged the 2017 CPI data table with data from the World Bank on 2016 purchasing-power-adjusted per capita GDP. After dropping the countries that appeared in one dataset but not the other, I had a 167 countries. I then ran a simple regression using CPI as the outcome variable and the natural log of per capita GDP as the sole explanatory variable. (I used the natural log partly to reduce the influence of extreme income outliers, and partly on the logic that the impact of GDP on perceived corruption likely declines at very high levels of income. But I admit it’s something of an arbitrary choice and I encourage others who are interested to play around with the data using alternative functional forms and specifications.)

This single variable, ln per capita GDP, explained about half of the total variance in the data (for stats nerds, the R2 value was about 0.51), meaning that while ln per capita GDP is a very powerful explanatory variable, there’s a lot of variation in the CPI that it doesn’t explain. The more interesting question, to my mind, concerns the countries that notably outperform or underperform the CPI score that one would predict given national wealth. To look into this, I simply ranked the 167 countries in my data by the size of the residuals from the simple regression described above. Here are some of the things that I found: Continue reading

Saudi Arabia’s Anticorruption Purge: A Sham to Consolidate Power and Lure Investors

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS, for short), has been cleaning house. In the last month, he has arrested 11 princes, four ministers, and dozens of ex-ministers, all of whom are being held in five star hotels across Riyadh. He has also detained more than 200 others for questioning. Scores of commentators and media personalities have praised MBS’s anticorruption purge (see here and here), while others have condemned it (see here and here), which goes to show just how difficult it is to understand what the recent anticorruption purge means in the context of a country like Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, in Saudi Arabia, any measure to address corruption seems to be cause for optimism. Taken against the backdrop of the many social reforms advanced by MBS, ranging from permitting women to drive, diversifying the economy, and moderating the religious establishment’s brand of Islam, the anticorruption measures appear to be part of a genuine effort to reform Saudi Arabian society. Yet this optimistic assessment naively conflates a progressive social agenda that taps into our hopes for Saudi Arabia’s future (and the Middle East’s writ large) with what Saudi Arabia’s anticorruption purge really is: an attempt to consolidate MBS’s power and reassure foreign investors. Continue reading

Malaysia’s Anticorruption Credibility Problem

The biggest anticorruption news last week was almost certainly the announcement by Malaysia’s new Attorney General clearing Prime Minister Najib Razak of any wrongdoing in connection to the approximately $781 million that mysteriously appeared in his personal bank account. Early reports suggested that the money might have been embezzled from a state investment fund called 1MDB – and the controversy over this matter caused substantial political upheaval (and ended up being a major focus of last year’s International Anti-Corruption Conference, which was held in Malaysia at the height of the scandal). But last week, Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, following up on an earlier statement by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), announced that the money was not in fact from 1MDB, but was instead a “political donation” from the Saudi royal family. Attorney General Apandi further stated that the money was given “without any consideration,” that Prime Minister Najib had not done anything unlawful, and that he’d returned $620 million of unused money to the Saudi royal family.

Is this true? Is it really the case that Prime Minister Najib did nothing wrong (or at least nothing illegal)? Of course, I have no idea (though Swiss investigators announced earlier this week that there is indeed evidence of massive misappropriation from 1MDB). I’m not privy to any of the evidence that the MACC and the AG investigated, and I’m at best a casual, intermittent outside observer of Malaysian politics. And it would be nice to live in a world in which, when the most senior justice official in a country, announces that allegations of corruption are unfounded, I could simply believe those assertions. After all, not all allegations of corruption are true. Yet in this case, my reaction to the AG’s announcement (even before I read the news about the ongoing Swiss investigations) was cynical disbelief. I may not ever know what actually happened in this case, but what I do know is that pretty much everything that’s happened since news of the scandal broke has shattered any faith that I may once have had that Malaysian institutions undertook a genuine, impartial, investigation of this matter. Indeed, the Malaysian government’s handling of this matter is a textbook example of how a system can damage its credibility, perhaps irreparably.

Just to recap some of the highlights: Continue reading