Guest Post: The Taxi Driver Paradox–or How Descriptive Social Norms Shape Corrupt Behavior

Nils Köbis, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Experimental Economics and Political Decision-Making (CREED), University of Amsterdam, contributes today’s guest post:

Whenever I am traveling and take a taxi, I try to strike up a conversation with the driver. The beauty of this situation is that both sides can be really candid. The length is typically short, and chances are you will never meet again. The chat usually kicks off with some small talk about sports, weather, and food. Once warmed up, I have often asked: “What do you think is the biggest problem in your society?” So far, the most common answer has been corruption. And my taxi-driver-based anecdotal evidence is consistent with large  international surveys. Notwithstanding the old canard that people who live in corrupt societies generally tolerate corruption as normal and natural, ample empirical evidence (and my taxi drivers) suggests that this is not true: People widely despise corruption, especially in countries riddled with it. Yet on several occasions the very same taxi driver who has been ranting to me about corruption has stopped by a traffic police officer—and willingly paid a bribe to avoid a ticket.

What explains this apparent paradox? The most frequent explanation for why a person outraged by corruption would nevertheless pay a bribe is that “everybody does it”—as the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie nicely puts it, “If we do something over and over again it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again it becomes normal.” This notion of normality plays an important role in explaining why corruption is sometimes the exception and sometimes the rule. Scholars who research social norms differentiate between injunctive norms, which concern whether a given behavior is acceptable, and descriptive norms, which indicate whether the same behavior is common. This distinction might help to explain the taxi-driver-paradox: People might often bribe because everybody else is doing it, even though they think it’s wrong. Continue reading

Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!

Guest Post: Refining Corruption Surveys To Identify New Opportunities for Social Change

GAB is delighted to welcome back Dieter Zinnbauer, Programme Manager at Transparency International, who contributes the following guest post:

Household corruption surveys, such as Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) are primarily, and very importantly, focused on tracking the scale and scope of citizens’ personal bribery experience and their general perceptions about corruption levels in different institutions. More recently, the GCB has branched out into questions about what kind of action against corruption people do or do not take, and why. The hope is that better understanding what motivates people to take action against corruption will help groups like TI develop more effective advocacy and mobilization strategies.

In addition to these direct questions about why people say they do or don’t take action against corruption, household surveys have the potential to help advocacy groups in their efforts to mobilize citizens in another way as well: by identifying inconsistencies or discrepancies between what people’s experience of corruption and their perceptions of corruption. The existence of these gaps is not in itself surprising, but learning more about them might help advocates craft strategies for changing both behavior and beliefs. Consider the following examples: Continue reading

For the Love of Money: Capitalizing on Corrupt Officials’ Opulent Spending Habits to Fight Corruption

Corruption is notoriously difficult to track and discover, not least because both sides in a corrupt exchange have strong incentives to avoid getting caught. So how can enforcement officials, journalists, and anticorruption activists catch corrupt actors? Pay close attention to flagrant and excessive spending by public officials. After all, most people who benefit from corruption, whether they are officials receiving bribes or industrialists benefitting from the government action they purchased, do it for the money. And what’s the point of taking on so much personal risk to make more money if you can’t spend it on nice things? This is why you’ll see Chinese officials wearing wristwatches worth four times their annual salary and presidents spending millions on designer clothes and shoes and other luxury goods. The additional risk of being caught seems to be outweighed by the perceived social benefits of public displays of wealth. Throwing lavish weddings and banquets seems to be a particularly common trap that captures this phenomenon. The very public nature of these events, the massive guest lists, and the attendance of well known figures all but guarantee public scrutiny. But current and former government officials just can’t seem to help themselves. For example, in the middle of India’s recent anticorruption crackdown a former government minister held a lavish wedding for his daughter at a cost of over $75 million. This is in a country where a former state chief minister and potential prime minister was recently sentenced to four years in prison, banned from politics for a decade, and fined $16 million after an investigation sparked by an astonishingly opulent wedding she hosted.

Over the past decade, the spending habits of dozens of high-ranking officials have produced a number of viral news stories and have, in some cases, led to effective enforcement actions. The fact that people are willing to spend their corruptly acquired wealth so publicly, in spite of the risks involved, provides enforcement officials and anticorruption advocates with a unique and important opportunity in three respects:

Continue reading

Watch Your Language: Not “Everyone” Is Corrupt–Anywhere.

I’ve noticed something about the way many people (including me) sometimes describe the severity of the corruption problem in many parts of the world: When calling attention to the problem of widespread, systemic corruption, it’s not uncommon to hear people say—usually in casual conversation, occasionally in more formal presentations—that in this or that country, or this or that government or department, “everyone” is corrupt, or “everybody” takes bribes, or similar. I’m sure I’ve used this or similar language myself, without even thinking about it. And I understand that when most people say things like “everyone in [X] is corrupt,” they don’t mean that literally. Yet I find myself increasingly bothered by statements like this, for several reasons: Continue reading

Why Context Matters: The Failure of the Ugandan Revenue Authority to Curb Corruption

In his 2013 volume explaining why donor-supported reforms often go awry in developing states, Kennedy School Professor Matt Andrews lays the blame on the failure to appreciate how political imperatives, patronage networks, cultural practices, and other elements of local context affect the way reforms are implemented.  While Andrews offers telling examples of how ignorance of context doomed reforms in Argentina and Malawi, the failure to stamp out corruption in Uganda’s revenue collection service provides an even more vivid illustration of the way the very different context in a developing state can cause “best practice” reforms to fail.  The analysis is taken from Odd-Helge Fjeldstad’s classic account of the attempt to reform tax collection in Uganda, “Corruption in Tax Administration: Lessons from Institutional Reforms in Uganda,” chapter 17 of Susan Rose-Ackerman’s 2006 edited volume, International Handbook on the Economics of Corruption.

In 1991 revenue from taxes and customs duties in Uganda were seven percent of GDP, an astonishing low figure even on a continent where tax evasion was the norm.  Under pressure from the IMF, the World Bank, and other donors the then recently installed government of Yoweri Museveni took decisive action.  Following what was then considered best practice for boosting revenues and cutting corruption in a revenue service, the government made the revenue department of the Ministry of Finance into an autonomous agency.  Independent agency status allowed the Uganda Revenue Authority to implement a number of reforms to reduce corruption.  Salaries were raised above civil service levels and strictures on firing non-performing workers removed.  As a new agency, all employees were considered new hires and had to prove themselves during a probationary period; as a result almost 250, or 15 percent, of the old revenue department staff were weeded out.  In addition, “clean” expatriates were hired into senior management positions, and measures were taken to improve morale: offices were upgraded, working conditions improved, and training provided.  All in all, the Uganda Revenue Authority was considered a model for how to create an efficient, non-corruption revenue collection agency.

During the first years of its existence, the authority’s performance suggested these reforms were succeeding.  Revenue collection as a percentage of GDP improved and perceptions of corruption declined.  These early indicators of success, however, soon began to decline.  Forty-three percent of businesses surveyed in 1998 reported paying a bribe to a Uganda Revenue Authority employee; in March 2000 President Museveni termed the authority a “den of thieves,” and in 2003 its former head listed corruption as “problem number one” in the organization.  A Commission of Inquiry of C corruption in the Uganda Revenue Authority was appointed in 2002, and although its report was never released, leaks suggest the commission found massive corruption in the ranks. Continue reading