Tracking the Provenance of Corruption

A version of this post originally appeared on Social Science Space here and has been republished with kind permission of the Social Science Space Editor. 

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Billboard of a campaign to prevent corruption in Mauritania: “I show my integrity by refusing corruption.”

As finance ministers from the G20 countries met in Australia last month, The ONE Campaign pressed them to take “urgent action” on one particular issue, something the campaigners described as a “Trillion Dollar Scandal.”The scandal is corruption, in this case, high-level corruption. That headline figure might seem extreme but it’s similar to estimates from the World Bank (a trillion dollars in bribes around the world every year) and the World Economic Forum (corruption skims 5 percent of the planet’s GDP).

Corruption, defined as the abuse of political power for private ends, certainly is an animated force globally. Can corruption take on a life of its own, especially in some cultures more than others? After all, look at the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Index or Transparency International’sCorruption Perceptions Index, not all countries are the same. Is this corruption mobile? Persistent? Contagious?

These sorts of questions consume political scientist Alberto Simpser. He’s looking not so much at the traditional “rational” explanation of corruption, which compares corruption’s material benefits with its palpable risks and comes up with its likelihood, but at the less measurable ways that corruption can permeate social groups, even when they migrate to places with different attitudes.

Talking about some of his research, Simpser explains, “I wanted to investigate whether these attitudes, which are measured via survey data, were just a reflection of the underlying material incentives or, whether the attitudes persist even when the material incentives change. … I find evidence that these attitudes exist in their own right independently of the material incentives and beyond the moment.” And while he’s focused in this paper — “The Intergenerational Persistence of Attitudes Towards Corruption” – on small-scale corruption, “there is no reason to assume that high politics is immune from the influence of ideas and attitudes.”

In short, corruption can “take on a life of its own.” As William Julius Wilson wrote in 1987,  “some cultural traits may in fact take on a life of their own for a period of time and thereby become a constraining or liberating factor in the life of certain individuals and groups.”

Simpser’s paper, which he hopes represents “the first installment” of a long-term research agenda on corruption, received the SAGE Best Paper Award in the field of comparative politics at the recent annual meeting of American Political Science Association (the award was for papers presented the year before). Although this paper hasn’t found a home in a journal yet –it’s way too long, for one thing – Simpser says, “I’m absolutely following up on this work. I am designing a series of experiments where it is possible to observe behavior and not just attitudes.”

Simpser has a PhD degree in political science and an MA degree in economics from Stanford University. He has been a residential fellow at the Princeton Center for Globalization and Governance, and a national fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. When he wrote the paper, Simpser was part of the political science department at the University of Chicago. Since August he’s been an associate professor of political science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, or ITAM, in his hometown of Mexico City.

Social Science Space talked with Simpser about his research and what it can show us about fighting corruption. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

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How did you get interested in corruption?

I grew up in Mexico City, and Mexico has all the problems of developing countries – environmental, demographic, limited resources like water, bad government, bad infrastructure, a lot of poverty and a lot of inequality. And a lot of election fraud and corruption. It’s pervasive. So growing up here is where all my interests were born. You grow up in a place like this and you experience these things every day, in minor ways and in major ways. Scarcely a day goes by here without people thinking about or encountering corruption. I’m not naïve — there is corruption everywhere. But the magnitude and the kinds of problems are qualitatively different in developing countries compared to Western Europe and the United States.

Are those cultural attitudes portable?

Yes. Exactly. The paper has one message: that there are beliefs or norms that are persistent. The method of the paper looks at the offspring of people who move from one country to another. That these ideas and norms persist suggests that they reside in people’s minds and/or their social interactions, and that message holds even for people who aren’t moving from one society to another.

Is it safe to say that attitudes toward corruption are not the same as being corrupt?

That is correct. I would expect that attitudes and behavior are somewhat correlated, but I don’t currently have the data to show that.  In my study I’m only looking at attitudes, and one open question is to what extent attitudes and behavior correlate with each other or cause each other. I did some preliminary analysis with my data using a survey question about bribe experiences, and those answers correlate with the attitudes in the European data. But that’s not a very good measure of behavior.

What does it mean to countries with rigid anti-corruption attitudes when people from countries with more relaxed attitudes emigrate? Is there a policy prescription?

Drawing policy implications [from this paper alone] is a little bit of a stretch. But here’s what I would say: the study of corruption has been dominated by the approach that looks at the material costs and benefits involved in corrupt acts. The traditional model of how somebody chooses to be corrupt comes from the work of Gary Becker, and roughly speaking it says that an individual evaluates the size of the bribe on one hand and the cost of the punishment multiplied by the probability that he or she will be punished, on the other. From that model the policy implications tend to be things like you’ve got to increase the probability of catching and punishing someone, so let’s improve monitoring. Or increase the size of the punishment, since even if there’s a low probability that someone will get caught we want a very threatening outcome. Or we need to do something to reduce the size of the bribes, like installing an accounting system or redesigning the level of discretion that bureaucrats have.

If it’s the case that it’s not only the material benefits that matter in that traditional model, then we may gain from adding one more ingredient in policies for dealing with corruption. To complement the traditional policies, we can address the beliefs and the norms of the population directly. This is not necessarily easy to do, but it has been tried in some cases. For example, in Hong Kong in the 1970s there was a big anti-corruption drive. It had all the elements that I described, but it also had an educational component – going into schools, informing adults about what actually constitutes corruption, these kinds of things.  Very creative things can be done by way of changing norms or expectations, and not just for people who move from one society and “culture” to another, but also for Mexicans in Mexico or Russians in Russia who wish to do something about corruption.

Alberto Simpser

Alberto Simpser

With any policy interventions, do I run the risk of scapegoating or stereotyping a population?

That is a danger. Speaking about culture is a very touchy thing, and there is always the danger that this sort of work will be perceived as stereotyping populations. That’s unfortunate, and one must be very careful in treading that line and put in a lot of caveats.

Culture means many different things to many different people. So, if I mean something by culture but you hear it in a different way, you may be very offended by what I’m saying — even if we agree on the underlying idea. So I prefer to break down culture into more specific components. For example, we can speak about ‘beliefs.’ We can speak about ‘norms.’ And when we talk about beliefs, we can split these down even further; we can speak about ‘how useful it is to be corrupt’ or ‘how necessary it is to be corrupt to get things done.’ Or about beliefs about how others are likely to behave if you propose a bribe – are they likely to be scandalized? Will this bring shame on you? Or even punishment? Or are people going to be receptive to the bribe offer?

Culture unfortunately has been described as some sort of essential, unchanging trait of a people or a group, almost like it’s in the genes. That’s not the way I’m using it. Nothing in what I am saying is inherent in any nationality. The method in my paper takes advantage of variation across countries, but there is also variation across individuals and across neighborhoods and across states. I just happen to have data for countries and therefore I speak about nationalities. It’s not because I believe nationalities are homogeneous or bound up with a single unchanging ‘culture.’

And so, if I had to talk about a policy intervention, I would say, first, let’s understand what norms, what beliefs, are prevailing, and then maybe we could have a policy to try and change those. This is where creativity comes in. You could have a traditional media campaign and make people aware that corruption has a very bad effect … you would want to do this very publicly so that people begin to learn and to believe that other people are going to stop engaging in corruption, and then you may have a shot at changing the norm, the expectation. It could be similar to anti-smoking campaigns.

People used to get angry for example, if you told them they could not smoke in your car. I remember that from when I was younger here in Mexico. It was offensive. Now the opposite has happened, so the expectation has completely changed, and it’s a socially constructed expectation. There are ways to change these, but anti-corruption policy does not generally target these sorts of issues.

Those are day-to-day situations. What about corrupt officials?

I have been mostly referring to petty corruption—things that a lot of people engage in and relatively frequently.  Would a norms change also affect high-level corruption? I think the answer is yes. In many countries, Mexico included, there have been scandals where politicians have been caught red-handed receiving a bribe on video, and yet their parties and even these politicians continue to be voted into office. Why is that? My sense, and this of course goes beyond my study, is that many people feel that whoever they vote for is going to behave in the same manner, and therefore, there is no point in punishing a politician for this type of behavior.

But say you move to Germany or to the United States. Politicians’ careers have ended — even for behavior that seems way less questionable. I believe that a norms change might potentially have an effect on grand corruption via public pressure on politicians based on public preferences.

And these attitudes, if unchecked, are persistent in many of these communities?

I don’t have data on different generations of people within the same community, and that would be one way to help nail down this issue. The data I have suggest that these attitudes persist in immigrant communities and their descendants. I should clarify that I do not find perfect persistence, there is some decay—the attitudes remain to some extent. The analysis in my paper does not answer questions about whether, if there is assimilation into the local norms, how fast that assimilation takes place. How many generations does it take? Does that depend on the density of the ethnicity in the destination country or area? Does it depend on language differences? And so on.

Are these attitudes contagious? If I’m very upright but I move into a community where people are relaxed about corruption, whose attitudes win over whom?

That is ripe for further investigation with the right kind of data. They’re not contagious in the sense of a virus. However, if you move into a new neighborhood, trial and error will teach you what pays off and what doesn’t pay. Take a trivial example: suppose you go to the supermarket and you stand in line dutifully but people keep cutting in front of you. Eventually you will learn that you have to cut into line yourself, otherwise you will be spending your whole life in supermarket lines. Trial and error will teach you that you can’t be particularly nice or particularly chivalrous at the checkout line. Similarly, if one went to Switzerland and started cutting lines, locals would likely be very offended and would make this plenty clear, and one would quickly learn that that behavior is not acceptable and does not pay off in that community.

Another relevant factor is how the mixing occurs. If you go into a dominant culture, that culture has every chance of winning out—eventually. But if a community of immigrants and their descendants are geographically segregated in a way that limits interactions with the dominant culture, this could open up a space for the immigrant community’s norms and beliefs to persist a bit longer.

I also think (although, again, all this is beyond the scope of my study) that people can have conditional norms: they can know to behave differently in different places and different communities. They do some sort of ‘code-switching’ of norms about corrupt behavior.

On a global scale, are we winning the fight against corruption or is corruption beating us?

I don’t know the answer. It’s a complicated question.  Sometimes as a government becomes more open, knowledge of corruption increases, or even what one defines as corruption becomes more comprehensive. This could give the impression that corruption is increasing, whether or not it is in fact increasing. And as governments around the world grow in size and scope, it is likely that opportunities for corruption also multiply.

At the same time, my gut feeling is that there is growing awareness of corruption around the world. Rich countries have stricter anti-corruption laws, and there is a growing number of NGOs that are making very serious efforts to collect data, to raise awareness, and to find creative ways to deal with the issue. The overall level? Very difficult to say which way it’s moving. My sense is that there’s more and more global awareness about corruption, and that such awareness is likely to be reflected further in legislation, in the efforts of NGOs, and in the actions of common citizens.

     
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