Tag: corruption

Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies?


Jay Ulfelder and I had a Twitter conversation on this question in the last few days (here and here). But Twitter has such limited space, I thought I would break out our discussion on the blog and ask what others thought.

Watching all these riots – driven heavily by youth dissatisfaction, it seems – is making me wonder if this might spread to Asia’s democracies.

A lot of the problems these protests are identifying exist in spades in Asia: high-handed, out-of-touch governments; election-proof pseudo-technocracies that act as unaccountable oligarchies; shallow, clique-ish political parties that provide no meaningful transmission belt of citizen preferences; massive government and business corruption; wasteful white-elephant spending to capture global ‘prestige’ while everyday services like health care and education are underfunded; closed political opportunity structures that regularly reward insiders and large corporations with crony connections to the state; wealthy, de-linking elites with 1% lifestyles wildly at variance with the rest of the population… That’s Asia too; there’s more than enough sleaze to go around.

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Defining Corruption

So the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that limits on direct corporate spending for political campaigns violate the First Amendment rights of corporations (hey, corporations are people too!). The New York Times has a good overview, plus links to the actual decision. Since I’ve done some work on corruption in the past, and regularly teach a seminar on Corruption and Global Governance, this decision has resonated with me and I can’t help being shaken up.

Let’s consider a commonsense definition of corruption: the abuse of public power for private gain, or the use of private means to shape public decisions so that they conform to narrow private or sectoral interests. The definition depends on our being able to draw a line between public good and private interest. The idea of corruption not only means that it is wrong for public officials to take bribes, but also more broadly that some things, like justice, should not be bought. If money becomes the primary determinant of public outcomes, public trust in governance, the rule of law, and the overall system of justice is corroded. But the primary focus of anti-corruption discourse emanating from the U.S. has been on corruption in the developing world. We consider ourselves to have the most advanced anti-corruption legislation in the world, thanks to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. corporations from bribing foreign public officials. Equating corruption with flat out bribery allows us to ignore the bigger question of the role of money in politics, and especially of private, corporate money. By shaping global anti-corruption discourse to focus on bribery (see the OECD Convention on Bribery) we have managed to generate a relatively “clean” identity for the U.S. (though not entirely so, according to Transparency International’s rankings) and keep the focus on the developing world as the hotbed of corruption. While it would be silly to deny that corruption is a problem for development, the discursive maneuvers emanating from the U.S. prevent adequate reflection on the health of our own political system. The role of corporate money in the U.S. political system was of course already a concern before this latest Supreme Court decision, but even so, the blow that has now been dealt to campaign finance reform (a bipartisan issue, by the way) is staggering. And now we hear the word “corruption” being thrown around a great deal more than usual in discussions of the U.S. political process. So the silver lining may be an increased propensity to reflect on the corruption of our own system, not just on corruption as a problem for those under-developed Others.


2009 Grawemeyer winner

Colgate University Professor Michael Johnston has won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The prize is worth $200,000.

The press release describes the award-winning ideas from Professor Johnston’s Cambridge University Press book:

Johnston, a political science professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., earned the prize for ideas he set forth in his 2005 book, Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power and Democracy.

Corruption can take different forms depending on a country’s political and economic patterns, Johnston says. The practice of using wealth to seek influence is more common in the United States, Japan and Germany, while forming cartels to protect the elite is more typically seen in Italy, Korea and Botswana.

In Russia, Mexico and the Philippines, countries with liberal economies and weak civil societies, fair market competition is even riskier. But the worst type of corruption — the plundering of society by those who retain absolute power — is nearly always seen in countries with growing economies and weak institutions.

Understanding how corruption develops in a particular country can help stop it more effectively, says Johnston

The Utica Observer Dispatch published a nice story about their local winner and his ideas:

“To have that kind of recognition after working on this since the late Nixon years, it’s sort of a nice experience,” he said.

Johnston’s book looks at different forms corruption takes in different places.

“What we tend to experience is the effort on the part of private parties using money to influence what happens in government,” he said of corruption in the U.S. “In other places, it’s some (individuals) inside government reaching into the economy and grabbing whatever they please,”

Understanding the root causes of corruption in other societies makes it easier to come up with the right solutions, he said.

The Chronicle of Higher Edcation covered the story, as did the local Louisville Courier Journal. This is from the latter:

[Johnston] said in an interview that the idea behind the book grew out of data that examined corruption and how it related to economic development — showing that corruption proved to be “sand in the gears rather than grease on the wheels.”

“It looked like, (as) the relationships got more and more complex and tangled up, the worse a country’s corruption situation was, and it began to make me wonder whether it isn’t … different places having different kinds,” he said.

These are my pithy quotes from the press release:

“Corruption is a pervasive global problem that undermines economic and political systems,”

“Johnston’s approach is particularly useful because it puts forward a practical agenda for reform.”

Disclosure: I chair the Department Committee that overseas the administration of this prize.


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