Corruption and causes for thanksgiving

Steve Kelman considers the costs of corruption in Mexico, China, and most developing countries -- and argues that Americans should keep their own government troubles in perspective.

steve kelman

I have spent most of my life studying about and participating in public management in developed countries, such as the United States and most European nations. In those countries, we often worry that government doesn't perform nearly as well as it should. But there are things we take for granted. Government employees normally show up for work in the morning. Somebody who wants a driver's license just applies -- maybe the wait is too long, but they are not likely to be approached for a bribe by the official on the other side of the counter.

In the last five years or so, I've started spending significant time in developing countries, mostly China and Mexico (and soon will start spending more time in Brazil, in connection with a Harvard Kennedy School executive education program I will be chairing). In terms of the problems of managing in the public sector, it's a different world.

Before I started spending time in developing countries, I once had a conversation with Ali Saadat, founder of FedBid, the reverse auction company on whose advisory board I sit (he was actually trying to recruit me at the time). Saadat, who is an immigrant from Iran, told me that before he came to the United States, every single time he tried to do business with the Iranian government, he was asked for a bribe. During decades of doing business in the U.S., by contrast, he had never once been asked.

Corruption in Mexico, where I have been visiting this week to prepare for a January executive education program I will direct, is a sad story. When I tell Mexican former students or other friends that never has an official asked me for a bribe in everyday life, to get a license or permit or service from the police, faces contort with disbelief. That's at the bottom of the system – at the top are cases, seldom punished, of public officials who somehow amass tens of millions of dollars while in public office. (And Mexicans, perhaps, are pikers – some corrupt officials in China seem to have amassed billions!)

Just the week before I arrived, it was revealed that the wife of the president of Mexico had acquired a $7 million house. The property conceivably was bought with earnings she has as a TV star, but we don't know for sure. There have been rumors and some media coverage, but an unfettered and fearless press this isn't. Such shenanigans should make Americans realize that when we talk about the "corruption" of our political system, the term should be seen at best as metaphoric -- and at worst, compared with many other countries, as seriously misleading.

Corruption is not just a moral problem -- it is an enormous economic problem as well. The basic theme of the excellent book, "Why Nations Fail," by MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James Robinson, is that if you grow up in a country where the easiest way to get rich is by having friends in government who can give you favors, rather than by enterprise and producing things people want to buy, that country is doomed to economic stagnation.

If I had a pat answer to how countries such as Mexico and China should successfully attack corruption, I would be eligible for the Nobel Prize in public management. The American experience in the decades after 1870, when we turned around the scourge of corruption, suggests the importance of a free and investigative media, of the growth of education that makes many ashamed of a society in moral decay, and of popular political movements against the problem.

Mexicans with whom I have been speaking this week note that when their countrymen come as tourists to the United States, they don't offer U.S. police officers bribes. They observe traffic rules, they throw garbage in refuse bins rather than onto the street -- and they even, as one friend told me about his relatives who moved to Texas a few decades ago, become much more self-reliant and believe they should deal with their own problems rather than having the government solve them.

Meanwhile, we can take comfort in the comparatively minor problems our government faces, and think how thankful we should be, even while we're focused on said problems.

That's a good segue into wishing everyone a good Thanksgiving holiday. I will be on break from this blog the rest of the week.

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