Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Protecting the Imaginary Spoils

While listening to a programme on corruption, my 12-year old daughter was incensed. "Thats's awful!" she chimed, to which I sighed and nodded my agreement, while navigating the slip road.  She has inherited my current-event-junkie gene, and so I posed the following question: "What percentage of the population, given the chance to be corrupt, or steal or embezzle, would do so, were the opportunity presented and the probabilty of punishment low?"

"Ummm ten percent....", she suggested. "Really??? Hmmm", I replied. "No umm errr ninety percent!!", she tried alternatively at the other end of the spectrum. "That high??", I inquired. "No wait, FORTY PERCENT!!", she cried, this time more confidently. "Ohh no, I know,  "Seventy percenty....yes... it's seventy percent". She really didn't really didn't have a clue, though nor did I. In all likelihood, however, the question was slightly unfair, and required a qualified answer, for the percentages almost certainly differ depending upon the country, whether one is Kyoto or Petropavlovsk, Des Moines or Mumbai, Helsinki or Beirut. And it probably is impacted by whether one is in a rural and urban location. Research has also shown that the people in power are primed to feel more entitled to such spoils, hence are both more likely to capitalize on the opportunity and feel less remorse.

And so listening to the BBC the other day, I chanced upon a programme focused upon Nigeria and corruption.  Interviewed, amongst many others, was an "honest" minister who admitted with some apologies that most ministers and officials left government vastly wealthier than before they took their posts, adding that such an outcome was unlikely given their official remuneration.  The interviewer sternly inquired why the people don't revolt demand justice, and vote them out, pointing out that few if any have ever been brought to justice for their misdeeds and avarice. The minister chuckled, before proceeding with his answer. Paraphrasing, he said that no one wants to shut it down because everyone thinks and hopes that one day, they THEY TOO might find in themselves in the position to make a big score, and no one wants to potentially shoot themselves in the foot and shut it down, thereby denying themselves an oppportunity  which they see as their right, no matter the societal consequences and petty injustices such existing corruption perpetuates. Wow!!!! And the interviewer proceeded to ask the very question to the man in the street who with gusto and honesty, frankly and jovially confirmed the thesis.

Interestingly, this aspiration and ability to project themselves into a position of power and privilege is the same reason that lower-income voters in the US problemmatically eschew higher marginal rates  and enforceable estate taxes on the wealthy. I find this parallel attitude interesting if for no other reason than corruption is in general culturally-specific, whilst the attitude towards power/wealth aspiration and therefore the prtoection of its privileges, somewhat more universal.