Now It’s Official: Corruption Has Risen in US, Leading to Fall in Global Ranking

I suspect some readers will take issue with the US being ranked as high as it is, 22 out of 178 nations, in an annual survey of public sector corruption by Transparency International. However, it fell from 19 the year prior, so the trajectory at least is correct.

The New York Times provided a brief description of methodology which may shed some light on these results:

The index, which seeks to gauge domestic public sector corruption, is figured with data compiled from surveys of country experts and business leaders, and relies on perceptions rather than legal findings, which can differ sharply across borders depending on enforcement. The index reflects two years of data to iron out one-time spikes.

Yves here. So let’s consider:

1. The results are subjective, and people tend to adhere to established perceptions and prejudices. So that approach assures changes will take place slowly

2. The two year measurement period is designed to delay changes being registered quickly (the creators would argue to prevent overreaction to a short term crisis or scandal)

3. Business leaders are one of the major groups surveyed. If the results of corruption were favorable to business, would business leaders necessarily rank a country badly? Probably not. And some academics have taken to defending corruption, at least in its milder forms.

A more immediate issue is that the banking industry succeeded in conducting a very successful looting operation across pretty much all advanced economies. So the fact that corruption has arguably risen across the board means the relatively country ranking will not reflect the actual rise in abuses.

Here’s the visual (click to enlarge):

Picture 41

And here are the top 20 (I recall some readers objecting a few days ago to my commenting on clean government in Singapore….)

Picture 42

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  1. Francois T

    My homeland is among the top 10!
    Such a flurry of touchy-feely emotions, mixed with patriotic pride.

    (sorry!…couldn’t resist) :-D

  2. Francois T

    Can you generate polls on your web site? I’m asking because I’d be curious to see where the regulars would put the next year ranking of the US after the fraudclosure scandal acquire it’s explosive velocity.

  3. john c. halasz

    Ya. In these sorts of surveys and rankings, the U.S. comes out pretty sweet, if illegal corruption is the only issue, but when these rankings include legal forms of corruption, -(political financing, etc.)-, then the U.S. ranking drops precipitously.

  4. Paul Tioxon

    The Question is not how clean Singapore is, but how it maintains that status. Let’s look at its mandatory death penalty. There are those who really do not understand the importance of this as necessary for a clean government sector. Namely, drug dealing is the chief in road for organized crime into any nation on Earth. Being a very small city state, for all intents and purposes, easy to manage because of its small, densely packed population, keeping criminal cartels outside by starving them of their market results in less bribery to the police, the judges, and the politicians. Just look at Columbia’s history or Mexico. The CCP did similarly when it first took over cesspools like Shanghai.

    Obviously, highly compensated public servants are not going to bemoan their choice of civil service vs selling copying machines or pharma, if they can have the prestige of a governmental post and a lot of cash. They also know how much power they wield, especially if their are no powerful mafias, domestic or international with any real power base.
    Finally, the 3rd path away from the US and the Soviets has served them well. The last thing they need are military advisers from either power bloc, that being the kiss of death for any sovereign nation. See just about every client state of the US and the Soviets. It took a lot more than really, really, strict adherence to valid GAAP audits and good civil remedies through a court system.
    It is well known for not being a corrupt cesspool, and not an oppressive place to live, as long as you don’t try to act out like Timothy Leary or Madoff, you can live a good life there. I agree with your assessment that it is low on corruption. I just think that people need to know the extent that social order has gone to achieve those results.

    The UK on the other hand is a joke. Possibly one of the most corrupt shit holes in history. 160,000 out of 60 million people own over 80% of the real estate, which they stole when they mercilessly drove their own people off the land and into factories for industrialization. And then, of course there is land they stole from Ireland which they still occupy at the point of gun. And please, don’t ask Argentina about the Malvinas. I mean, can you really trust a government to protect you by building an air craft carrier but runs out of money to arm it with jets? Nice shipbuilding contract to have though.

    1. wintermute

      Corruption: –noun
      1.the act of corrupting or state of being corrupt.
      2.moral perversion; depravity.
      3.perversion of integrity.
      4.corrupt or dishonest proceedings.
      6.debasement or alteration, as of language or a text.
      7.a debased form of a word.
      8.putrefactive decay; rottenness.
      9.any corrupting influence or agency.

      The pros-and-cons of the death penalty and Argentina deserving the whipping it got in the Falklands are both irrelevant.

      1. Paul Tioxon

        Ouch! Touchy Anglophile resorting to the OED line of argumentation. You get a gold star and a scone.

        1. Balanced Historian

          Paul, you’re not going to persuade anyone of anything with over-the-top hyperbole like this. You just make a fool of yourself. Obviously corruption, colonialism and authoritarianism are distinct. Obviously. Yet you conflate them irrationally, and when someone points that out, you attack them. It’s silly.

    2. Nathanael

      And yet you’re more likely to get a fair hearing in a UK court than in a US court — and in the US, you’re pretty much denied access to the court at all unless you have a lot of money (like in Victorian England). If you have money troubles, you’re less likely to become homeless in the UK than in the US, more likely to be able to get subsidized housing, less likely to *starve* for goodness’ sake.

      The US is deeply dysfunctional. The UK is actually much less dysfunctional in the present day and age (and most of the difference is attributable to Clement Atlee, basically).

  5. Koshem Bos

    “Country experts and business leaders” is probably the worst imaginable source to measure corruption. “Country expert” is a questionable identification of a group. What is an expert? Who decides who is an expert? Why X is an expert while Y isn’t?

    In today’s reality, “business leader” is the very group that is the main source of corruption. Asking them to help measure corruption is tantamount to condoning corruption rather than measuring it.

    1. Bill White

      Perhaps the police should be paid primarily by tips, like waiters. As I recall, it worked well for Spiro Agnew.

      1. Doug Terpstra

        That’s how it works in many countries like Mexico and Costa Rica (from experience), but the “tips” are not exactly voluntary, rather overt extortion, suffered more by natives than turistas. It happens here too—it’s just a bit more covert and voluntary, so far.

  6. purple

    Keeping attacking public sector wages and you will start having corruption issues with the police. People in the US ain’t seen nothing yet.

  7. F. Beard

    Keeping attacking public sector wages … purple

    I’ve never seen that at this site. Me, I find it too coincidental that wages that are acceptable during the boom are supposedly way too high during the bust.

    That shrinking pie thing again…

    When will we learn that money need not be based on debt and thus need never shrink in volume?

  8. Maju

    The fact that countries like Bolivia, Venezuela or Argentina are ranked under Colombia and Mexico clearly indicates that the results are biased in favor of business or “market friendly corruption”, which is clearly understated. There’s no country more rotten in America than Colombia, however there’s no country with more US aid either (mostly military) nor less friendly to foreign businessmen, to whom it has sold large swathes of land taken from displaced or murdered peasants.

    The same can perfectly happen in places like the USA, as you say well.

  9. Neil D

    This is interesting. I wonder if the corruption is limited to a few CEOs on Wall Street or across the entire spectrum of American society?

    1. F. Beard

      I wonder if the corruption is limited to a few CEOs on Wall Street or across the entire spectrum of American society? Neil D

      “A fish rots from the head down.”

      Yes, we all know that the population should be perfectly honest, hardworking slaves for their masters, the government backed counterfeiting cartel.

      What the fractional reserve bankers do is INHERENTLY dishonest and unstable. Their corruption rate is 100%. There is no such thing as a respectable fractional reserve banker.

      1. frances snoot

        The Society’s Dinner for the Duke and Duchess of Brabant
        16thNov 1933

        The Society’s endeavour to establish closer relations with those who share the European’s task in Africa took further shape when the Duke and Duchess of Brabant accepted an invitation to be its guests at the dinner given in their honour at Claridge’s Hotel on the 16th of November. In the development of the vital areas of the Belgian Congo and all that word implies in the application of resources of Western civilization in aid of the betterment-moral, social, and economic-of their primitive people…
        The success which has attended her efforts bear witness to the far-sighted and enlightened policy which inspires them and gives point to the axiom laid down by the Duke of Brabant in a recent speech in the Belgian Senate that the prosperity of the individual native is the real foundation of a prosperous African dependency.”

        Well, some things never change, do they?

        1. F. Beard

          Cartoon idea:

          A ridiculously laden European with all of Africa’s wealth piled atop him astride the African Continent.


          “The white man’s burden”

          1. frances snoot

            The problematic is not the color of the skin but the idea that blood can take on a blue tint constituent of a divine right to rule.

  10. NWJ

    There is a lot that is imperfect about this kind of corruption measurement. It would be foolish to think that these numbers mean a whole lot without first accounting for a few things:

    1. It’s a subjective measurement. I.e. they’re asking people whether they think there’s a lot of corruption in their country. I don’t see any reason to believe that responses to those questions will correlate particularly closely to actual levels of corruption.

    2. It’s an aggregate measurement. I.e. they aggregate a number of different surveys with different methodologies, different questions, etc. Before drawing any conclusions, it would be wise to make sure that the year over year change hasn’t been caused by changes in the set of aggregated surveys or methodologies.

    3. The error ranges on these kinds of surveys are often quite wide ranging. Don’t just look at the given index number. Go to Transparency Int’l’s website and check the error ranges as well.

    I’ve written a bit about these corruption measurements on my blog here:

    Also, for those interested in corruption and how it’s measured, I highly recommend that you do a quick web search on “Global Integrity.” They’re doing some really innovative work in measuring corruption…

    1. Peripheral Visionary

      Excellent thoughts, and I largely agree. I would add two more complicating factors: national pride in some places is such that people may be inclined to be overly optimistic, lest they place their home country in a poor light (some countries like Sweden take particular pride in their rankings on lists such as this one, which would likely bias results upward.)

      The second is that in some countries, business and government are so closely intertwined it is difficult to tell where business-friendly policies end and corruption begins. While that is the case to some extent in the U.S., it is far more the case in countries like Germany, where it is difficult to draw a clear line between the public sector and the banking sector. What people in some countries may see as corruption (e.g., policies that favor specific institutions) may be seen as business-as-usual in others.

      1. Maju

        Corruption is when, in order to sell meat or whatever, yo have to bribe people (for instance to obtain a license or be able to sell without a license, etc.). Corruption destroys fair play and pimps up corrupt business and officers, so it needs to be eradicated before it becomes an epidemic that destroys the whole fabric of society.

        In general you do not have the impression that you need to bribe an officer or several in Sweden, Denmark or Germany in order to do normal business. That’s why they rank low. By comparison you do have such a problem in Italy or less exaggeratedly in Spain. It’s of course endemic of poor countries where government salaries are low and social ethics are rather rotten by trans-generational corrupt dynamics.

        There’s not a clear association between corruption and government involvement in the economy but there is an association between public servants’ salaries and the dire needs of the overall population (for instance reduced with welfare policies) and it. We could well say that the dynamics that tries to exaggerate the importance of private competence and the private sector, almost automatically leads to corruption, because if anything that makes you rich and successful is valid… then there are no morals nor laws.

  11. ceasley7

    Let me get this straight. The fraud and corruption of Wall Street and Washington almost single handily ended the world as we know it in 2008 and were not ranked last? Give me a break.

  12. Hugh

    It’s a good point. Such surveys satisfy our need to quantify and hierarchize our world, to put a number on things, but, as often happens, even a cursory examination shows them to be without any substance, in most cases just a vehicle for our preconceived notions.

  13. F. Beard

    The problematic is not the color of the skin but the idea that blood can take on a blue tint constituent of a divine right to rule. francis

    Or that blue blood entitles one to someone elses green?

    ah francis, I miss cleetus and kin but max ran me offen his site.

    1. frances snoot

      Wahl, y’all did go on and on ’bout thangs, F.B. Done toned yurself down a mite ’round hair.

  14. F. Beard

    Done toned yurself down a mite ’round hair. francis

    Yes’m. I done run outa things to say and doan want to repeats myself too much.

    The world doan wanna listen and I’m tempted to go up onna hillside like Jonah did ( Jonah 4:1-5 ) and wait for The End.

    But it shure is taking its time so i might get bored and start jabbering agin.

    1. Maju

      The Icebank fiasco was a private affair and happened mostly in Britain. Icelanders wisely decided not to let themselves be blackmailed into collectively paying for private wrongdoings and, crucially, they had an incorruptible president who supported such popular claim against the Althing (parliament). This says a lot about the civic height of Icelander society and the low likelihood that they are easily brought down to corruption such as getting the state (society) to pay for the wrongdoings of private actors.

      Meanwhile in other countries, like Britain, the USA, Spain or Greece, the oligarchs get away with their abusive one-sided demands, severely damaging the social fabric. In this sense Iceland is an example to follow.

  15. Neil Anderson

    Sorry but this list has a massive, fatal flaw. Barbados at 17? Have these people ever been there? I live here and work in the business community, have done for a while, and it is genuinely corrupt with no transparency, no freedom of information, no register of MP’s interests, a very weak press and a well ingrained oligarchical elite. Not their fault so much as it is a poor country, but it is monstrously stupid to put this country above the UK (paul tioxon is smoking the crack pipe and thinks it is 1815).

    No country this poor can ever not be corrupt, to think otherwise is naivety at best, lunacy in my eyes. Taints the whole list, it really is that big of an error. (ps – unless of course it is a sympathy vote as our PM passed away last week, in which case thanks awfully but you’re not bloody helping the cause)

  16. Psychoanalystus

    What a joke. Worthless data. Considering both Iraq and Afghanistan are among the most corrupt in the world, somehow I don’t buy the bullshit that the nation that runs them (USA) is so “highly clean”.


  17. Don Smith

    It’s interesting to note that we have laws in the US like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that are designed to create transparency in government. These laws are great for that purpose and help us to maintain or high ranking.

    The rub is that whenever something damaging is requested, the law is subverted. See Bloomberg’s fight with the Fed over documents that the Fed (Fed, right? Maybe Treasury?) redacted anything of meaning or worth whatsoever and said, “Here, we’ve complied.”

    1. mg

      Quite the travesty. Funny how you get used to seeing those redacted pages in relation to national security but not financial information. Finance needs to start stamping their P and L statements with top secret and redact out the details. Just leave the bottom line…unless it is a loss then redact that as well.


  18. coffeystain

    Not to nullify the implications of the report but what the hell is up with that out-of-date Mercator Projection! Big RED RUSSIA looks ominously corrupt compared to lil’ ol united states.

    Cartography 101
    Aside from the poor choice in map projection, you should never use quantitative data in a map without somehow normalizing the data to fit the variations in land mass (ie, population versus population DENSITY). Otherwise you mislead the viewer in what the size of the attributes mean. Since this data is ranked it IS normalized but the ranking does NOT correlate to the size of the county it is only based on some value where the methodology only accounts for where the corruption occurs in the nominal sense. A map should be used in this case only as a reference without any thematic data.

  19. Mike

    As an immigrant from one of the countries ranked as number one in this survey I can attest to the reality of the huge difference in corruption between the US and where I was born.

    A large amount of very corrupt practices are legal or semi legal here too – the intent of government is very frequently subverted into genuine fiefdoms which would be unthinkable elsewhere. The city of Vernon in LA for example has been run as an immensely profitable business by one family since the 1940’s. They have been prosecuted intermittently for the last seven decades with little success by the LA County DA.

    There are vast buildings full of public officials who openly do almost no real work. This is still shocking to me after nearly a decade here. Even more shocking is that the existence of these make work factories is seen as a policy goal by both political parties in one form or another. What fake work gets done is argued about but their existence is unquestioned.

    The US by no means has the paralyzing corruption of a country like India but it still should be an embarrassment to the residents. As an immigrant I lack the knee jerk “USA is the best!” mindset. I view the US as a third world style country in the same bracket as a Colombia or Mexico before the violence. If you have cash a magnificent lifestyle is available, but you have to get used to being surrounded by wave after wave of extremely poor people and the attendant dirt/crime (yes, I’m sorry: poverty does equal dirty conditions and crime with very few exceptions).

    I almost literally believe the main enterprise in the US is running scams. In the private sector most businesses have a scam component. Major corporations routinely pad bills wherever possible – I have never met a Sprint customer whose bill has been accurate. Every mini mall has payday lenders renting money at 300% plus. Health care in the US is most assuredly not the “best in the world” – anyone with experience of other systems thinks this is hilarious.

  20. hendry zakharia

    whether the death penalty applied to criminals deserve
    I come from indonesia
    capital punishment is too cruel,isn’t too?
    Can you describe what must be done to the corrupt
    corruption has become a tradition among those who do not care about human rights
    many conflicting opinions about
    corruptor should be got the dead pinalty…

    1. Maju

      Good point. One of the main reasons why this economic chaos is happening is because the big fish get away with their crimes (corruption specially), without almost ever getting punished at all.

      Regardless of the exact type of penalty, what is clear is that the law must be applied with special intensity to those committing “white collar” crimes. They should never be allowed to get away with their robbery.

      But, on the other side, the small guys often get very high penalties for lesser infractions. There is no fair play and that destroys the whole credibility of the system, and not just the credibility but the very mechanics of it. It’s like if you once and again use bad quality oil on your car’s engine: it will break a lot easier and will be much harder or even impossible to fix then.

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