Getting Corruption Right

NEW YORK – I just returned from India, where I was lecturing to the Indian Parliament in the same hall where US President Barack Obama had recently spoken. The country was racked by scandal. A gigantic, ministerial-level scam in the mobile-telephone sector had siphoned off many billions of dollars to a corrupt politician.

But several of the MPs had also been taken aback on discovering that when Obama spoke to them, he read from an “invisible” teleprompter. This had misled his audience into thinking that he was speaking extemporaneously, a skill that is highly regarded in India.

Both episodes were seen as a form of corruption: one involved money, the other deception. The two transgressions are obviously not equal in moral turpitude. But the Obama episode illustrates an important cross-cultural difference in assessing how corrupt a society is.

Transparency International and occasionally the World Bank like to rank countries by their degree of corruption, with the media then ceaselessly citing where each country stands. But cultural differences between countries undermine the legitimacy of such rankings – which are, after all, based on surveys of the public. What Obama was doing was a common enough practice in the United States (though one might expect better from an orator of his ability); it was not so in India, where such a technique is, indeed, regarded as reprehensible.