Democracy Lab

The Corruption Pandemic

Why corruption is set to become one of the defining political issues of the 21st century.

Laurence Cockcroft is worried about global warming. Yes, like many of us, he's concerned about the implications of rising temperatures. But he's also aware of another danger that most people have probably overlooked -- namely, the link between climate change and corruption.

So what could these two things possibly have to do with each other? A lot, it turns out. As Cockcroft points out, many forms of environmental destruction are against the law in the places where they happen, but the perpetrators -- illegal loggers, say, in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, or the Congo -- often resort to corruption to evade the law.

But there's an even more interesting angle, too. Some of the mechanisms that the international community has put in place to tackle climate change, Cockcroft says, are potentially vulnerable to abuse. Carbon trading has proven notoriously susceptible to fraud. Rich countries are already committing hundreds of billions of dollars to funds that are supposed to compensate poorer nations for the cost of adapting to global warming.

The amounts involved, Cockcroft warns, are potentially bigger than all the money currently spent on development aid. So that makes them a tempting target for graft -- especially when you consider how much of the money spent on aid projects in the past has been lost to corruption. "If corruption undermines those funds the way it has undermined a lot of aid programs," he says, "it could prove a big obstacle to restricting temperature rises to less than two degrees before 2050."

One could easily dismiss Cockcroft as just another single-issue advocate cultivating a pet obsession. But I think that would be a big mistake. I believe that he's entirely right to argue that corruption has become a systemic disease that undermines governance around the world, and that it can cripple the ability of states to function if left unchecked.

He knows what he's talking about. A development economist who spent decades working in Nigeria, Cockcroft is one of the founders of Transparency International, a global non-profit that offers remedies for stemming the tide of sleaze. Though the group recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, Cockcroft says that isn't why he just decided to publish his new book, Global Corruption, which offers a handy guide to the biggest problems and possible solutions. The real reason, he says, is that the challenges posed by corruption are more urgent than ever.

The headlines this week would seem to prove him right. Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking at the watershed Communist Party conference that's under way in Beijing right now, has just told delegates that corruption could prove "fatal" to communist rule if the Party can't get the problem under control.

This should probably come as little surprise in the wake of the huge scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the once heavyweight official whose downfall this year has shone a spotlight on the apparently routine abuses of power and influence within the Party. (For some reason Hu didn't mention other recent disclosures about the astonishing wealth of the people surrounding China's most powerful men, including Premier Wen Jiabao and incoming Party leader Xi Jinping. Those unseemly reports, both produced by western news organizations, have been kept away from the prying eyes of Chinese citizens by government censors.)

In Russia, meanwhile, old-new President Vladimir Putin has just seen fit to fire his minister of defense, Anatoly Serdyukov, over allegations that the disgraced official used his privileged position to reap profits from the Russian arms trade. (Apparently Serdyukov was found cavorting with his mistress in a home crammed with ill-gotten luxuries when the police raided her place. They led her away in handcuffs.) The scandal now appears to be widening.

Here, too, though, the government's account of its own actions has a distinctly selective feel to it. Serdyukov's plans for reforming the military made him plenty of enemies within the army, so his foes may have used his lavish spending as an excuse for getting rid of him. It's certainly true that equally ostentatious corruption by Russian officials -- not to mention leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church -- has met with little or no reaction from the Kremlin. Indeed, the authorities seem to have spent most of their time lately rounding up anti-sleaze activists like Alexei Navalny, whose public criticisms of malfeasance don't play to the government's script.

It should be pointed out that corruption mega-scandals are not restricted to the authoritarian countries. Brazilians have been watching in astonishment as dozens of officials from the administration of still-popular ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have been tried and convicted for their involvement in a vast vote-buying scheme known as the mensalão (Portuguese for"big monthly payment"). In Indonesia, the national Anti-Corruption Commission has been embroiled in an epic battle with the notoriously rotten police force. And in India, activists are once again mounting a nationwide campaign against ubiquitous graft that many cite as a major drag on economic growth.

For that matter, even in the United States -- whose citizens are now congratulating themselves on the end of a hard-fought presidential election -- there are plenty of worries going around about the extent to which money and politics have become fused at the hip, from lobbying to the nefarious role of political finance. (I'm not sure we can console ourselves with the fact that some of the sleaziest practices don't technically qualify as corruption because they're allowed by law.)

It's not a terribly inspiring picture, and Cockcroft, for his part, deserves points for his frankness in admitting that there are no easy fixes. He notes that some of the most dramatic successes in fighting corruption have come in small places like Singapore and Hong Kong, where enlightened but undemocratic leaders managed to put in place strong graft-fighting institutions as well as instilling a genuine anti-corruption ethos among the population. But those lessons don't necessarily transplant well to big, messy places like Russia or Indonesia.

But he finds some hope in growing global awareness of the scale of the problem. During the Cold War, there was little willingness to address it as a global plague, since communist countries forbade its discussion and western governments feared that prying into the foibles of their authoritarian allies against the Soviet Union weren't worth the ensuing complications. But the frenetic expansion of the global economy over the past two decades has made corruption too big to ignore -- as well as far harder to track.

Cockcroft praises the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group -- "the best show around at the moment," he calls it -- for its efforts to establish global standards to combat tricky issues like secrecy jurisdictions. (That the group even exists is a tribute to the work of international corruption fighters who have just opened their annual meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week. And yes, Cockcroft is in attendance.)

Ultimately, he says, anti-corruption campaigns will do best to focus on a few key areas. First of all, governments and aid donors need to realize that the size of the informal sector in many economies is a prime driver of corruption. Giving grassroots entrepreneurs incentives to come out into the light and legalize their operations can help.

Next, as the examples of both the U.S. and India demonstrate, distorted political finance regulations can have enormously destructive effects, since political parties tend to reward their donors by skewing legislation or awarding contracts -- with hidden costs to everyone else. Cockcroft insists that it's also vital to acknowledge the scale of the links between politicians and organized crime in many parts of the world.

The international community also needs to push for robust global regulations on multinational corporations. Cockcroft offers cautious praise for the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention (though he notes that the recent Wal-Mart scandal in Mexico, where the U.S. company is alleged to have bribed dozens of officials to speed up the process of obtaining approval to open stores, suggests that the challenge remains formidable).

Perhaps the most reliable remedy of all, though, is publicity. Reporters in many parts of the world now have more latitude to expose misdeeds. Social media are offering new avenues for smoking out bribe-takers. And the rise of multiparty systems and non-government organizations creates more space for activists to make their worries known.

Above all, it's important to remember that solutions do exist, and that they can work when citizens and policymakers are capable of mustering the political will. Dismissing corruption as an unavoidable attribute of certain cultures is not only needlessly demoralizing -- it's also intellectually lazy. "Cultures are not fixed in time," Cockcroft points out. "Cultures are always dynamic." Moreover, he says, "In all of these countries where corruption is endemic, you always have people who are fighting it." He's right on that point, too. Maybe it's time for the rest of us figure out how to help.

LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

In Praise of Apathy

It's time to stop deriding the Americans who refuse to vote. They're trying to tell us something.

If you're a Republican, you probably don't like it when people say nasty things about your candidate. If you're a Democrat, you get steamed when the other side insults your president or your party.

But there's one electoral bloc that both parties can vilify at their leisure: those U.S. citizens who refuse to vote. They are routinely derided as stupid, or lazy, or hapless.

By now, many Americans have already figured out that there are problems with the way they vote. Start with the fact that some people's votes count more than others. The presidential vote on November 6 is shaping up to be a pretty tight contest, so it's entirely possible that the final tally will be close. But, as anyone who's heard of the electoral college already knows, U.S. presidents aren't elected on the basis of the popular vote. (Remember Florida in 2000?) So there's already plenty of editorial anguish over the inherent unfairness of this arrangement.

And then there's the controversy over registration. Republicans, warning against vote fraud, have introduced laws across the country that raise the bar for voter registration. Critics of these efforts point out that these laws address a kind of fraud that is unlikely to occur, and gloss over the type that is much more threatening (namely, the wholesale manipulation of electronic voting machines). Such critics accuse the Republicans of actually trying to suppress the turnout of groups -- minorities, the underprivileged, the elderly -- who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

These are all legitimate problems. But what I don't understand is why no one is addressing the elephant in the room: the fact that some 40 percent of Americans of voting age don't see any reason to cast their votes on election day at all.

In national election after national election, eligible voters who choose to refrain from voting make up what some political scientists have called a "silent plurality." There have been moments when that plurality was pretty close to becoming a majority. In 1996, 49.1 percent of the voting age population declined to go to the polls. In 2008, turnout of eligible voters went all the way up to 61.7 percent -- the highest since 1968, mind you. But the number of those who refused to vote -- or just didn't care -- was still significantly larger than those who voted for Barack Obama, the winning candidate. Non-voters, in short, make up the biggest electoral bloc in the nation.

You'd think this would be the occasion for some soul-searching. After all, how can you claim to have a democracy when your leaders are elected with a mandate from 30-odd percent of the country's eligible voters? It's estimated that some 90 million Americans will abstain from voting next month. You'd think that this would prompt us to ask some fundamental questions about the viability of a system that's supposedly based on popular participation but actually prompts rejection on a mass scale. (Participation is even lower for midterm congressional elections -- only 39 percent of the voting age population showed up in 2010, for example -- and lower still for elections on the state and city levels.)

Most of the articles on this subject lately view it through the predictable lens of how these abstainers would affect the election if they actually chose to vote. (The consensus seems to be that most of them lean Democratic, presumably because non-voters do tend to be poorer and less well-educated and thus more inclined to vote for liberal policies.) But perhaps reporters are asking the wrong questions.

Withholding one's vote in a presidential election is, in fact, an entirely rational response to the existing political order in the United States. The electoral college is a big part of the problem, of course. If you live in persistently Republican Texas, you have very good reasons to doubt that your vote for Obama will really influence the outcome. If you live in solidly liberal Massachusetts, casting a vote for Mitt Romney as president is likely to have little effect. (And don't get me started on voting in Washington, D.C.)

As a result, pundits and prognosticators say that there are only nine states that really matter in this year's presidential election: the so-called "battleground" states where the outcome is still uncertain enough to warrant attention from the candidates. As the Associated Press pointed out, modern campaigns now have the data to target voters even more narrowly than that, and they're now focusing on just 106 "swing counties" (out of 3,143 in the United States).

The reason, of course, is the winner-take-all system of the electoral college, which dictates that whoever wins a majority of the votes in a state gets all of that state's electors. In fact, the winner-take-all (or first-past-the-post) principle pervades American politics. As political scientists know, these sorts of electoral mechanisms tend to foster the creation of two-party systems. (The framers of the American constitutional system actually didn't want to have political parties at all, of course; but this is just another one of those cases where their design had unintended effects.)

The problem is that a two-party system doesn't come anywhere close to exhausting the range of options for political expression. Earlier this year, when pollsters decided to examine the motives of non-voters, one of the questions involved alternate political parties. Only 32 percent of non-voters agreed with the premise that two parties are good. 26 percent of them said that a third party is necessary, while another 27 percent preferred "multiple" parties.

That's why it's wrong to dismiss non-voters as ignorant couch potatoes. Under the American system, a vote cast for a third party (the Libertarians, say, or the Greens) is a lost vote. Your ballot has no effect whatsoever on the actual balance of power, so abstaining from an election that offers any chance to pick the policies you'd like to see makes perfect sense. (Sorry, Steve Carrell.) This is also why it's somewhat nonsensical to ask voters whether they'd vote for third parties under the current circumstances. What good would that do?

By contrast, systems based on proportional representation offer much more precise opportunities for the expression of political preferences. If you're a German, for example, you can cast a vote for the Free Democratic Party or the Greens, knowing that one of these relatively marginal parties might very well end up forming a coalition with the more popular Christian Democrats or Social Democrats and thus influencing the formation of the government. "Even minority parties are going to get seats," says Jeffrey Green, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's a motivation for everyone to turn out even when no one gets the winner." It should come as no surprise that participation in German elections tends to be higher than in the U.S. (The world champions, perhaps, are the Swedes, who vote at a rate of about 80 percent of the voting age population.)

Proportional representation has many problems, of course -- most notoriously, fragmentation and chronic instability. See, for example, Israel, where tiny, radical parties often end up exercising power disproportionate to their actual electoral strength. One solution is to stipulate that parties have to get a certain minimum percentage of the overall vote in order to enter parliament. (In Germany, the threshold is 5 percent; in Israel, it's only 1.5 percent.) And, to be fair, it's worth noting that voter participation is trending downward in just about every established democracy.

That said, though, almost all of the countries that have achieved democracy over the past 30 years have adopted parliamentary systems based on proportional representation, approaches that are much closer to the German model than the American one. It's easy to imagine why. People who have finally obtained that cherished right to choose their leaders would like to think that their votes actually count. Like it or not, the institutions of American democracy just aren't a model for the rest of the world anymore.

Can Americans change their system to make it more democratic? A bit of tinkering around the edges is certainly feasible. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, apply proportional principles to the presidential election: electors from these states are awarded in proportion to the number of votes cast for each candidate. In other words, these two states have done away with winner-take-all. Not a bad idea. There's also talk of a far more ambitious plan: getting rid of the electoral college altogether and allowing direct election of the president by popular vote. The demand for this option seems to be growing. But can anyone really expect the two currently existing parties to agree?

One thing is clear: The fact of the matter is that half of the American population doesn't feel represented by the current system, and this disaffection appears to be deepening with time. The sense of exasperation with the existing two-party oligopoly ranges from establishment stalwarts like Tom Friedman to professional malcontents like Noam Chomsky. Meanwhile, the ranks of the abstainers continue to swell -- presumably because they feel like they have no stake in a political arrangement that doesn't address their concerns. Call me crazy, but this doesn't seem like it bodes well for the future of democracy in the United States.

David McNew/Getty Images