Corruption, The American Way

So apparently an Ambassadorship costs $1.8 million per post in the US.

In virtually any other country, even where the situation with corruption is quite dismal, such arrangements would be seen as unquestionably corrupt. And yet the US scores an entirely respectable 73/100 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), leagues above say Italy which gets 42/100.

The reason I mention Italy is that I was once discussing the question of corruption in different countries with an Italian. He said that what in the US is known as “political lobbying” would be treated as a criminal activity in Italy, and indeed in most of the rest of Europe. Hence why in the Med countries you get far more cases of corruption in the form of cash in envelopes. In the US that’s against the law, but that’s not such a big deal, because the law – or rather the absence of it – allows for the same thing, just in indirect formats (expensive dinners, contributions, astronomic speaking fees, stock performances superior to those of corporate insiders, etc). But that kind of corruption is “deniable” and hence respectable, whereas the direct kind is crude and distasteful, a defining feature of disorganized Third World countries.

In Italy, regulations against corruption and weaselly dealings in general are stringent. Now because Italians tend to corruption in general, either by nature or nurture, this means that the high incidence of such endlessly knocks against their corruption ratings. In the US, however, the factual “legalization” of much of what passes for corruption in Europe allows it to remain relatively unscathed in such international assessments.

There are many other such examples. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is insanely corrupt if you think rulers siphoning off billions of dollars off the oil budget is fundamentally illegitimate (as is alleged but never evidenced for Russia’s “mafia state” and Putin’s Swiss bank accounts). But it’s all quite legal there, which is why – hard as it is to believe – Saudi Arabia scores higher than not only Russia, but even Italy in the CPI.

So the solution is simple. Just legalize your corruption, and move up to the top in both the World Bank’s Doing Business ratings and soon enough in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Don’t forget to be slavishly pro-American in your foreign policy. Investors will love you for it. Well, maybe not, at least once said investors get to know you a bit better, but at least you’ll get glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal and Transparency International. That’s how you become a made country in Davos World.


  1. All very true.

    I would just add one small further point, which is that whilst at an every day, day to day level, one does not encounter much corruption at least in those parts of the US I know (New York basically) the conduct of Americans abroad can be a quite different matter. I have a Russian friend who works for the UN and through him I have heard appalling stories of corruption by American carpetbaggers in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere where lots of international money goes. There’s also the case of the group of Harvard academics who enriched themselves in Russia in the 1990s whilst they were supposed to be advising the Russian government.

  2. It reminds of the various traditions of “gift giving” in many African countries. The Westerners call it “corruption” but, should you be a government official in one of these countries, you’d be considered a weak loser if you weren’t able to use this to bring back some perks for the village/community to which you owe so much…

    • In America there’s pork barrel, which is when a congressman will slip in government spending or contracts for his local constituents into legislation. This is essentially a form of “gift giving” but it’s technically legal and accepted practice.

  3. I think the difference is that in most parts of America, de facto corruption is mostly limited to the powerful. It’s quite rare to bribe police or low level bureaucrats. In Italy, Russia, India this is at least somewhat common. I live in America and can’t think of anyone I know who has told me they’ve bribed a cop, but I can think of three anecdotes of low level Italian, Russian and Indian bribery without effort.

  4. ‘I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stranger hold on the affections of men’. – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

    Is there a Russian or even English equivalent of ‘the almighty dollar’?

  5. georgesdelatour says:

    America has an old tradition of handing out ambassadorships to wealthy businessmen, who often prove very bad at their job: namely, representing their country’s interests abroad, but also telling the truth to the government back home.

    Read about Joseph Kennedy’s term as US ambassador to the UK, from 1938 to 1940.