Opinion

John Lloyd

Corruption is everywhere and nowhere

John Lloyd
Dec 9, 2013 21:30 UTC

December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. Started a decade ago by the U.N.’s General Assembly, which states on its website that “corruption is a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries…[it] undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability…[it] attacks the foundation of democratic institutions.” This all sounds good — except for the first part.

There are two escape tunnels in that first sentence. One is that the issue is “complex” (so don’t blame anyone if it takes time — forever? — to eradicate). The other is that “it affects all countries.” It does, but there is a difference between dangerous corruption and the largely trivial amounts, sometimes illegal, spent by British parliamentarians on their expenses or by Swedish cabinet mister Mona Sahlin, who charged her government credit card for a chocolate bar. Most were punished. Sahlin had to withdraw her bid for her party’s leadership, some British MPs were fired, fined or were given (short) prison terms.

Where countries with a functioning democracy and civil society can keep corruption down (but never out), others must live with it as a major, sometimes overpowering, fact of daily life. Eruptions against corruption tend to be massive, even violent. Acting as real-time demonstrations of the U.N.’s declaration, the mass protests threatening the governments in Ukraine and Thailand have corruption at the core of their complaints. The gatherings in Kiev were spurred by President Viktor Yanukovich’s swerve from an association agreement with the European Union toward a closer relationship with Russia. The protesters believe that Yankovich, his family and favored cronies are robbing the people of their state.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on Monday and called a snap election after weeks of protests in Bangkok that brought 150,000 people to the streets. Demonstrators took to the streets in response to the prime minister’s support of an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to Thailand without facing a jail sentence. His own 2001-2006 premiership ended in a military coup, and he has been mostly in exile since, with various charges of corruption proven or pending against him.

Even so, Thai commentators believe the Shinawatras’ base of support would sustain a majority in the next election — one large reason why the prime minister called for a return to the polls.

In Russia, unheeded cries of corruption

John Lloyd
Dec 18, 2012 17:34 UTC

In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate ‑ in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.

Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.

And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.

Why doesn’t unemployment create more crime?

John Lloyd
Jan 17, 2012 17:09 UTC

With so much unemployment about, and more to come, it seems reasonable to fear that more crime will come with it. The devil, after all, finds work for idle hands, and that English proverb finds echoes everywhere. The French and the Finns say that “idleness is the mother of all vices” (the Italians think the same, except that it’s the father); the Portuguese, that “an empty head is the devil’s workshop”; the Egyptians, that “the idle hand is impure.” Who can gainsay such an accord of folk wisdom?

The U.S. crime statistics, for one. The big rise in U.S. unemployment (it’s going down a little now, but it’s still high, at around nine percent) hasn’t been accompanied by a surge in crime. The stagnation of working- and middle-class incomes hasn’t sent the sufferers out onto the street in orgies of thieving or robbery with assault. Although Americans – bamboozled by super-violent films and TV’s concentration on murder and rape – fear crime as much, if not more, than ever, still the real decline in most crimes is large, and has continued.

The reasons for rises and falls in crime are always contested, but one reason commonly cited – though not universally agreed upon – is the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. And it’s not just that the U.S. locks up people more willingly than other countries – the UK sends about the same percentage to prison. It’s that the prisoners spend longer, often much longer, inside. Research by Steven Levitt and William Spelman points to these sentences as reducing crime by a lot – about one-quarter. Other researchers say it’s much less (though still accounting for a measurable decline) and that the social effects, especially on young black men without college degrees or even high school diplomas, who are disproportionately incarcerated, outweigh the gains.

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