Ray Fisman spoke in our quantiative political science seminar, reporting on his paper with Ted Miguel on the number of unpaid parking tickets of each U.N. delegation in Manhattan. (Diplomats don’t have to pay parking tickets, although in recent years the mayor of NY has reduced the problem by about 90% by more aggressively towing cars that are illegally parked.) There’s a strong correlation between the number of unpaid tickets and a measure of corruption of each country–that is, diplomats from countries with more of a “culture of corruption” had more unpaid tickets.
The data and finding are pretty cool, but, once you see the results, it’s not that surprising. So I asked Ray what he’d learned from this, i.e., wasn’t it all just obvious in retrospect. He replied that, yes, the results made sense, but he did learn something because he realized that corruption is not simply determined by economic factors. The U.N. delegations are like a little laboratory: the different delegations are all subject to the same economic incentives but there is wide variation in how many parking violations they have. “Cultural” as well as economic factors matter. In some ways, no surprise, but this could make a difference in how we think about corruption and how to fight it.
This perspective is captured in the abstract to the paper:
Corruption is believed to be a major factor impeding economic development, but the importance of legal enforcement versus cultural norms in controlling corruption is poorly understood. To disentangle these two factors, we exploit a natural experiment, the stationing of thousands of diplomats from around the world in New York City. Diplomatic immunity means there was essentially zero legal enforcement of diplomatic parking violations, allowing us to examine the role of cultural norms alone. This generates a revealed preference measure of government officials’ corruption based on real-world behavior taking place in the same setting. We find strong persistence in corruption norms: diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations, and these differences persist over time. In a second main result, officials from countries that survey evidence indicates have less favorable popular views of the United States commit significantly more parking violations, providing non-laboratory evidence on sentiment in economic decisionmaking. Taken together, factors other than legal enforcement appear to be important determinants of corruption.
Ray said that one news report summarized his findings as: enforcement works, so the way to get rid of corruption is to enforce the law. Ray said that this isn’t quite right: enforcement works in the U.S. which has a culture of law (at least with regard to parking) but wouldn’t necessarily be so easy to pull off in other countries (or, perhaps, in the U.S., in other areas such as drug use).