Americans' Perception of Corruption

To most knowledgeable Americans, when you mention CPI, the first thing that comes to their minds is the “consumer price index,” something they associate with inflation and the way it might affect their personal lives as consumers. I would be surprised if even one percent among this educated group ever heard of Transparency International and its annually published Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The fact that Transparency International is headquartered in Berlin, or that “its output” may not be flattering to their national pride, never helped matters; during TI’s 15-year existence, neither the American corporate press, nor public officials, nor politicians in this nation have considered discussing corruption as a national civic issue, preferring that it be relegated to individual cases, rare “rotten apple” situations; and that did little to change the overall perception of an American virtuous society.

In the past, corruption to Americans, at least in a societal way, was something that existed mostly beyond their borders – in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. Americans preferred to think of themselves as number 1 when it came to being “corruption-proof” in the public sector. So finding themselves ranked number 22 by TI has come as a shock, just as other rankings have been in the last few years – in life expectancy, education, broadband internet access and all areas of citizens’ welfare – vis-à-vis the two dozen or so nations that comprise the so-called developed world.

To Americans’ frustration, often irrationally-challenged by a vociferous “patriotic” segment of the population unwilling to accept reality; they are starting to realize that they may be closer to the tail end among the developed countries than they are to number 1. Even in something as primordial to America’s future as “global innovation-based competitiveness,” where by all counts they should be number 1, given America’s wealth and intellectual resources, they are ranked number 6, and losing ground fast!

But let’s get back to the Corruption Perceptions Index. Criticism of the methodology used in the computation of the index, and its subjectivity, is well founded; and I, trained and experienced in the workings of operations research, will add my voice to much of that criticism. However, reasonableness tells me that although much of the information has graduated from public opinion surveys to the sole discretion of “experts,” the label in the index itself, perceptions, should allow sufficient wiggle room to an unprejudiced effort that uses a preponderance of inexact sciences.

At last, what has been happening in the past few years in the US – from Enron, to the discovery of many Ponzi schemes (Bernie Madoff’s at the top of the list), to a self-monitored fraudulent financial system which almost destroyed the economy (we are not out of the woods yet), to a political system at the beck and call of lobbyists representing for the most part the corporate elite, to last January’s decision by the Supreme Court to allow unlimited spending on political campaigns – is finally getting to a new and more strict interpretation of ethics in both private and public sectors by much of the American population – at least those people who do not benefit from corruption.

This index tries to measure “the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians,” while Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” Getting a 7.1 score from a range of 0 to 10 is certainly nothing to be proud of for a nation that somehow keeps insisting to have the formula for working democracy, and militarily tries to implement a nation-building program in parts of the world. And that brings us to the irony in the situation: of the 180 nations rated in the CPI… would we ever guess that Iraq ranks 176th and Afghanistan 179th? Yes, America’s embryo-democratic protégées where the US is clearly nation-building and conducting unending wars of choice!

Americans are starting to come to terms with what corruption is all about, and how naive they have been in thinking that their “exceptionalism” would keep corruption at bay, at least domestically.

If Americans could only reach a little further and define corruption beyond domestic and into international terms… as ”the abuse of hegemonic power for elitist corporate gain,” their understanding of peace and war would not need to be filtered through the Pentagon; and their foreign relations would certainly take a much different course.

America’s last five-star general and first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Omar N. Bradley said back in 1948… “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” Nothing much has changed since then… except for America’s wish to be the dominant giant while still remaining an ethical infant.