I have a partial manuscript for a novel in the bottom of my nightstand. Part of the premise is that our hero is a patsy in a non-profit corruption scheme, which is hidden by him being a patsy in a romantic murder. This partial novel is getting so old that it no longer makes sense given current technological advances, unfortunately, but it does reveal my personal interest in understanding corruption.

My own standards for avoiding corruption are pretty high, largely due to my religious upbringing. Jesus was both anti-corruption and quick to point out that politics and power inevitably created corruption. By contrast, he pointed out that his kingdom could not be corrupted, and yet basically all religions end up corrupt. Ergo, his kingdom is not tied to any specific religion as practiced by humans on earth.

In my business life, I encountered many cultures as a global business leader in which corruption seemed evident to me; in retrospect, that corruption was evident because it differed from what American culture allows, but that doesn’t mean American culture doesn’t have other forms of corruption. For example, in the travel industry, some coutries’ embassies could only be accessed for travel visas if one was willing to pay a low-level person a bribe (one could generously call this an “access” fee). This is considered an illegal bribe in the US, but if you think about it, how different is this from tipping in the US for low-wage industries? (In Singapore, for example, tipping is not done because workers are paid a proper wage and customers are not asked to pay them directly).

I’ve also blogged before about types of corruption that bother me within Church culture, including basically any time anyone is paid for spreading the gospel, whether that’s a general authority trading on his church-based fame, or someone running Book of Mormon tours, or even a blog that monetizes. My view has always been that we shouldn’t be earning a living off this stuff; that’s priestcraft. Once you make it your bread and butter, you will start to alter your message toward your audience to increase profits. And yet, my standards are clearly much higher than the Church’s on this. I recognize that what I consider to be corruption is just another Tuesday to most. I’m the weirdo.

Likewise in politics. I don’t approve of Trump’s obvious corruption in profiting off the office of President by funneling money into his hotels, hosting meetings and conferences there. I don’t approve in general of the corruption that exists in real estate in which it is routine to overvalue properties when seeking credit and to undervalue them when paying taxes. I also disapprove of Hunter Biden getting a cushy board seat so that foreign actors can have access to a powerful politician in the US, even if that access didn’t actually result in special treatment for their business interests (much worse if it had!). I also disapprove of all forms of nepotism, which is particularly rife in politics and the Church (no, I’m not impressed that you descended from so-called Mormon royalty–on the contrary, the act of pointing out your pedigree immediately makes me think less of you and your faith-based bona fides).

I recently listened to a podcast with Dr. Ang who explains the rise of corruption in China, but digs deeper into all forms of corruption that are a byproduct of capitalism. Chinese corruption often looks different than the type of corruption we see in the US, but we shouldn’t assume that this means we don’t have corruption. She points out these specific features of corruption that are common to both countries:

  • Extreme inequality
  • Cronyism
  • Systemic financial risk
  • Excessive materialism
  • Ecological crises stemming from overconsumption

There are a few interesting types of corruption she describes that are unique to China, including:

  • The Naked Official. A Chinese official who pretends to be poor in China but maintains great wealth overseas.
  • Elegant Bribery. Forms of sophisticated bribery that are subjective in value, such as using works of art (or crypto-currency?) to bribe since the value is malleable.

Part of her research is to identify the difference between corruption that inhibits growth or GDP and corruption that can improve GDP. The types of corruption that inhibit growth include embezzlement, extortion, and petty bribery. These are usually done by low-level officials who maybe feel underpaid. The US doesn’t tolerate this type of corruption as much as some poorer countries do. Once you contain these types of corruption, what’s left?

Influence peddling is a type of corruption that is very common in the US, and it can be good for the economy even if it is obviously unfair. Americans would typically consider this type of corruption to be immoral, not just illegal. This is still abuse of power for private gain, but since the actors involved are at a higher level, the preferential treatment they are giving out has to at least provide a public good. I was watching a show in which a politician got off the podium after announcing that more of the city’s contracts had been awarded to minority-owned businesses under his leadership; he then turned to a private conversation with the contractors, instructing them to manufacture delays and added costs for eight months so he could milk the government for more funding.

Dr. Ang created a matrix of corruption that is more complex than prior models. In addition to understanding the type of corruption:

  • Petty theft
  • Grand theft
  • Speed money (bribes to overcome obstacles)
  • Access money (getting access to special deals or contracts)

She also assesses whether the corruption is taking place among elites or non-elites. When you consider her more complex view of corruption, one which is broader like my own, it’s easy to see that a lot we view as “the price of doing business” is also corruption. Her conclusion that access money and speed money can actually boost GDP, even though it’s corruption, is an interesting byproduct of capitalism. After all, somebody is going to get that contract, and whoever does is plausibly going to encounter delays and obstacles; weighting the scale towards a corrupt actor who supported your political party or campaign doesn’t necessarily hurt the project even if it’s immoral. The country thrives economically while faltering morally.

  • What types of corruption bother you in politics and religion?
  • What corruption have you encountered in your professional life?