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Where Bribes Bite Like Taxes

In some places, nearly 15 percent of monthly income goes to greasing palms.
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The annual survey of global corruption is out. Berlin-based Transparency International says it conducted 114,000 interviews in about half the world's countries, 107, this year. The most commonly-cited institutions to suffer from corruption were political parties, the survey found. Police came in a close second in many places, but the answers differed greatly in each country, depending on which particular entity its citizens happened to find avaricious. Some findings:

• Greeks, who face one of Europe's highest unemployment rates and some of the crisis-hit continent's lowest wages, paid nearly half a billion dollars in bribes to slippery members of their own government in 2012.

• Mexicans on the lower end of that country's economic ladder can pay as much as a third of their income to bribes in an average month. The kinder end of the average rate for the mordisco ("the nibble") rounds out at 14 percent. The resulting graf looks a lot like a regressive tax plan.

• Transfers of land are a particularly attractive transaction for corrupt officials. In Kenya, the average bit of sop for selling a plot was about $100. In Uganda, it was twice that.

A particularly extreme claim in the report, which tends to be well-regarded, said that some hospital officials in Zimbabwe had charged women having babies $5 for each time they screamed during delivery. We can't independently confirm that, and it seems pretty far outside any usual corruption narrative. The point seems to be, though, that a corrupt official does need an excuse, however implausible, to ask for the illicit money.

It certainly wasn't childbirth, but I recall a peculiar situation in a bus station, where a boy selling soft drinks asked me to take his picture. So I did. A soldier with a very big gun broke up the happy moment and demanded money for "a cold drink." The soldier could have just said "give me two bucks, or I'll arrest you." But it had to be "a cold drink." She would not actually let me buy her a drink from the boy who had demanded the photograph; she wanted the money, and would buy the "cold drink" from her preferred vendor, apparently. I gave her the two bucks and she let me go back to my bus, and the boy back to his rounds selling beverages.

The report does not much go into the psychology of bribery on the part of the corrupt themselves. That, too, would be worth reading. Transparency's work is, however, a good place to start.