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Is the U.S. as Corrupt as the Third World?

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin leaves federal court, after being sentenced in New Orleans, on July 9
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin leaves federal court, after being sentenced in New Orleans, on July 9Photograph by Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

Last week former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin became the latest American politician to be sent to jail for abuse of power, following in the footsteps of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and onetime Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Despite such high-profile convictions, most Americans see political corruption as a problem that plagues the developing world far more than the U.S. The truth is more complex: It’s certainly the case that paying bribes is a lot less common in the U.S. than in Nigeria or Bolivia, for example. But when citizens are asked if corruption is prevalent in their country, they’re thinking about a lot more than bribes. They’re more concerned about whether government and the political system is fair or stacked against them. And on those grounds, there are good reasons to think the difference between the U.S. and developing countries isn’t very big at all.

It doesn’t take a detailed look at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index to work out which types of countries are viewed to be particularly corrupt by the political risk analysts, aid agency economists, and think-tank staff whose opinions the index reflects. At the (virtuous) top of the ranking are rich countries: Sweden is No. 3, the U.K., 14; and the U.S., 19. At the (villainous) bottom are poor countries: Ivory Coast is No. 136, Vietnam, 116; and Tanzania, 111. It’s an unquestioned truth among Western politicians, businesspeople, and aid agency employees that corruption is rife in the developing world and that’s a big and, perhaps, even the main reason why poor countries are poor.