Diplomatic Scofflaws and the Culture of Corruption

By Richard Morin
Friday, June 30, 2006

To a meter maid in New York City, here's the real axis of evil: Kuwait, Egypt and Chad.

At least that's what two economists found when they studied unpaid traffic tickets racked up over five years by diplomats from 146 countries stationed in New York City.

Raymond J. Fisman of Columbia University and Edward Miguel of the University of California at Berkeley wanted to see whether diplomats from more corrupt countries tended to ignore parking tickets more often than those from nations where boodle, bribes and fraud were less ubiquitous.

New York City, home to the United Nations, offered a perfect natural experiment to test their theory. It's a mecca for foreign diplomats, who have immunity from prosecution or lawsuits -- including parking laws -- when they are on assignment in the United States.

The first thing the economists wanted to know is whether some envoys took advantage of their diplomatic free pass to park in no-parking zones.

You bet.

Kuwait led the list of international parking scofflaws. Its diplomats each collected an average of 246.2 unpaid tickets annually during the 1997-2002 study period. Each of Egypt's statesmen averaged 139.6 tickets a year, while members of Chad's tiny delegation, which amounted to two diplomats in 1998, averaged 124.3. Sixteen countries collected more than 50 unpaid tickets per diplomat per year, while 22 had none. (To be fair, the violations could have been committed by staff or family members driving cars with diplomatic plates.)

For their study, Fisman and Miguel assembled city data on more than 150,000 unpaid parking tickets -- a total value of $18 million -- issued to cars with diplomatic license plates between 1997 and 2002. They totaled the number of violations for each country, obtained the number of diplomats officially assigned to that mission and computed a ticket-per-envoy average.

Finally, they compared their list of scofflaws with a widely used composite index that ranks countries on the basis of how corrupt they are.

The correlation wasn't perfect. Still, the economists found "strong persistence in cultural norms: Diplomats from high-corruption countries have significantly more parking violations, and these differences persist over time."

Venezuelans Say: Hooray for Venezuela!

Americans lead the world when it comes to being proud of their country. But guess who's a close second: Venezuela, according to Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center.

Smith analyzed the results of surveys in 34 countries conducted by the International Social Survey program. People were asked how proud they were of their country in 10 areas of national life, including their political system, influence in the world, sports and science.

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