Thursday, December 13, 2012

Comparing Corruption in China and the US

Today's WSJ China Realtime reports on a study by a George Mason University economist who attempts to compare corruption in the US and China.  His conclusion is that corruption in America's Gilded Age (1877-1893)* was worse than corruption in China today.

Perhaps the conclusion is correct, but the methodology used by this professor is flawed.  US corruption is measured by mentions of corruption in US newspapers 1870-1930.  China corruption is measured by mentions of corruption in US (not Chinese!) newspapers 1990-2011.

So he is measuring corruption in two countries by the number of times the newspapers of only one of the countries mentions the word.  Even if the researcher had used Chinese newspapers, the study still would have been flawed due to Communist Party control of Chinese print media throughout the period in question.  (Why the author of the study did not even attempt to scan Chinese newspapers for mentions of corruption, I don't know, but I'll venture a guess that it's because he doesn't speak Chinese.)

The question the researcher is asking is a valid one.  America during its Gilded Age was extremely corrupt, as is modern day China.  An answer as to which one is/was more corrupt would be enlightening.  It would be interesting to consider whether actions taken to curb corruption in the democratic America of the Gilded Age are even remotely applicable to modern authoritarian China.

Nice try, but we're still no closer to a valid measure for corruption that we may compare across countries.

* The official dates of the Gilded Age are considered to be 1877-1893, after which the Progressive Era began, but the author of the quoted study extends his analysis to 1930.