It's getting harder for freelance journalists to make a decent living, so recently I've had to branch out into the advice column business. The people who write in seem pretty flaky, on the whole, but sometimes their letters cast a useful light on larger issues. For example:
Dear Aunt Gwynne
People say I am beautiful and my men friends tell me that I am very accomplished, but I have a problem. I married my high school sweetheart, but he was in the construction business and he went bankrupt in the crash. We are now divorced and I have lots of new boyfriends, but I really want security this time and it's so hard to choose.
My Chinese boyfriend comes from a rich family who are also in the construction industry. That means they have to give a lot of bribes, but I'm used to that. The problem is that he is not a Communist Party member, and nobody in his family is a senior regime official. What if they execute him for bribery?
I don't really know what my Russian boyfriend does for a living, but I think it's not exactly legal. He has tons of money but his bodyguards never leave his side, so the bed is quite crowded. He bribes all the right people, he says, but sometimes he talks about politics and that scares me. What if the Government decides he is an enemy?
The other guy is an Indian and his family is in the construction business, too. He's really sweet and I like him best, but nothing works in India. Also, I just read that they've passed a law in India that would make it dangerous to bribe people, and then the whole family would go out of business. I don't know what to do. Please help.
- Perplexed of Beverly Hills
You have my sympathy: anguish can strike at every socio-economic level. Let's take this one piece at a time. I agree that the Russian boyfriend is problematic. Criminality is no obstacle in itself but if your boyfriend is thinking of dabbling in Russian politics, he will soon be neither free nor rich. You should move on.
Your Chinese boyfriend sounds better, but his lack of connections really is a potential problem. Bribery is as common as spitting in the street in China, but the regime does jail or execute somebody once in a while to show it cares. The chances are no more than one in 50, but to be really safe one should be a Communist Party member. Only one in 1000 of them ever get punished. Can your boyfriend get a party card?
If not, you really should consider the Indian boyfriend. Poor infrastructure is not a problem that affects the rich in India and bribery is a perfectly normal part of life for everybody. I wouldn't worry about the new law that the Indian Parliament passed.
The lower house did vote in favour of a tough anti-corruption law, but they made sure that the new anti-bribery ombudsman would have no control over the Central Bureau of Investigation, which does the corruption investigations (when it feels like it). Besides, the upper house of Parliament failed to vote on the new law last week, so it's probably not going to happen at all.
Eight similar anti-corruption bills have failed to make it on to the books in India in the past 43 years, so why should this one be different? And why do you feel that you have to outsource your husband anyway?
You seem to be American, from your address, and there are plenty of rich Americans. In the United States bribery is called "political contributions" and it's perfectly legal. And if Americans are rich enough, they don't pay any taxes at all. So head up, chest out, stomach in, and get on with it. Corruption is only a problem for the little people.
- Aunt Gwynne
Putting my journalist's hat back on, I must admit that I was cutting a few corners in that answer. In Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia is ranked as much more corrupt than China or India.
It ranks at 143 (higher numbers means worse corruption) out of 183 countries, tied with Nigeria, East Timor and Togo.
India and China do much better, at 95 and 75 respectively. And the US, with a rank of 25, is only a little more corrupt than Chile, Qatar and the Bahamas.
Indeed, corruption in the US is mainly a political problem. The petty corruption that makes daily life so wearing in most developing countries barely exists there.
Why don't most Americans take bribes? Because they earn enough that they do not feel compelled to demand bribes to do their jobs.
Anti-corruption commissions and the like can make dents in the problem but the only long-term solution is to pay people a living wage. There is no moral gulf between New Zealand (ranked number one on the scale) and Uzbekistan (ranked 177); just a huge difference in politics and in living standards.