Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Color-Coded Parking

So, here's another bullet point in the seemingly endless iteration of "Stuff that semi-educated-upper-middle-class-white-people thing get all hand-wringly about": "For any x, is x racist?"

Now, don't misunderstand me. Racism is the sort of thing about which semi-educated-upper-middle-class-white people should worry, in no small part because so many of us are so adept in the ways of white folk, while so few of us have ever read the damn thing (fewer yet, and I'm afraid I'm counting myself here, could probably be said to have understood it). We were raised in communities that were predominantly white, all the while eschewing acts of overt racism. But we were also raised or (if our parents were Republicans) educated to understand that the most pernicious and pervasive sorts of racism aren't overt. So, we come to believe that the kind of racist beliefs and behaviors we can pick out aren't the ones that are the most pervasive. I think that it's this condition that leads to the hand-wringing. Because any time that white people of a certain background talk about issues involving race, we aren't (or, at least, I'm not) sure whether we're saying or doing something racist.

So, let me say before launching into this post, I'm not really sure whether my commentary here is racist. It's for that reason, though, that I'm posting it. I know that it isn't overtly racist. (How? It doesn't look like this.) And if there are two sorts of racism, overt and subtle, then if this post manifests some sort of racism, it can only be subtly so. But as I said, it's the subtle racism that I don't think people with a background like mine are especially good at identifying, and it's because we aren't good at identifying it, though we know it exists, that we worry whether we're its perpetrators.

I guess that what I'm trying to say is, if this post is subtly racist, I want to know, and I want to know why. It's not because I'm prepared to say it isn't racist; rather, it's because I want to get better at identifying subtle racism, that I might get better at identifying and responding to instances of it in the future. But, if it isn't racist, it helps us narrow the set of topics covered by the phenomenon of subtle racism, and thereby helps us to better identify it, as well. Also, it's interesting.

* * *

Anyway. The post.

So, I read a mind-blowing study this week, one trying to make sense of the phenomenon of unpaid parking tickets issued by New York City police to diplomats from the United Nations. And, trust me - or don't, but just keep reading - this is an phenomenon, indeed.

First, some background. According to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, certain diplomats and consuls from foreign nations are exempted from prosecution for certain sorts of crimes that the diplomats may commit in the host nation. In the United States, for example, those exemptions include prosecution for unpaid parking tickets. This means that diplomats in the U.S. can be issued a ticket for parking their cars in any non-tow area (their cars can be towed) and find themselves under no legal obligation to pay the fine, since they cannot be prosecuted for failure to pay.

The problem is especially rampant in New York City, where many nations double-up on their number of diplomats, since all send representatives to the United Nations, and almost all nations with more than one embassy (their first is always in Washington D.C.) house a second embassy in the Big Apple. According to the study I mentioned, between 1997 and 2002, UN diplomats alone racked up a whopping $18 million dollars in unpaid parking fines within the NYC city limits. Fortunately for us, however, there are two very interesting aspects to this scenario. First, the diplomatic immunity from prosecution instead of permission to break the law means that we have a written record of the instances of illegality - for if diplomats had permission to break the law, there would be no cause to issue them parking tickets. And second, the fact that diplomats from so many countries send diplomats to this very small area has given the economist and business professor who authored the study an excellent 'natural experiment.'

"A natural experiment in what?" you ask. An experiment in linking culture and tendencies toward corruption. The study utilizes an earlier study that argued for what it called an "International Corruption Index," which listed countries according to how corrupt were their national governments. The researchers defined corruption as "the abuse of publicly entrusted power for private gains" - so, insider trading by government officials, awarding contracts in exchange for political donations, etc. Governments more likely to engage in those sorts behaviors were defined as more corrupt. What our second study intended to find was whether corruption within one's own nation tended to manifest itself in other countries - or whether the sorts of national corruption scrutinized by the first study were evidence of a 'corrupt culture' in which the corruption follows the members of the culture around the globe.

One can see why, then, the example of parking tickets for United Nations diplomats worked so well for the second study. 'Test subjects' were offered easy access to a corrupt benefit - personal gain (good but illegal parking) from publicly entrusted authority (diplomatic immunity). And numerous individuals from numerous countries were offered the benefit over a very long period of time, thereby controlling for the possibility of unusually corrupt individuals (I kid because I love) skewing the data. These conditions conspired to generate an environment that would show whether individuals from corrupt (and, indeed, from non-corrupt) nations behaved outside of their national boundaries; in particular, whether the corruption could be called "cultural" in making itself manifest outside of a particular set of national boundaries.

And, I'm not sure whether to call this surprising, the findings were as follows. The researchers found a significantly high correlation between the number of parking tickets per diplomat from a particular country and that country's ranking on the Corruption Index. And the rankings are as follows:

Table 1: Average Unpaid Annual New York City Parking Violations per Diplomat, 11/1997 to 11/2002 (citation again, here; also, the highlighting is mine)

Rank Country Tickets Per Diplomats

1 KUWAIT 246.2 9
2 EGYPT 139.6 24
3 CHAD 124.3 2
4 SUDAN 119.1 7
5 BULGARIA 117.5 6
6 MOZAMBIQUE 110.7 5
7 ALBANIA 84.5 3
8 ANGOLA 81.7 9
9 SENEGAL 79.2 11
10 PAKISTAN 69.4 13
11 IVORY COAST 67.1 10
12 ZAMBIA 60.4 9
13 MOROCCO 60.0 17
14 ETHIOPIA 59.7 10
15 NIGERIA 58.6 25
16 SYRIA 52.7 12
17 BENIN 49.8 8
18 ZIMBABWE 45.6 14
19 CAMEROON 43.6 8
20 MONTENEGRO 38.0 6


125 UK 0.0 31
126 NETHERLANDS 0.0 17
127 UAE 0.0 3
128 AUSTRALIA 0.0 12
129 AZERBAIJAN 0.0 5
130 BURKINA FASO 0.0 5
131 CAR 0.0 3
132 CANADA 0.0 24
133 COLOMBIA 0.0 16
134 DENMARK 0.0 17
135 ECUADOR 0.0 9
136 GREECE 0.0 21
137 IRELAND 0.0 10
138 ISRAEL 0.0 15
139 JAMAICA 0.0 9
140 JAPAN 0.0 47
141 LATVIA 0.0 5
142 NORWAY 0.0 12
143 OMAN 0.0 5
144 PANAMA 0.0 8
145 SWEDEN 0.0 19
146 TURKEY 0.0 25

One notes from these results, at least, what I noted in green. That in the top twenty offending nations, fourteen are African; in the bottom twenty-one, just two are African. The authors of this study - and yours truly - take this to imply that, relative to most East Asian and European cultures, African cultures are notably corrupt. One might think this for at least the following reason. Given the 192 UN countries, the fact that Africa has 53 nations represented would suggest that, if cultural corruption were distributed equally around the globe, African countries would account for slightly more than 25% of the observed corruption. But, in fact, according to this study, African countries account for more than 70% (or at least, they constitute 70% of the most corrupt countries) of the corruption in this bracket, and less than 10% of those nations with zero observed corruption. **

The point being, there is something corrupt in African cultures that is not corrupt in other cultures, and further that it is more likely that Africans will behave corruptly than it is that many non-Africans will behave corruptly. Such an observation, naturally, has numerous policy implications - where foreign aid might most effectively be directed, for instance - even though there are probably numerous ways to read the data (I've no special acuity with sociological data gathering).

So, first thing, how interesting is that? Second thing, how racist is it, if it is at all? Is it racist to conclude that African nations are culturally corrupt in a way that many non-African nations appear not to be? Or, is the more racist thing yet to think that it might be racist to say that data suggestive of a culture of corruption might be invalidated, simply because its findings correlate with otherwise racist attitudes?

A sticky set of questions, indeed.

**Addendum (added 2o April, 10PM)
Here's another reason - or really, the idea behind the study's conclusion. We know from the International Corruption Index (ICI) that some countries are more corrupt than other countries. There is, however, an open question about what is the relationship between culture and legal enforcement mechanisms in producing corruption. Are non-corrupt countries so simply because they have adequate measures of enforcement? Are corrupt countries so because they exhibit a cultural preference? This study provides an experiment that eliminates the legal enforcement disincentive for corruption. So, if the reason why non-corrupt countries were so was that they had adequate enforcement mechanisms, one would expect their members to behave in the non-enforcement context of diplomatic immunity just as corruptly as members of those countries that lack adequate enforcement as a matter of course. What this study shows is that this is not the case. In the non-enforcement context, countries that scored low the ICI continued to respect the law, in the absence of a legal disincentive for breaking it. What this suggests, then, is that in countries that have high scores on the ICI, those countries are corrupt not because they are inadequate enforcers, but because they express a cultural preference for corruption.

Or as the authors write in the paper's abstract:
Diplomatic immunity means there was essentially zero legal enforcement of diplomatic parking violations, allowing us to examine the role of cultural norms alone. This generates a revealed preference measure of corruption based on real-world behavior for government officials all acting in the same setting. We find tremendous persistence in corruption norms: diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations.


  1. This is very interesting, indeed. (Whether it's racist or not I am not qualified to say, being just as semi-educated-upper-middle-class-and-white as you -- though perhaps not as inclined to hand-wringing, unless guilted into it.)

    The apologist for Africa would probably point to some pernicious legacy of colonialism, or some such. I would suggest that such a justification is rather silly, but then I'd probably be... a racist?

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