(Header: Anti-government and anti-bank slogans cover the wall of the First National Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires, Argentina during the corralito. Photo Credit: Thomas Locke Hobbs.)

You’re pulled over by a police car. You weren’t speeding, but you’ll have to pay a bribe to avoid a ticket. Or you need a passport, but in order to get it in a reasonable amount of time, you pay an unofficial ‘expediting fee’.

These are examples of petty corruption — everyday abuses of power by government officials. Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro, Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University, studies corruption and accountability in Latin America, and is joining MIT GOV/LAB for the 2017-2018 academic year as a visiting scholar. I sat down with her to learn a bit more about her research, motivations, and plans for her time at GOV/LAB.

A quest called bribe: understanding petty corruption

Most of the literature on corruption focuses on the backlash from big instances of corruption (or “grand corruption” in academic terms). For example, Brazilians took to the streets in protest of the government’s mishandling of billions of dollars worth of public funds, leading up to and during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. But these events are infrequent and can feel far away from the average person.

Though Weitz-Shapiro has studied citizen responses to politician corruption, she also studies the small offenses that affect the everyday of lives of citizens. Be warned, however. Although its name may make it seem harmless, petty corruption’s effects are insidious. Over time, small instances may erode confidence in democracy and the rule of law — each bribe chipping away at citizens’ trust. A government that picks your pocket at every opportunity surely can’t be worth your respect. And if the government doesn’t follow it’s own rules, why should you?

As part of her ongoing research into whether and when citizens choose to punish corrupt officials, Weitz-Shapiro has explored how the provision of information about corruption, including who engages in corrupt acts and the credibility of corruption accusations, affects citizen responses to corruption (Winters & Weitz-Shapiro, 2013; Winters & Weitz-Shapiro, 2016; Weitz-Shapiro & Winters, 2016). Now, in joint research with Matthew S. Winters from the University of Illinois and Aimee Bourassa, a graduate student at Brown, they are exploring the possible effects of petty corruption. Their aim is to figure out what makes it more or less likely for citizens to punish politicians when they experience petty corruption at the hands of low-level bureaucrats. Does it matter what the political system looks like? Does it matter how widespread corruption is? In her words:

“When you get asked for a bribe to expedite your passport, what makes you say ‘Ugh, that’s just the way it is,’ and what makes you say ‘Our politicians should do something about it’? We’re trying to understand how structural conditions within the bureaucracy might affect whether or not citizens blame their politicians.”

Weitz-Shapiro and her fellow researchers suspect that an inefficient or chaotic bureaucratic structure may make citizens more forgiving of petty corruption. Like a doping cyclist, corrupt officials may convince the public that what they perceive as corruption is simply the officials doing the best they can in a broken system. If this is true, the ability to hide behind an inefficient system may create perverse incentives. Instead of reforming the broken system, bureaucrats may work to make the system even more of a morass than it already is.

Argentine tangle: corralling currency and navigating crises

Weitz-Shapiro’s interest in this topic stems from her time in Argentina as a Fulbright scholar during what was called the corralito (Spanish for “a small enclosure”).

Drowning in debt and weighed down by hyperinflation, Argentina’s economy in the early 1990s was in dire straits. Desperate to keep its currency afloat, the government fixed the exchange rate between the Argentine peso and the US dollar at a one-to-one ratio, but this solution proved unsustainable (Di Tella & Vogel, 2004). Sensing economic turmoil, Argentines began withdrawing large amounts of US dollars, but in December of 2001, the government placed strict limitations on cash withdrawals. This was the corralito.

Thousands of Argentines queued up at banks and ATMs, hoping to withdraw enough money to last them the week. Those unable to access their money took to the streets in protest. Living through this crisis and seeing the response of the Argentine people made Weitz-Shapiro aware of the unique demands placed on citizens during times of instability:

“I experienced it only in a very limited fashion, but when you go outside to the store or to work and you notice ‘all these people are lining up at ATM machines,’ you think to yourself, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I better line up too, because it seems like something is happening.’ You have to develop these skills to be alert to certain cues if you’re going to advocate for yourself or protect your interests, even if the government is saying ‘Nothing’s wrong. There’s no problem’.”

Now, her research looks at how citizens respond when the way their political system is supposed to work on paper isn’t what ends up happening in real life.

Time at GOV/LAB

In their ongoing project, Weitz-Shapiro and her team use large, cross-national datasets to examine petty corruption across Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. But the low-level nature of petty corruption means that these data can’t quite answer the team’s questions as well as they would like. So part of what Weitz-Shapiro will be working on over the coming years is finding data that will. She plans to develop survey experiments that can accurately isolate possible mechanisms or processes that cause citizens to blame their politicians for corruption. As she is currently in the process of figuring out these challenges, Weitz-Shapiro hopes to learn from the experience of GOV/LAB faculty and graduate students who have partnered with governments in rolling out field experiments.

We at GOV/LAB are excited to work with her and to continue learning from one another.

Works Cited

Di Tella, Rafael M., and Ingrid Vogel. “The 2001 Crisis in Argentina: An IMF-Sponsored Default? (A).” Harvard Business School Case 704-004, October 2003. (Revised January 2004.)

Weitz-Shapiro, R., & Winters, M. S. (2016). Can Citizens Discern? Information Credibility, Political Sophistication, and the Punishment of Corruption in Brazil. The Journal of Politics, 79(1), 60–74. https://doi.org/10.1086/687287.

Winters, M. S., & Weitz-Shapiro, R. (2013). Lacking Information or Condoning Corruption: When Do Voters Support Corrupt Politicians? Comparative Politics. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/cuny/cp/2013/00000045/00000004/art00004.

Winters, M. S., & Weitz-Shapiro, R. (2016). Who’s in Charge Here? Direct and Indirect Accusations and Voter Punishment of Corruption. Political Research Quarterly, 69(2), 207–219. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912916634897.