Thứ Hai, 8 tháng 12, 2008

Forensic economics

Chống tham nhũng-ngành học mới. Đây là ý tưởng dùng các công cụ và số liệu kinh tế để điều tra tội phạm, nhất là tội phạm tham nhũng, do Raymond Fisman (Columbia) và Edward Miguel (Berkeley) đề xướng. Reference - Economic Gangsters (book )
Q&A: Economists Explain Their Forensic Approach
Columbia Business School’s Raymond Fisman and University of California, Berkeley’s Edward Miguel are development economists who are at the forefront of what’s being dubbed “forensic economics.” Relying on anomalies in everything from Indonesian stock prices to New York City parking tickets to figures on antique imports and exports, they’ve been able uncover the tracks of wrongdoers.

In their new book, “Economic Gangsters,” the two document how forensic economics can be used to root out corruption, offering fresh insights into how aid can be directed to where it’s needed in the developing world, rather than the hands of thugs.

The economists discussed their work with the Journal’s Justin Lahart.

WSJ: You’re development economists who have become keenly interested in the issues surrounding corruption. From an economist’s standpoint, why is rooting out corruption so important to fostering development?

Ted: It’s difficult to separate out the story of global poverty from the problem of corruption. Most countries that remain poor today have suffered under the rule of thieving, corrupt leaders. And it’s easy to see why corruption can undermine economic development. Imagine what the impact on the U.S. economy would be if Al Capone or some other thuggish economic gangster occupied the White House?

Unfortunately, many people in the developing world don’t need to use their imaginations. In kleptocracies from Pakistan to Zimbabwe, corrupt rulers have funneled billions of ill-gotten dollars into Swiss bank accounts that could otherwise have been invested in roads and schools. Understanding the economic motivations of these gangsterish figures is critical for devising policies to fighting them. That’s the goal of our book.

Ray: That being said, there are some countries that have prospered economically even with thoroughly corrupt leadership. Indonesia enjoyed high rates of economic growth for decades under President Suharto’s dictatorship, despite being the most corrupt regime on the planet. It’s crucial to understand the differences between the relatively “benevolent” corruption of Suharto, and the destructive kleptocracies of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and others. In Economic Gangsters we lay out the crucial differences between centralized systems of corruption like Suharto’s from the more chaotic situations that prevail in many of the poorest African countries.

WSJ: How different are the economic motivations of the thugs of the world from what motivates the rest of us? Or are they different at all?

Ray: There’s a little economic gangster inside each one of us, who’s rationally adding up the costs and benefits of the choices we make. Yet most of us are also endowed with a conscience that intercedes if our inner accountant starts telling us to kill or steal to make a buck. But the rational gangsters we have in mind — from Al Capone (who was actually an accountant before becoming a Chicago mobster) to the warlords of Somalia — crimes are largely a matter of cost-benefit calculation unencumbered by conscience.

Ted: It’s also the case that when placed in desperate circumstances, all people (including you and me) are reduced to the rational calculus of survival, with conscience a forgone luxury. In the book we describe an economic rationale for witch killings that become endemic in some parts of rural Tanzania in drought years. When times are hard, after the rains fail, rational calculation calls for a reduction in family size, and branding grandma as a witch can provide an excuse for doing the gruesome task that’s called for in the name of survival. In the gruesome lottery of who lives and who dies, elderly women draw the short straw.

WSJ: So if corrupt officials and the like are really just responding to economic incentives like the rest of us, then they’re going leave a trail — follow the money, crudely. But what methods can we use to find that trail when the crooks are steadfastly trying to cover it up?

Ray: There are always tracks left in data, and often enough the crooks hand you the numbers themselves. In the book, we uncover evidence of smuggling between Hong Kong and China, and do so without pulling out our crowbars to pull open crates in Shenzhen or Shanghai. Instead, we look for holes left in the import-export data. There’s no incentive for smugglers to lie to the customs authorities in Hong Kong, but on the China side importers can avoid paying tariffs by underreporting the value of their shipments. It turns out that a lot more leaves Hong Kong destined for China than arrives in China coming from Hong Kong in the official statistics, and the biggest “smuggling gaps” appear for high-tariff products like cars, cosmetics, and alcohol. So the rational, calculating gangsters that run the smuggling operations southern China left a trail for forensic economists like us to follow.

Ted: Stock market investors have also helped us to ferreting out corruption. In another chapter of the book, we use the market to measure the value of political connections in Indonesia during the dictatorship of President Suharto. When Suharto was rumored to have suffered a stroke in July 1996, the share price of a company run by the president’s son, Bimantara Citra, dropped by more than 10 percent in just two days. Companies run by other Suharto cronies saw similar declines. Why? In-the-know investors had dumped their Bimantara shares, fearing that without its connections, the company would lose the tax breaks, licenses and special deals that made it so profitable under Suharto’s rule. In the process, these insiders revealed their beliefs on the value of connections in Indonesia. If you had asked investors directly about the value of political connections in a survey, fear of government repercussions might have prevented them from answering truthfully, but we let the markets do the talking. We use a similar approach to measure the value of political connections to Vice-President Cheney. You might be surprised by the results.

WSJ: What does your work on corruption tell us about the debate over whether foreign aid does developing countries much good, and what insights does it give us into how aid might be better structured?

Ted: Clearly if development funds are stolen by corrupt leaders, then foreign assistance isn’t going to do much good. This issue is at the heart of the recent — and often heated — debate between the pro-aid camp — led by Jeff Sachs at Columbia — and the aid skeptics, including Bill Easterly at NYU. So understanding the effects of corruption is critical in figuring out who should get aid dollars and how much. Given the facts we dig up in our work, we both lean towards the Easterly view of how past aid has been wasted. But we’re not so skeptical on the future of development assistance, and in the book we discuss ways foreign aid could be used more effectively, for instance by providing emergency funds to countries teetering on the edge of armed conflict.

Ray: I’d agree. In Economic Gangsters, we also provide some ideas on how to make aid less corruptible. We’ve come a long way in figuring out how to measure things like bribery and smuggling — we describe a number of these techniques in our book. Once we can measure how much corruption there is out there, we can go about looking for ways that will reduce it. Does auditing help to make aid projects more effective? Or community oversight? A recent study of road building corruption in Indonesia found that auditing helped a lot; community oversight not at all. We’ve gained valuable insights from research point the way forward on how to make foreign aid reach its intended recipients.

WSJ: Where do you think forensic economics is headed next and what are the areas that need to be explored?

Ray: We’ll continue to hunt the “natural” economic world for answers hidden in share prices and government statistics, and there are many questions that can be answered in this way. Which companies were shipping arms to Angola in violation of a UN embargo? Economists looked at stock market reactions to news of a ceasefire in Angola to see which stocks suffered the most: Presumably the embargo violators had the most to lose from an end to the fighting.

But we could solve at a wider set of problems if we gained access to data that only governments possess. One proposal that we’ve put forth is the creation of a global forensic economics lab to coordinate the work of government authorities and researchers so that they can better fight corruption.

Ted: Ideally, though, we’d create our own data. In our book, we argue that policy should be guided by systematic experimentation to see what works in fighting economic gangsters out there in the chaos of real economies. Just as medical scientists experiment with different ways of solving human diseases using randomized control trials, policymakers can experiment with different policy solutions to social problems. This approach can be used whenever governments pilot their projects, or roll them out gradually over time. The Indonesia roads study we just mentioned was done in this way, with villages randomly chosen for treatment and control groups. A new generation of economists is starting to use randomized evaluations to tackle global poverty, and we think this is one of the most encouraging trends in recent years. – Justin Lahart

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