Thursday, May 22, 2008

Corruption, correlation and causation

Transparency International has repeatedly ranked Finland as one of the least corrupt country in the world. The CPI ranking, or Corruption Perception Index, is based on interviews, and as it says in the name, perceptions, and so it is a somewhat subjective measure. At least the perception so far has been that Finns, and the Finnish political system in general, would be honest and fair. This perception is changing, as now, as The Dude would put it, new shit has come to light.

MP's have failed to report who has funded their campaigns, funders themselves have been hiding behind dodgy societies, neither seems to remember anything about the transactions that therefore had no effect, but still there seem to be very uncomfortable connections between the funders, the politicians, and some political decisions they are currently trying to make.

This reminds me of the cash for honours -scandal in the UK. Big party funders were given peerages and other privileges, in some cases as a direct compensation for substantive donations to party war chests. There was of course public outrage, heads rolled and rules were reformed. However, public perception was that there was nothing new here (see Yes, Minister & Yes, Prime Minister, any episode), it had just grown to be so ugly, unashamed and disgusting that it was therefore time to put an end to it. But, as the British are extremely cynical about their politicians, these "breaking news" were just confirming what they knew already - the system is rotten, everyone is there for their personal benefit, all politicians are corrupt and the country is run by tycoons.

I don't think the conclusions would go quite as far in the Finnish case, if not for anything else, because the sums are considerably smaller. In the UK, the sums donated were millions of pounds, in Finland the largest individual donation was 20 000 euros, although the totals for some of these groups are in the hundreds of thousands.

The discussion is now taking a rather unfortunate non-analytical turn. As is often the case, things get confusing, and some people confuse things deliberately. Is the political system in crisis, as the prime minister has said? No, the system isn't, but his government is. Several MP's, both government and opposition are. Mr. Vanhanen deliberately muddles things up and tries to hide behind his office, but the fact is that the rules have been there, the legislation has been at place already, and these individuals (en masse, unfortunately) just have failed to respect the spirit of the law, and in many cases even broke the letter of the law. It's all fine for them to now blame the unclear rules and try save faces by proposing changes, while amending their dodgy declarations, but they shouldn't get away with just that.

Any trust-issues the Finnish people might have about politics as a result of this, are not generally about the Finnish constitution or the offices it describes, but about these idiots who claim they don't have a clue who paid for 1/4 of their campaign and expect people to believe them. Similarly, nobody lost their belief in Finnish business because this bunch of "fundamentalist entrepreneurs" now claim they don't know who got the hundreds of thousands of euros they donated and to which they expect no return.

That's one thing, the other of course is, whether funding political campaigns is corrupt in every case. The issue here is pretty much the same as in the question of correlation vs. causation. It's understandable that businesses or labour unions want to see that the candidates that share their views do well in elections. In the "ideal" scenario, politicians have their opinions first, and funding follows, because someone with money likes those opinions. In the cynical scenario, receiving funding changes the politician's opinions to those of his/her funders. In both cases, there's a correlation between receiving funding from an interest group and having opinions that they like. The direction of causation is the key element that separates democratic fair play from rotten corruption.

Whether either extreme exists in the real world, I'm not sure. There is probably a continuum there, and many politicians today seem to dwell in that gray area in between. But, something close to the ideal scenario exists and it can even be seen as an important part of democracy (as a guard of marginal, and why not even mainstream interests). Therefore rules (and enforcement of them) are needed, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to set a limit to how much money a candidate can get from a single donor, and a total limit should be considered as well. And, as a precautionary measure to tackle future ignorance and amnesia, politicians and donors should be forced to keep better minutes of their campaign funding and spending.

The Finnish political system with strong corporations and interconnections between politicians and special interests isn't necessarily corrupt in the sense that, say, Somalia (179th, or last in the TI CPI), Albania (105th) or even Italy (41st) are, but it isn't spotless clean, and definitely it doesn't seem to be all that transparent, either. That's something that should be reflected in the next CPI. If Finland falls from its joined first spot, it doesn't mean we've suddenly changed to be more corrupt, it's because we're finally starting to take a good look into how the decision-making here actually works.

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