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« Indonesia's anti-graft agency doesn't flinch (or swoon) | Main | Opportunity knocks »
Monday
Jan142013

Corrupt Officials Are Like …….Puppies?

There's a very good reason why I recently fell off the blogging bandwagon. 

The week before Thanksgiving, I adopted an adorable 8-week old puppy named Annie (that’s her in the picture on the left). If you've raised a puppy, you know they dominate your life for the first few months. You spend your days worried about housebreaking, teething, and puppy-proofing and (sleepless) nights worried about crate training (and again about housebreaking — it is always about housebreaking).

A few weeks ago, after rewarding Annie with a treat for her good behavior, an idea crossed my mind: puppies are a lot like corrupt officials. Bear with me….

As any new puppy owner knows, housebreaking is often one of the more challenging aspects of puppy training. After a few days in her new home, Annie appeared to be housebroken, but several weeks later started having accidents all over the house. What was I doing wrong?  How could I fix this? I was desperate.

After speaking about the issue with a colleague at school, he passed along a tip that worked well for his (two!) new puppies: “every time your puppy goes to the bathroom in the proper place, reward her with a treat.” That sounded easy enough to me — I assured him I would try it that night after work. He then cautioned me that this could create an expectation of treats, but I dismissed it. What’s the harm in a few extra treats if my carpet is spared?

That night, I started rewarding Annie with a treat every time she went to the bathroom in the proper place. It soon became evident that my colleague is a genius: she stopped having accidents in the house and responded well to the new reward system. I was thrilled.

A few days later, my glee turned to dismay. Whereas previously she had graciously accepted her reward with a happy wag of her tail, she now ran over to the treats immediately and impatiently demanded to be rewarded for her good behavior. The next day it got worse as she began faking bathroom breaks to obtain a treat. I had created a monster. 

My decision to start “rewarding” (ok, bribing) Annie to obtain a desired result initially worked, but then slowly backfired. She became pushy and started upping the ante—demanding a greater number of treats in exchange for the same result. The small “grease payments” that I gave Annie (in the form of puppy treats) pushed the deal through, but I almost created a bigger problem in the process. 

Corrupt officials are no different. Today they may ask for a small “grease payment” to expedite the issuance of a license, but tomorrow they will ask for bribes in exchange for zoning approvals. Once officials have flagged individuals or companies as willing to pay bribes, they will certainly demand payments in the future. Moreover, the demands nearly always increase in size. Why should corrupt officials limit their demands to $100 when they can ask for (and probably obtain) $1000?  It is never a one-time deal and once companies start paying bribes, it is nearly impossible to stop if they want to continue doing business in a certain locale. The initial success won by the tiny grease payment has given way to a sophisticated and expensive bribery scheme.

Annie is now almost 16 weeks old and is not only successfully housebroken, but has also stopped demanding treats for her good behavior. It was actually pretty easy to break that bad habit by slowly replacing her puppy “bribes” with praise. Sadly, the same technique is unlikely to appease a corrupt official….

_______________

Jessica Tillipman is a senior editor of the FCPA Blog.

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