96. Give people power and discretion, and whether they are grand viziers or border guards, some will use their
position to enrich themselves. The problem can be big enough to hold back a country's development. For
most people in the world, though, the worry is not that corruption may slow down their country's GDP
growth. It is that their daily lives are pervaded by endless hassles, big and small. And for all the evidence that
some cultures suffer endemic corruption while others are relatively clean, attitudes towards corruption, and
even the language describing bribery, is remarkably similar around the world.
In a testament to most people's basic decency, bribe-takers and bribe-payers have developed an elaborate
theater of dissimulation. This is not just to avoid detection. Even in countries where corruption is so common
as to be unremarkable and on the prosecutor and even when the transaction happens far from snooping eyes bribe is almost always dressed up as some other kind of exchange.Though most of the world is plagued by corruption, even serial offenders try to conceal it.
One manifestation of this is linguistic. Surprisingly few people say: "You are going to have to pay me if you
want to get that done." Instead, they use a wide variety of euphemisms. One type is quasi-official
terminology. The term widely used at border crossings is "expediting fee". For a euphemism it is surprisingly
accurate: paying it will keep your bags, and perhaps your contraband, from being dumped onto a floor and
sifted through at a leisurely pace. (A related term, used in India, is "speed money": paying it can get essential
business permits issued considerably faster.)
The second type of euphemism dresses up a dodgy payment as a friendly favor done by the bribe-payer. There
is plenty of creative scopes. Nigerian policemen are known to ask for "a little something for the weekend".
Mexican traffic police will suggest that you buy them are fresco, a soft drink, as will Angolan and Mozambican
petty officials, who call it a gazebo in Portuguese.
Double meaning can help soothe the awkwardness of bribe-paying. Baksheesh, originally a Persian word now
found in many countries of the Middle East, can mean "tip", "alms" and "bribe". In Kenya a machine-gun wielding
guard suggested to a terrified Canadian aid worker: "Perhaps you would like to discuss this over
chai?" The young Canadian was relieved: the difficulty could be resolved with some chai, which means both "tea" and "bribe".
Along with the obscurantist language, bribe-taking culture around the world often involves the avoidance of
physically handing the money from one person to another. One obvious reason is to avoid detection, which
is why bribes are known as "envelopes" in countries from China to Greece. But avoidance of a direct handover
is common even where there is no chance of detection.There will always be some officials who will take money right from a bribe payer's hands, but most seem to prefer to find some way to hide the money from view.
Rich Westerners may not think of their societies as plagued by corruption. But the definition of bribery clearly
differs from person to person. A New Yorker might pity the third-world businessman who must pay bribes
just to keep his shop open. But the same New Yorker would not think twice about slipping the $50 to sneak
into a nice restaurant without a reservation. Poor people the world over are most infuriated by the casual
corruption of the elites rather than by the underpaid, "tip"-seeking soldier or functionary. Thus there is no single cultural or social factor that inclines a society towards corruption, but economic factors play a big part.Most clearly, poverty and bribery go together.
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