Corruption at the FT?

16th April, 2005

Dear Economist,
I am a regular reader but have found some of your recent choices a bit weak. If you are suffering a dearth of interesting questions, the price of bribing you to publish something boring should currently be falling. What is your current price?
— Paul Palley, by e-mail

Dear Mr Palley,

Your observation is so charming that I decided to publish it for nothing. If only your letter contained any insight, I would be tempted to bribe you to send more. Sadly, it does not.

In the absence of bribes I would select only the most stimulating readers’ contributions, so bribery should push the quality of published contributions down, not up. If you have found recent letters insipid, perhaps the explanation is that they came packaged with offers I found difficult to refuse.

You must also remember that the price of bribing me would rise if space in the Financial Times was more limited. That’s easy to arrange: it is in my interests to invent fictional letters to generate artificial scarcity and drive up prices.

But your analysis contains still deeper flaws. It is actually very difficult for me to take a decent-sized bribe. Economists realise that corruption in public life is not just a matter of criminal temperament but of opportunity. The economist Robert Klitgaard famously proposed a formula for bribery: corruption equals monopoly, plus discretion, minus accountability.

Klitgaard’s formula clearly predicts that my actions in writing the Dear Economist column are squeaky clean. Admittedly, I have the discretion to choose dull letters if bribed to do so. But my monopoly power is severely limited: the FT’s editors would sell their own grandmothers, so if a tempting bribe was ever offered, you can be sure they would undercut me.

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