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Charles Komanoff

An American Carwolf in London

7:04 PM EDT on September 11, 2006

robert-tuttle-scofflaw_2.jpgEconomist Charles Komanoff points Streetsblog to a news brief from London where Mayor Ken Livingstone insists that the U.S. Embassy owes a whopping $1.6 million in unpaid congestion charging fees:

Embassy employees have not paid the charges £8 ($15) a day for any car entering central London, since July 2005, arguing that the charge is a tax; diplomats are exempt from taxes. But London officials say the charge is a toll, not a tax, and say that British diplomats pay tolls in America.

Livingstone is focused on the Embassy's unpaid fees. But what about the sheer volume of traffic generated by American diplomats? By Komanoff's calculation the U.S. Embassy staff is racking up an average of 350 car trips into central London daily. Komanoff arrived at this number by dividing $1.6 million in unpaid charges by the daily charge of $15, resulting in 107,000 trips. Excluding weekends and holidays, when the charge is waived, approximately 304 days have elapsed since the start of July, 2006. Dividing 107,000 trips by 304 days yields 351 trips per day.

Clearly, Embassy officials aren't big fans of the Tube or double-decker buses. No big surprise. Before being sworn in as Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Robert Holmes Tuttle, pictured above, ran one of the largest automobile dealer organizations in the United States.  

Unpaid diplomatic parking tickets are certainly nothing new to New Yorkers. But a recent study, written up in this month's Atlantic, suggests that this sort of scofflaw behavior is indicative of a broader culture of corruption. 

In an effort to learn more about how cultural norms effect political corruption, economists Raymond Fisman of Columbia University and Edward Miguel at the University of California, Berkeley assembled data on more than 150,000 unpaid parking tickets in New York City -- a total value of $18 million -- issued to cars with diplomatic license plates between 1997 and 2002. They broke down the violations by country-of-origin and then compared their list of diplomatic scofflaws to a widely used composite index that ranks countries on the basis of how corrupt they are.

Sure enough, the professors found a direct correlation between the amount that diplomats violate a foreign city's traffic laws and the level of corruption in their home countries. In New York City the top five parking ticket violators are Kuwait with 246 unpaid summonses per diplomat; Egypt, 139; Chad, 124; Sudan, 119; and Bulgaria with 117. Chad can be found at the absolute bottom of the 2005 Transparency International Corruption Index. Countries whose diplomats incurred no outstanding summonses include Canada, Israel, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Based on the behavior of the American Embassy in London and our own government employee parkers here in New York City, the good old U.S.A. seems to be keeping closer company with the group of Third World nations on that first list.

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