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COMMON AGONY

Itís getting harder for freelance journalists to make a decent living, so recently Iíve had to branch out into the advice column business. The people who write in seem pretty flakey on the whole, but sometimes their letters cast a useful light on larger issues.

Take this one for example: Dear Aunt Gwynne: People say I am beautiful and my men friends tell me that I am very accomplished, but I have a problem. I married my high-school sweetheart, but he was in the construction business and he went bankrupt in the crash. We are now divorced and I have lots of new boyfriends, but I really want security this time and itís so hard to choose. My Chinese boyfriend comes from a rich family that is also in the construction industry. That means they have to give a lot of bribes, but Iím used to that. The problem is that he is not a Communist Party member, and nobody in his family is a senior regime official. What if they execute him for bribery?

I donít really know what my Russian boyfriend does for a living, but I think itís not exactly legal. He has tonnes of money, but his bodyguards never leave his side, so the bed is quite crowded. He bribes all the right people, he says, but sometimes he talks about politics and that scares me. What if the government decides he is an enemy?

The other guy is an Indian, and his family is in the construction business too. Heís really sweet and I like him best, but nothing works in India. Also, I just read that they may pass a law in India which would make it dangerous to bribe people, and then the whole family would go out of business. I donít know what to do. Please help.

Perplexed of Beverly Hills

Dear Perplexed:You have my sympathy: anguish can strike at every socio-economic level. Letís take this one piece at a time. I agree that the Russian boyfriend is problematic. Criminality is no obstacle in itself, but if your boyfriend is thinking of dabbling in Russian politics, he will soon be neither free nor rich. You should move on. Your Chinese boyfriend sounds better, but his lack of connections really is a potential problem. Bribery is as common as spitting in the street in China, but the regime does jail or execute somebody once in a while to show it cares. The chances are no more than one in 50, but to be really safe, one should be a Communist Party member. Can your boyfriend get a Party card?

If not, you really should consider the Indian boyfriend. Poor infrastructure is not a problem that affects the rich in India, and bribery is a perfectly normal part of life for everybody. I wouldnít worry about the new law that the Indian Parliament may pass. Eight similar anti-corruption bills have failed in India in the past 43 years, so why should this one be different? You seem to be American, from your address, and there are plenty of rich Americans. In the US, bribery is called ďpolitical contributionsĒ and itís perfectly legal. And if Americans are rich enough, they donít pay any tax at all. So head up, chest out, stomach in, and get on with it. Corruption is only a problem for the little people.

Aunt Gwynne

Putting my journalistís hat back on, I must admit that I was cutting a few corners in that answer. In Transparency Internationalís corruption perceptions index, Russia is actually ranked as much more corrupt than China or India. India and China do much better, coming in at 95 and 75, respectively. And the US, with a rank of 25, is only a little more corrupt than Chile, Qatar and the Bahamas. Anti-corruption commissions and the like can make dents in the problem, but the only long-term solution is to pay people a living wage, which generally happens only when you give them a democratic voice. There is no moral gulf between New Zealand (ranked number one on the scale) and Uzbekistan (ranked 177); just a huge difference in politics and in living standards.