July 30, 2020 at 06:09PM

Are overweight politicians less trustworthy?

IN THE SOUTHERN English town of High Wycombe, the MP, mayor and councillors are publicly weighed every year in the town centre, in a self-described attempt to deter them from “gaining weight at taxpayers’ expense”. Cheers erupt if a lawmaker has shed a few pounds; boos await those who have put any on. The centuries-old tradition is conducted largely in jest, but the townsfolk might be on to something.

The more overweight the government, the more corrupt the country, according to a new study of 15 post-Soviet states. The study’s author, Pavlo Blavatskyy of Montpellier Business School in France, used an algorithm to analyse photographs of almost 300 cabinet ministers and estimate their body-mass index (BMI), a measure of obesity. He found that the median BMI of a country’s cabinet is highly correlated with its level of corruption, as measured by indices compiled by the World Bank and Transparency International (see chart).

According to these measures, the least corrupt post-Soviet countries are the three Baltic states—Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia—and Georgia. These four countries also boast the slimmest cabinets. Meanwhile, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rank worst for corruption. The latter two countries also have the chubbiest ministers, according to Mr Blavatskyy’s estimates, along with Ukraine. Obesity is surprisingly common among the upper ranks of government in the former Soviet Union. Nearly one-third of ministers across all 15 states were rated “severely obese” by Mr Blavatskyy’s algorithm, including 54% of Uzbek and 44% of Tajik ministers. Only 3% were estimated to be in the normal weight category. Despite Vladimir Putin’s carefully cultivated reputation as a powerful, healthy strongman, his cabinet is just as flabby as those in neighbouring countries. Perhaps, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he prefers to have about him men that are fat, fearing the “hungry” look of the lean men. He is-wrong, Mr Blavatskyy’s data suggest. The tubby may look content but appear to be more grasping.

Corruption is notoriously difficult to quantify. Most measures rely on the perceptions of the public, which tend to change slowly. Thus, a proxy variable—like ministers’ BMIs—can prove useful, especially in the short-term. Mr Blavatskyy notes that despite undergoing a revolution that set it on the path to democracy in 2018, Armenia’s score in Transparency International’s corruption index remained unchanged from the previous year. And yet the estimated BMI of ministers in the new Armenian government was slightly lower than its pre-revolution value, a sign, in this analysis, that the country may have begun to root out corruption.

But do fleshier politicians simply come from places with heavier people? In fact the opposite is true: countries with more obese ministers tend to have less obese people (see right-hand chart). Indeed the post-Soviet countries deemed most corrupt by Transparency International also have the poorest and most underweight populations.

Of course, correlation is not causation. Obese politicians are not necessarily more dishonest than their slimmer counterparts. But it might be wise for officials in the former eastern bloc to slim down all the same. Studies show voters are less likely to plump for candidates who are, well, plump. Even if most politicians can avoid stepping on the scales before their subjects, like those in High Wycombe, the link between health and electability should weigh on their minds nonetheless.


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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/07/30/are-overweight-politicians-less-trustworthy
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