You may have read the stories a few weeks ago in the Post and Courier: An untold number of drivers have requested “P-tags” for their personal vehicles, allowing them to park in delivery zones, greatly expanding their options in the parking-poor downtown region of the Peninsula.

These white tags, whose serial numbers start with the letter P and which are marked “Truck,” have proliferated wildly in recent years, for the simple reason that citizens may obtain them by lying to the Department of Motor Vehicles and saying they have a business need for a P-tag. The state does not verify these claims and municipalities have no way of enforcing the “honor code” in the use of these tags.

A trip down King Street, between Calhoun and Broad, on any given day during business hours will probably reveal a dozen P-tags on vehicles that clearly don’t need them. These vehicles have no corporate signage. There are baby seats and Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bags in some of them. What is also interesting is that the vast majority of these faux delivery trucks are expensive, late-model vehicles — BMWs, SUVs, Lexuses and the like. I have yet to see a P-tag on a clunker. This appears to be a game for the rich, perhaps because the P-tags cost a little more than regular tags, or perhaps because only a certain group of people know how the game is played.

Another story that recently caught my eye came out of New York City, where U.N. diplomats from around the world have famously abused their parking privileges for years. They park wherever they please for as long as they please and when they come back to their cars, they make confetti of their parking tickets. It’s called diplomatic immunity. It’s an ancient tradition among nations and it has found a special place of grievance in Gotham.

Now a new study by a couple of economists from Columbia University and the University of California-Berkeley sheds new light on this tradition. It seems that diplomats from governments with a high level of corruption are the worst abusers of diplomatic parking immunity, according to the study’s authors.

The study focused on diplomatic parking violations from November 1997 through October 2002 and what it revealed was, well, revealing. Diplomats from low-corruption countries, such as Norway, behaved “remarkably well even in situations where they can get away with violations,” the study found. Those from high-corruption counties, such as Nigeria, committed many violations, “suggesting that they bring the social norms or corruption culture of their home country with them to New York City.”

The 10 worst parking violators were Kuwait, Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Bulgaria, Mozambique, Albania, Angola, Senegal, and Pakistan. These and other countries accumulated some 150,000 parking tickets, representing some $18 million in unpaid fines. Others had high rates, but paid their fines. These included Turkey, Bahrain, Malaysia, and Oman.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Canada, and Israel had no parking violations.

Need I point out that the countries with the most parking violations are among the most socially and economically backward places on the planet, while the countries with the fewest violations are highly developed economically, and they are relative models of democracy and transparency?

In the abstract of their study, the scholars wrote: “Corruption is believed to be a major factor impeding economic development … the importance of legal enforcement versus cultural norms in controlling corruption is poorly understood.”

Of course, corruption is in the eye of the beholder. What is corrupt in one culture is simply business as usual in another. I prefer to use a broad definition of corruption and it goes something like this: “Any use of social or political position by one group or individual to advance itself over another group or individual.” By this definition, South Carolina is probably the most corrupt province west of Bombay. Our corruption would include slavery, segregation, the historic disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites, a constitutional structure with power centered in Columbia, school vouchers, a regressive tax code, and hundreds of other laws and customs most South Carolinians don’t even think about. Corruption is so endemic in this state that it is considered, well, business as usual. And the people who lie to state authorities to get their P-tags probably don’t think of themselves as corrupt. They are just playing the game the way they have always been taught to play it.

But the price we pay for this casual corruption is a permanently broken economy and a racially and economically divided society. Remember that the next time you see a P-tag on a $60,000 BMW.

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