Thursday, December 18, 2008

Crank it up, Illinois

Some people (in this case Matt Yglesias) are citing a graph which shows "Corruption Convictions per 100,000 Residents, 1997-2006," and using it to point out that, Blagojevich notwithstanding, Illinois comes up no higher than 6th in political sleaze, and that it doesn't really compare to the top 3, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

I don't really want to play the top-this game, because there really isn't anything funny about public corruption. It's fun to laugh about and all, but we're kind of in a situation now where we need to have responsible public officials making untainted decisions. That the governor of Illinois is paralyzed (more than usual) is not a good thing when work needs to get done.

However, the graph is fairly unconvincing. First of all, it features only the top 35 states in population; Alaska isn't shown at all. Secondly, the focus on convictions, while probably the only way to create such a measure, might actually demonstrate the level of prosecutorial activity; perhaps Louisiana is the least corrupt state because more miscreants are being caught.

To actually understand the level of corruption in a jurisdiction requires two things: first, such a measure needs to be weighted by the status of the office. Having a corrupt governor, or big-city mayor, counts for a lot more than a corrupt police deputy, simply because of greater power and extent. Second, a simple rate count doesn't capture the overall level of accepted corruption. I'm willing to concede that Louisiana is at the top, simply because I've read my whole life that under-the-table deals are part of the air that they breathe. Of course, Illinois is the same, there is an undercurrent of payoffs and favoritism that pervades any deal that requires public involvement, be it financing or zoning. Until that can be captured, rankings like this are fun, but meaningless.

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