No easy legend in the political geography of corruption

in Uncategorized by

Another study has been released, attempting to map out the political geography of corruption — namely, the finding that states with capitals located away from major population centers have higher rates of public corruption convictions.  It is easy to note Tallahassee’s more remote locale and Florida’s ranking as #1 in federal corruption convictions from 2000-2010, but the causation line between the two points may not be so easy to draw.

The paper just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds a relationship between the level of corruption and the “relative isolation” of state capitals.  Those who hold to the isolation-breeds-corruption theory believe that when political business occurs farther away from the population base, fewer eyes are watching — both among the public and the press — and this leads to more shady dealings.

Yet this argument assumes that shady political deals are made in or at the capital — an assumption that I do not feel holds considering the ease of communications from afar, and the fact that the legislature is only in session part of the year, leading members to interact in large measure from their home districts regardless. 

Perhaps the distance factor matters not when members are in Tallahassee, away from their districts, but when they are home, away from the watchful eyes of Tallahassee.  Away from Florida’s able and attentive capital press corps; away from professional staffs.  It is a small distinction, but an important one.

Then, think about political corruption at the local level: certainly no shortage there, and it would seem — at least anecdotally — that densely populated cities see proportionally more of it than rural ones. Think Miami. Chicago.   Would moving Springfield’s infrastructure to Chicago fix that mess? Or Tallahassee to Miami? Doubtful.  I’m inclined to think that states with remote capitals share some other characteristic that makes corruption more likely.

Regardless, the Florida Legislature and Governor Rick Scott took measure this Session to tackle corruption: prohibiting lawmakers from voting on bills in which they could profit; banning lobbying any state agency for two years after leaving office; eliminating the option for holding government jobs while in office;  giving the Florida Commission on Ethics more power to initiate investigations; and allowing the commission to post financial disclosure forms online.

But not moving the state Chambers southward. Thank goodness.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher, and mother to three daughters.