Politics
4:25 am
Tue July 30, 2013

What A State Capital's Location Can Say About Corruption

Originally published on Tue July 30, 2013 6:46 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

When a New York state senator was recently taken into custody for embezzlement, he was the 32nd politician in that state to be indicted or convicted in the last seven years. And there's a new theory that explains corruption in state governments.

NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who joins us often at MORNING EDITION, is back with us. Hey, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So, I'm all ears. What are we learning about corruption at the state level?

VEDANTAM: There's a reason that when we hear about corruption and mismanagement, we're much more likely to hear about states like New Jersey or Illinois or Florida or New York than states like Massachusetts or Rhode Island or Utah or Colorado. There's new research by a public policy professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Filipe Campante. He's found that it's not a left, right or political thing. It turns out it's about geography.

FILIPE CAMPANTE: States with more isolated capitals - think New York and Albany - display higher levels of corruption than states with less-isolated capitals, such as Massachusetts.

GREENE: OK, so, I think I see the point he's making. We're talking about isolated state capitals like California, which is a populous state, but the capital, Sacramento, is far away from anything. Florida, another state with a lot of people, but Tallahassee, you know, is a pretty isolated place.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Campante said he discovered this pattern by counting federal corruption convictions in different states. And he finds that there are these systematic disparities: when the politicians work far away from the people, corruption rates go up.

GREENE: OK. So the point he's making is that when politicians are sort of isolated in these places, they have less connection with tons of people. And so they can sort of do sneakier things and not be held accountable?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, and the ironic thing is that these capitals were often located in isolated places in the first place, in order to protect them against financial influence. The thinking was if the state capital is located in the financial center of the state, there's going to be undue influence of money in politics.

GREENE: Sure.

VEDANTAM: Campante has found, paradoxically, that states that have faraway capitals are far more likely to have money in politics than states where the capital is located in the population center.

The other big factor in accountability turns out to be turns out to be newspaper coverage. Here's Campante again.

CAMPANTE: When most of a newspapers' audience is very far from the capital, this newspaper will devote fewer resources and fewer space for covering state-level politics. As a result of that, state politicians are going to be less accountable to the public.

GREENE: And I guess there's a vicious cycle here, because when newspapers and news outlets are reporting less, the public knows less, maybe more corruption, and, I mean, it just keeps going.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And Campante has found that voters in states with these isolated capitals, they know less about state politics and state policy issues than in other states. And, you know, they pay a price. It's not just corruption, but Campante has found these states are far more likely to suffer from chronic mismanagement.

CAMPANTE: So when we look at how much these governments spend in education, health care, social welfare relative to, let's say, administrative expenses, you would see that states with isolated capital cities, they are worse, relative to states with less isolated capital cities.

GREENE: He said administrative expenses there. So in these isolated places, politicians are spending more money on administrative things that might be things they like, and less on things like social programs, education and...

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So the ratio of spending that's considered incidental to the welfare of citizens to the direct spending on citizens seems to be disproportionately off in those states.

GREENE: I mean, I'm imagining politicians who are corrupt deciding...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...let me find myself a state capital to work in that is far from anyone.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You know, it's funny you should say that, David, because Campante has found that there is one group of citizens that does, indeed, benefit from having isolated state capitals. Compared to the better-run states, politicians in these states turn out to get paid a whole lot more.

GREENE: In isolated capitals.

VEDANTAM: Yes.

GREENE: Wow, quite a story. Shankar, thanks for bringing it to us.

VEDANTAM: Happy, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And meanwhile, you can follow this program @nprgreene and @morningedition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.