Friday, December 19, 2008

The National Political Scoundrel Competition

It seems that because of the recent revelations of corruption in Illinois, a national competition has erupted: Which state holds the lead as most corrupt in the land? Not Illinois, says Bill Marsh of the New York Times:

"Where is officialdom most crooked? Last week, many guessed it must be Illinois, after news that Gov. Rod Blagojevich was taped making brazen personal demands in exchange for his selection of a Senate successor to President-elect Barack Obama."
[. . .]
But bloggers from competing hotbeds of wrongdoing proclaimed that theirs were the worst officials in the land, thank you. New Jerseyans seemed especially sure that their leadership came out on top in the race to the bottom.
He claims that there are three methods for determining who is nearest the bottom of the political cesspool. According to the first - number of guilty officials, (that's criminally convicted officials) "Illinois ranks only seventh". On a guilty per capita basis, North Dakota (oh, come on!) is the most corrupt, and according to USA Today, Illinois is 18th. Honestly - I laughed out loud. And in assessments based on a survey of journalists.
Researchers asked state house reporters to assess their subjects and ranked responses on a scale of 1 (clean) to 7 (crooked) in a 2003 study. Nebraska? Good, not great. For North Dakota, sweet vindication: it tied with South Dakota and Colorado for least corrupt.
Ducked the "most corrupt" question, didn't they? Ah, well. There may be reasons for that. We might consider, for example, the narrowly avoided (alleged) plight of the Chicago Tribune staff members who were too (allegedly) chatty about corruption, and were therefore (allegedly) targets of the (alleged) Blago shakedown.

No doubt you've already spotted the flaws in these approaches. Flaw numero uno: Ratings based on the number of convictions is questionable:
"Convictions only point to the aggressiveness of a prosecutor," said Don Morrison of the watchdog group North Dakota Center for the Public Good. "In places that are truly corrupt, offenses don't get taken to court. They don't even get reported."

Some analysts look to states deemed to have weak laws regarding campaign finance, ethics and disclosure. On that score, a study this year awarded the booby prize to … uh-oh, South Dakota.

Others put stock in polls that attempt to gauge a citizenry’s tolerance of corruption. If the people shrug off backroom deals and graft, so will their elected leaders, giving rise to what some call "a culture of corruption."

"Getting a read on that culture, that to me is the strongest of the prongs," said Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association, based in (ahem) Chicago.
Get that? He's from "(ahem) Chicago". I love it. There's corrupt, and then there's Ahem-Chicago.

And - best of all - here's a an unusual take on corruption from the ivory tower:
Michael Johnston is a political science professor at Colgate University in New York — which is ranked just after Illinois for corruption convictions. Johnston, who has studied political corruption for 30 years, said places such as Illinois gain a bad reputation that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Expectations build up … and you replicate those expectations when you get to the top of the ladder," Johnston said. "It gets repeated."
"When you get to the top of the ladder, it gets repeated." Yup. It's good to be top-of-the-ladder, no? Our expectations are all built up, man. You go, Ahem-Chicago!

Jay Stewart may be close to the mark, but we need a way to gage the citizenry's "tolerance of corruption". We need to throw the red flag, and challenge that North Dakota call. (And, by the way, why would you even consider counting D.C.? We're talking about the Super Bowl of corruption here, and they're full of MVP's sent from all over the country. That disqualifies 'em right there, in my opinion.)

No, I think we can come up with better measures, what with our expectations bein' up an' all. I think a state-by-state "tolerance of corruption" survey is required. We need answers to questions like these:
Do you do sandwich runs during news of the latest political corruption scandal, so you're sure to catch the weather report?

How often do you or your family members use the word 'allegedly'?

Have you or a member of your family ever joined a betting pool based on the indictment date of a local official? (Did you win?)

Did your state ever start a national corruption competition?
North Dakota? Don't make me laugh. New Jersey? Pfff. Not even close. Louisiana? Well, maybe . . . we'll see how they come out after the survey. Meanwhile - gotta go. Time for the weather report.

(Thanks to Marge, our crack undercover researcher, who has been diligently scouring the internet to discover the true winner of the National Political Scoundrel Competition.)

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