Far-Off State Capitals Are More Corrupt

A new paper shows that state capitals located in less-populated areas are more likely to breed corruption. The paper, authored by Filipe R. Campante of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Quoc-Anh Doh of Singapore Management University, tested what seems to be a logical idea: when lawmakers are more out of sight, they can get into more trouble. Turns out that in this case, the logical idea is the right one.

The authors found "a very robust connection" between corruption and capital location. They used several different measures of corruption and isolation and continued to get the same result. Isolated capital cities tend to pay high salaries to their governors and have smaller media outlets covering political happenings. The connection even has implications for the amount of money in campaigns:

We look at how the amount of campaign contributions to state politics correlates to the concentration of population around the capital. As it turns out, we find a negative correlation between concentration and contributions: a state like Nevada, with its isolated Carson City, witnesses a larger amount of contributions (controlling for the size of its economy) than does broadly comparable Utah and its population largely concentrated around Salt Lake City. This...would be consistent with a scenario in which low levels of accountability due to lower media scrutiny and citizen participation open the door to a more prominent role for money in politics.

Overall it looks pretty bad for the Trentons and Springfields of the world. The paper proudly notes that "This sheds new light on the mechanisms of corruption and accountability, and adds a novel dimension towards understanding how institutional choices over the structure of the political system affect the incentives of the actors that operate in them."  That may be true, but the paper is not exactly full of policy recommendations. As NPR's Frank James notes, this isn't information we can act on:

It's not like state capitals are going to be moved to be closer to population centers at this point. And even if that could happen, does anyone really believe that Illinois' corruption problems would be ameliorated if Springfield, the state capital, were moved closer to Chicago with its virtually unrivaled reputation for political chicanery?

He's got a point. Efforts like the State Integrity Project, which emphasizes policies to decrease corruption and increase transparency, probably won't add "move the state capital" to their list of proposals. And I've got to say, as someone who covered the Texas Legislature for two cycles: even in the thriving metropolis of Austin, quite a few legislators found ways to get in trouble. [h/t LA Times]

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