While the Cat’s Away, Your State Government Plays


“While the cat’s away, the mice do play” … and so may your state government, according to a new study by Filipe Campante of the Harvard Kennedy School and Quoc-Anh Do of Singapore Management University. Specifically, Campante and Do found that “isolated capital cities are associated with greater levels of corruption.”

They measured isolation as the sum of log-adjusted distances between each resident and the state capital. They then used conventional measures of state corruption, plotted the two measures, and found a strong statistical correlation. The correlation grew stronger when they controlled for state population, income, education level, and other factors that previous studies had associated with corruption in state government. In fact, the isolation of the state capital was more robust than most of those other factors.

Campante and Do also tested placebo hypotheses, such as whether there was any correlation between state government corruption and the distance of residents from the state’s geographic centroid, and whether there was correlation between the isolation of the state capital and drug offenses statewide. Neither should be related, and their data showed no correlation, helping to establish that their working hypothesis was not simply a statistical fluke.

They considered possible causes and found three likely culprits:

  • Media Coverage – Newspapers tend to cover local news. When the state capital is one of the state’s biggest cities with the the state’s largest newspapers, state government is essentially local news and those papers covered state scandals more often. When the capital was isolated from the state’s largest cities and largest newspapers, they covered state scandals less.
  • Turnout in State Elections – Unlike in presidential elections, voters near the state capital are more likely to vote in off-year state elections. Thus, statewide turnout in state elections was lower in states with isolated capitals, and more of those voting were likely to have closer ties to the state government.
  • Campaign Contributions – Many state capitals were intentially isolated from their states’ economic hubs, and largest population centers, because leaders thought that would limit the corruption of big money in government. (Or so many state leaders argued when their capitals were being chosen.) But Campante and Do found the opposite was true: state candidates received more campaign money in states with isolated capitals.

Put those together and you have campaign contributions playing a more dominant role in state government, with state leaders less worried about media scrutiny, and less worried about being held accountable by voters. The result is more corruption, with real costs and consequences.

Campante and Do found that governors are paid significantly more in states with isolated capitals, controlling for population, income, and state budgets. They could not compare legislators’ salaries, as widely different legislative calendars make dollar-for-dollar salary comparisons meaningless. But the data on governors’ salaries suggests that other top state officials may also get higher salaries when the capital is isolated.

They also looked at data on public goods such as education, public welfare, public health, and hospitals. States with isolated capitals spend less of their budgets on public goods and more on government administration. In other words, in states with isolated capitals, more state tax dollars go to government officials … with fewer state tax dollars left to provide for the taxpayers’ needs.

As Campante and Do conclude:

From a policy perspective, in particular, one is led to conclude that extra vigilance might be needed, when it comes to polities with isolated capital cities, in order to counteract their tendency towards reduced accountability.

In short … watch your state government mice.

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