Monday, May 21, 2012

Unsupervised legislators

A few years ago, Michael Gormley wrote a piece for USA Today mainly focusing on the Eliot Spitzer scandal but also mentioning that inappropriate behavior by state governing officials was far from unusual, especially when the capital was far from population centers. As Gormley wrote:
It is an open secret that there is a lot of fooling around going on at the statehouse. And at other statehouses, too.... In truth, the phenomenon is not new, and it's not confined to Albany. By all accounts, the same thing goes on at other state capitals, particularly where the statehouse is far from the main population centers and lawmakers stay overnight several times a week.
It is a curious feature of many states that the center of government is far from the center of commerce and population. (I had once heard that this was by design, to keep the government from becoming deaf to the concerns of the provinces. But I don't know how true that is or how much thought went into these decisions as a whole.) Could it be true that distance from population centers creates more irresponsible behavior by government?

A new paper by Filipe R. Campante and Quoc-Anh Do suggests this may just be the case. They find that a state capital's isolation corresponds with greater corruption, higher campaign spending, and lower voter turnout. Here's their abstract:
We show that isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption across US states. In particular, this is the case when we use the variation induced by the exogenous location of a state’s centroid to instrument for the concentration of population around the capital city. We then show that different mechanisms for holding state politicians accountable are also affected by the spatial distribution of population: newspapers provide greater coverage of state politics when their audiences are more concentrated around the capital, and voter turnout in state elections is greater in places that are closer to the capital. Consistent with lower accountability, there is also evidence that there is more money in state-level political campaigns in those states with isolated capitals. We find that the role of media accountability helps explain the connection between isolated capitals and corruption. In addition, we provide some evidence that this pattern is also associated with lower levels of public good spending and outcomes.
(h/t John Sides)

1 comment:

Matt Glassman said...

In regard to why capitals are far away from commerce centers, there's a fair amount of evidence from the territorial days in the west that moving a capital was a means to wrestle political power away from the original entrenched interests, and to profit. Often, the original capital would be in the eastern part of the state, because that's where the first population settlements were (Or, in the case of the pacific territories like Washington, on the coast). Then, as a periphery develops, the political power of the existing capital interests are challenged, and there's a fight over moving the capital toward the center of the territory. Almost always, the periphery plays the "central location" card, but it's usually just a cover for capturing the territorial government. Because moving the capital to a new location is an absolute bananza for anyone who has speculated on land in the new area.

Best example is the 1883 move from Yankton to Bismark in the Dakota territory. Straight power play by those opposed to the Yankton coalition (and ultimately those two factions ended up pushing to divide the territory, for the purpose of creating detente through separation).