“While the cat’s away, the mice do play,” and new study suggests the mice in your state government play more – at your expense – if your state capital is isolated from your state’s major population centers. (More)

I’m not an expert on the play patterns of mice. Squirrels and mice are cousins, but we don’t converse much. That’s probably because mice prefer Cheesebook and squirrels prefer Chitter. Still, I would not be surprised to learn that mice play more when cats are absent. Squirrels are more playful when we feel safe too.

And so are state elected officials, 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.”

Their statistical methodology is beyond the ken of a mere squirrel, but the gist seems to be this. They measured isolation as the sum of log-adjusted distances between each resident and the state capital. They measured corruption using conventional measures of state political activity. Then they plotted those two measures and found a strong statistical correlation.

The correlation between isolation and corruption grew stronger when they controlled for state population, income, education level, and other factors that previous studies had associated with corruption in state government. Indeed, the isolation of the state capital was more robust than most of those other factors.

Being good scientists, they also tested some placebo hypotheses, such as whether there was any correlation between state government corruption and the distance of residents from the state’s geographic centroid (which should be unrelated), and whether there was correlation between the isolation of the state capital and drug offenses statewide (which also should be unrelated). As predicted, their placebos showed no correlation. In other words, this wasn’t simply fluky data.

Campante and Do next turned to possible causes, and found three likely culprits:

  • Media Coverage – Newspapers tend to cover local news. When the state capital is also the state’s largest population center, with the state’s largest newspapers, state government is local news for those newspapers, and they covered state scandals more often. When the state capital was isolated from the state’s largest population center, and its largest newspapers, they covered scandals in state government less often.
  • Turnout in State Elections – Voters nearer the state capital are more likely to vote in off-year state elections. That was not true in presidential election years. 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 are isolated from their states’ economic centers, and largest population centers, because leaders at the time 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 the three together and you have campaign contributions playing a more dominant role, with state leaders less worried about media scrutiny, and less worried about being held accountable by voters. The result is a more corrupt state government, and that has real costs and consequences.

Campante and Do found that governors are paid significantly more in states with isolated capitals, controlling for population, income, and overall state budget. They could not compare legislators’ salaries; some state legislatures meet only a few weeks each year while others meet almost continually, making dollar-for-dollar comparisons meaningless. Still, the data on governors’ salaries suggests that other top state officials can take a deeper dip in the public trough when the capital is isolated.

Campante and Do 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 they 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 other words … watch those mice.

Good day and good nuts.