Several years ago, I suggested in one of my first essays for the Hall Institute that New Jersey was not the most corrupt state in the nation. I immediately ran into an angry buzz saw of opposition from newspaper people, some of who make good money from the “Soprano industry” in this state. They rail about corruption on radio, television, and in the print media, and could not believe that any other state was even close to us. Part of our corruption is due they said to our civic culture, to our large numbers of jurisdictions, and to our public entitlement mentality. Their views were buttressed by the long successful string of prosecutions by the Federal attorney.
Without denying the obvious corruption that plagues this state, I did try to put it in perspective using federal statistics on convictions. Now with the new scandal in Illinois, we have more comparative data which indeed buttressed somewhat my old argument.
The number of guilty officials in the 1998-2007 period shows the following order: Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Illinois, and then New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, and Louisiana. If we look at guilty, per capita (per million residents) the ranking is District of Columbia, Virgin Islands, Guam, North Dakota, Alaska Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Delaware, South Dakota, Florida, and then #15 is New Jersey. The least corrupt states are places like Nebraska, Oregon, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Minnesota etc. where people live long and boring lives.
There are different forms of corruption: some involve direct shakedowns, some involve quiet favors, but now a days most involve some form of pay to play. You provide me with campaign contributions, I will have an open door when you come to see me and plead for a particular benefit. The problem is that we fund elections from contributions from people who have a stake in what the government and administrations do in terms of contracts, benefits, and political public policy. As long as we have large government we will have venues that people can use to tap into the treasury. With the new bailout society, we have unashamedly given over billions if not trillions legally to various interests, with the government deciding who the winners are and who are to be losers based on criteria that are not clear. AIG is saved, Lehman Brothers goes under. So be it.
In any case, if New Jersey is looking for some distinction it is not leading the nation in corruption. Perhaps we should try to lead the nation in the number of high school graduates who can pass literacy tests?
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