Friday, April 10, 2015

Drugs, Violence, Bribes, Deviance, Drunkenness & More

Sounds like the challenges facing our criminal justice system? Yeah, well, of course, but these cherished words also tend to describe a litany of criminal activities that frequently are associated with elected officials on the wrong side of the law. And while some states writhe with notoriety – like what seems to be the memorial jail cells dedicated to form Illinois governors or New Orleans mayors – the spread of political criminality is a contest with some pretty clear winners.
With the indictment of U.S. Senator Robert Menedez (Dem, NJ), “accused of using the influence of his office to advance the business interests of a longtime friend and political supporter in exchange for luxury gifts, lavish vacations and more than $750,000 in campaign donations,” (Washington Post, April 1st), New Jersey seems to be maintaining its hold on first place. OK, he’s still “presumed to be innocent.” How bad is it, across this great land, when you look at where elected official are most likely to cross the line?
But what if you add the average proclivity for overall criminal activity for the relevant state to see how aberrant the behavior of the relevant politicians might be in comparison? After all, some states just have much more criminal activity than others. Using Wikipedia data as a basis, the April 1st Washington Post “plotted the number of criminal politicians per 1,000 in the state (at the federal, state and local levels) versus the rate of violent crime in the state per 100,000 residents” to generate their comparisons presented in the graph above.
According to Transparency International – which measures corruption in 175 nations – the United States is the 17th“least corrupt countries” on their Corruption Perception Index (CPI), but note that there are 16 countries with cleaner track records. “The 2014 United States score on the CPI is 74 out of a possible 100 points. A score of 100 on the CPI would indicate that a country is perceived to be very clean while a score of 0 would indicate that a country is perceived to be very corrupt. While the US CPI score and ranking place the US in an enviable position compared to most countries, the picture becomes less rosy when the US is compared to other advanced economies. The US lags Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, the Benelux countries, as well as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Canada. It should also be noted that several countries in the Caribbean and Latin America now score roughly equal to the US; these countries include Barbados, Chile, Uruguay, and the Bahamas.
“Given that the CPI measures perceptions of public sector corruption, it is not possible to identify with certainty the reasons why the US lags many other advanced economies. However, one highly plausible explanation for this is the murky nexus between money and politics in all levels of United States government. As the highly publicized trial of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell showed earlier this year, there is a real risk that wealthy individuals are able to buy favors from elected officials. This risk is further compounded by the fact that state and local governments do not always have robust laws limiting acceptance of gifts. Moreover, the recent spate of corruption scandals in New York has also undermined the public’s confidence in the probity of state and local officials.” Transparency International Press Release, December 3rd. and then, there’s New Jersey.

So it makes sense to drill down into the Washington Post’s chart. “Notice that, compared to the national averages, Jersey's politicians are more prone to crime and the citizenry less so. That's similar to Rhode Island, which has its own predilection for political impropriety. Alaska, on the other hand, is sitting way out to the right, with a crime rate that's far above average for both politicians and regular people. (Its low number of elected officials means that the few crimes they commit stand out.)… New Mexico, on the other hand, has a lot more crime from its citizenry than from its politicians. Vermont doesn't have much of either.
“None of this explains why. Reading through the reasons people got busted, it's as stunning as it is diverse. Crime in politics, like crime in the rest of the world, doesn't always follow clear patterns. But it does have some favorite places to stop.” Such criminal activities split across party lines. While this analysis satisfies morbid curiosity when social conservatives are caught with their pants down or champions of the poor have their hands in the public till, one way or another we can do a vastly better job in policing those in whom we have placed our public trust.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while in “God we trust,” the same cannot be said of our elected officials.

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