The Most Corrupt States in America

Source: Thinkstock

In 2013’s Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, the most recent scoring, the United States did not rank in the top 10, which included Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia, and Canada. The U.S. made it into the top 20 by the skin of its teeth, tying for 19th place with Uruguay. This is old news, but it’s made relevant once again by a new study from FiveThirtyEight looking at state rankings of governmental corruption in the U.S.

Global corruption

The Corruption Perception Index is not attempting to measure exactly how corrupt each country is in reality — a tall order. Instead, it’s a “composite index,” which makes use of a variety of polls as well as real government corruption data from respected sources in order to “reflect the views of observers from around the world, including experts living and working in the countries and territories evaluated.” The Index is self-described as measuring the perception of corruption.

U.S. state corruption

In contrast, FiveThirtyEight examines four different sets of data in order to look specifically at corruption in America and attempt to compare states. From that data, we’ve compiled infographic maps shown below, with darker colors representing states with higher corruption rankings, and lighter colors the reverse.

The first examines corruption rankings based on actual conviction rates — with the obvious flaw that not all corruption is caught, proven, or brought to court. The second considers population size, because FiveThirtyEight points out larger states tend to have higher conviction numbers as a result of size differences. The third is flawed because while reporters may have a better idea of un-punished corruption issues and the local government’s workings, not all states offered data of comparable reliability. And finally, perhaps the most interesting measure, but once again, a flawed one: The number of laws preventing corruption. This isn’t necessarily a strong way to show which states prevent corruption best, and in fact, it may be that states with the most corruption have the most preventative laws in place in order to correct for higher corruption prevalence.

Compare and contrast with least corrupt nations

This last graphic brings up interesting questions about how policy can most effectively prevent corruption, and expanding our view back to a global scale, how countries with better ratings on the Corruption Perception Index manage to keep governmental problems of this sort at bay.

How does the U.S. handle corruption and scandal?

In the United States, politicians who have faced corruption scandals tend to fall into three categories. Either they are caught and punished (i.e. prison, jail, or forced resignation), they manage to get off without a serious affect on their careers, or they survive their scandals but lose a great deal of credibility in the process. Examples of all three are easily conjured, but the fact remains, like many other nations, there is a system in place for handling corruption, even if it fails.

Denmark and other top performers

Looking at a nation like Denmark — consistently rated with one of the lowest corruption perceptions in the EU and across the international community —  it’s interesting to see what differences might be in place to help support that position. According to the EU Anti-Corruption Report from the European Commission, “Denmark has a well-developed system of legislation, law enforcement, and judicial authorities to deal with corruption,” which is undoubtedly important. But it does report that there “is no national anti-corruption strategy.” What’s more, there are no whistle blower protections, nor are there legal requirements that Parliamentary members make their assets public. Instead “Danish Parliament has set a positive example in improving the transparency of ministers’ expenses through the ‘openness scheme,’ an agreement between political parties whereby ministers are encouraged to declare their monthly spending, travel expenses,” and so on.

In Denmark, political funding is transparent in a similar way to the United States, with a few divergences. But in the end, this offers no hint as to why Denmark’s system, which is arguably less regulated, has less corruption.

Transparency International calls this system, which Finland and Sweden share, an “integrity system,” and notes that it appears to “function relatively well in these countries.” Which does not mean it’s applicable to other nations, including our own. It also notes that there are inherently different conditions within those countries, along with New Zealand, that have been correlated with low corruption; all have high GDPs, strong equality, high literacy, and place heavy priority on human rights. A healthy free press was also listed as an important and predictably vital factor in preventing and catching corruption.

So this perhaps suggests that while policy is incredibly important in a nation like the United States, where the integrity system would likely be a disaster, improving other areas of society, changing other factors like equality and standard of living forward, could help push the U.S. toward improvement more-so than policy in combination with other efforts. Attacking the problem from all sides, bottom up, and top down, is incredibly important.

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