Nathaniel Heller has a dream. He wants to invite people from India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh to provide a bit of development assistance to the United States. These countries have been pioneering new ways to make governments more accountable and less corrupt. We Americans could learn a lot from them.
"So how is that possible?" I hear you object. "Aren't countries like that drowning in sleaze?" Sure. But the first point is that they're up front about the problems they have. We Americans are still in denial.
Americans are accustomed to telling other countries how to manage their affairs. It wasn't that long ago that we were one of the few functioning democracies around. If you wanted to know about checks or balances or conducting elections or improving the rule of law, Americans were good people to ask.
But these days it seems we've gotten into the habit of resting on our laurels. A new study by a Washington-based investigative journalism organization called the Center for Public Integrity (in collaboration with Public Radio International and the governance watchdog Global Integrity) has thrown some harsh light on the shortcomings of our system of government.
The State Integrity Investigation marshals the resources of a small army of journalists and researchers to crunch data on public accountability in the capitals of all 50 states of the U.S. The researchers measured 330 indicators across 14 categories. Put it all together and you get a precise assessment of "corruption risk" across the country.
The resulting report cards make for shocking reading. Not a single state received an A. Five got Bs. And eight of them got failing grades.
The stories that the researchers unearthed along the way are illuminating. Just take the state senator in Maine who failed to disclose that he was on the board of an organization that received $98 million in state contracts. Then there's the West Virginia governor who took a car out for a "test drive" that ended up lasting four years. During the same period, the dealership that lent him the car got millions of dollars in business from the state government. (The photo above shows disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on March 14, as he prepared to start serving a 14-year jail term on multiple counts of fraud and corruption.)
Tales of intimate relationships between lobbyists and politicians abound in the study (especially in states where part-time "citizen legislators" double as lawmakers and businesspeople). Gordon Witkin, a veteran investigative journalist who supervised the project, says that Western states with small populations turned out to have the highest risk. That culture of coziness can lull politicians and citizens into the erroneous belief that rules aren't needed. The thinking seems to be that your neighbors will know if you're up to something dubious. But that doesn't necessarily hold.