Why Is Albany So Corrupt? Harvard Study Blames Capital’s Long-Distance Relationship With NYC


New York politics is corrupt for the same reason long distance relationships often don’t work: The population is concentrated too far from the capital to keep an eye on it, so Albany cheats.

At least that’s according to Filipe R. Campante of Harvard and Quoc-Anh Do of the school of economics at Singapore Management University, whose new research ties capital cities’ isolation to corruption.

The research came out a few days ago, but we wanted to chat with Campante about the study. He has been on the road in Brazil, but was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail.

So why is there a correlation between isolation and corruption?

“First of all, we find more than a correlation: there is evidence of a causal effect of isolation on corruption,” Campante wrote to us. “We then investigate different possible mechanisms that could explain it, and find that: newspapers provide less coverage to state politics when their audience is far from the capital, voters turn out less in state elections when they are far from the capital, and there are more campaign contributions to state politics in states with isolated capitals.

“All of these point in the direction of isolated capitals facing less accountability (‘out of sight, out of mind,’ if you will), and the balance of evidence suggests that the role of the media is particularly important.”

(The study’s abstract has more on this: “Newspapers provide greater coverage of state politics when their audiences are more concentrated around the capital, and voter turnout in state elections is greater in places that are closer to the capital,” Campante and Do note.)

Does that mean New York’s press corps sucks?

“NY media coverage of state politics, as we measure it, is actually a bit higher than what you would predict for the degree of isolation of the capital. So it doesn’t seem that the NY media is doing a particularly poor job.”

Asked whether there’s even any way to measure this connection in the first place, Campante explained: “We noted that there was this vague perception among observers of US state politics that isolated places like Albany, New York or Springfield, Illinois were particularly prone to corruption, but that no one had actually tested that systematically.”

“We felt that this is because people didn’t have the right measurement tools to actually get at what isolation is. It so happened that we had developed a set of measurement tools in a separate project, so we set out to use them in this context. We started playing around with the data, and it was all there.”

He also said that New York is most similar to Illinois “in terms of the degree of isolation of the capital and the measure of corruption as well.”

Well, there you go: The Empire State, which has a D-grade for corruption risk, might be the perfect place for shady pols to take advantage of their distant constituents. We asked the governor’s office whether anything is being done to address these concerns (in addition to this) — or if there are any plans to move the capital (it’s a valid question.) We’ll update if we hear back.

[H/T New York Times]