The Center for Public Integrity got what it wanted yesterday, which was headlines about its extensive new study of public ethics laws in the U.S. In order to get its cherished publicity, the Center added to the public’s confusion about what corruption is, what ethics is, and how one discourages one while iencouraging the other in our various governments. They released results that graded the 50 states according to “corruptibility”, and found that New Jersey was the least corruptible of all. I hope the Center’s officials and scholars are happy with their PR, but if they have a shred of integrity and common sense, they should be ashamed of themselves.
To begin with, they almost certainly rigged the results. There is a lot of subjectivity in any process measured by grades, and everyone who has ever put a ranked list into a press release knows, if you have a surprise at #1, headlines follow. Put out a study that shows that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, and it’s not even news; find a way to get Barry Bonds or Lu Clinton as the top dog, and your list will be talk-show fodder for days. I’m sure being able to put the home of Tony Soprano, where the previous governor just oversaw a massive corporate fraud in the company he was running, and where as recently as 2009, three mayors, two assemblyman and five rabbis were among 44 miscreants charged in a massive and audacious state-wide money-laundering scheme on the tippity-top of a list of clean-government states was irresistible, just as the historians who last year released a list of the greatest presidents found it irresistible to tweak the formula so that FDR, rather than Lincoln or Washington, topped the list.
The Center should have resisted.
The choice of New Jersey renders the study misleading from the outset. As the 2009 scandal showed, New Jersey’s culture of corruption is old, entrenched, and traditional. Does the Center for Public Integrity really believe that state cultures can be reversed in a couple of years? I sure hope they don’t, because it would mean that an important organization is run by naifs and fools. Changing cultures, especially an entire state’s, takes many years and usually decades, and even then relapse is likely. How, then, could the Center justify its claim?
Easy. Once again, it’s the old proverb: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” The Center investigates corruption, alerts the public to ethical and legal abuses by officials, and advocates laws and regulations that make them more difficult and costly. Its business isn’t ethics, but compliance. It seeks better laws, and more enforcement of them, and certainly does an excellent job of rooting out and identifying corrupt practices. But compliance doesn’t require ethics. Compliance measures make corruption more difficult, and increasing penalties and enforcement make getting caught more costly. Nevertheless, the most corruptible state is the one with the most corruptible people in it, those raised in a culture where corruption is not only common but ingrained, rationalized and accepted…like New Jersey. Changing the laws is part of the process of changing the culture, but it isn’t the solution, and can never be the solution until compliance—not doing the wrong thing because you have been warned that you will suffer for it— is accompanied by ethics—doing the right thing because it benefits others and is right.
Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity, a Washington- based nonprofit that also worked on the project, unintentionally revealed the Center’s fallacy while defending the results, saying:
“It may seem counterintuitive for New Jersey, with its reputation for corruption, to be ranked number one, but we measured not the amount of disease, but the amount of medicine each state has to deal with the problem.”
Oh. Well, then that makes more… What???
Washington, D.C. has some of the most stringent anti-gun laws in the country. Would anyone say it is the place where a citizen is least likely to get shot? Do America’s extensive anti-drug laws mean that the U.S. is the hardest place to buy drugs? If the U.S. has more medicine to treat AIDS, does that mean that AIDS is less prevalent here than anywhere else? The U.S. House of Representatives’ first rule in its Ethics Handbook is this:
“A Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives shall conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives.”
The Center’s study is an invaluable survey of state anti-corruption measures, and it does a superb job in identifying areas of ongoing or potential corruption that need to be addressed. If the Center designated New Jersey as the state that has put in place the most conscientious and inclusive set of anti-corruption laws and regulations along with the mechanisms to enforce them, I would have no objection to that. To say this distinction translates into the state being the “least corruptible,” however, is misleading and irresponsible.
The least corruptible state government isn’t the one with the toughest laws and regulations, but the one with a political culture that breeds the most ethical officials. History, and recent history, tell us that New Jersey’s culture of corruption is a long way from allowing that to happen.