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Isolated Capital Cities Breed Government Corruption; Welcome to Pierre!

Last updated on 2014.11.18

Back in March, we learned that South Dakota ranks second for risk of government corruption and third for public corruption convictions. Now the Los Angeles Times reports that two researchers have found a correlation between government corruption and geographic isolation of state capitals. The most corrupt capitals identified in this study: Jackson, Baton Rouge, Nashville, Springfield, Albany, and Pierre.

Campante and Do 2012: Geographical isolation of state capitals and government corruption
Campante and Do 2012: Geographical isolation of state capitals and government corruption

Why would geographical isolation correlate with government corruption? Well, when's the last time you saw me take a day off work to drive out to Pierre to cover a Legislative hearing?

..."in states where the population is more concentrated around the capital," the study found "more intense media coverage of state politics, and therefore greater accountability."

For example, they noted, newspapers in Massachusetts, where Boston, is the capital and by far the state's largest city, cover state government more than do newspapers in New York, where Albany is a relative backwater.

"It stands to reason that when citizens are better able to monitor the performance of public officials and punish those who do misbehave, there will be less scope for the latter to misuse their office for private gain," the researchers wrote [David Lauter, "Study Shows Isolation May Lead to Corrupt State Capitals," Los Angeles Times, 2012.05.23].

Media scrutiny is an important check on government shenanigans. And even in states with less isolated capitals, the media are cutting back on that scrutiny:

The relationship between newspaper coverage and corruption has another troubling implication. In the past decade, the number of reporters covering state capitals has dropped sharply — a reduction of more than 30% between 2003 and 2009, according to a census by the American Journalism Review. If less coverage leads to more corruption, those staff cutbacks should provide plenty of work for prosecutors in years to come [Lauter, 2012.05.23].

The Campante and Do working paper points to another salient correlate of having your state capital out in the middle of nowhere: states with more isolated capitals tend to spend less and perhaps achieve lower outcomes on public goods like education and health care.

Hmm... maybe it's time to expand the "Capital for a Day" program to something a bit meatier. Maybe we need to put state government on the road and have it meet for six months in Sioux Falls and six months in Rapid City, so the press can watch it more closely.


  1. LK 2012.05.23

    I think the media point is huge. For example, Bismarck ND has one North Dakota's major daily newspapers and has television stations like KELO headquartered there.

    South Dakota media might have enough coverage of the legislative session but the day to day coverage of state government during the rest of the year is spotty at best

  2. David Newquist 2012.05.23

    A factor not mentioned that is of huge import in South Dakota is the level of competence and professionalism of the press corps. In the 1980s during a period of time when the online Northwest Data Base published a journalism review, the South Dakota press corps was characterized as crony-ridden, timid, and docile. Consider how many reporters in Pierre became part of government agencies. The South Dakota media are shaped by their meager revenues and their guiding principle in hiring staff is how cheaply you can pay them. Survival depends upon community boosterism. There is not a medium in South Dakota that dares to come up against the single-party establishment. And they wouldn't if they could.

  3. Mark 2012.05.23

    I agree with David Newquist's SD analysis except his last sentence. As to MS, LA, TN: consider the hyper good old boy ethos that seems to run throughout those states. NY & IL are especially baffling to me w/ their far more aggressive media outlets and arguably New York City, and Chicago are their real power centers and de facto capitals.
    Not sure if I'm buying the geographic correlation, as much as other factors, including demographics, internet penetration, one-party domination, individual states' open meeting laws and practices, etc.

  4. larry kurtz 2012.05.23

    move the capital back to yankton and turn pierre into a penal colony for the five state region.

  5. Michael Black 2012.05.23

    So are you suggesting moving the capital to Sioux Falls?

  6. Mark 2012.05.23

    MB: I'm not advocating Sioux Falls for the capital. Bismarck and Pierre are well positioned geographically, don't you think? But if the Buffalo Commons phenomen accelerates, who knows?

  7. Carter 2012.05.23

    It would make sense to have the capital somewhere in Easter SD, though. That's where most of the population is. Pierre is something like 4 hours from Sioux Falls. Yankton is an hour and a half, Brookings, Mitchell, and Vermillion are an hour, Watertown and Huron are two. They're all bigger cities than Pierre (except Vermillion and Huron) and they're all well within driving distance for journalists to cover SD politics.

    You can put the capital in any one of those cities and it's still closer to all the others than Pierre is. The only city left out is Rapid, and they're already left out the way it is.

    The capital doesn't need to be in the center of the state, it needs to be near people, like Cory's map says. Easter SD just makes the most sense, since it's near the most people.

  8. larry kurtz 2012.05.23

    Move DSU there and give internships on sweeping properties for listening devices left in place from the Janklow era.

  9. Donald Pay 2012.05.23

    The ability of civil society (independent groups, political parties and an aggressive press) to keep public figures and government agencies honest requires constant vigilance. Proximity is important for that. You can't write about state government effectively from Sioux Falls or Rapid City. Citizens can't have effective input or dig out the latest scandal without being in Pierre.

    You have to be there, and not just from January to March, but year round, because most of what happens in those three months has been set up before the beginning of session. And the laws get implemented in the last six months of the year. And there are always various meetings and hearings that rarely get covered if the press doesn't treat Pierre like a beat.

    It's been at least two decades since the thinning of the Pierre press corps. The group I was involved with vacated Pierre. We gained a little better organizing advantage by moving to the Hills, but lost daily contact with the levers of government. And the Democratic Party left Pierre, too. Who's left to keep the officials honest?

    Pierre is a company town, mostly Republican (though there are enough closet Democrats to elect a mayor from time to time) and very small. We found ourselves ostracized by a lot of people because we pursued and unmasked a lot of questionable, and some illegal, activity. It was a lonely existence, especially for my former wife. We were buoyed by the people around the state, and some in Pierre, we were able to help by being behind enemy lines.

    That said, there were a lot of state employees working in offices, and even a few cabinet officials, who didn't always toe the company line, or who, at least, are friendly, even supportive at times.

    It's tough to be a state employee in Pierre. Getting "let go" from your state job in Pierre means you have to upend your family, because you ain't going to find work anywhere else in Pierre. That's why I appreciated those state workers who were willing to leak or point us in the right direction. They had courage.

  10. Stan Gibilisco 2012.05.23

    Read the comments that follow the L.A. Times article. I don't think those readers are convinced of the validity of this "study."

    Neither am I.

    First, the article implies that isolation causes corruption, merely because a correlation appears to exist.

    That old fallacy again.

    But how, exactly, do they define "isolation"? I find it quite a stretch to imagine Dover, Delaware or Trenton, New Jersey as "isolated."

    Last time I moseyed down the East Coast, I found the whole corridor from Boston to Washington to be one great magalopolis, town after town after town after town after town after town after town.

    Finally, I wonder what the correlation coefficient of the points on that graph actually is? Pretty small, I'll bet. Take away the outliers, and that cute little line tips up almost on its end, if it doesn't vanish altogether.

    Junk science.

  11. Michael Black 2012.05.23

    Do you have examples of corruption in South Dakota?

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.23

    Stan, let's assume corruption is roughly constant across the hearts of humanity. Put people with power in a place with less scrutiny and, as Donald points out, less alternative job opportunities, and you create an environment in which our natural tendency toward corruption has less check. Pierre seems the perfect place to keep public employees quiet and doing what the boss tells them.

  13. Stan Gibilisco 2012.05.23

    "Pierre seems the perfect place to keep public employees quiet and doing what the boss tells them."

    And, almost directly on top of the point for Pierre, we find the point for Springfield, the capital of the state from which our President hails (Illinois).

    Of course, things might "seem" one way and "play out" quite another way, eh?

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.24

    It does seem odd to think of Springfield, a town bigger than Rapid City, as an isolated place. But it is over a three-hour drive from Chicago. Cook County has 40% of Illinois's population.

    This story seems like a perfect topic for David Montgomery. He started at the Pierre Capital Journal. Then he moved to the Rapid City Journal. Now he's going to cover the news for that Sioux Falls paper. I wonder how he feels about the impact of geographic isolation on his ability to cover government.

  15. Michael Black 2012.05.24

    The article claims that there is a significant drop in reporters covering state government. This has nothing to do with the isolation of state capitals but rather follows the decline of daily newspaper readership.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.24

    True, Michael: the article notes that's a compounding problem affecting all markets. Perhaps that's also a reason more folks need to advertise here and hit the tip jar, so I can afford to take more trips to Pierre and make up for the decline of newspapers! :-)

  17. Testor15 2012.05.24

    "Do you have examples of corruption in South Dakota?"
    The unwritten contracts, buddy agreements, nepotism, boats on the river, state employees using their connects doing consulting and pay for play arrangements. Take your pick...

  18. Douglas Wiken 2012.05.24

    The problem is too little development in central South Dakota and too much at the fringes of the state.

    I suppose we bloggers could pay somebody to actually do some investigation in Pierre. News coverage should not be the domain only of paper newspapers and flying and transient pixels.

  19. Donald Pay 2012.05.24

    There appears to be a lot of spread in that linear regression. I looked at the study and the r-squared value wasn't that impressive, so I'm not sure that corruption can be explained very much by an isolated capitol. The authors seem to think it's suggestive, but not overwhelming.

    I'd like a little more information about the data set used to summarize "corruption." The data used for corruption seem to be statewide data and include local and state officials. So it could be that having local governments at a distance from the capitol could increase local corruption. Also, the corruption figures could conflate actual incidence of corruption with the efficiency catching and prosecuting corruption.

  20. Donald Pay 2012.05.24

    An interesting state is Colorado, which seems to have the least corruption. I'm not so sure about that.

    Back in the seventies a bunch of corrupt, power hungry Republicans came to prominence in the Colorado legislature. They took the majority in the Legislature and proceeded to ram every bill industry wanted through. They were thoroughly corrupt, but never prosecuted at the state level.

    Then in the early 80s Reagan tapped many of these Coloradans to fill Secretary, Assistant Secretary and other offices in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior. Many of these people ended up being convicted of crimes, resigning in disgrace or being fired for being generally incompetent and corrupt. They simply took Colorado Republican values, where corruption is the norm, to Washington, DC.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.05.25

    Remind us, Donald: what's a threshold for a "strong" r-squared value? Sociologists get excited about lower ranges than biologists and physicists, right?

  22. interested party 2013.11.20


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