Foreign Policy Blogs

The most corrupt state (and I mean U.S.)

Every year Transparency International ranks nearly all countries in the world in its Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). In 2009 the United States ranked a respectable 19 out of 180. But within the United States there is considerable variation. Anyone who follows national news might make their own U.S. Corruption Perceptions Index, with the sheer size of the scandals putting states like Illinois, Louisiana, and New York at the bottom and seemingly happy places like Vermont and Indiana at the top.

News site The Daily Beast conducted such a survey for the fifty U.S. states. They compiled information on public corruption, racketeering and extortion, forgery and counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement from 1998 to 2008 and came up with a full ranking. New Hampshire came out on top with the best ratings. Tennessee takes the prize for most corrupt.

Like the CPI, the Daily Beast ranking does not give much detail on why different states landed where they did, although it does describe a “Recent Scandal” for each state. New Hampshire’s damning story is of two local men who were charged with mail and wire fraud (watch out, New Hampshire!). Some other scandalous accounts are of odometer tampering (Wyoming) and a woman who stole her ex-husband’s checkbook and wrote herself $4,100 worth of checks (Iowa). There are also some surprises. Illinois is in fact one of the better-ranking states by the Daily Beast’s measure, at number 47 of 51 (where 51 is least corrupt, including Washington, DC). Apparently the Blagojevich saga only ran so deep.

Just like the CPI, rankings like the Daily Beast’s are better for pitting neighbors against each other than comparing two very disparate entities. My own positive view of Vermont was apparently false, as Vermont ranked only 39 against New Hampshire’s crystal-clean number 51. But my home New York can be proud of its 24th place against only 21st for New Jersey. Washington State scraped by Oregon at 38th to 35th. South Carolina can boast its 9th place against North Carolina’s 5th. Indiana wins against Illinois 49th to 47th.

After the CPI is published (or most international rankings, for that matter), country representatives request meetings with those who put out the ranking in order to ask how they can move up the ladder. Usually they are not looking to move into the top place, but rather to surpass their main rival: Bulgaria vs. Romania, Algeria vs. Morocco, Laos vs. Cambodia. Such competition can spark positive action, leading to genuine change in hopes of moving up those one or two spots. Do you think we can generate such positive competition here? Come on New York, you can beat California next year!