Measuring inputs, not outputs

March 20, 2012   •  By Brad Smith
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I’ve been noticing a fair amount of play for this report,the State Integrity Report, from the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. The report purports to grade the states on their regulations to insure government “integrity.”

A couple things leap out immediately. First, almost half the states get Ds or Fs. Wow, no grade inflation here. No state gets an A. Next, note that the highest score goes to… New Jersey! Yes, you read that right: The State Integrity Report suggests that New Jersey is the best state in the nation for “the structure that governs the government.”

What to make of this? Even the report’s authors seem a bit embarrassed, noting that “New Jersey’s rating in a measure of states’ risk of corruption may seem counterintuitive,” and “the No. 1 ranking in the State Integrity Investigation does not make New Jersey the least corrupt state in the country.” No, I guess not.

This raises an issue we have commented on often here as regards to “reform” measures, that is, regulation of the political system. The leading “reform” groups seem far more interested in process – inputs, if you will – than in outputs. Thus we are told that tax financing systems work well because most candidates take the government subsidy, not because it leads in any measurable way to better government. McCain-Feingold, we’re told, prevented corruption, and never mind Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, William Jefferson, the proliferation of earmarking, Mark Foley, and all the other real corruption of sorts that marked the brief shelf life of McCain-Feingold’s key provisions. Here we see the same pattern.

For example, the report ranks Michigan as the worst state in the nation. Yet that doesn’t really jibe with the report’s own analysis: “Even so, Michigan’s state government is not known for scandal. It gets many things right…. It is not plagued by pay-to-play allegations in procurement, or by nepotism or cronyism in the civil service system. Its Freedom of Information Act usually, if not always, works to give journalists and others the information they request at a reasonable cost. The sort of corruption that is common in Detroit rarely finds its way 90 miles north to Lansing.”

So why such a bad score for the Wolverine state? The authors don’t like how the state “tracks” money in politics. And then there is this:

[F]or political high-rollers, [Michigan’s] restrictions [on campaign finance contributions] are nothing more than speed bumps. They can make unlimited contributions to political parties and political action committees, which turn around and make unlimited independent expenditures on television ads and other communications to support or defeat a candidate.

“In 2006, Republican businessman Dick DeVos contributed nearly $35 million to his own unsuccessful campaign for governor. That same year, Kalamazoo philanthropist Jon Stryker and his wife contributed more than $5 million to the new Coalition for Progress political action committee, which spent more than $3 million supporting Democrats or opposing Republicans.

Whoa, boys. Since at least 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that individuals have a First Amendment right to spend their own money to support their own candidacy. And since SpeechNow.org v. FEC, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2010, it has been pretty well uncontested that philanthropists (and their wives) may contribute unlimited sums to groups making independent expenditures.

Michigan has had its economic problems in recent years, but most observers attribute those problems to the decline of the U.S. auto industry and, in many cases, poor policy choices by the administration of Governor Jennifer Granholm from 2003 through 2010. As the report itself notes, political scandal hasn’t been one of the problems.

Space prohibits a detailed review of this voluminous report, and for that, no doubt, “reformers” will accuse us of misrepresenting the importance of the report. But what we see here is what we’ve seen countless times in the debates over political regulation. “Reform” organizations start with a vision of “good government,” one that inevitably calls for heavy regulation of political campaigns, citizen communications to each other,and citizen communications with their officials. They demand a bureaucracy and regulations that place the heaviest burden the truest grassroots speech, and demand disclosure that violates privacy rights and goes far beyond any meaningful public “right to know.” If these policies are adopted, the system is said to be “working well.” If not, the system is said to be “broken and in need of repair.”

Left out of this calculus is actual good governance – i.e., is the state actually free from corruption?  Are elections actually competitive? Is the state actually well-governed? Do citizens benefit in tangible ways, such as a sound tax and regulatory climate; clear, reasonable health and safety regulation; good roads and good state universities, and so on. And, most notably, are citizens actually more free to participate in politics, and are they actually more or less likely to be heard?

So the State Integrity Report ranks New Jersey #1 in the nation for its laws against political corruption. Let’s put it this way. If you had a system for ranking baseball players that concluded that Walt “No Neck” Williams was the greatest player in baseball history, wouldn’t you quickly recognize that the ranking system was using the wrong criteria?

Brad Smith

Brad Smith