Public Corruption: Perception vs Reality

Jeffrey Milyo
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

In the Netflix series House of Cards, protagonist Frank Underwood climbs from speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to president using every dirty trick in the book, including murder. It’s a cynical view of life in our nation’s capital, yet it mirrors the growing public perception that politics and politicians are corrupt. High-profile public corruption cases such as that of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and California Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham only serve to enhance that public perception. However, Jeffrey Milyo, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, says the reality is quite different—of the more than 16,000 public corruption convictions over the last 29 years, only about 2 percent involved elected or high-ranking officials.  Instead, public corruption typically entails bribery, fraud, and theft by lower level government employees, such as postal employees stealing or destroying mail.

Milyo says there are a couple of reasons for the public’s perception that corruption is much more widespread than it actually is. For one, he says people tend to express their feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment with our political system with the all-encompassing “corruption” label.

“Politics is all about compromise, so if you view any kind of compromise as corruption, then you will see all politics as corrupt,” Milyo says. “Nobody gets everything they want in the public sphere, so there is always dissatisfaction. When I go to the grocery store, I get to buy exactly what I want, but I don’t get that from my politicians.”

The other, more substantial problem that Milyo and Professor Adriana Cordis of Winthrop University found is that the data used by other scholars to determine instances of actual public corruption is wrong on many levels. Milyo says public corruption is usually defined as a misuse of public authority or public office for personal gain or for the gain of family and friends. Yet in trying to quantify the data on public corruption from the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, Milyo and Cordis found several discrepancies in what was reported. Milyo speculates that these errors may be due to the fact that data from the Public Integrity Section is based on surveys of prosecutors rather than administrative records of the prosecutor’s office. He says the surveys are highly subjective and that some prosecutors may take more time to complete them than others.

In exploring the administrative records of federal prosecutors, Milyo and Cordis found that public corruption in the U.S. is not increasing over time, and elected and high-ranking officials comprise a very small percentage of government corruption cases. Based on this data, Milyo and Cordis ranked the states from least corrupt to most corrupt: Iowa stands out as particularly clean across the board, while Mississippi is considered the most corrupt. Missouri falls somewhere in the middle.

Milyo says his research will serve as a stepping stone to do a lot more studies on the causes and consequences of public corruption. “Previous scholarship has employed questionable data; we can revisit those research questions with better information on public corruption.”

Milyo hopes his research may temper the public perception that “all politics is corrupt,” although he expresses some doubt. “The American pastime is not baseball—it’s complaining about politics and politicians.”

The study by Milyo and Cordis, “Measuring Public Corruption in the United States: Evidence from Administrative Records of Federal Prosecutions,” recently was published by the journal Public Integrity.

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