Mississippi Corruption’s Impact on Morality

Jun. 23, 2014
by Bob Adelmann

 The latest study on state corruption within the U.S. is by two college professors. It defines corruption as the “misuse of public office for private gain,” and it shows Mississippi at the very top of the list. This is fine as far as it goes, but they fail to connect the dots: As goes political corruption, so goes moral decline.

The study, entitled “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending” published in the May/June issue of Public Administration Review, confined itself to political corruption: bribery, extortion, graft, cronyism, and embezzlement. They left out nepotism. They also left out any analysis of how the citizens of the states fared where corruption runs rampant, such as in Mississippi.

As it turns out, not very well.

After looking at more than 25,000 convictions from 1997-2008 for violations of federal corruption laws, the professors graded each state. Mississippi, with a population of just three million, came in first – or last, if one prefers putting the dregs at the bottom. They learned that Mississippi’s corrupt politicians and cronies in business spent more on capital projects such as highways and public buildings than other states not only because that is where the money is, but it’s also where the best opportunities exist for payoffs, bribes, and embezzlement. That left schools and health facilities on the back burner because the Mississippi corruptocrats couldn’t mulct them as readily or as profitably:

First, public officials’ corruption is likely to increase state spending….

Second, public officials’ corruption … shows that states with higher levels of corruption tend to spend more on items on which corrupt officials may levy larger bribes at the expense of others….

Public resources may be used for the private interests of the few instead of the needs of the many. 

They discovered in their study that Mississippi and other highly-corrupt states (i.e., Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, etc.) also involved a high level of business corruption as well, drawing crony capitalists to state spending like flies to a barnyard:

Corrupt officials will encourage activities or businesses that will also provide them with the most benefits, whether they are outright bribes or more legal benefits like campaign contributions.

Rarely are these activities … true public goods, like elementary education, as they provide few direct monetary benefits that can be appropriated by a politician or a private interest.

There are other impacts as well. Honest business owners would either hunker down and do the best they could without selling their souls to the devil, or they would leave the state for more hospitable and honorable climes. Many wouldn’t even consider the state in the first place.

There was a brief moment, in the mid-1980s, when a small business owner refused to play the game. When pressured to pay a 10 percent kickback to obtain a contract for a public works project, the owner – who, incidentally, was also a Pentecostal preacher on Sundays – complained to the FBI. The FBI set up a dummy corporation to offer bids for various public works, and the sting – called Operation Pretense – succeeded in netting some 57 of Mississippi’s 410 county supervisors from 26 of the state’s 82 counties for fraud.

But the game continued. The Center of Public Integrity (CPI) reported that the last time any legislation was attempted to rein in the graft and self-seeking behaviors was 10 years ago! At the time, legislation passed, but the governor, Haley Barbour, vetoed it.

Under state law, donations to political campaigns may be used for personal expenses and may be kept even after the figure leaves office. This has frustrated Mississippi’s Secretary of State, whose job it is to police the pols and keep them honest. He told CPI that he doubts the state – even if it wanted to – could force them to comply with what laws there are, namely, to provide statements of where the money came from and how it was spent. A candidate, for example, might file a report indicating that a certain amount of money was spent for a particular purpose but without proofs that the money actually was spent for the purpose indicated.

Just last summer, the Sheriff of Jackson County, the seat of the state capitol no less, was indicted on 31 counts of fraud, extortion, embezzlement, witness tampering, and perjury. What’s more, all the local judges recused themselves from hearing the case and so the state supreme court had to come in and appoint a retired judge for the job.

The corruption has taken its toll in Mississippi, and not just in money, either. The two professors estimate that if the state had a corruption rate of just the average of the ten worst states, Mississippi could have saved more than $1,300 per person! And in a state as poor as Mississippi, that means a lot.

The state has the lowest personal income of any state in the country. Its students score the lowest of any state on the National Assessment Tests, while it is ranked third from the bottom in the American Human Development Index.

In addition, Mississippi has the highest teenage birth rate in the country, more than 60 percent above the national average and is ranked last in the country for health care. Mississippi ranks last among the 50 states for high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

When properly defined (and not just limited to “political” corruption), the word corruption means “utterly broken.” Aristotle and Cicero used the term to mean the “abandonment of good habits.” That is the real cost of political corruption. It seeps into the wellspring of human behavior and corrupts it, resulting in what is happening in Mississippi.

A few years before he died, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, was asked what he considered to be the most pressing fundamental problem the country faced. In the early 1980s, his response was chilling: “moral decline.” Thirty years later, the harvest of corruption is most obviously being observed in Mississippi. Other states like Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Alabama are right behind.

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Sources:

Washington Post: How corruption (in states like Mississippi or Louisiana) distorts spending

Operation Pretense: The FBI's Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi

Daily Signal: Mississippi Named Most Corrupt State in the Nation

Huffington Post: Mike Byrd, Mississippi Sheriff, Indicted On 31 Charges

Background on Mississippi

The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending

Definition of corruption

Definition of political corruption

The John Birch Society: Because Morality Matters

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