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How To Catch The Next Blagojevich

Today, Rod Blagojevich, one of the many disgraced former governors of Illinois, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for eighteen felony corruption convictions, including an attempt to sell President Obama’s old Senate seat. It wasn’t the harshest penalty possible—he could have been sentenced to hundreds of years in prison—but it is nonetheless a shocking fall for the former two-term governor. Statewide politics in Illinois are notoriously corrupt: Blagojevich, according to The New York Times, “will become Illinois’s fourth governor in recent memory to go to prison.” Does today’s ruling offer any hope for a cleaner future for Illinois politics?

A recent paper suggests that progress against corruption is possible—if states are willing to devote enough resources to the fight. The two authors, a political scientist and an economist, considered competing theories of corruption: “system strain” and deterrence. According to the “system strain” theory, many crimes simply go unaddressed because authorities devote insufficient resources to prosecution. But the “deterrence” theory focuses on the rationality of potentially-corrupt actors, arguing that increasing prosecutors’ resources could actually diminish the number of successful prosecutions. Why? Because rational actors will realize that their likelihood of getting caught is increasing and so will face diminished incentives to be corrupt. After reviewing data on corruption convictions and prosecutor resources in states across the U.S., the authors concluded that the system strain theory was closer to the truth: “Greater prosecutor resources result in more convictions for corruption, other things equal.” To catch the next Blago, then, states should devote more resources to sniffing out crooked politicians—it turns out they may be too stupid to straighten up even when they’re being watched more closely.