Corruption, Confirmation Bias, and Sexy Statistics

Is Illinois still really corrupt? Is Chicago still really segregated? It depends on who you ask, and how they decide to write their headlines.

Daley Center Chicago

 

A couple weeks ago UIC released a report contending that the Chicago area was the most corrupt in the country, based on the number of federal prosecutions for political corruption. (Illinois was only the third most corrupt state, thanks to the integrity of downstate.) This was greeted with the reaction: duh. When I hear that word, that’s when I reach for my revolver. And it was a fun excuse to do some data mining: using the same data and methodology, and changing the timeframe to the past decade instead of the past five, I countered that eastern Kentucky is much more corrupt than Chicagoland. But it’s eastern Kentucky, which makes flyover country look like Times Square, so it’s not a very sexy headline.

The UIC authors made a compelling case, though, and certainly Illinois’s record is im/depressive. But another thing I addressed, if briefly, was the method of using convictions as a means of proving that one jurisdiction is more corrupt than another. Perhaps it’s a sign that there are more rats, but the number of cats could be a factor (and, if I recall correctly from the studies I read, there’s some evidence that the number of feds in a jurisdiction has a modest effect). To use another example, if you looked only at possession busts in Chicago, you could easily conclude that African-Americans here smoke way more marijuana than whites, which runs counter to use surveys; the disparity almost certainly stems more from law-enforcement density and whether it’s consumed outside or inside.

So my ears perked up when I saw David Milton Brent of Progress Illinois post on a new study of state “integrity.” Maybe we’re not so bad after all:

In contrast to the study conducted by the political scientists at UIC, the State Integrity Investigation finds that Illinois has a fairly strong record of accountability and openness, earning the highest score of “Strong” on 232 out of 330 total indicators (70%). The Investigation also finds the state to be doing fairly well in three of the issue areas that Simpson and his co-authors highlight as areas in which Illinois is particularly troubled: lobbying, pension fund management, and ethics enforcement.

Hooray! It’s totally safe here; call U-Haul.

Wait, hang on: “doing fairly well… pension fund management.” Wait, but I thought…. But they just mean that the pension fund system is relatively transparent and the laws governing it are mostly robust. Transparency may be an element of good government, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

This reminded me of Edward Glaeser’s widely-trumpeted report on “the end of the segregated century,” which found that “the Windy City has experienced a particularly dramatic decline in segregation since 2000.” But as Steve Bogira pointed out, the “Windy City” encompassed all of the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan statistical area, including parts of Indiana and Wisconsin. If you’ve been following the Great Re-Migration news, you’re probably aware that the mass exodus of African-Americans from Chicago—part of the Census-numbers challenge just proposed by Rahm Emanuel—has led to a larger black population in some of the collar counties. A more conservative and accurate reading might have been that legal changes have made small if commendable progress in segregation nationwide, but in certain areas (like Chicago proper) those numbers are influenced as much by public policy failure as success.

Just a word of caution: when you see a headline declaring something sweeping and definitive, check the numbers.

 

Photograph: juggernautco (CC by 2.0)

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