Why is New Jersey So Corrupt? A Corruption Researcher Offers Some Answers


Ian Ward: First off, what’s going on with New Jersey?

Oguzhan Dincer: Well, we have data from the Justice Department from 1976 to the present showing the number of convictions related to corruption. The Justice Department’s definition of corruption is very broad — for instance, if a public employee gets caught snorting cocaine, they also call it corruption — but it still gives us a pretty good picture. They look at the number of convictions, divided by the population to normalize across the states, and you get a decent index to measure corruption in the U.S. And if you look at states like New Jersey or Illinois or Alabama, you see that their levels of corruption are very high in comparison to other states like Minnesota or Vermont. So there’s this sticky nature of corruption in those states.

Ward: How do you explain those differences? What about those states makes them especially prone to corruption?

Dincer: There are deep determinants and then there are proximate determinants. When it comes to deep determinants, there’s a political scientist named Daniel Elazar who wrote a book in the 1960s that divided the U.S. into different political cultures based on who settled those states in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He created three categories — individualistic, moralistic and traditionalist political cultures — and he defined New Jersey as an individualistic culture. In individualistic political cultures, politics is basically business: People enter politics to advance their own interests. It’s a market arena. So in individualistic states, corruption to a certain degree is expected and accepted. Incidentally, Illinois, New Jersey and New York are all individualistic states, whereas a state like Minnesota is a moralistic state, meaning it has a political culture where people expect government to make the society better.

Ward: What are some of the some of the more proximate determinants?

Dincer: The most important one — and this one is related to these political cultures — is voter participation. People generally expect to get rid of corruption by policing only, but you can never get rid of corruption by policing only. Trying a corruption case is extremely difficult and extremely expensive. The easier way is actually to get them out of the office. But if you don’t vote, how do you get them out of the office?

Ward: So the lower the levels of voter participation, the higher levels of corruption?

Dincer: Yes — when voter participation goes up, corruption goes down. If you look at the last gubernatorial race in New Jersey in 2021, voter participation was about 40 percent, and in the last midterm elections it wasn’t much better. When Rod Blagojevich ran for his second term in Illinois, everybody was complaining about how corrupt he was, and voter participation was only about 40 percent. When more than half of the people don’t even bother voting, politicians know it, right? They think, “Hey, I’m invincible.

Ward: Is there a connection between voter turnout and the political cultures that you mentioned?

Dincer: Yes — like I said, in moralistic cultures, people are more into the governing process. In individualistic cultures, people see politics as dirty, so they want to just stay away from it.

There are two other proximate causes that are worth mentioning. One is the involvement of governments in the economy. When government involvement increased, opportunities for rent seeking increases — and New Jersey is one of the states where government is heavily involved in the economy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying, “Kill the government.” There is a Nobel Prize-winning economist named Gary Becker, who said that if you want to kill corruption, kill government — but I don’t agree with him. You cannot kill the government, but you can at least manage it. Of course, when you say that, people immediately think of cutting spending on social programs or education, but education and social programs are not a big chunk of government spending. What counts is the infrastructure spending — building roads, building bridges, all those other big spending big items.

The other proximate cause that people generally miss is ethnic or racial diversity and segregation. What we observe is that in segregated localities, there is ethnocentric behavior, and ethnocentric behavior leads to corruption. If you look at the two major cities in New Jersey — Newark and Jersey City — they’re two of the most highly segregated cities in the United States. When you have high levels of segregation like that, you don’t just have ethnocentric behavior — you also have one group dominating the others in political arena, so the others have no voice in the political process.

Ward: Looking at the historical data, are there states that have been able to overcome consistently high levels of corruption?

Dincer: No, not really — because corruption is sticky. You have to have a permanent effort to clean it up. When a politician promises, “I’m going to clean up the state” — he can’t, unless he stays in power for three terms. In your first, four-year term, you have no chance. It’s a long-term process. Places don’t become corrupt overnight, but once they become corrupt, it is a lot more difficult to clean them up.

Ward: Could a high-profile case like the Menendez indictment spur demands for reform?

Dincer: Generally, it helps in the short term, when people say, “Oh, we don’t want a corrupt blah blah blah” and then they forget about it. And one reason is this: In United States — unlike in places like Turkey or Nigeria — people don’t see that their daily lives are impacted by the corruption in their states. And when they don’t see it, they don’t make it a priority. In fact, though, it’s actually negatively affecting their lives indirectly. Economic growth is lower, poverty is higher — the impact of corruption is everywhere. It’s like dying from 40,000 paper cuts: It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, but in the long term, it’s killing you.

Ward: What role do prosecutions like the one against Sen. Menendez play in tamping down on corruption?

Dincer: Like I said, convicting someone is extremely difficult. You can try with policing to deter people from becoming corrupt, but again, it’s difficult because it’s expensive. Local attorneys are not going to go after these corrupt guys, so who has the resources to do it? The federal government, the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, the state attorneys appointed by the federal government. But state attorneys are also politically ambitious people. One of the most famous state attorneys that we see today is Chris Christie — he was a state attorney, then he became the governor.

And how do you become a governor? When you’re a state attorney, you increase your visibility by maximizing your convictions. But to do that, they go after the low hanging fruit, or they go after sensational cases — but you don’t fight corruption that way.

The other thing that we observe is because state attorneys are federally appointed, they engage in partisan behavior. So if there is a Democrat in the White House, they go after the Republicans, and if there’s a Republican in the White House, they go after the Democrats. It becomes politicized.

Ward: In Menendez’s case, though, it’s a Democratic administration going after a Democratic senator.

Dincer: Well, if something is that obvious, that’s gonna happen. It’s not like they’re always going to stay quiet and try to try to bury things. Sometimes you just can’t help it.

Ward: Does the Menendez case fit into a standard pattern of corruption?

Dincer: Of course. Influence peddling is the most common form of corruption among politicians. To me, the Menendez case is not that interesting, because he’s in Washington, D.C. The reason that he actually got caught is because you guys in D.C. are watching him. Everybody’s watching him.


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