Anger at idea that suburban taxpayers should bail out Chicago Public Schools

The city-suburb divide can often be quite wide (and require therapy to overcome) and John Kass illustrates another dimension of this chasm:

In today’s angry class war politics, if you’re a suburban taxpayer in a blue state like Illinois, you might get the feeling you’ve done something wrong. But all you’ve really done is work your tail off and go without to take care of your family.

You might miss the city and ache for it, or you may be indifferent, but either way, you know you’re out there. My wife and I know. We did it for the kids. To send them to good, safe public schools. And many of you have done the same…

But the Democratic bosses of Illinois just told you that you’re going to pay some more, to bail them out of the fiscal mess they made of CPS…

But we don’t feel like bailing out a corrupt Chicago system that won’t change the way it does business.

This echoes one of the underlying reasons many Americans left cities in the first place: they didn’t want to pay/take responsibility/be party to/live near urban problems. The move to the suburbs was intended to provide a better home for their families and to pay taxes to a local government that could be more responsive to their own interests. And this move to the suburbs – particularly by wealthier white residents – left many cities in difficult situations with declining tax bases.

Does it matter that this argument is made in Illinois where political corruption is common? Arguably, taxpayers in Illinois should be suspicious of how all of their local and state tax dollars are used. Or, would typical suburbanites never want to contribute their hard-earned money to the city unless forced (and regardless of how well the money is used)? I suspect the second statement is fairly common among suburbanites – “my tax dollars should go to my community rather to other communities” – and this tends to get most loudly expressed when regional or metropolitan plans are suggested.

Do you want your big city mayor to have no experience with corruption?

Many big city residents may want mayors who stay away from corruption but what if that means the mayor is less effective at getting things down and fighting corruption?

Today, Mr. Marino finds himself under political siege in the city he vowed to save from itself. Italy’s news media lampoons him as an honest man in over his head, or as one newspaper called him, a Forrest Gump.

“His virtue is also his main problem: He is not connected to all the rotten Roman relationships,” said Carlo Bonini, an investigative journalist with La Repubblica, a daily newspaper. “He knows the world he operates in too little.”…

Perhaps most damning for the mayor has been the slow-bleeding “Mafia Capitale” investigation, which has exposed tainted bidding for city contracts on a number of services, including refugee centers and sanitation. Even for a country more than accustomed to such scandal, the revelations have come as a shock…

While the corruption revealed by the scandal predated Mr. Marino’s arrival in office, the mayor has been criticized as responding slowly and indecisively. “He has always been a step behind,” Mr. Bonini of La Repubblica said…

The corruption investigation of park maintenance contractors led the mayor to suspend their work, leaving public spaces overgrown. His order to stop sidewalk vendors from peddling near historical sites prompted protests from merchants.

Perhaps this is a situation where you would prefer to be the mayor after the crusading reformer has vigorously taken on corruption. Two other quick thoughts:

1. How much can a mayor do on his/her own to fight corruption? If other governmental bodies are not working with the mayor, it would be difficult to get much done.

2. Cleaning up corruption is a difficult task. Moving too quickly may lead to disruptions. Moving too slowly irritates residents.

Data mining for red flags indicating corruption

Two sociologists have developed a method for finding red flags of corruption in public databases:

Researchers at the University of Cambridge has developed a series of algorithms than mine public procurement data for “red flags” — signs of the abuse of public finances. Scientists interviewed experts on public corruption to identify the kinds of anomalies that might indicate something fishy.

Their research allowed them to hone in on a series of red flags, like an unusually short tender period. If a request for proposal is issued by the government on a Friday and a contract is awarded on Monday — red flag…

Some of the other red flags identified by the researchers includes tender modifications that result in larger contracts, few bidders in a typically competitive industry, and inaccessible or unusually complex tender documents…

“Imagine a mobile app containing local CRI data, and a street that’s in bad need of repair. You can find out when public funds were allocated, who to, how the contract was awarded, how the company ranks for corruption,” explained Fazekas. “Then you can take a photo of the damaged street and add it to the database, tagging contracts and companies.”

This is a good use of data mining as it doesn’t require theoretical explanations after the fact. Why not make use of such public information?

At the same time, simply finding these red flags may not be enough. I could imagine websites that track all of these findings and dog officials and candidates. Yet, are these red flags proof of corruption or just indicative that more digging needs to be done? There could be situations where officials would justify these anomalies. It could still take persistent effort and media attention to push from just noting these anomalies to suggesting a response is required.

Chicago still leading the way for corruption

A new report finds Chicago is still at the top of American cities in corruption:

According to new research released today by University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson, there were 45 convictions for public corruption in 2013 (the latest year available) in the U.S. court district that covers the Chicago area. That’s way, way above the 19 convictions in Los Angeles and 13 in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). But Houston had far and away the most pols convicted on federal corruption charges in 2013, with 83.

Since the U.S. Department of Justice began to collect data in 1976, Chicago’s Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, Cook County and 17 other counties, has had 1,642 convictions, according to Simpson. That compares with 1,316 in LA and 1,260 in the New York district, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and six other counties…

If it makes you feel better, Simpson notes that on a per capita basis, Illinois is in seventh place. The District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and North and South Dakota rank higher than Illinois.

In this case, I don’t know if the quantification helps at all. When scholars or activists produce such figures, they are often trying to draw attention to a particular cause by pointing out the large numbers. This is how social problems are made. On the other hand, Chicago has had a reputation for corruption for decades. Do these numbers mean anything if residents of the region already expect this? Perhaps the comparison of numbers with other cities and regions can help. Yet, it doesn’t look like knowing these figures changes very much.

And what is going with Houston – is the oil money flowing a little too freely?

Study suggests political corruption needs to be investigated in the Chicago suburbs

A new study from a political scientist argues that political corruption is a big problem in a number of Chicago suburbs:

The study by the University of Illinois at Chicago documented criminal convictions or conflicts of interest affecting more than 60 suburbs in Cook and surrounding counties and more than 100 public officials and police officers.

Former Chicago Alderman Dick Simpson, now head of UIC’s Political Science Department, led the study, and on Monday said corruption in the suburbs, in some cases, is worse than in the city.

“This isn’t a minor problem,” Simpson said. “This is a major problem.”

The IG could either be created by lawmakers and the governor, by each county, or by a consortium of suburbs. It would cost about $1 million annually, far less than the $500 million estimated cost of the problem, according to the study.

So the “Chicago way” extends past the city borders and even Cook County. I wonder if it is even easier to be corrupt in smaller communities where there is less of a media spotlight and relatively few residents are heavily involved or are knowledgeable about local government.

Even if the corruption is widespread, would officials and the public be willing to support an independent inspector general looking into these matters as it creates another layer of government?

It would be interesting to know how these numbers compare to corruption in other metropolitan regions: is Chicago that unusual in this regard?

Traffic, corruption, and a 40 mile traffic jam in Lagos

A journalist recounts being stuck for 12 hours in a 40 mile traffic jam in Lagos and ties his experience to the level of corruption in Nigeria:

But the biggest problem appears to be the unsavory ties between Nigeria’s political and business elites. Under the military dictatorships of General Ibrahim Babangida and then General Sani Abacha, both from the north, a small group of northerners came to dominate the trucking business. These men have reportedly played a key role in shooting down every effort to improve or privatize the country’s moribund, British-built rail system, ensuring that almost all goods must move by road.

According to Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), “Traffic behavior is more or less directly related to levels of government corruption.” Vanderbilt cites a clear correlation between traffic-fatality rates per miles driven and a country’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption index. (In terms of road safety, the Scandinavian countries fare the best; Nigeria is near the bottom of the list.)

In March, Nigerian authorities made an attempt to unclog the highway, arresting illegally parked truckers and confiscating 120 vehicles. The Nigeria Truck Owners Association retaliated by calling a one-day strike that crippled the ports. The next day, traffic was as calcified as ever. About half a dozen agencies—the Inter-Ministerial Implementation Committee on Port Approach Roads in Lagos, the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency, the Federal Road Safety Commission, the Vehicle Inspection Officers—share responsibility for keeping traffic moving on the highway, but all of them are considered toothless.

Does Vanderbilt’s correlation hold independent of a host of other factors (such as central government spending on highways, etc.)?

I suspect experiences like these would leave Americans much more grateful for their roads and highways which they can tend to complain about. It reminds me of the 2010 story of a “nine day, 100 km” traffic jam outside of Beijing. This sort of stuff simply does not happen in the United States, even in the worst case scenarios such as really bad accidents (like the smoke-caused one earlier this year in Florida) or natural disasters (such as evacuating New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina). Granted, Americans may lose many hours a year in congestion, particularly in big cities, but the traffic does eventually clear and it does have a predictability to it. In other words, well-paved, maintained, and policed roads should not be taken for granted: they aren’t guaranteed in much of the world.

The statistical calculations used for counting votes

Some might be surprised to hear that “Counting lots of ballots [in elections] with absolute precision is impossible.” Wired takes a brief look at how the vote totals are calculated:

Most laws leave the determination of the recount threshold to the discretion of registrars. But not California—at least not since earlier this year, when the state assembly passed a bill piloting a new method to make sure the vote isn’t rocking a little too hard. The formula comes from UC Berkeley statistician Philip Stark; he uses the error rate from audited precincts to calculate a key statistical number called the P-value. Election auditors already calculate the number of errors in any given precinct; the P-value helps them determine whether that error rate means the results are wrong. A low P-value means everything is copacetic: The purported winner is probably the one who indeed got the most votes. If you get a high value? Maybe hold off on those balloon drops.

A p-value is a key measure in most statistical analysis – it provides a measure of how much error is in the data and whether the obtained results are just by chance or whether we can be fairly sure (95% or more) the statistical estimation represents the whole population.

So what is the acceptable p-value for elections in California?

I would be curious to know whether people might seize upon this information for two reasons: (1) it shows the political system is not exact and therefore, possibly corrupt and (2) they distrust statistics altogether.