May 12, 2013
John V. Lombardi, the recently exiled LSU System president, last week published a parable about an unnamed land ruled by autocrats who ruthlessly eliminate all opponents.
Lombardi, whose ouster a few LSU board members say was orchestrated by Gov. Bobby Jindal, never identified in his essay the land rich in natural resources with “a constant structural economic weakness covered by a colorful culture” and ruled by “a small, wealthy interbred and interconnected elite” at the expense of the much-more-numerous, less-rich residents. His essay, called “Governance: A Fable,” was published by Inside Higher Ed, a Washington, D.C.,-based website servicing faculty and administrators at the nation’s universities.
The leaders in Lombardi’s land operated freely without effective oversight, using “populist rhetoric, economic manipulation ... and first-world media management” to maintain power and isolate critics.
Lombardi’s fable is not unlike Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s fictional account of Lemuel Gulliver’s visit to Lilliput, where tiny but pompous people first exalt, then condemn him for urinating on a fire to save the palace.
LSU English Prof. John I. Fischer, now retired, once taught that Swift was trying to illustrate his own journey through the politics of the time, which featured official rhetoric covering up reality. On a broader level, Swift also was satirizing the prevailing optimism about mankind’s enlightment overcoming man’s inherent corrupt behavior.
A study released last week by Harvard University seems to suggest that a lack of adequate oversight also contributes to that slide into corruption. “Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability and Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States,” mathematically links the geographical and social isolation of state capital cities with federal prosecutions of corrupted state government officials. They also found that a lack of aggressive reporting by news media also contributes to increased exploitation of state taxpayer resources by government officials.
Near the top of Harvard’s corrupt capital’s list is Baton Rouge, whose local economy is dominated by state government, whose location is a few hours drive from the state’s other population centers and whose parishwide population only recently has eclipsed New Orleans as the largest in the state.
LSU professor Bob Mann, who ran “media management” for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said the U.S. Census Bureau has repeatedly counted Louisiana as one of the states with nation’s highest percentage of native born among its residents. That means many in Louisiana have not experienced states with more extensive and higher-quality schools, transportation and other government-run systems, he said.
“It’s not corruption. It’s a lack of familiarity,” Mann said. “That’s another form of isolation.”
A lot of taxpayer money changes hands on the state level with not much scrutiny, said Bill Buzenberg, executive director for Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit investigative news organizations funded with donations from foundations and individuals.
Many part-time legislators rely on special interests and government bureaucrats to define the government services and their costs, he said. Less oversight allows for public and private institutions to hide abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty, Buzenberg said.
The center teamed with Global Integrity and Public Radio International to conduct a nationwide assessment that graded all 50 states on their accountability laws and how well those systems met the rhetorical expectations. Twenty-six states received “D” and “F” grades in March. (Louisiana got a C-.) This reporter participated in the study.
“We see tremendous problems at the state levels,” Buzenberg said in an interview on the day that The Times-Picayune’s owners announced that after 175 years the newspaper would stop publishing daily. The New Orleans paper announced plans to print three days a week but to operate primarily online employing far fewer journalists.
Noting a recent American Journalism Review study that showed the number of state government reporters dropped 30 percent between 2003 and 2009, Buzenberg said that fewer reporters mean fewer independent eyes are looking at and explaining for laymen what exactly state government leaders are doing with taxpayer dollars.
“That’s good news,” LSU’s Mann said, “if you’re a legislator or a governor.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.