The Blagojevich Upside

To call Rod Blagojevich‘s alleged crimes lunacy is to give the moon a bad name. So I won’t even ponder here what led him to do what he is said to have done.

Blagojevich earned a brief mention in Freakonomics, in a section arguing that having a lot of books at home doesn’t cause children to do better at school. It’s true that kids from book-filled homes do better at school — but that’s because the books are a proxy for well-educated parents.

But Blagojevich was a true believer:

In early 2004, Governor Rod Blagojevich announced a plan to mail one book a month to every child in Illinois from the time they were born until they entered kindergarten. The plan would cost $26 million a year. But, Blagojevich argued, this was a vital intervention in a state where 40 percent of third graders read below their grade level. “When you own [books] and they’re yours,” he said, “and they just come as part of your life, all of that will contribute to a sense … that books should be part of your life.”

O.K., so he kind of talked in a circle. And O.K., his plan was ultimately rejected. But at least he wasn’t trying to get a piece of the book sales (as far as we know).

But that wasn’t even the first section of our book that came to mind while reading about Blagojevich. Rather, I thought about how sumo wrestlers collude to throw matches. One of the pieces of evidence in the argument was that the collusion stopped for a while whenever corruption charges hit the media. There is nothing like scrutiny to improve behavior.

So now that Blagojevich’s corruption charges have hit the media, I’m guessing we’ll see some super-squeaky-clean behavior among those governors and other politicians who are in the middle of handing out U.S. Senate seats and other goodies. What kind of quid pro quo can, say, New York Governor David Paterson be expecting as he considers replacements for Hillary Clinton‘s seat? He may not have expected much to begin with but, for Paterson as well as a lot of others, a gloomy Christmas season may have just gotten a little gloomier.

The upside, of course, is that any politicians hoping to cash in on an appointment or a contract or a piece of legislation will probably be scared off by the Blagojevich bust. Which might — might — mean that politics becomes a bit less corrupt, at least for the next few months.


The opening introduction to this post was encouraging, as I thought Mr. Dubner was suggesting that Blagojevich's antics were not that far from the norm.

There are politics within politics, and legislation promises, appointment promises, and any other forms of deal-brokering are quite frequent when it comes to elected officials. The only difference here is that Blagojevich's unit of exchange was money, whereas most politicians just promise policy changes. This should not be shocking to any student of political science, or fans of The Wire.


Hmm.... Blagojevic seems like a crook, but he's nothing compared to what happens in Mexico.
Here, public school teachers, who happen to be employees of the state, OWN their job positions and when they want to retire or decide to go to a different job, they are allowed to inherit their job to their children or to sell it to whomever is interested in buying it.
It doesn't matter if the new owner of the job has the credentials to be a teacher, they simply have to attend class around 80% of school days in order to be paid their salaries and benefits. When they want to quit, it's their turn to inherit or sell their teaching position.
How about corruption??


I have to say, while the idea might be for a good cause, it is also impractical. Why should the government spend $26 million a year when public libraries are available? If these children really are reading below their level then the parents should be the ones taking a stand and doing something about it. If they don't take the time to go to the library or a book store to buy a book, then maybe they don't care enough about their kids. And if they don't why should the government? Though education is extremely important, there are many ways parents can get involved. That money could be spent on improving the infrastructure, healthcare, and several other important factors that can't necessarily be dealt with individually.

Hilda CMS

Politics will always be corrupt no matter how media is affecting it, especially is the media is filtered and manipulated, which it clearly is. His reasoning on the book situation was a bit circular but it made a bit of sense. We are accustomed to our surroundings and they affect our actions but sending books to children does not guarantee that they will read them because the parents also have a responsibility to assume. Nevertheless the books do provide incentive but I don't know if it's the correct approach.


It clearly would have been a total failure. Most third grades do not even read that much, I mean they are probably still trying to figure out how to write complete sentences, if they even know what that means. The point is that this only seems as another dirty political attempt. Probably they said this would cost $26 million a year, but they would use it for something else.
It seems as if corrupting will always be present, since politicians "smuggle" dirty money even in children's affair. In this road we are walking, economy does not seem to be ever at its finest point; since corruption messes everything up.


CandyKay - "What I find amazing is that message boards are full of suggestions that Blagojevich was taken down by Republican dirty tricks."

They miss the obvious point. He is a Republican. Its just that in Illinois, its difficult to get elected as such, so he pretended to be a Democrat.

This is not unlike the situation in the south before Nixon's "Southern Strategy" made it possible for racist, corrupt, right wing scum to get elected as Republicans. They called themselves Democrats then too.


Steve, you're making the "no true Scotsman" arguement, which is also called equivocating. You're defending Democrats by stating that anyone who is corrupt isn't really a Democrat, but a Republican. But then what are you defending? I mean, if we want to take the word "Democrat" to mean "non-corrupt," okay, we could do that, but then we'd have two words for corrupt and no word for people of that organization. If there's nothing essential distinguishing him *but* his corruption, you're proving nothing in defense of your party. The fact is that the Democrats allowed someone corrupt into their ranks, whether you like it or not. Four of the last eight govenors of Illinois have been indicted and three of them were Democrats.

the Gooch

If elected government officials had to resign their current position to run for higher office, this crap wouldn't happen.

Also, we'd actually have people doing the jobs they're paid to do.

Resign to run.

That should be a new call to arms.


Perhaps coincidentally the Republican House caucus just tossed Rep Don Young (R-AK) from his committee seats. He's spent $1M+ in the past year on his defense attorneys.

Now he's on the road to nowhere.


You would think that someone like Blagojovich would clean up his act knowing that the FBI was watching him. That's what normal human beings like you and I would do.

The difference is that in Illinois politics (The whole state - not just Chicago) corruption is a way of life. Asking these people to give up graft is like asking a waiter to give up tips or like asking Stephen Levitt to give up book royalties and live on his salary as a professor.

Remember that an honest politician wouldn't give away a senate seat for nothing either. He would ask that the new Senator support his favorite programs or bring home federal money for the governor's favorite project. He may even demand that the new Senator give the Governor support when he runs for his next office. Blagojevich (and others like him) refused to see that asking for money to go into your own pocket crosses the line.

Sending one more Illinois governor to jail isn't going to change things over there. They've already locked up 4 previous governors - including Blagojevich's immediate predecessor. The voters in Illinois are going to have to stop being patient with all the petty (and legal) graft that they've tolerated for so long. Start making a scandal out of officials who fix their own parking tickets (as happened to the mayor of Mt. View, CA) and you will find that the big stuff happens less. You can think of my idea as the 'Broken Windows Theory' of political corruption.


Thanatos Savehn

Typical progressive nonsense.

Correlation is not causation. Nonetheless, meaningless correlations have launched a hundred leftist causes.

Sadly they've never bothered to examine the association between leftist causes and human misery. Or maybe they have; but then they had to look away.


#19, the rules for the replacement of a Senator vary by State. I believe the Illinois rule is unusual, in that the candidate can be appointed at the governor's sole discretion. In all cases, the appointee can only serve until the next general election, in this case 2010.

#21, I was referring to comments on the Chicago Tribune message boards. But there is no guarantee that those comments are being posted by people actually living in Chicago. Although I'm a native Midwesterner myself, I'm posting this comment from my home in Denmark!


I live in Chicago and we put up with a lot of corruption. It sort of goes like this:

I don't care if the mayor hired his cousin to manage the street sweepers, as long as the streets get swept. The city works, and the bills get paid (mostly). Unethical, sure; but it's like not telling the waiter about an error on the check in your favor. Hey, the job gets done anyway, right?

Here's the real problem with Blago - he's an idiot. He is selfish, narcissistic, and has a big mouth. He's not just a crook, he's a dumb, crazy crook. It was kind of assumed that he would appoint a political ally to the Senate seat and cash in on the political capital later. The whole cash-on-the-barrel approach was stupid and excessive.

I just hope Fitzgerald didn't blow his case by arresting him too soon.

Steve in Chicago

I think Organizational Behavior provides a better explanation for corruption in IL politics than Economics. According the Sumo theory, Blago should have been scared off as Ryan and Rezko were put in prison but he wasn't.

I think the media is practicing fundamental attribution error - where people often underestimate the power of the situation. Put the average person in a strong situation and the person's behavior will be determined more by the situation than the person's character or personality. IL politics has a history of corruption. What we should focus on in IL is changing the situation.

Matt Zagaja

We can see this in Connecticut.,0,4670559.story

State legislator turns in man attempting to bribe her.


Paterson has some clear quid pro quo for the senate seat- whoever he appoints won't challenge him in the 2010 primary! That is a far more valuable from Cuomo than cash.

Emmanuel M

From a french point of vue, the Blagojevich upside is huge.

The idea that a corrupted politician could be fired and jailed is clearly an american innovation that wasn't even imagined (let even implemented) in Mitterand's or Jacques Chirac's country. I suppose this is some foreign characteristic of real democracies ....

We may hope that Blagojevich may incite french voters to look at what could be possible (instead of stupidly mocking Bush's IQ or Clinton's sexgate).

I would say that outside of the US, this case could be seen as a strong signal of what constitutes a really free country.


The book proposal sounds like Imagination Library, a program championed by Dolly Parton that has been implemented in many Tennessee counties. I don't think state funds are used. The cost is split between a foundation (headed by the current governor, I believe) and local service clubs (Kiwanis, Rotary, Optimist, etc.).


The point that this will keep things cleaner for a while is well made. But just in case , I have some cash laying around I took out of the stockmarket anyone have Pattersons number? Mabey we could come to some agreement!!!

Michael from Chicago

I don't know why people have a problem with Blago. It was all just talk, nothing really happened. Besides, I think he's CUTE!