Last month, the Atlantic Cities reported on a very interesting study by Harvard researchers linking the distance of state capitals from major population centers to corruption. Generally speaking, the more remote the capital, the more corruption there was in that state (as measured by federal convictions). As ever, correlation is not causation and there are plenty of outliers, but the findings are intriguing nonetheless.
They also got me to thinking: beyond its potential role in facilitating the occasional corrupt act by an individual or small group of individuals, could the isolation of state capitals have an impact on the average quality of all bureaucratic talent? Corruption is obviously a big deal, but usually limited in scope; a systemic under-recruitment of talented, ambitious public employees at the state level could have far more devastating effects in the long term.
To see why our remote capitals might be doing a disservice to good governance, we don't even need to look at government employment. To some extent, publicly- and privately-owned businesses are already responding to the heightened attraction of the "major population centers" those Harvard researchers were referring to: Twitter decided to locate in San Francisco, Google put offices in New York City, Amazon is rapidly expanding operations in the core of Seattle. These are expensive markets, and superficially it might seem like a waste of money, but these major corporations have reached the conclusion that they need to be located in dense, walkable, transit-rich cities if they want to attract the talent they need to continue to be successful. Why should it be any different for state employees?
Of course, there are plenty of highly qualified and capable people that actually prefer to live in the smaller-city/suburban atmosphere. That's fine. In cities like Albany or Olympia or Sacramento, though, you're significantly limited in the type of lifestyle you can lead. It's basically suburban car-dependence or bust. And while there are many millions of people who want exactly that, there are as many or more who don't want anything like it, or at least wouldn't rank it highly if they had complete freedom of choice.
Large cities, on the other hand, can provide a place for a much larger group of people with a much broader set of interests. The woman who wants to live downtown and spend her leisure time in coffee shops and bars, and seeing live music and poetry readings is free to do so; the man who wants to spend most of his time in his room blogging and reading (ahem) but values the convenience of a grocery store down the road and work within bicycling distance can get what he wants; those that do want the two-car garage, front and back yards, and relative seclusion of the suburbs can always find it without venturing too far. If you can capture a wider swathe of the population (both demographically and in absolute number) in your commute-shed (if that's a word) then you can pick from a larger pool of applicants for your Auditor's office, Liquor Control Board, Department of Health, and on and on. Some of those applicants wouldn't have been interested if the job had been in a remote town, and some of those will be extremely good at their jobs.
The method by which you might study this question is something I'd be interested in hearing from readers about. How do you measure the impact of a more effective workforce? Per-capita income or population-adjusted GDP seems like an obvious choice, but it's likely that if the distance of capitals has any impact it's on the order of a few percentage points of growth and could easily be swamped by other internal or external factors (like a giant recession, for example). And what's the control group? There are also definitely potential benefits like better institutional design that improves responsiveness to constituent concerns or higher quality web sites (read: http://www.altcew.org/), neither of which would necessarily show up in the state's economy but would improve people's lives nonetheless.
One additional note: I just want to make it clear that I'm not saying our current public officials are underqualified or generally doing a poor job--this isn't a critique on existing bureaucratic efficiency or effectiveness at all. In the spirit of this blog's name, it's simply a recognition that things can always be better, and we should be open to considering anything that might fulfill that mission.