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Corruption in Cities: Graft and Politics in American Cities at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

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  • Rebecca Menes

Abstract

The essay is an exploration of corruption as practiced by city politicians in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Corruption is generally considered to be bad for the performance of governments and for the growth and development of economies, but American cities grew rapidly and were, as far as tangible evidence suggests, relatively well governed. I propose the answer to this conundrum lies in the exact types of graft which were possible. Skimming from city contracts and manipulating local real estate markets encouraged politicians to pursue growth enhancing policies. Many of the most damaging forms of government interference - closing borders and pursuing input-substituting policies - are not possible in cities. Patronage politics made corruption more likely by insulating politicians from (some) voter wrath, but the ability of the tax base to depart the city provided some constraints on rent-extraction. The city Boss did not want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. The analysis of urban graft is based on contemporary reports, especially the very detailed reports in Shame of the Cities' by Lincoln Steffens. The analysis also answers other important questions raised by the experience of Progressive Era cities: Why did businessmen back reform? And why did machine politics rise, and fall, between 1890 and 1930?

Suggested Citation

  • Rebecca Menes, 2003. "Corruption in Cities: Graft and Politics in American Cities at the Turn of the Twentieth Century," NBER Working Papers 9990, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9990 Note: DAE
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Martin C. McGuire & Mancur Olson Jr., 1996. "The Economics of Autocracy and Majority Rule: The Invisible Hand and the Use of Force," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 34(1), pages 72-96, March.
    2. Krueger, Anne O, 1993. "Virtuous and Vicious Circles in Economic Development," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(2), pages 351-355, May.
    3. Charles M. Tiebout, 1956. "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 64, pages 416-416.
    4. Murphy, Kevin M & Shleifer, Andrei & Vishny, Robert W, 1993. "Why Is Rent-Seeking So Costly to Growth?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(2), pages 409-414, May.
    5. Paolo Mauro, 1995. "Corruption and Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 110(3), pages 681-712.
    6. Joseph D. Reid, Jr. & Michael M. Kurth, 1992. "The Rise and Fall of Urban Political Patronage Machines," NBER Chapters,in: Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel, pages 427-445 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Pranab Bardhan & Dilip Mookherjee, 2005. "Decentralization, Corruption and Government Accountability: An Overview," Boston University - Department of Economics - The Institute for Economic Development Working Papers Series dp-152, Boston University - Department of Economics.
    2. David M. Cutler & Grant Miller, 2006. "Water, Water Everywhere. Municipal Finance and Water Supply in American Cities," NBER Chapters,in: Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America's Economic History, pages 153-184 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Nowook Park & Rohini Somanathan, 2004. "Patronage in public administration: Presidential connections, position assignments and the performance of Korean public prosecutors, 1992-2000," Indian Statistical Institute, Planning Unit, New Delhi Discussion Papers 04-02, Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, India.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H7 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations
    • N4 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation

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