Measuring Corruption and Other Intangibles

In my last post, I tried to compare the relative competence in military affairs of the current administration relative to that of the Reagan, GHW Bush, and Clinton administrations. There is no actual measure of “competence” so I picked a proxy – an admittedly imperfect (namely, changes in the death rate by accident and illness of American military personnel) one, but for what its worth, the conclusions it leads to seem to fit with some other evidence (e.g., that this administration is the first to be well on its way to losing two major wars, and those against somewhat incompetent and disorganized opponents).

In the last few days, I’ve been out of town and without much access to a computer and/or news. I heard bits and pieces about the Foley affair, which led me to start thinking about the whole “culture of corruption” thing. As a guy who likes to look at data, I started to wonder – how do you measure corruption? Corruption is an intangible – an important intangible, but still an intangible – and intangibles are hard to measure.

In the case of corruption, there is a Corruption Index that seems to be reasonably credible when it comes to comparing the relative corruption of various countries. But say that one wanted to look at whether an administration was more or less corrupt than its predecessors? Or whether a political party had recently become a lot more corrupt. Presumably, one could count convictions. But… without spending many, many hours finding this information, where is this data? Is there any organization out there that keeps a credible count of members of an administration or political party that are convicted?

Of course, even convictions are only a proxy, and every proxy has its problems. For example, convictions are something of a lagging indicator if anything, and it would be nice to be able to say in real time whether an administration or party truly is corrupt or not. Another problem with convictions is that without a prosecution, there can be no conviction, and some administrations are more brazen about not following laws than others.

Because no single measure is perfect, it makes sense to look at multiple measures. I was thinking that “supplemental appropriations” as a percentage of Federal Spending might be a good measure of incompetence and/or mendacity. Katrinas happen, but calling the ongoing cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to say some of the cost of modernizing the military) “special circumstances that could not be foreseen when the President’s budget was transmitted to Congress” seems to be, at the very least, disingenuous. (Its worse if you take the administration at its word and assume those costs truly aren’t being anticipated when the budget is being prepared.)

Anyone have any idea where one can find historical data on supplemental appropriations in an easy to use format? Or data on convictions by party or administration? What are things you think would be cool to see measured, and can you think of ways to do it that don’t require more time gathering than crunching the numbers?

Update: In response to a comment, the link to my previous post is here.