The Swamp: To Drain or Not To Drain

I don’t always agree with President-elect Donald Trump, but I concurred when he tweeted, in the wake of House Republicans’ secretive January 2, 2017 vote to gut the Independent Ethics Office: “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it is…..may be, their number one act and priority.”

Nor am I always on the same page as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, but I agreed, at least in principle, when he wrote (also on January 2) that America is in danger of becoming a “stan”—the equivalent of a Central Asian country where strong men rule and corruption is a way of life. Krugman exaggerated, in my eyes, when he wrote: “Everything we know suggests that we’re entering into an era of epic corruption and contempt for the rule of law, with no restraint whatsoever.” But his worry that the United States may be moving in the wrong direction is legitimate and the stakes are very high.

Most of us recognize the importance of integrity in our society, yet House Republicans happily voted to put themselves in charge of investigating their own ethics violations. President-elect Trump has alternatively acted admirably (as when he called out the House Republicans and when he decided to dissolve his family foundation) and indefensibly (as when he profited substantially by having his campaign do business with his various companies and when he seems unwilling to take the necessary steps to eliminate conflicts of interest between his forthcoming Presidential responsibilities and his private business interests). Even Democrats applaud his positive actions. Even Republicans condemn his failure to properly divest business interests in order to cure conflicts of interest.

For her part, Hillary Clinton might well be preparing to take the oath of office had she not been so tone deaf on the issue of trust as to take (along with her husband) obscene amounts in speaking fees from the very Wall Street institutions that she knew she would have to regulate as President.

The recent Wells Fargo scandal indicates the state of trust and ethics in too much of our business community.

Honesty and integrity in governance, in politics, in business, in education and elsewhere are the bedrock of everything we hold dear—security, civility, stability, and more. Studies show that few things are more vital to the economic development of a country than the level of trust in its society. Yet, corruption is poison to trust. And conflicts of interest often lead to corruption. Krugman was right about the high stakes involved, because a widespread perception of corruption can have devastating effects on a nation. As I wrote recently (citing academic research) in a chapter to be published in an Oxford University book:

“When most people in a society perceive that corruption is widespread, this descriptive norm will often dominate, overwhelming the moral objections that people have to bribery activity. (Persson, et al., 2013). A self-reinforcing cycle can support bribery activity. A higher level of bribery activity leads people to tend to adopt pro-bribery norms (or at least to tend to avoid adopting anti-bribery norms) which affects peoples’ moral standards and moral action choices which, in turn, leads to more bribery activity and around the circle goes. Rothstein (2011) found that corruption by public officials (“the system”) causes people not so much to morally accept corrupt behavior as to tend to conclude that they cannot do anything about it and to lose trust in both their public officials and in other citizens. Hunt (2004) found that the more bribery activity there is in a country, the less likely any stigma or other adverse effects will to people who engage in that activity. Panth (2011) argues, depressingly, that corruption can become so institutionalized in a country’s daily life that its people will come to believe that there is no chance for change.”

The real problem demonstrated by the conduct of the House Republicans, Trump, and Clinton is that people can readily see how conflicts of interest might undermine the ethical decision making of others, but they have difficulty seeing how it affects their own. Among the reasons that people (and that means all of us) are seemingly blind to our own corrupt deeds are the bounded rationality, self-serving bias, the overconfidence bias, and the human ability to rationalize, all of which are addressed in our Ethics Unwrapped video series and educational program. To pick just one, Dolly Chugh and colleagues studied bounded ethicality and noted:

“[H]umans tend to view their own ethicality as unbounded. In fact, decision makers are psychologically motivated to maintain a stable view of a self that is moral, competent, and deserving, and thus, immune from ethical challenges. Because individuals view their immunity as more powerful than the situation (moral, competent) and view any gains incurred as appropriate (competent, deserving), this view is a barrier to recognizing and addressing conflicts of interest. So, ironically, decision makers’ persistent view of their own ethicality leads to substandard decisions.”

All of us must realize that we have these vulnerabilities. Codes of ethics and independent watchdogs can help tame our unethical selves. To ignore those codes or declaw those watchdogs because we are confident we are good people who will make good decisions is a recipe for disaster. In corporations, in politics, in universities and elsewhere we must heed the closing call of our latest video entitled Propaganda: Ethics & the Media: “Educate yourself!”

A good place to start might be to watch our documentary In It to Win about Jack Abramoff, for it was the Abramoff scandal that led to the creation of the Independent Ethics Office that the House Republicans tried to gut.

 

Sources:

Rachel Bade, John Bresnahan & Kyle Cheney, “Inside the House GOP Ethics Debacle,” POLITICO, Jan. 3, 2017.

George Ball, The Only Way to ‘Drain the Swamp’ for Good, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 26, 2016.

Jonah Bromwich, The Republican Ethics Vote: What Happened?, New York Times, Jan. 3, 2017.

Dolly Chugh, Max Bazerman & Mahzarin Banaji, Bounded Ethicality as a Psychological Barrier to Recognizing Conflicts of Interest” in Conflicts of Interest (Moore, et al. editors, 2005).

Javier E. David, “Trump to Dissolve Trump Foundation to Avoid Conflict, but NY Attorney General Says “’You Can’t,’” CNBC, Dec. 24, 2016.

Francesa Gino, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (2013).

Jennifer Hunt, “Trust and Bribery: The Role of the Quid Pro Quo and the Link with Crime” NBER Working Paper No. 10510 (2004).

Paul Krugman, American Becomes a Stan,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2017.

Sabina Panth, “Changing Norms is Key to Fighting Everyday Corruption,” World Bank (2011)..

Anna Persson, Bo Rothstein, & Jan Teorell, Why Anticorruption Reforms Fail—Systemic Corruption as a Collective Action Problem, 26 Governance 449 (2013).

Robert Prentice, Moral Norms, Behavioral Ethics, and Bribery Activity, in Thinking About Bribery: Neuroscience, Moral Cognition, and Psychology of Bribery (forthcoming).

Bo Rothstein, The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective (2011).

Deidre Walsh & Daniella Diaz, “House GOP Guts Ethics Panel,” CNN, Jan. 3, 2017.

Deidre Walsh & Daniella Diaz, “Donald Trump Criticizes Republicans’ Move to Gut Watchdog,” CNN, Jan. 3, 2017.

Joseph P. Williams, Is Trump’s Campaign Breaking the Law by Paying Money to Trump’s Businesses?, U.S. News, June 22, 2016.

Jim Zarroli, “Ethics Expert: Trump’s Efforts to Address Conflicts are ‘Baby Steps,’”, NPR, Jan. 2, 2017.

 

 

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