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Can an Electorate Hold Its Political Elite Accountable: The Case of François Fillon

Can a political elite hold itself accountable? Left to its own devices, absent a virtuous citizenry, a political elite is able to exploit a conflict of interest in both wielding the authority of government and using that power even to constrain the elite itself. Unfortunately, even where an electorate is virtuous, the dispersed condition of the popular sovereign is an impediment to galvanizing enough popular will to act as a counter-power to that of a political elite, which is relatively concentrated and well-informed. In early 2017, the problem was on full display in the E.U. state of France, with little the federal government could do given the amount of governmental sovereignty still residing at the state level. So the question is whether an electorate can galvanize enough power to counter that of a political elite.

François Fillon in trouble for corruption amid an ensconced political elite. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

The full essay is at “François Fillon.”

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The Courts Go After Gerrymandering: Deconstructing a Conflict-of-Interest

In the U.S., the boundaries of both federal (e.g., U.S. House of Representatives) and state legislative districts are redrawn every ten years after the census to “ensure that each district contains roughly the same number of people.”[1] Both major political parties in state legislatures “often remap districts to favor themselves, either by cramming opposition voters into a single district or by dividing them so they are the majority in fewer districts.”[2] I contend that a simple majority vote is problematic, given the irresistible temptation to redraw the districts for partisan advantage rather than merely to take account of changes in population.



The full essay is at “Gerrymandering.”


1. Michael Wines, “Judges Find Wisconsin Redistricting Unfairly Favored Republicans,” The New York Times, November 21, 2016.
2. Ibid.

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Steny Hoyer’s situational principles

It isn’t a secret that Steny Hoyer is a partisan hack who doesn’t have consistent principles. That’s apparent in Hoyer’s latest statement to the press. Monday morning, Hoyer issued a statement, saying “One of the basic principles that safeguards our democracy is the separation of the personal business interests of our leaders from the government […]

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Donald Trump as Businessman and U.S. President: How to Manage High-Stakes Conflicts of Interest

In a matter of days after his being elected as President of the United States, Donald Trump decided to put his business empire in the hands of his children. As laudable as it is for a father to have such pride in his offspring, the conflicts of interest cannot be ignored. It cannot be pretended that the Trump Organization would be in a blind trust; nor, given the element of temptation that is “huge” in a conflict of interest, would it be wise to simply trust the new president to do the right thing. While a president’s business should not have to take a major hit, the notion that assuming public office is a duty should be sufficient to justify costs—even in terms of opportunities lost (i.e., opportunity cost)—arising as a result of the business being put in a blind trust. In the case of a business empire, whose properties are of course known to the future president, expunging any chance of conflicts of interest is prohibitive, if not unrealistic. So the task, I submit, is to do what can realistically be done while recognizing that conflicts of interest are inherently unethical—meaning that human nature should not be expected to stand up to the inherent temptation.

The full essay is at “Donald Trump: Conflicts of Interest.”

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Organizational Conflicts of Interest and National Interest: The Case of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation

Organizational lapses, such as in non-profits or companies, regarding institutional conflicts of interest can extend in impact as far as distorting or impairing government policy and national interest if a principal of the organization also holds a hig… . . . → Read More: Organizational Conflicts of Interest and National Interest: The Case of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation

Organizational Conflicts of Interest and National Interest: The Case of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation

Organizational lapses, such as in non-profits or companies, regarding institutional conflicts of interest can extend in impact as far as distorting or impairing government policy and national interest if a principal of the organization also holds a hig… . . . → Read More: Organizational Conflicts of Interest and National Interest: The Case of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation

An Anti-Obesity, Anti-Poverty Philanthropist Joins PepsiCo.’s Board: A Case of Reform from Within

In October 2016, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, became the newest member of PepsiCo’s board of directors. Whereas Walker worked at the time for a more just and equitable society, Pepsi was making the bulk of its money by selling sugary drinks and fatty snacks and there being a well-established link between obesity and economic inequality. Would he be working at cross-purposes? “There’s a risk that he will be viewed as inconsistent,” said Michael Edwards, a former Ford Foundation executive at the time.[1]The company itself could also be viewed as being inconsistent—lobbying against anti-obesity public-health legislation while putting Walker on the board of directors.


The full essay is at “Philanthropist Joins PepsiCo.’s Board.”


1. David Gelles, “An Activist for the Poor Joins Pepsi’s Board. Is That Ethical?,” The New York Times, October 28, 2016.

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Fraud in Selling Sub-Prime Mortgage-Based Bonds: Beyond Accountability

“In December 2011, the S.E.C. publicized its civil securities fraud charges against top executives from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for understating their exposure to subprime mortgages, which resulted in the government taking them over.”[1]Robert Khuzami, then the head of the S.E.C.’s enforcement division, said at the time that “all individuals, regardless of their rank or position, will be held accountable for perpetuating half-truths or misrepresentations about matters materially important to the interest of our country’s investors.”[2]Pursuing even senior ranks has the air of fairness economically as well as in terms of the dictum, no one is above the law. So much for words; how about the accompanying deeds?


The full essay is at “Fraud in Selling Sub-Prime Bonds.”

1. Peter Henning, “Prosecution of Financial Crisis Fraud Ends With a Whimper,” The New York Times, August 29, 2016.

2. Ibid.

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Tech Industry Self-Regulation: Sufficient to Handle the Ethics of A.I.?

Five of the world’s largest tech companies—Google’s Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft—had by September 2016 been working out the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, transportation, and the general welfare.[1]The basic intention was “to ensure that A.I. research is focused on benefiting people, not hurting them.”[2]The underlying ethical theory is premised on a utilitarian consequentialism wherein benefit is maximized while harm is minimized. The ethics of whether the companies should be joining together when the aim is to forestall government regulation is less clear, given the checkered pass of industry self-regulation and the conflict of interest involved,

The full essay is at “Tech Industry Self-Regulation.”


[1]John Markoff, “Devising Real Ethics for Artificial Intelligence,” The New York Times, September 2, 2016.

[2]Ibid.

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California Passes Stricter Pollution Targets: Bringing Business Around

California’s legislature approved a bill (SB 32) in August, 2016 that extends the climate targets from reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 (the former target) to just 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030.[1]A second law, which includes increased legislative oversight of California regulators and targets refineries in poor areas, passed as well. Diane Regas of the Environmental Defense Fund pointed to California’s climate leadership. “As major economies work under the Paris Agreement to strengthen their plans to cut pollution and boost clean energy, California, once again, is setting a new standard for climate leadership worldwide.”[2]At first glance, it would seem that the legislature had freed itself from big business to pass the bills, but the sector itself was split. I submit the anticipation of a refreshed “cap and trade” program as an alternative (or mitigating factor) to stricter regulations played a role. Simply put, using the market mechanism in government regulation makes the stricter targets more palatable to market-based enterprises.

The full essay is at “California on Greenhouse Gases.”


1. Chris Megerian, “’A Real Commitment Backed Up by Real Power’: Gov. Jerry Brown to Sign Sweeping New Climate legislation,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2016.

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Apollo Global Flew Too Close to the Sun: Personal and Institutional Conflicts of Interest

I submit that people tend to get more upset over the exploitation of personal conflicts of interest than the institutional sort. That is to say, our blood boils when we learn of another person contravening a duty in order to gain financially, yet we don’t mind when a CPA firm falsely gives a qualified opinion on an audit so the company being audited will continue with that audit firm the following year. Logically, as the money involved is more in the case of the CPA firm and individuals within the firm stand to benefit personally as the firm is enriched by the continued business, yet even so, we cannot stand direct personal enrichment resulting from a conflict of interest. In August, 2016, Apollo Global, a large private equity firm, settled with the SEC. Both personal and institutional conflicts of interest brought on the $53 million fine. Hence, this case is useful in comparing the two sorts of conflicts of interest.

The full essay is at “Apollo Global Too Close to the Sun

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Beyond Facebook’s Impact on Political Polarization in the U.S.

Any time “scientists” at a company purport to have done a study involving said company in any way, the public has good reason to be suspicious of the reported conclusions. Were the folks running the company really intent on providing credible information, they would use independent scholars (i.e., not being compensated by the company). Such a management would want to obviate even the appearance of a conflict of interest—their desire to provide the public with an answer being so strong. So the management at Facebook may not have been very invested in providing the public an answer to the question: how much influence do users actually have over the content in their feeds? In May 2015, three “Facebook data scientists” published a peer-reviewed study in Science Magazineon how often Facebook users had been “exposed to political views different from their own.”[1]The “scientists” concluded that if users “mostly see news and updates from friends who support their own political ideology, it’s primarily because of their own choices—not the company’s algorithm.”[2]Academic scholars criticized the study’s methodology and cautioned that the risk of polarized “echo chambers” on Facebook was nonetheless significant.[3]I was in academia long enough to know that methodological criticism by more than one scholar is enough to put an empirical study’s findings in doubt. Nowadays, I am more oriented to the broader implications of the “echo-chamber” criticism.


The entire essay is at “Beyond Facebook’s Impact.”



[i]Alexander B. Howard, “Facebook Study Says Users Control What They See, But Critics Disagree,” The Huffington Post, May 12, 2015.

[ii]Ibid. I put the quotes around “scientists” to make the point that the conflict of interest renders the label itself controversial in being applied to the study’s investigators.

[iii]See, for example, Christian Sandvig, “The Facebook ‘It’s Not Our Fault’ Study,” Multicast, Harvard Law School Blogs, May 7, 2015.

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BuzzFeed’s Internal Firewalls Fall to a Conflict of Interest

In spite of the fact that public-accounting firms rely on their respective audit clients’ decisions to be retained to perform the next year’s audit, society deems an unqualified audit-opinion to be independent. The assumption is that the audit firms can police themselves, keeping their financial pressures from influencing the audit opinions. The ongoing temptation is of course to produce a clean opinion so as to be retained as the client’s public accountants. Unfortunately, someone at a given CPA firm must have authority requiring attention both to audit opinions and the firm’s own financial performance; internal policies separating pressure from the latter from reaching the former can thus be easily overcome from the vantage point of that authority. This vulnerability was on display in 2015 in the “dot-com” industry in BuzzFeed.


The full essay is at “BuzzFeed’s Internal Firewalls.”

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Hollywood’s Conflict of Interest in Trade Negotiations

At the intersection of business and government, a conflict of interest can be indicative of plutocracy, the rule of wealth, at the expense both of balanced public policy and democracy. That is to say, where the regulated have disproportionate influence over regulators and said influence places the regulated in a conflict of interest, the unethical dimension is dwarfed by the distortive impact on the political system. The disproportionate influence of the content industry (i.e., Hollywood) in the U.S. position on the Pacific Trade negotiations in 2014 is a case in point.


The full essay is at “Hollywood and Trade.” 

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The Fed Lets Banks Continue Risky Trades: Too Big To Fail Ensconced

In December 2014, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank granted banks an extra year past the July 2015 deadline to comply with a major provision of the Volcker Rule requiring the banks to unwind investments in private equity firms, hedge funds, and specialty securities projects.[1]The Fed also announced that it would give the banks yet another year to hold onto their positions. The Fed’s rationale points to an underlying conflict of interest facing the Fed, a banking regulator that is arguably too vulnerable to the banks’ lobbying muscle.


The full essay is at “Risky Trades


1. Zach Carter, “Fed Delays Volcker Rule, Giving Wall Street Another Holiday Gift,” The Huffington Post, December 18, 2014.

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New England quarterback Tom Brady dropping F-bombs! (Video)

Get Obama Toilet Paper For That Special Someone On Your Christmas Giving List!Or, if that doesn’t HIT the spot, might I suggest The Obama Punching Bag instead?Hey Tom:That’s a small taste of what it’s like to be a New York Jets fan! H/T Bleacher Report… . . . → Read More: New England quarterback Tom Brady dropping F-bombs! (Video)

Wall Street Banks in Commodities Businesses: An Inherently Unethical Conflict of Interest

Writing to the bank’s board of directors, an executive at Goldman Sachs wrote that the bank’s commodities division would achieve higher value “if the business was able to grow physical activities, unconstrained by regulation and integrated with the financial activities.”[1]According to Sen. Carl Levin, Goldman’s goal here is “to profit in its financial activities using the information it gains in the physical commodities business.”[2]The integration could be achieved in part by using the bank’s access to nonpublic information from the banking or trading operations to manipulate the price of a commodity by artificially restricting or adding to supplies through ownership at the production or storage stages. This structure contains a conflict of interest. Because resisting the temptation to exploit the conflict would put the Goldman bankers at odds with the bank’s financial interest, I contend that reliance by the public on intra-bank firewalls (i.e., policies) separating the commodity businesses from the bank’s trading operations is too weak to protect the public, including buyers of the commodity.


The full essay is at “Wall Street Banks in Commodities


[i]Sen. Carl Levin, “Opening Statement,” Wall Street Bank Involvement in Physical Commodities Hearing, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, U.S. Senate, November 20, 2014 (accessed November 21, 2014)

[ii]Ibid.

[iii]Ibid.

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Conflicts of interest in business!

Get Obama Toilet Paper For That Special Someone On Your Christmas Giving List!When purchasing anything we should always be concerned about whether the salesman has a vested interest, or axe to grind, in the product we are about to buy!In other words ar… . . . → Read More: Conflicts of interest in business!

Union elections with a Chicago touch

It’s bad enough that AFSCME is intent on forcing a unionization vote down child care providers’ throats. What’s worse is that the person overseeing the election is owned by AFSCME: Governor Dayton appointed Josh Tilsen to be commissioner of the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) in Feburary 2011. As BMS commissioner, Tilsen administers union elections, […]

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Teaching or Training: Ethical Leadership

  Pretty interesting stuff here, and in truth there are few things more important than teaching those who would lead to do so ethically. But, and this is important, define ethical in this context, and can it be taught, at all, or by a school, and if not, why not?   Lots of questions, not […] . . . → Read More: Teaching or Training: Ethical Leadership . . . → Read More: Teaching or Training: Ethical Leadership