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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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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

Wallonia Threatens to Veto the E.U.-Canada Trade Treaty: Complicating State Sovereignty in the E.U.

“The European Union and Canada signed a far-reaching trade agreement on [October 30, 2016] that commits them to opening their markets to greater competition, after overcoming a last-minute political obstacle that reflected the growing skepticism toward… . . . → Read More: Wallonia Threatens to Veto the E.U.-Canada Trade Treaty: Complicating State Sovereignty in the E.U.

What Fabricating Dumb Lies Says about a Corrupt Public Official and Corruption Itself

You would think that a prime minister of a country would not cover an accusation of corruption with ludicrous lies. For one thing, the lies easily made transparent by fact-checking journalists would reflect back on the statement of innocence itself. Just being accused in public should prompt carefully thought-out lies because the failure to sustain the lies would naturally cause people to conclude that the corruption charge is valid. The connector here is bad character, plus the assumption that it is easy to obviate charges of corruption. This assumption itself may indicate that the office-holder believes that corruption is widespread—and from this belief can come the assumption that it is easy to get away with taking money benefitting the office-holder and spouse. The conduct of Malayia’s prime minister Razak Najib and his wife Mansor Rosmah between 2008 and 2015 bear out my thesis.

The full essay is at “Fabricating Dumb lies.”

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Corporate Money in Politics: Undue Influence and Conflicts of Interest

Indications of “the pervasive influence of corporate cash in the democratic process, and the extraordinary lengths to which politicians, lobbyists and even judges go to solicit money” can be seen in sealed but leaked court documents in Wisconsin.[1]This glimpse in to the real money-game in business and government shows just how much corporate money is in play. “The files open a window on a world that is very rarely glimpsed by the public, in which millions of dollars are secretly donated by major corporations and super-wealthy individuals to third-party groups in an attempt to sway elections.”[2] In addition, the files show just how easy it is for public officials to deny having been subject to conflicts of interest. The combination of a lot of money and the ability to get away with exploiting a conflict of interest is toxic to a viable representative democracy (i.e., a republic).


The full essay is at “Corporate Money in Politics.”



[1] Ed Pilkington, “Leaded Documents Reveal Secretive Influence of Corporate Cash on Politics,” The Guardian, September 14, 2016.

[2]Ibid.

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Brazil’s Rousseff Impeached and Removed from Office: A Case of Partisan Politics?

Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office at the end of August, 2016. The state’s senate voted 61-20 to convict her on charges that she used illegal bookkeeping maneuvers to hid a growing budget deficit.[1]Her defense that she did not enrich herself through public office—that she did not steal public money for her own account—can be regarded as an attempt to deflect the legislators from the existing charges.[2]Only 56 legislators were necessary for a two-thirds majority. Given the problems of hyperinflation and fiscal mismanagement, including a growing public debt, her offenses were “deemed an impeachable crime.”[3]Although Brazil was hardly the only country where the chief executive has sought under political pressure to make a budget deficit look smaller than it actually was, enforcing deterring consequences even just in this case is laudable—while other, partisan motives, detracted from the vote’s legitimacy.

The complete essay is at “Partisan Impeachment in Brazil?”

1. Paulo Trevisani and Reed Johnson, “Brazilian President Rousseff Ousted,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2016.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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Migrants Overwhelming Europe: Unfairness Impeding the E.U.

More than 100,000 migrants, many of them refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, entered Hungary from January to August 2015, the vast majority en route to the more affluent northwestern E.U. states. A record 50,000, many of them Syrians, reached Greece by boat from Turkey in July alone. Meanwhile, Hungary was building a fence along the state’s border with Serbia, where 8,000 migrants were staying in parks, to keep more migrants from entering.[1] I contend that the disproportionate power of the state governments relative to that of the federal government accounts in part for the difficulty that the E.U. has faced in coming to grips with the tremendous influx. This case suggests why redressing the imbalance in the federal system has been plagued with difficulty.

The complete essay is at “Migrants Overwhelming Europe.” 



Police disperse migrants at a registration place in Kos, Greece. Should the E.U. leave it to the state governments to handle the crisis? (Yorgos Karahalis/AP)

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Political Contributions in the U.S.: Political Bribery Beyond Access

What exactly does a large political contribution do for a contributor? The standard line is that access is “bought.” Being far removed from the Washington “belt-way,” the American people have swallowed the line, admittedly naively. As of 2015, we can look at the proverbial “man behind the curtain” for a much more realistic grasp of the extent to which the American political system is corrupt.


The full essay is at “Political Bribery

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Political Contributions in the U.S.: Political Bribery Beyond Access

What exactly does a large political contribution do for a contributor? The standard line is that access is “bought.” Being far removed from the Washington “belt-way,” the American people have swallowed the line, admittedly naively. As of 2015, we can look at the proverbial “man behind the curtain” for a much more realistic grasp of the extent to which the American political system is corrupt.


The full essay is at “Political Bribery

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The Boys from Brazil

Josef Mengele, an SS physician infamous for his inhumane medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz, is in this film a character intent on furnishing the 95 Hitlers he has cloned with Hitler’s own background. Crucially, Hitler’s father died at 65. So too, Mengele, reasons, must the adoptive fathers of the boy Hitlers. Otherwise, they might not turn out like Hitler. The ethics of Mengele’s task—killing 95 innocent 65 year-olds—is clear. When Ezra Lieberman stops Mengele in his tracks, the question turns to the ethics of killing the 95 boys so none of them will grow up to be another Hitler. This is a much more interesting ethical question. 



The full essay is at “The Boys from Brazil.”

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Advise and Consent: Does Politics Have a Limit?

A film that centers on the U.S. Senate’s role in confirming executive nominations made by the president, Advise and Consent (1962) is arguably about whether moral limits pertain to power.  Put another way, should we expect no-hold barred efforts to manipulate others in the political arena? Personal lives and personal pasts being fair game?  Moreover, is the aim power for its own sake, or the manipulation of others for the sake of a public policy and ultimately the good of the country?


The full essay is at “Advise and Consent” 

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Political Theater Undermining American Democracy

To be viable, a representative democracy needs a virtuous and educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed on this point in their exchange of letters in retirement. Their assumption was that an electorate would be able to apply judgment informed by virtue and a broad knowledge to not only matters of public policy, but also the candidates and incumbent office-holders themselves. To the extent that the people in power use it to present a false image, the judgment by the popular sovereign is unavoidably marred. The democratic system itself falters even if it is being portrayed as strong by those at its helm. I contend that the extent of political theater being orchestrated by U.S. office-holders compromises the democratic legitimacy of public power at the federal level.

The full essay is at “Political Theater

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Political Theater Undermining American Democracy

To be viable, a representative democracy needs a virtuous and educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed on this point in their exchange of letters in retirement. Their assumption was that an electorate would be able to apply judgment informed by virtue and a broad knowledge to not only matters of public policy, but also the candidates and incumbent office-holders themselves. To the extent that the people in power use it to present a false image, the judgment by the popular sovereign is unavoidably marred. The democratic system itself falters even if it is being portrayed as strong by those at its helm. I contend that the extent of political theater being orchestrated by U.S. office-holders compromises the democratic legitimacy of public power at the federal level.

The full essay is at “Political Theater

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Narrowing Public Debate: Political Narrative as Fact

For ordering his men at Gettysburg to keep firing at over 10,000 Virginian infantrymen in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge, Alonzo Cushing—who died in the battle—was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barak Obama on November 6, 2014. As a result of that charge, Pickett lost his entire division. In the 1984 film, Gettysburg, General Lee tells Pickett after the battle to look after his division. “But General Lee,” Pickett counters, “I have no division.” Suddenly Lee is confronted with the true magnitude of his military blunders at Gettysburg. From this point of view, Cushing’s military honor looks rather different than from Obama’s point of view. As conveyed by the media, that vantage point enjoyed a virtual monopoly, and thus the interpretation could easily be taken as true rather than relative. I submit that much from the political discourse as sourced or conveyed by the media is projected as truth when it is highly subjective and thus subject to question and debate.


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Narrowing Public Debate: Political Narrative as Fact

For ordering his men at Gettysburg to keep firing at over 10,000 Virginian infantrymen in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge, Alonzo Cushing—who died in the battle—was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barak Obama on November 6, 2014. As a result of that charge, Pickett lost his entire division. In the 1984 film, Gettysburg, General Lee tells Pickett after the battle to look after his division. “But General Lee,” Pickett counters, “I have no division.” Suddenly Lee is confronted with the true magnitude of his military blunders at Gettysburg. From this point of view, Cushing’s military honor looks rather different than from Obama’s point of view. As conveyed by the media, that vantage point enjoyed a virtual monopoly, and thus the interpretation could easily be taken as true rather than relative. I submit that much from the political discourse as sourced or conveyed by the media is projected as truth when it is highly subjective and thus subject to question and debate.


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On the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing: Impacts on the U.S. Debt and Inflation

With government-bond purchases of $3.9 trillion (including mortgage-backed bonds) from November 25, 2008 to October 30, 2014, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank stimulated the American economy by keeping interest rates low. This in turn kept the U.S. Treasury department’s interest payments on the gargantuan federal debt lower than would have otherwise been the case. Put another way, the Federal Reserve Bank’s massive foray into stimulating the economy made holding debt and borrowing still more money less costly than it would otherwise have been, and thus enabled the government’s penchant for debt-financing over raising taxes and/or reducing spending. “Enabling an addict” would be a less charitable way of putting the Fed’s role vis-à-vis the U.S. Government. In this essay, I explore problems resulting from the Fed’s stimulus on the government’s debt-financing.
 
The full essay is at “The Federal Reserve’s QE

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Gandhi’s Philosophy of Nonviolent Defiance: A Way to Freedom

Film is indeed an art form, but the medium can also function as a teacher in how it conveys values and wisdom. Both of these features of film are salient in Gandhi (1982), whose director, Richard Attenborough, says in his audio commentary that the film has done much keep Gandhi’s philosophy alive in the world. In using the film’s star protagonist to explain what is behind his approach, viewers become, in effect, students. The strength of film here lies in its use of both audio and visual means to engrave the lessons in memories. In Gandhi, the main concept to be explained and illustrated is nonviolent active non-cooperation or defiance of unjust laws or regimes.


The full essay is at “Gandhi

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Mandela’s Courage as Politicized Forgiveness

Whereas we grasp the interior sense in which Gandhi forgave, the media has promoted a false, politicized forgiveness as the real thing in Mandela’s case. I am impugning the aggrandizing press here, rather than Mandela himself.
 
 
In claiming that Mandela “insisted on forgiveness,” John Mahaha uses the following quote from the man himself: “To go to prison because of your convictions and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.”[1]Gandhi would doubtless have concurred wholeheartedly. The suffering being referred to here is neither suffering for its own sake nor suffering unnecessarily. Both Mandela and Gandhi must surely have concluded that they must voluntarily endure suffering to be true to their respective principles and see them realized in consequences that dwarf any for the two men themselves.
 
 
Nevertheless, I submit that what Mahaha takes to be forgiveness is actually something else. In philosophical terms, he unknowingly committed a category mistake in writing his op-ed piece. To be willing to suffer for one’s convictions is indeed laudable, but forgiveness is not necessarily entailed or even implied. I suspect that Mandela himself would admit that he did not feel any sense of forgiveness during the 27 years of imprisonment. I have seen video-taped footage of him on the prison-island refusing to speak with a group of people passing by while he was outdoors. His stiff glance and held silence belies any hint of forgiveness.
 
 
Lest it be claimed that Mandela forgave only once he had regained his freedom, his second wife insisted on a television interview following his death that he had used an incredible amount of self-discipline rather than interior forgiveness to work with his oppressors. Sadly, this insight did not stop the commentators and “journalists” from marveling at his forgiveness following such a long period of suffering. Clearly, the journalists and pontificators had not done their research.
 
 
The research could have started with topical statements from Mandela himself. “If you want to make peace with your enemy,” he once said, “you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”[2]Insisting that such advice is none other than felt forgiveness artfully “gilds the lily,” as if dipping Mandela’s heart in gold with the benefit of hindsight. The working peace is political rather than interior; accordingly, any forgiveness would be likewise, for Mandela would not have said “you have to work with your enemy” were the enemy already forgiven. Instead, he might have said, “you must get to the point of caring about and for your enemy.” Although the term political forgiveness applies, the operative virtue here is actually closer to political courage than forgiveness. According to his second wife, Mandela used great self-discipline rather than forgiveness to resist the impulse to retaliate and instead work with the bastards.
 
 
It takes interior courage to muster political courage, to deny oneself the convenient route politically. Mandela drew on his mighty courage in not only risking imprisonment by urging armed resistance, but also pushing himself to work with the party of his former oppressors. I suspect that humility, even if only in a political use, played a role after his arduous suffering in prison. Elongated pain has a way of resizing a man’s estimation of his own powers and proper stature. Interestingly, endured suffering may also rarify courage, for the downside is no longer of the unknown. While more difficult to unpack than saccharine forgiveness so often bandied about by dandies, tremendous self-discipline applied as courage as political forgiveness more closely fits the man who saved South Africa from itself.


1.  John Dramani Mahama, “Mandela Taught a Continent to Forgive,” The New York Times, December 5, 2013.

2. William Welch, “South Africa’s Leader Transformed Nation, Self,” USA Today, December 27, 2013.

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