Thursday, February 23, 2017

Should Same-Party-Affiliation Exclude Investigations on an Elected Official’s Misconduct?

A survey taken in February, 2017 of 1,571 political scientists on democracy in America reveals a possible problem regarding the extent to which government officials are sanctioned for misconduct. More than half of the respondents believed that the United States only partly meets or does not meet this criterion, whereas about 80 percent of the scholars insisted that the criterion is essential or important to democracy.[1] I submit that partisanship is a major obstacle to performance being able to meet expectations.

When the survey was released, Congress was on a week’s recess. Representatives and senators alike were facing contentious constituents back in the districts and states, respectively. An estimated 1,000 people attended Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) “town meeting.” Recalling the yelling and screaming, he later said, “I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate [me].”[2] Democracy is messy. Moreover, the making of law, which binds an otherwise free people, is inherently conflictual as different interests and ideologies contend for influence on the final legislative output. Given the delegated trust placed in elected legislative representatives, their misconduct should be subject to real sanctions.

Ideally, misconduct should be extended to placing party above integrity—that is to say, giving elected officials a pass on their misconduct simply because they are of the same political party. Constituents can be out in front of even veteran members of Congress on this point. In his “town hall,” Chaffetz heard a constituent insist that Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives should investigate President Trump’s conflicts of interest for instances of impropriety.[3] Even though much of the federal conflicts-of-interest law does not apply to the president, the American people arguably should know of actual instances in which the president has or is exploiting the relationship between his governmental power and business interests. Party should not trump integrity as concerning the obligation of members of Congress to provide a check on the executive branch, including the president.

I suspect that the force of partisanship on members of Congress stems in part from the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C.—such that the role of partisanship is perceived as being more significant than it should be and is to constituents back home. Of course, the threats doubtlessly made from higher in the party “food chain” provides an impetus to members of Congress to look the other way concerning the possible misconduct of colleagues of the same party. That a constituent expects her elected representative to put integrity before party in regard to investigating misconduct shows just how decadent the inbred culture of a political elite can be, even in a viable democracy. In other words, it is telling when an angry constituent is the adult and her representative is the child.

Democratic theory holds just the opposite—namely, that an elected representative can withstand the momentary excessive passions of the moment that have no such check in a direct democracy, wherein people vote directly on proposed laws such as was the case in ancient Athens. Put another way, representative democracy itself is a check against mob rule. It is telling, therefore, when someone from an angry mob is the adult in the room.

[1] Claire C. Miller and Kevin Quealy, “Democracy in America: How Is It Doing?The New York Times, February 23, 2017.
[2] Andrew Kaczynski, “Rep. Jason Chaffetz: People at My Town Hall ‘Intended to Bully and Intimidate’ Me,”, February 23, 2017.
[3] “Morning Edition,” National Public Radio, February 23, 2017.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Cure a Dysfunctional Company Culture: The Case of Uber

Valued at close to $70 billion and operating in more than 70 countries, Uber was giving traditional taxi companies a ride for their money in early 2017 when it came to light just how Hobbesian the company’s culture had become. In February, an engineer who had left the company two months earlier “detailed a history of discrimination and sexual harassment by her managers, which she said was shrugged off by Uber’s human resources department.”[1] Crucially, she claimed that “the culture was stoke—and even fostered—by those at the top of the company.”[2] Interviews with other employees and reviews of internal emails, chat logs, and tape-recorded meetings revealed incidents typified by one manager groping a woman coworker’s breasts at a company retreat, a director shouting an anti-gay slur at a subordinate during an argument, and another manager threatening to beat an underperforming subordinate’s head in with a baseball bat. The operative question is whether anything can be done about the accepted pathology.

Such an organizational culture is deep-rooted by the time it comes to such incidents. “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempted to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job,” the engineer wrote. “No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: They boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like.”[3] This means that the sordid values were well ensconced, and that even the top level of management knew and approved of them and the related conduct. Nevertheless, the CEO, Travis Kalanick, assured employees that he was “authentically and fully dedicated to getting to the bottom of this.”[4] Either his surprise at the report was feigned (i.e., he was lying) or he had been so out of touch with his own management staff that even the brazen conduct had somehow escaped his notice. With this latter alternative comes the question of whether his managerial work merited his compensation. The first alternative contains its own problem—namely, is it wise to rely on part of the problem to suddenly be in the fix-it seat?

To be sure, bringing in the “big guns”—Arianna Huffington and the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to “look into harassment issues and the human resources department” is in line with going outside of the extant management of the company. Yet the brazenness of the aggressive conduct indicates that “harassment issues” and the company’s HR department were only the tip of the iceberg. The question is: how to get the squalid stain out of the entire iceberg. It is a contradiction in terms to say that the stained can themselves do it. At the very least, they obviously had no problem with being infected, so the labor would at best be artificial rather than genuine.

Given the cumulative effect of successive hires and “outliers” self-selecting themselves out or being fired, a different type of person would need to be occupy a threshold-proportion at least of the positions in the company’s headquarters for the culture to change. “Training” sessions cannot get at matters of values and attitude—which tend to be more fixed in a person than skill-level. Sensitivity training would likely be a joke—even the mere suggestion could be taken as a sign of incompetence on how to eradicate such an ingrown sordid culture. Of course, the entire top management would have to go. This is admittedly not the path of least resistance. Hence, the prognosis is typically not good for such ill-health that has been so contagious.

1. Mike Isaac, “Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture,” The New York Times, February 22, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Holding Back the E.U.: What Is It?

In addressing the E.U. Parliament in February, 2017, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Tradeau, claimed that the E.U. “is a truly remarkable achievement and an unprecedented model for peaceful cooperation.”[1] The only problem with the compliment is that it is not true. The U.S. is the precedent, as it was formed as an alliance in part to stave off war between its member states.
On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the American alliance was viewed as international in nature until its Articles of Confederation were superseded in 1789 by the creation of a federal government.[2] Put another way, the member states held all governmental sovereignty (and the Continental Congress had none of its own) until the Constitution of 1787 came into effect. When Tradeau addressed the Parliament, which is akin to the U.S. House of Representatives, the E.U. federal level had achieved appreciable sovereignty and along with it more in the way of a federal government than a European Continental Congress would instantiate. The European Court of Justice was by then well established as the E.U.’s federal Supreme Court, the European Commission was a federal executive branch with a role in law-making, and the Parliament itself was a legislative body representing E.U. citizens rather than states (the European Council, like the U.S. Senate, represented states). In short, the E.U. fits the model of the U.S. after the Articles of Confederation, when sovereignty was split between the member states and the Union. Even so, The New York Times refers to the E.U. strangely as “an alliance,” as if the E.U. with all its federal governmental institutions and sovereignty were like the U.S. when it was a mere alliance with delegates of the sovereign countries meeting in a Continental Congress.[3]
Clarification on what the E.U. can itself have a strengthening effect on the Union—especially as concerns its federal level. For example, the E.U. misunderstood as an international alliance would not get much confidence in its ability to forestall war from breaking out between the states. Yet recognition that the E.U. and U.S. (post Articles) are of the same genre, or model, can instill greater confidence—and the E.U. needed that in the wake of the British vote to secede from the Union.
A principal benefit of both the E.U. and U.S. is the use of the federal level to prevent war from breaking out between the states. The U.S. was successful in this regard until 1861; Tradeau’s optimism in 2017 could be extended to the hope that the E.U. would enjoy a longer stretch of internal peace. Whereas some people pointed to the secession of Britain as a baleful indication that the peaceful potential of the E.U. would be reduced, I submit that the E.U.’s flexibility on the matter of secession—certainly a contrast to the rigidity in the U.S.’s stricture of “perpetual Union” being interpreted to mean no loss of even one member state!—renders the E.U. stronger rather than weaker, and thus better able to prevent war from within because the needs of different states can be accommodated rather than stifled.
Indeed, the E.U. stood to strengthen by the secession even just in losing the British denial that the E.U. was more than an alliance, or “network,” of states. It is curious that the secessionist camp in the UK nevertheless listed the sovereignty “in Brussels” as one reason in favor of secession. Although other “Euro-skeptic” states, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, remained, the center of ideological gravity could shift closer in line with the fact that the E.U. had federal government institutions, including a court, an executive branch, and two exclusively legislative bodies—the European Council and the European Parliament. Greater clarity and consistency on the whole regarding what the E.U. is could only strengthen the Union.

1. James Kanter, “Trudeau, Praising the E.U., Doesn’t Mention ‘Brexit’ or Trump,” The New York Times, February 16, 2017.
2. Skip Worden, British Colonies Forge an American Empire.
3. James Kanter,Trudeau, Praising the E.U., Doesn’t Mention ‘Brexit’ or Trump,” The New York Times, February 16, 2017.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

On the Value of Business-Societal Linkages: Facebook’s Zuckerberg Opposing President Trump?

In a public letter in February, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, linked his company’s product, the online social network, to the societal and indeed global level in claiming that “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”[1] The New York Times took this to mean that the CEO “stepped into the raging debate about globalization.”[2] Taking sides in a political or cultural debate can both advance and harm a business, hence the matter of the stepping into is worthy of analysis in its own right.

Generally speaking, it is not prudent business for a CEO to plant the company in which he or she works on one side or the other of a controversial matter, as existing and potential customers on the other side can be expected to move to a competitor—even if that competitor has not taken a side in the debate. That the New York Times construes Zuckerberg as taking a position at odds with U.S. President Trump’s nationalism may be an indication that Trump supporters may also interpret Zuckerberg’s move thusly and so gain a negative view of Zuckerberg’s company. This attribution of association may be tenuous, however, as it is possible to be in favor of humanity coming together in terms of human rights, for instance, and minimizing state aggression, and yet still be for penalizing American companies that have taken plants abroad to take advantage of lower wages and less regulation. Even so, perception can become reality, so Trump supporters could view Facebook negatively anyway and the damage would be done.

Zuckerberg might advisably have listed some examples of social goods that could be furthered by humanity coming together—omitting mention of Trump policies. Efforts to assure readers that Trump’s policies are not in the crosshairs would have been a good investment. To be sure, “Zuckerberg said his reasons for writing the . . . letter began to take shape before [the 2016] presidential election, spurred by broader trends. He said he [had] recognized that more people were feeling left behind by globalization, and by societal and technological changes.”[3] His vision was for “a global community that works for everyone.”[4] This includes a viable “social infrastructure” that would include stronger online communities. Given Facebook’s interest in helping people from being left behind technologically, the social infrastructure should be a salient part of the global community that works for everyone.” In other words, helping people to join the technological age (and thus be able to participate on Facebook!) does not necessarily translate into opposition to a tax on American companies with factories abroad or enforcing immigration law. Zuckerberg could have made this point more explicit; his “Facebook-friendly” interpretation of “global community” would actually have been strengthened in the process.

We can conclude from this case that wading into a controversial issue involves pitfalls for a business, yet they can be obviated by steering clear of politics such that efforts to link business strategy to a societal and even global vision can pay off for a company without a lot of risk.  

[1] Mike Isaac, “Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Bucking Tide, Takes Public Stand Against Isolationism,” The New York Times, February 16, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

One-Party Rule at the State Level: Federalism at Work

With Congressional Republicans appearing “flummoxed by the complexities of one-party rule, struggling with issues from repealing the Affordable Care Act . . . to paying for President Trump’s promised wall on the Mexican border, rising party leaders in the states seem far more at ease and assertive. Republicans have top-to-bottom control in 25 states now, holding both the governorship and the entire legislature, and Republican lawmakers are acting with lightning speed to enact longstanding conservative priorities.”[1] Not yet even a month after Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20, 2017, Republicans in Kentucky had “swiftly passed laws to roll back the powers of labor unions and restrict access to abortion,” and were planning “sweeping changes to the education and public pension systems.”[2] In states from New England to the Midwest and across the South, Republican lawmakers had “introduced or enacted legislation to erode union powers and abortion rights, loosen gun regulations, expand school-choice programs and slash taxes and spending.”[3] That the media spotlight at the time was so focused on the federalism says something about just how eclipsed federalism itself had become on the national stage.

It is no accident that one-party rule at the state level was accomplishing more than Republican majorities in Congress and a Republican in the White House. The delegates in the federal constitutional convention in 1787 designed the new federal system with the expectation that most of the domestic lawmaking would occur at the state level. They did not design a streamlined process for federal lawmaking on purpose. Furthermore, the sovereignty retained by the states is the rationale behind the filibuster mechanism in the U.S. Senate—a tool that a minority party can use to thwart or at least slow down the legislative program of the majority party. State legislatures do not have the added complexity of having polities (i.e., states) as members too.

Yet in spite of the added level of obstacles at the federal level, which includes there being many points of access, the media focuses on its stage almost exclusively—essentially working at cross-purposes with the very design of the federal system. Were the attention to match where government action is most likely to succeed in undiluted legislation, the public awareness would be in alignment with federalism rather than consolidation. Put another way, with Americans glued to the dramatic twists and turns in Washington, D.C., expectations can easily outstrip the realistic capability of the complexity at the federal level and work against the very design of the federal system.

[1] Alexander Burns and Mitch Smith, “State G.O.P. Leaders Move Swiftly as Party Bickers in Congress,” The New York Times, February 11, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Russia’s Putin beyond Constitutional Government: The Case of Aleksei Navalny

With a judge handing down a five-year suspended prison sentence, a fine of 500,000 rubles (about $8,400), and a ban on participating in the upcoming presidential election in 2017, Aleksei Navalny could feel just how power can be wielded by high government officials, including even presidents—power ultimately backed up by stern men with guns with the legal right to use lethal force. This, I submit, is what government comes down to—it’s bottom line.

The true look of governmental power. (Sergei Brovko/Reuters)
Were the prosecution and judge intent on punishing Navalny for fraud—if those agents of the ruling party really believed that he had “embezzled” 16 million rubles ($500,000) “by purchasing wood from a state-owned company at below-market rates and then reselling it at market value,” the fine would surely have been more than a mere fraction.[1] Instead, the main thrust of the sentence was geared to keeping him under control for five years and barring him from politics. Because this emphasis is not aligned with the nature of the alleged crime, the sordid scent of abuse of power by the Kremlin is detectable. That a similar judgment against him in 2013, with a five-year suspended sentence, was almost word for word that of the verdict in February, 2017 suggests adds fuel to the contention that the issue was not the crimes, but, rather, something else—something political.
When the head of a government has not only the media under his control, but also the court system, the power of said government cannot reasonably be considered to be contained by constitutional limitations. “I have the right to take part in elections, according to the Constitution, and I will fight for that,” Navalny told journalists in the courtroom in Kirov.[2] Yet a political right is meaningless when the ruling person or party gets away with acting beyond constitutional bounds. The New York Times essentially makes this claim in reporting, ‘Putin has gone to great lengths to root out all genuine opposition in the country. Major television stations have been put under the government’s control and openly critical political figures have been marginalized. Several prominent journalists, politicians and human rights activists have been murdered under mysterious circumstances, with many of the cases remaining unsolved.”[3] In a country where “dissidents are frequently silenced, exiled or killed,” the expectation that the ruling power will heed constitutional constraints can only be naïve. Without such limitations, the true nature of governmental power—issuing in poisoning or prison—can be glimpsed.
Ultimately, governmental power comes down to being able to use force to kill or imprison. From this bottom-line, it is truly miraculous, given human nature stimulated by the intoxicating scents of power and conceit, that constitutional governance had achieved so much in the world by the twenty-first century. Yet for all this height, it is telling how trigger happy even heads of governments can be—not to mention police agents themselves.

[1] Ivan Nechepurenko, “Aleksei Navalny, a Putin Critic, Is Barred from a Presidential Run,” The New York Times, February 8, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Israel Legalizes Illegal Settlements on Palestinian Land: On the Toll on the Rule of Law

Israel’s legislature passed a law on February 6, 2017 retroactively legalizing Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land. Incredibly, the state’s own attorney general said he would not defend the new law in court because he had determined the law to unconstitutional and in violation of international law. Anat Ben Nun of an anti-settlement group said the law was “deteriorating Israel’s democracy, making stealing an official policy.”[1] Specifically, the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including those offered financial compensation for the “long term use of their land” but without being able to reclaim their property under the new law, “are not Israeli citizens and cannot vote for candidates for Israel’s Parliament, or Kenesset.”[2] I submit nevertheless that the underlying casualty in this case is the rule of law itself.

The full essay is at "Israel Legalizes Illegal Settlements."

1. Ian Fisher, “Israel Passes Provocative Legislation to Retroactively Legalize Settlements,” The New York Times, February 7, 2017.
2. Ibid.

Being Partisan in the Pulpit: Going the Extra Mile

The Johnson Amendment, which became law in the U.S. in 1954 and was named for Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. Senator, “is a provision in the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from openly supporting political candidates. In the words of the tax code, ‘all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”[1] I submit that it is in a cleric’s interest to expand this prohibition to include advocating for (or opposing) particular public policies. This general principle would of course be subject to exceptions in which a proposed or enacted policy is strongly anathema to the religious principles of the given religious organization or religion.

The full essay is at "Being Partisan in the Pulpit."

1. Randall Balmer, “The Peril of Being Partisan at the Pulpit,” Stars and Stripes, February 7, 2017.

Friday, February 3, 2017

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 (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Just months before the election, France’s leading presidential candidate was “in deep trouble” for payments of nearly €831, 440 “from the public payroll to his wife and children” over the 30 years in which François Fillon employed them.[1] Penelope Fillon “was paid with taxpayer money for a bogus job as a parliamentary assistant to her husband and his deputy” in the state Assembly.[2] Because her husband had “fashioned himself as a stern and honest politician,” the sordid odor of hypocrisy was in the air, yet the practice itself, which was legal at the time, was to “many French politicians” no “big deal.”[3] So from the press and the public came “a wellspring of anger” calling into question the standard operating procedures of the political class.”[4] In short, the response was: “They just don’t get it.”[5] C’est vraiment incroyable. Really incredible.
A political class cannot police itself if its culture is so ensconced in the misuse of funds, even if legal, that the ubiquitous practice is not even recognized as being unethical in nature. On an organizational scale, I have witnessed a university’s culture so dysfunctional—with such passive aggression from the non-academic staff—that the offending creatures would not even recognize themselves in the mirror; even to question them would be perceived as a provocation. Accountability is impossible in such a sordid organization. So, too, a political class with an ingrown sense of presumptuous entitlement cannot possibly hold itself accountable. A perception of wrong-doing is requisite to holding oneself accountable. The decisive question is therefore whether a “wellspring of anger” in a public-at-large can be sufficient to “throw the bastards out.”
Even if a sizable proportion of an electorate votes to “throw the bums out,” other rationales for voting doubtless exist and can dilute the effect such that the culture of the political class can survive. Furthermore, even intense anger today can quickly dissipate, such that the results of an election even just months away show little sign of the earlier sizzling headlines. Even major protests do not necessarily translate into the ballot box. At the time Fillon was facing a harsh reaction in France, more than 250,000 irate people in the state of Romania were protesting after Liviu Dragnea’s governing Social Democratic Party passed a law on January 31, 2017 making “official misconduct punishable by prison time only in cases in which the financial damage is more than 200,000 lei, or about $47,000”—Dragnea himself facing “charges of abouse of power involving a sum” less than 200,000 lei.[6] Here we can see the conflict of interest on full display: Dragnea was using the power of his party in the state legislature such that he would essentially be above the (constraint of) law. Yet even such a blatant case cannot be expected to be punished when the next election comes around. Something more is needed to address the inherent conflict of interest.

1. Adam Nossiter, “Fillon Scandal Indicts, Foremost, France’s Political Elite,” The New York Times, February 3, 2017; Aurelien Breeden, “Graft Allegations Grow Against Francois Fillon, French Presidential Hopeful,” The New York Times, February 1, 2017.
2. Aurelien Breeden, “Graft Allegations Grow Against Francois Fillon, French Presidential Hopeful,” The New York Times, February 1, 2017
3. Adam Nossiter, “Fillon Scandal Indicts, Foremost, France’s Political Elite,” The New York Times, February 3, 2017
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Palko Karasz, “Protests Rock Romania After Government Weakens Corruption Law,” The New York Times, February 2, 2017.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is Democracy Inimical to Prudent Government Budgeting: The U.S. and India Contrasted

At a time when the U.S. Government sported an accumulated debt of roughly $20 trillion, with continued deficits expected to add about $10 trillion more over the next ten years, the most populous democracy in the world, India, laid out a prudent budget proposal—one that had been “extremely well thought-out,” according to Deepak Parekh of the Housing Development Finance Corporation in India.[1]

On February 1, 2017, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi made public its budget proposal for the following year. Even as the proposed budget “would significantly increase spending on infrastructure, rural areas and antipoverty programs,” the government’s annual deficit would be reduced to 3.2 percent of GDP from 3.5 percent in the current fiscal year.[2] The budget “included tax cuts for lower income taxpayers and small business, even as it came close to sticking with the country’s target for reducing the budget deficit.”[3] In a democratic system, in which popular pressure is even in theory for increased government spending and lower taxes, increasing discretionary spending need not come at the expense of fiscal discipline. “The economy needs the spending to give consumption a boost, but the government is also giving weight to fiscal prudence,” said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at Crisil, an Indian credit-rating agency.[4] The proposal even adds spending on infrastructure such as roads in rural areas—an investment favorable to attracting foreign direct investment as the stated aim is to increase “efficiency and access to markets while providing jobs.”[5]

Modi’s action against currency on which taxes are not paid in banning the largest currency notes in November, 2016 had led the I.M.F. to cut its predicted growth rate for India by one percentage point for 2017 to 6.6 percent, so Modi must have been facing popular pressure to spur economic growth by distending fiscal policy beyond what prudence would allow. Even as five states prepared to go to the polls beginning on February 4th, the prime minister prudently wanted to demonstrate “strength in advance of national elections in 2019.”[6] Put another way, the pressure to allow the projected deficits to increase as a percent of GDP must have been enormous, yet fiscal discipline prevailed and even allowed for targeted priorities that would take due account of the value of fiscal stimulus. 

Democracy can be strong, meaning self-disciplined, yet there is no guarantee. As Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed when they were exchanging letters in retirement, an educated and virtuous citizenry is essential to the continuance of a viable republic whose house is in order. A $20 trillion government debt is indicative that at least one house is not in order, and the case of India demonstrates that the problem is not democracy itself.

[1] Getta Anand, “Arun Jaitley, India’s Finance Chief, Aims to Spur Economy Hit by Cash Shortage,” The New York Times, February 1, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.