A ray of sunshine at the end of an ethically dreary week

From the COI Blog’s perspective, the past week was dominated by two discouraging developments:

– The Supreme Court’s decision in the McCutcheon case, further eroding – on free speech grounds – the federal campaign finance reform legal edifice.  Particularly unfortunate was the holding that Congress’s ability to attempt to curtail corruption in this area is limited to the exceedingly  (one might almost say comically, if it wasn’t so sad) narrow category of cases of “quid pro quo” bribery.

-The various stories, prompted by the publication of Michael Lewis’ The Flash Boys, suggesting that stock exchanges effectively sell customer order information to high-speed traders, which the traders use to financially disadvantage  the customers.

While these two stories are, of course, different in many ways, given the deep connection between democracy and capitalism – and the fact that each requires a widely shared sense of fair play to succeed – they seem to reflect a dangerous insensitivity at high levels of both government and business  to the ethical dimension of the ties that bind us together as a society.

But the week actually ended with some good news concerning the promising but generally underutilized mechanism of ethics-related  “clawbacks,” which was reported in a story by Gretchen Morgenson – “The Wallet as Ethics Enforcer” – in today’s NY Times.  She writes that while the “vast majority of [companies] across corporate America, require recovery of bonuses in only a few circumstances, mostly related to accounting… [and not] other types of unethical behavior … some large shareholders have been working to expand these so-called clawback provisions.”  Among other things, she reports: “the New York City comptroller… and his staff have successfully negotiated expanded thresholds for clawbacks at five companies this year:  Allergan, Halliburton, Northrop Grumman, PNC Financial and United Technologies” and that “[t[hese new clawback thresholds also state that executives can be forced to give back pay even if they did not commit the misconduct themselves; they could run afoul of the rules by failing to monitor conduct or risk-taking by subordinates.”

This is a promising development indeed, for just as financial incentives can serve as a powerfully corrupting force in both politics and stock markets so can such incentives – if properly directed – unleash energy and attention in the service of promoting ethical conduct … and building trust.   (For more on the importance of – and great challenges in – aligning incentives with ethical standards, see the posts collected here.)  

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