Conflicts of interest in our Gilded Age

Writing about the COI scandal regarding Justice Clarence Thomas in the most recent issue of Ethics Megatrends Kirk O. Hanson – a long-time thought leader in the business ethics field – argues that we should expect to see tighter standards concerning the receipt by Supreme Court Justices of gifts, entertainment and hospitality. 

He writes: There are three reasons we must, and I predict will, tighten conflict of interest standards for all public officials and in all aspects of public life in the coming months and years.

The first is the stark disparity in income between a public official and the billionaire or other wealthy person. The rich in our new “Gilded Age” are able to confer benefits of great value to the public official simply by inviting them to join the host for an extravagant weekend at an estate or private retreat, or a plush vacation on a private yacht or by private aircraft. The long-held exemption granted to meals and recreation in one’s private home is a joke when the home is a Hawaii beach estate or mountain hunting lodge.

Hanson further notes: The second reason conflict of interest standards will be tightened is the breadth of interests any wealthy American now has. While Harlan Crow [the gift giver to Justice Thomas] may not have had a specific case before the Supreme Court, the court’s decisions can affect the billionaire’s interests in dozens of indirect ways.  The court’s current hostility to the regulatory process itself can be a windfall for almost any billionaire today.

The third reason we have to tighten conflict of interest standards is the hyper-partisan environment. In this environment, public distrust is rife and the image of billionaires entertaining public officials is toxic. We must retain broad confidence in the decisions of judges, legislators and other officials. Democracy depends on it. 

I agree with this post, and think it is important.

First, the disparity in income – all other things being equal – seems likely to contribute to wrongdoing for a host of reasons (such as jealousy or economic need).

Second, as a matter of simple math, the more complex an individual’s interests  (both economic and social) the greater the conflicts. And – although I don’t have statistics on this –  I believe the sheer volume of interests is growing.

Third, what Hanson calls the hyper-partisan environment is – sadly –   a major part of the mix, and will be for some time.

Finally, this post contains what can be seen as some interesting research leads for the right grad student.

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