Populist Plutocrats Conference–Reminder

This is just a quick reminder, for those who are interested, that the Harvard Law School conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (co-sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center) is happening tomorrow, September 23, starting at 9 am (Eastern Time). The full conference agenda and speaker list is here, and for convenience I’ll also include it in this post after the break. If you’re interested in the event but can’t make it in person, you can catch the live stream here. The event will also be video-recorded, and I plan to post links to some of the videos (along with some commentary) over the next couple of weeks.

Also, in case any of you would like a bit more background, this morning the Harvard Gazette ran a short interview with me about the conference and what motivated me to organize it. (Spoiler: The main motivation rhymes with “Ronald Grump.”)

Here’s the full program and speaker list: Continue reading

Uzbek Civil Society on the Hazards of Investing in Kleptocracies

Tonight Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will tout the benefits of investing in his country to executives of multinational firms at a swank dinner at the Onyx Room in mid-town Manhattan.  He will point to measures the government has taken since the death last year of its first president, renowned kleptocrat lslam Karimov, to open the country to foreign investment — from reforms to economic policy to steps to improve its atrocious human rights record.  But before they open their checkbooks, the execs will want to heed the warnings contained in a letter Uzbek civil society activities just sent Washington lawyer Carolyn Lamm, chair of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce, the host of tonight’s get-together.

Reprinted below, the letter cautions that there are still many signs that Uzbekistan has yet to shed its kleptocratic past, from the appointment of one of the most notorious kleptocrats of the previous regime as prime minister to the rise to power of Mirziyoyev’s sons-in-law.  The authors remind Ms Lamm and the members of her organization what happened to those who invested in Karimov’s kleptocracy.  Not only did their investments turn out to be a bust, but the bribes the investors had to pay to do business have cost them (or more accurately their shareholders) dearly.  One firm was fined $795 million by Dutch and American authorities and a second recently told shareholders it anticipates paying over $1 billion to resolve the case against it.

The authors sent a copy of their letter to the members of Ms Lamm’s organization, a group that includes General Electric,  General Motors, Boeing, Catepillar, Coca-Cola, Honeywell, Visa, and other well-know, well-respected companies traded on American stock exchanges (and thus subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act). Readers holding shares in any of these companies will want to ensure company executives pay careful attention to the letter’s warnings.

Ms Carolyn Lamm
American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce
601 13th St NW # 600S
Washington, D.C. 20005

September 18, 2017

An Open Letter to the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce regarding the Situation in Uzbekistan on the Eve of its Meeting with President Mirziyoev

Dear Chairwoman Lamm:

We, the undersigned Uzbek citizens and activists, write to you on the eve of your dinner with President Shavkat Mirziyoev on September 20, 2017, to express concern that your members may be misled into believing that meaningful reform is underway in our country. We ask you to share with them this letter explaining the current conditions in Uzbekistan and the risks any firm investing or doing business in the country will face. We further ask you to urge the President to reform the judiciary and create an independent, impartial and effective body to investigate allegations of corruption. Continue reading

In Bribery Experience Surveys, Should You Control for Contact?

Perception-based corruption indicators, though still the most widely-used and widely-discussed measures of corruption at the country level, get a lot of criticism (some of it misguided, but much of it fair). The main alternative measures of corruption include experience surveys, which ask a representative random sample of firms or citizens about their experience with bribery. Corruption experience surveys are neither new nor rare, but they’re getting more attention these days as researchers and advocates look for more “objective” ways of assessing corruption levels and monitoring progress. Indeed, although some early discussions of measurement of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) anticorruption target (Target 16.5) suggested—much to my chagrin—that changes in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) score would be the main measure of progress, more recent discussions appear to indicate that in fact progress toward Goal Target 16.5 will be assessed using experience surveys (see here and here).

Of course, corruption experience surveys have their own problems. Most obviously, they typically only measure a fairly narrow form of corruption (usually petty bribery). Also, there’s always the risk that respondents won’t answer truthfully. There’s actually been quite a bit of interesting recent research on that latter concern, which Rick discussed a while back and that I might post about more at some point. But for now, I want to put that problem aside to focus on a different challenge for bribery experience surveys: When presenting or interpreting the results of those surveys, should one control for the amount of contact the respondents have with government officials? Or should one focus on overall rates of bribery, without regard for whether or how frequently respondents interacted with the government?

To make this a bit more concrete, imagine two towns, A and B, each with 1,000 inhabitants. Suppose we survey every resident of both towns and we ask them two questions: First, within the past 12 months, have you had any contact with a government official? Second, if the answer to the first question was yes, did the government official demand a bribe? In Town A, 200 of the residents had contact with a government official, and of these 200, 100 of them reported that the government official they encountered solicited a bribe. In Town B, 800 residents had contact with a government official, and of these 800, 200 reported that the official solicited a bribe. If we don’t control for contact, we would say that bribery experience rates are twice as high in Town B (20%) as in Town A (10%). If we do control for contact, we would say that bribery experience rates were twice as high in Town A (50%) as in Town B (25%). In which town is bribery a bigger problem? In which one are the public officials more corrupt?

The answer is not at all obvious; both controlling for contact and not controlling for contact have potentially significant problems: Continue reading

Lessons of Moral Psychology for Anticorruption Strategy

Most countries attempt to fight public corruption through policies that increase the magnitude and the probability of punishment, on the logic that rational individuals will be deterred from engaging in corrupt acts if the expected costs exceed the expected benefits. This approach is certainly valuable, but it is incomplete, and anticorruption strategies based exclusively on a view of potentially corrupt public officials as “rational actors” are unlikely to be fully effective. This is because human beings are not (only) rational animals, they are also moral animals: As already discussed on this blog (see here and here), the decision-making process of a potentially corrupt public official is influenced not only by her calculation of expected (material) costs and benefits, but also by her moral values and self-image.

In fact, when people act in accordance with their own moral standards, their brain-reward centers are activated, which may explain why individuals value honesty and desire to live ethically at their own eyes. Notwithstanding, even otherwise morally upright subjects can engage in corruption. What do individuals take into account when choosing whether to engage in profitable dishonesty or to maintain their positive self-image by adhering to their moral standards?

A growing stream of research on moral psychology and neuroscience has shown that individuals employ certain psychological mechanisms, such as rationalization, that enable them to cheat at a certain level without considering themselves as “cheaters”; this, in turn, allows them to benefit from the dishonest behavior while not damaging their positive self-image. But when it becomes more difficult for people to justify their unethical behavior to themselves, the likelihood that they will engage in dishonest behavior will decrease. The tendency to engage in dishonest behavior is also affected by individuals’ ability to exercise self-control when facing temptation — that is, by their capacity to subdue their desire to attain short-term benefits in order to achieve long-term goals.

Greater attention to these insights would make possible the design of anticorruption policies tailored both to inhibit the use of rationalizations and to encourage the exertion of self-control when individuals face the opportunity to act dishonestly. For example, public agencies (especially those in corruption-prone sectors like public procurement) could take the following steps:  Continue reading

Improper Payments and American Financial Mismanagement

Sound government fiscal management requires, among other things, ensuring that government payments are made accurately—to the right payee, in the correct amount, and with sufficient documentation. Failure to implement effective systems to prevent improper payments leaves the government checkbook at risk of fraud, corruption, and other forms of abuse. Alas, the magnitude of improper payments in the United States is astounding: in 2016, the US reported $144 billion in improper payments—nearly the double the budget for the Department of Education. Improper payments for Medicaid alone are more than ten times the total size of the Community Development Block Grants that the Trump Administration intends to cut – allegedly to save money, even though eliminating this program would have disastrous consequences for programs such as Meals on Wheels.

While improper payments in other contexts are part of corruption schemes, such as the “ghost soldiers” in Afghanistan that Sarah his discussed in this post, improper payments under domestic U.S. programs like Medicaid are more likely to be the result of fraud or simple mismanagement than public corruption. That said, we have no idea how much corruption contributes to the massive improper payments problem. In either case, the most effective policy responses are largely similar, regardless of the underlying cause of the problem.  However, the U.S. response to the improper payments problem has so far been inadequate.

Continue reading

ISO 37001 and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Compared

The International Standards Organization’s ISO 37001: Antibribery Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance for Use has prompted an outpouring of commentary since publication last October.  Meant to set forth “reasonable and proportionate” measures organizations of any kind and size located anywhere can take to prevent, detect, and respond to bribery, it has received generally positive reviews — on this blog, the FCPA blog (examples here and here), and elsewhere (here, here, and here for examples).  Commentators offer it as a best practice guide for corporations wanting to instill an ethical culture among their employees and, not incidentally, avoid prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and its many offspring.  But none of the commentary, or at least none I have seen (a Google search for ISO 37001 brings back several hundred thousand hits), lists, let alone discusses, what ISO 37001 recommends.

As a start on filling this gap, the recommendations are summarized on this spreadsheet.  For perspective, ISO 37001 is compared to the latest version of the granddaddy of corporate compliance guides, the U.S. Government’s Federal Sentencing Guidelines (pp. 525 -33).  To make the comparison, both are benchmarked against the elements of a compliance program listed in the Anticorruption Ethics and Compliance Handbook for Business, a volume jointly issued by the OECD, the World Bank, and the UNODC in 2013.

Continue reading

Declinations-with-Disgorgement in FCPA Cases Don’t Worry Me: Here’s Why

Among those who follow Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement practices, there’s been a spate of commentary on a few recent cases in which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has resolved FCPA cases with a formal decision not to prosecute (a “declination”) that includes, as one of the reasons for (and conditions of) the declination, the target company’s agreement to disgorge to the U.S. Treasury the profits associated with the (allegedly) unlawful conduct. Disgorgement is a civil remedy rather than a criminal penalty (as the U.S. Supreme Court recently emphasized); it is often employed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has civil FCPA enforcement authority over issuers on U.S. exchanges. Until recently, however, the DOJ – which has civil FCPA enforcement authority with respect to non-issuers, and criminal enforcement authority in all FCPA matters – had not sought disgorgement very often, and the recent “declination-with-disgorgement” resolutions appear to be something new, at least in the FCPA context.

Not everyone is happy with this development. Last week, for example, Professor Karen Woody posted an interesting commentary over at the FCPA Blog (based on a longer academic paper) on why the emergence of declinations-with-disgorgement in FCPA cases is an “alarming” development that makes her “queasy.” Professor Woody is an astute and knowledgeable FCPA commentator, and I’m hesitant to disagree with her—especially since I’m not really an FCPA specialist in the way that she is—but I’m having trouble working up a comparable level of alarm. Indeed, my knee-jerk reaction is to view the declination-with-disgorgement as a useful mechanism, one that would often be the most appropriate one to employ to resolve FCPA violations by a company that is not subject to SEC jurisdiction, and eliminating this mechanism might force the DOJ to employ a worse alternative.

Let me start by laying out the affirmative case for declinations-with-disgorgement, and then I’ll turn to Professor Woody’s concerns. Continue reading