Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading

How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

So Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and has been for almost two weeks. Yes, this is really happening. And yes, this is really frightening. As has been pointed out countless times, Donald Trump poses a unique and unprecedented threat to American political institutions. It’s not mainly the hard-right policies that President Trump and the Republican Congress will push. People can strongly disagree with much of that policy agenda (as I do), but those policy positions are, alas, within the American political mainstream. And it’s not just Trump’s obvious narcissism, racism, and ignorance, bad as those are. On top of all that, Trump seems to view the presidency mainly as an opportunity for personal enrichment, and many of his top-level advisors and appointees seem to have a similar attitude. Notwithstanding his (obviously disingenuous) “drain the swamp” rhetoric, Trump—and many congressional Republicans—seem to have little regard for basic ethical norms and principles. And there are reasonable fears, based on what we’ve seen so far, that much of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda, though couched in familiar conservative market-oriented rhetoric, will in fact be oriented toward enriching the friends and families of senior administration officials, including but not limited to Trump’s own organization.

A democratically elected head of government who ran on a populist platform, but whose agenda seems to be oriented primarily toward using political power to enrich himself and his cronies? This might be a new experience for Americans, but as Professor Palifka pointed out in her post last week, this is a familiar story in many other countries (including Mexico, Ms. Palifka’s lead example). Think Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and countless others. Now that the U.S. seems to be facing a similar situation, the U.S. anticorruption community—which I’ll define loosely as the diverse set of activists, advocacy groups, commentators, researchers, scholars, and others who focus on anticorruption in their professional work—needs to be actively involved in responding.

Unfortunately, the U.S. anticorruption community is not especially well-prepared to deal with this situation. Put aside for the moment that the most prominent international anticorruption advocacy group—Transparency International (TI)—recently voted to strip its U.S. chapter (TI-USA) of its accreditation, triggering an ongoing internal fight that has, I gather, left the chapter in limbo. (That’s a whole other story.) Much more important than any internal organizational drama is the fact that most U.S. anticorruption advocacy groups have typically focused on questions of U.S. anticorruption policy—such as FCPA enforcement, asset recovery, corporate transparency, and the like—not on systemic corruption in the U.S. government itself. True, some groups have in the past positioned themselves as fighting systemic corruption in the U.S. government, but those groups generally use a broad (in my view, overly broad) definition of “corruption” that emphasizes primarily campaign finance and lobbying reform—noble causes, to be sure, but not really the main worry right now. The U.S. anticorruption community faces a challenge that’s more akin to the challenge anticorruption communities have faced (or are still facing) in places like Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa, though perhaps with even higher stakes.

My sense is that many leading figures in the U.S. anticorruption community are already thinking hard, and having many constructive conversations, about how to respond to the unique challenges posed by the Trump Administration. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on a basic strategic question that I’ve seen come up many times in these conversations: Engage or confront? Continue reading

Friends with Benefits: India’s Crony Capitalism and Conflict of Interest Regulations

In May 2014, when Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ran and won against the incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government on a platform of anticorruption and growth, very few were surprised. UPA’s second term was paralyzed by a string of mega-corruption scandals, including the 2G scam and Coal–Gate, pointing to entrenched crony capitalism and raising public fury. A country that had had enough with lackluster economic performance and widespread corruption kicked into survival mode and set aside its deep misgivings about a man with a troubling past. India was desperate for an efficient administrator and an uncorrupted leader—and Modi promised both.

After Modi became Prime Minister, many Indian businessmen grumbled that they had lost access to the Government—a fact hailed by the Indian media as evidence that he was finally cleaning house and cracking down on crony capitalism. However, more recent reports suggest that the Cronyism of Many has simply been replaced by the Cronyism of One. The Indian media is rife with reports hinting at a troublingly close relationship between the Prime Minister and a Gujarat-based industrialist who is one of the latest entrants to the Indian billionaire’s club (See reports here, here, here and here).

To be clear, such allegations do not necessarily imply that the PM himself is corrupt. Nonetheless, in this context even the appearance of corruption can be damaging. High officeholders in a country like India, where endemic corruption and crony capitalism have historically prevented the nation from achieving its full potential, ought to be held to much higher standards of probity.

The PM may be flirting within the permissible boundaries of business-government collaboration and may even get away with it using personal charisma, strong economic performance, and the lack of clarity in laws governing such relations. However, in the interest of keeping the high offices of the country beyond reproach, it is time to have a relook at the laws governing business-government relations in India. A good place to start will be the Conflict of Interest (COI) provisions for India’s Executive and Legislative branches. Unfortunately, the current COI regime for Indian public office holders is weak and ineffectual: Continue reading

Does Singapore Deserve Its Squeaky-Clean Reputation?

With the passing of Singapore’s former Prime Minister and elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew last March, there has been a lot of discussion and reflection on his legacy. One aspect of that legacy that has been much celebrated, even among his detractors, has been Singapore’s success in reducing corruption. Indeed, in virtually every international survey or ranking of countries’ corruption levels, Singapore comes out very well. In Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) rankings, for example, Singapore scores 84 out of 100, perceived as the 7th-least corrupt country in the world, and the least corrupt in the Asia. In TI’s most recent Bribe Payers Index (BPI), from 2011, which ranks exporting countries according to their firms’ perceived propensity to pay bribes abroad, Singapore scores 8.3/10, ranked 8th out of 28 countries (in a tie with the United Kingdom). And the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) 2012 evaluation of Singapore’s anti-money laundering system gave the country generally high marks (though with some areas of concern). Singapore is widely touted as a major anticorruption success story (see, for instance, the laudatory introduction to this New Yorker piece) and a model for other countries to follow.

But is this squeaky-clean reputation fully justified? It seems true enough that, from the perspective of the average citizen or firm (whether domestic or foreign), bribery and other forms of petty corruption are relatively uncommon (though not unheard of) in Singapore. And although there have been a number of embarrassing corruption scandals in Singapore in recent years — including the former head of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (the CPIB) embezzling funds from the agency and a former senior police official dismissed for receiving sexual favors in return for influencing government procurement decisions — all countries have incidents of this sort, and in Singapore they seem rather less frequent and less egregious than most other countries, particularly in Asia. Yet I’ve heard many experts on corruption in the Asia-Pacific region grumble–usually off the record–that Singapore is not nearly as “clean” as its reputation suggests.

There are two major complaints about serious corruption in Singapore: Continue reading

How the Export-Import Bank Debate is Destroying Our Understanding of Crony Capitalism

The sleepy, little-known U.S. Export-Import Bank is having an uncomfortable moment in the spotlight. The bank, a federal agency that finances and insures foreign governments’ and corporations’ purchases of American exports, is due for congressional reauthorization this fall. For most of its history, Congress has reauthorized the Ex-Im bank without controversy. But it has become a political lightning rod amid accusations that it’s an instrument of crony capitalism — a way for well-connected domestic companies to receive federal subsidies at the expense of competitors and taxpayers. A chorus of libertarian and ultraconservative Tea Party Republicans are making reauthorization a litmus test, framing the bank as “corporate welfare” abetted by the Republican establishment. The fight over reauthorization has taken on greater urgency since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a key supporter of the bank, improbably lost his Republican Party primary in June in what was billed as a Tea Party-versus-establishment battle. Indeed, after his loss Boeing — a large beneficiary of Ex-Im funds — took a tumble in the stock market on fears that Ex-Im’s survival has been imperiled.

The accusation of crony capitalism is a powerful one. In the age of trillion-dollar corporate bailouts, it’s not hard to see why that accusation resonates with many U.S. voters. However, the debate over whether the bank represents “crony capitalism” illustrates a major point of confusion about what crony capitalism is, obscuring actual steps that could be taken to address the problem. The public debate about crony capitalism should focus not simply on where government and business intersect, but on when that intersection implicates the kinds of traditional corruption — such as bribery, bid-rigging, special treatment, and conflicts of interest — that distinguish crony capitalism from government’s legitimate if controversial engagement with the private sector. Without focusing on the actual corruption that gives rise to crony capitalism, those trying to fight it are aiming at the wrong target.

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Crony Capitalism, the Asian Financial Crisis, and the Anticorruption Movement: What Are the Connections?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a minor diatribe responding to the related claims – which I had perceived in a number of recent blog commentaries – (1) that corruption is not really that big a problem for economic development, and (2) that the emphasis on corruption had more to do with the desire of Western countries to feel superior to the allegedly misgoverned countries in the so-called Global South. One of the targets of my critique, Michael Dowdle, has posted an interesting response that deserves careful consideration.

Dowdle explains that his original post did not claim “that everyone involved in the anticorruption movement is infected by” the impulse to claim moral superiority, did not claim that this impulse “is the only or even the predominant motor behind the global anticorruption movement,” and indeed did not claim that this impulse is “a distinctly Western mindset.” After making these helpful clarifications, Dowdle explains the root of his concern that the desire to claim moral superiority may (partly) explain (some of) the global anticorruption movement: the invocation of a particular kind of corruption – “crony capitalism” – to explain the failures of the neoliberal model of global capitalism, most prominently in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

In a nutshell, Dowdle’s argument goes something like this (and I apologize in advance for what I’m sure will be a bit of an oversimplification, but I think this is basically faithful): (1) the rapid growth of the Asian economies in the 1980s and 1990s, with their allegedly distinctive approach to government involvement in the market, posed a challenge to the purported superiority of American capitalism; (2) the Asian Financial Crisis delegitimized this alleged alternative model of capitalism, and so was greeted “with a clear degree of glee” from many American commentators; (3) commentators (mostly Western) claimed that a root cause of the crisis was “crony capitalism” – the alleged tendency to make loans based on political or social connections rather than expected returns – as part of an emerging narrative about how the “Asian Alternative” had failed; (4) in fact, however, crony capitalism had nothing to do with the crisis; and (5) the global anticorruption movement more generally “was strongly catalyzed by the discourse of corruption that American observers used to describe and explain” the Asian Financial Crisis.

For the moment, let me put aside that last point about the alleged causal relationship between the discourse of crony capitalism in the context of the 1997 crisis and the emergence of the global anticorruption efforts more generally – except to say that I’m skeptical that this was more than a minor factor. (Certainly Dowdle doesn’t point to any evidence, beyond the timing, that would substantiate this claim.) I want to focus instead on his intriguing and provocative arguments (A) that crony capitalism had nothing to do with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, but (B) that the emphasis on crony capitalism in some quarters reflected a desire to delegitimize a perceived Asian challenge to American/Western capitalism. I find this narrower version of Dowdle’s hypothesis much more plausible than the much broader version I (mis)understood him to be advancing in his original post. But I still find myself somewhat skeptical, so in the interests of continuing what at least for me has been a very stimulating exchange, let me push back against certain aspects of Dowdle’s argument here.

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The Economist’s Crony Capitalism Index Does Not Measure Crony Capitalism

The Economist’s recent cover story, introducing what it calls the “Crony-Capitalism Index”, has generated a lot of buzz. The study ranks 23 countries (counting Hong Kong separately) based on the Economist’s calculation of the prevalence of politically connected business dealing. The study takes billionaires from the Forbes Billionaires List who are primarily active in certain industries (such as casinos, banking, extractive industries, real estate, utilities, etc.) that the Economist deems “rent-heavy,” and looks at these billionaires’ share of the economic pie in their country. The index has already been used as the basis for media criticism of those countries that scored poorly, such as Hong Kong (1st) and Malaysia (3rd) — indeed, the Malaysian government was so upset that it censored the Economist for the week the index came out.

Some of the results are unsurprising: Russia and India score fairly high in this measure of crony capitalism, whereas Germany bottoms out the list. But other results are more puzzling.  Not only does the index report that Hong Kong has more crony capitalism than mainland China, but also that mainland China has less crony capitalism than either the United States or Great Britain. What gives? Does the United States really have more of a crony capitalism problem than China?

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