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

Lava Jato and Mani Pulite: Will Brazil’s Corruption Investigation End Up a Wash?

Pop quiz:

Which corruption investigation was preceded by a massive outcry against corruption, was advanced by federal prosecutors making liberal use of the plea bargain, implicated hundreds of politicians (including former and current heads of state), raised serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, and ultimately resulted in a dramatic political crisis that led to the replacement of a long-standing populist regime with a conservative government bent on reform?

If you guessed Brazil’s Lava Jato (English: Car Wash), you’d be correct.

But if you answered Italy’s Mani Pulite (English: Clean Hands), you’d also be right.

The similarities between the two anticorruption investigations and subsequent prosecutions are no coincidence. In 2004, Brazilian Judge Sérgio Moro, currently responsible for Lava Jato, penned an essay praising the Clean Hands operation, calling it “one of the most impressive judicial crusades against political and administrative corruption,” lamenting Brazil’s failure to engage in a crusade of similar import, and setting a roadmap for the country to do so, based largely on the perceived successful tactics of Italy’s Clean Hands.

Over the last three years, Brazil’s Car Wash operation has followed Moro’s roadmap. But, as Alberto Vannucci has pointed out, Clean Hands was far from an unqualified success—on the contrary, the headline-grabbing, establishment-shaking operation arguably left the country even more mired in corruption than before. Last year, GAB contributor Daniel Binette (channeling Vannucci) predicted that Brazil could face three major challenges in the wake of Car Wash: (1) a collapse of major political parties, (2) the remote possibility of a coup, as occurred in Thailand in 2014, and (3) a loss of public confidence in the anticorruption probe itself. Some of Binette’s predictions have proven prescient, while the accuracy of others remains to be seen.

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Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 1

Well, between the ICIJ release of the searchable Panama Papers/Offshore Leaks database, the impeachment of President Rousseff in Brazil, and the London Anticorruption Summit, last week was quite a busy week in the world of anticorruption. There’s far too much to write about, and I’ve barely had time to process it all, but let me try to start off by focusing a bit more on the London Summit. I know a lot of our readers have been following it closely (and many participated), but quickly: The Summit was an initiative by David Cameron’s government, which brought together leaders and senior government representatives from over 40 countries to discuss how to move forward in the fight against global corruption. Some had very high hopes for the Summit, others dismissed it as a feel-good political symbolism, and others were somewhere in between.

Prime Minister Cameron stirred things up a bit right before the Summit started by referring to two of the countries in attendance – Afghanistan and Nigeria – as “fantastically corrupt,” but the kerfuffle surrounding that alleged gaffe has already received more than its fair share of media attention, so I won’t say more about it here, except that it calls to mind the American political commentator Michael Kinsley’s old chestnut about how the definition of a “gaffe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.) I’m going to instead focus on the main documents coming out of the Summit: The joint Communique issued by the Summit participants, and the individual country statements. There’s already been a lot of early reaction to the Communique—some fairly upbeat, some quite critical (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). A lot of the Communique employs fairly general language, and a lot of it focuses on things like strengthening enforcement of existing laws, improving international cooperation and information exchange, supporting existing institutions and conventions, and exploring the creation of new mechanisms. All that is fine, and some of it might actually turn out to be consequential, but to my mind the most interesting parts of the Communique are those that explicitly announce that intention of the participating governments to take pro-transparency measures in four specific areas:

  1. Gathering more information on the true beneficial owners of companies (and possibly other legal entities, like trusts), perhaps through a central public registry—which might be available only to law enforcement, or which might be made available to the general public (see Communique paragraph 4).
  2. Increasing transparency in public contracting, including making public procurement open by default, and providing usable and timely open data on public contracting activities (see Communique paragraph 9). (There’s actually a bit of an ambiguity here. When the Communique calls for public procurement to be “open by default,” it could be referring to greater transparency, or it could be calling for the use of open bidding processes to increase competition. Given the surrounding context, it appears that the former meaning was intended. The thrust of the recommendation seems to be increasing procurement transparency rather than increasing procurement competition.)
  3. Increasing budget transparency through the strengthening of genuinely independent supreme audit institutions, and the publication of these institutions’ findings (see Communique paragraph 10).
  4. Strengthening protections for whistleblowers and doing more to ensure that credible whistleblower reports prompt follow-up action from law enforcement (see Communique paragraph 13).

Again, that’s far from all that’s included in the Communique. But these four action areas struck me as (a) consequential, and (b) among the parts of the Communique that called for relatively concrete new substantive action at the domestic level. So, I thought it might be a useful (if somewhat tedious) exercise to go through each of the 41 country statements to see what each of the Summit participants had to say in each of these four areas. This is certainly not a complete “report card,” despite the title of this post, but perhaps it might be a helpful start for others out there who are interested in doing an assessment of the extent of actual country commitments on some of the main action items laid out in the Communique. So, here goes: a country-by-country, topic-by-topic, quick-and-dirty summary of what the Summit participants declared or promised with respect to each of these issues. (Because this is so long, I’m going to break the post into two parts. Today I’ll give the info for Afghanistan–Malta, and Thursday’s post will give the info for Mexico–United States). Continue reading

The Petrobras Investigations and the Future of Brazil’s Democracy: Thailand and Italy as Cautionary Tales

In March of 2014, when Alberto Youssef, the initial whistleblower for the now infamous Petrobras scandal disclosed his knowledge of the scheme to his lawyers, he prefaced his revelations with a grim prediction: “Guys, if I speak, the republic is going to fall.” While that prediction may have seemed melodramatic at the time, the recent turmoil in Brazil surrounding the Petrobras scandal and the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have led some to begin to question whether Mr. Youssef’s prediction might in fact ring true.

The Petrobras scandal may be the single biggest corruption scheme in any democracy, ever. By some estimates, up to US$5.3 Billion changed hands through inflated construction contracts and kickbacks to Petrobras executives and politicians. Even for a country accustomed to political corruption scandals, this case is unique in its breadth and scope. Dozens of Brazil’s economic and political elite have been implicated, including the CEO of the country’s largest construction firm (sentenced to 19 years in jail), and the former treasurer of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (sentenced to 15 years in jail), plummeting Brazil into a true political and economic crisis. The investigations transcend party lines: Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the House leading the charge for President Rousseff’s impeachment (for using accounting tricks to mask the nation’s deficit), has himself been charged in connection with the Petrobras Scandal. Indeed, this scandal appears to be a political reckoning, an indictment of the entire elite class in Brazil.

By most accounts, Brazil is a thriving democracy—elections are free and fair, and there is a multi-party system marked by vigorous competition between rival parties. Civil liberties are generally well respected. Protests against the government have been massive, but by most accounts peaceful and undisturbed by state authorities. But some have gone so far as to speculate that the unprecedented scale of this scandal may lead to a collapse of Brazil’s democratic system. At least one historical example suggests that this might not be so far-fetched: In Thailand, the political deadlock in 2014 following the ouster of President Yingluck Shinawatra on allegations of corruption and abuse of power ended with a military coup, and democracy has yet to return. Yet perhaps another, somewhat less dramatic but nonetheless troubling precedent is even more apt: In Italy in the 1990s, the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) campaign revealed endemic corruption and led to the collapse of the four governing political parties. In this case, while democratic elections continued, the political void left in the wake of Clean Hands was filled by new, corrupt actors like Silvio Berlusconi, and political graft remains rampant. Though Brazil seems unlikely to suffer a fate similar to Thailand, it is highly plausible that the aftermath of the Petrobras scandal might resemble the Italian experience.

Let’s consider some of the possible parallels between Brazil and Thailand, on the one hand, and Brazil and Italy, on the other.

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Scorpions with Wax Wings: How Anticorruption Agencies Can Avoid Flying Too Close to the Sun

Public rhetoric about the battle against corruption often centers on the need for “zero tolerance”–the need for institutions, including perhaps most importantly law enforcement agencies–to aggressively root out graft through vigorous prosecution, no matter the circumstances.  What more often goes unsaid, though, is that actually following such strategies may end up being counterproductive.  The aggressive pursuit of corruption-busting litigation can lead to political elites pulling the rug out from underneath the anticorruption agency (ACA).  In South Africa, for example, the National Assembly dissolved the Scorpions, a special investigative unit, once it began going after high-ranking government officials.

As a result of the danger of being undercut, ACAs face an inherent tension in their work: they want to fight corruption to the greatest extent possible, but fighting it too aggressively can lead to the agency’s ability to perform its duties being completely undercut.  How far, then, can an ACA push? Though the unique context of any given ACA means no universal lessons exist, there are some general guidelines ACAs should consider when shaping their anticorruption efforts, if they want to avoid a backlash that ultimately consolidates the power of the corrupt:

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