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

Conflicting Philippine Identities and the Fight Against Corruption

In his book, From Third to First World, Lee Kuan Yew remarked that the Philippines has two societies, and that the “elite mestizos had the same detached attitude to the native peasants as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had toward their peons.” While this analogy may be extreme, there’s hardly any denying that reforms and economic progress have done little to alleviate the socio-economic disparities entrenched in Philippine society. Even today, Philippine identity looks vastly different for the rich than it does for the poor—in terms of heritage, cultural attitudes, daily experiences, and values. In short, the class divisions that Singapore’s great leader alluded to still exist today, and contribute to a sense of alienation among the two so-called “societies” within Philippine culture.

How does this division play out when it comes to governance, and, for our purposes, anticorruption efforts? Alienation on both sides of the economic divide, and the inability of Filipinos of different classes to relate to one another, have had deleterious effects on progress in this field, and it is important that Philippine policymakers take into account the limits imposed by socioeconomic disparities when considering possible strategies to tackle corruption.

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Facebook Fever is Not Enough: The Role of Social Media in the Philippines

The Philippines, long mired in corruption, appears to have made progress on this front in recent years. While the current administration’s anticorruption efforts may have contributed to this progress, some commentators have suggested that social media might actually be playing a bigger role in the decline of graft in the country. Indeed, there are some dramatic examples of social media playing a role in the fight against corruption. For instance, as details of a major scheme involving misappropriation of public money began to surface in 2013, social media platforms exploded with photos and videos pulled from the Instagram and Facebook account of Jeane Napoles, whose mother, Janet, had orchestrated the scheme. Filipinos were shocked and appalled by all that ill-gotten wealth could buy—private planes, expensive handbags, multi-million dollar apartments, and even a new car detailed with an Hermes leather exterior (yes, exterior). Even after these accounts were taken down, photos of the Napoles’ lavish lifestyle continued to circulate. These images made people far more aggressive in condemning the actions of those involved, and even inspired the Million People March, when protestors called for complete elimination of the fund used in the scheme. More recently, Facebook posts about sightings of the younger Napoles helped the media to discover that Jeane, who fled the country in 2013, had in fact returned. She has since been charged with tax evasion.

This is encouraging, and no doubt social media platforms can be useful in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I’m cautious about overstating the long-term impact that social media might have on corruption in the Philippines. After all, the Philippines has had an active free press for decades, and past administrations have frequently been challenged by civilian participation and condemnation of corrupt practices. Can we really rely on social media to effect lasting change? Continue reading

It’s Time to Stop Branding Public Works in the Philippines

In a post a few months ago, Matthew noted some challenges involved with education initiatives in the Philippines, where income disparities played a significant role in the success of an anti-vote-buying campaign. In particular, poor Filipinos perceived one campaign as condescending or insulting, and believed that the middle- and upper-class individuals behind those campaigns demonstrated a lack of respect in their approach to voter education. The issue goes much deeper than a single poorly-executed education campaign. Even popular anticorruption movements—such as the one that ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001—were divided along class lines. Poorer Filipinos celebrated (and continue to regard) Estrada as a champion of the poor, while middle- and upper-class Filipinos demanded his resignation following allegations of plunder.

This tension between socioeconomic classes affects countless issues tied to Philippine corruption—from how Filipinos view their politicians, to how they define corruption at all. In his post, Matthew noted one such definitional problem–whether a politician helping constituents to pay for expenses associated with events like funerals or weddings can be classified as “vote buying”–but there are many other similar socioeconomic disparities in the perception of such interactions. It seems that members of different socioeconomic classes expect different things from their local, provincial, and national governments and politicians. To many of those facing extreme poverty, receiving a free birthday cake each year, or having government officials pay for a funeral, are not acts of impropriety, but rather are demonstrations of goodwill and a concern for wellbeing—values which they admire in political candidates.

But the conceptual problem is not simply borne of economic disparity. In many ways, politicians exacerbate these problems by “branding” public acts as their own personal contributions to society, rather than as official acts of their office. A simple drive around any Philippine province demonstrates the extent of this problem. Countless bridges, banners, buses, public housing units, food, disaster relief goods, and even announcements of recent public school graduates prominently feature the names and photographs of politicians. These purposeful efforts to put ones personal stamp on government works are insidious and must be eradicated from Philippine politics.

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