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

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

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.

Continue reading