Jun 3rd 2015

The Impunity Trap

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

 

Jeffrey D. Sachs, University Professor at Columbia University, is Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

"Recent studies have shown that when “generalized trust” in society is high, economic performance is improved and life satisfaction is higher. Among other reasons, commercial agreements are more easily reached and efficiently implemented. It is no coincidence that the Scandinavian countries rank among the world’s happiest and most prosperous year after year."

NEW YORK – Ours is a world of impunity. Allegations of corruption swarmed around FIFA for decades, culminating in mass indictments of FIFA officials last week. Yet FIFA President Sepp Blatter was re-elected four times, including after the indictments were filed. Yes, Blatter has finally resigned, but only after he and dozens of Federation members once again showed their scorn for honesty and the law.

We see this kind of behavior all over the world. Consider Wall Street. In 2013 and 2014, JPMorgan Chase paid more than $20 billion in fines for financial malfeasance; yet the CEO took home $20 million in compensation in both 2014 and 2015. Or consider corruption scandals in Brazil, Spain, and many other countries, where governments remain in power even after high-level corruption within the ruling party has been exposed.

The ability of those who wield great public and private power to flout the law and ethical norms for personal gain is one of the more glaring manifestations of inequality. The poor get life sentences for petty crimes, while bankers who fleece the public of billions get invitations to White House state dinners. A famous ditty from medieval England shows that this is not a new phenomenon:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

Today’s greatest thieves are those who are stealing the modern commons – raiding government budgets, defiling the natural environment, and preying on the public trust. When the indictments against the 14 FIFA officials were filed, the cast of characters included not only miscreants from the sports world, but also some familiar players: secret Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Islands tax havens, shell corporations – all of the financial appurtenances that are literally designed to shield the rich from scrutiny and the law.

In this case, the FBI and US Justice Department have done their jobs. But they did so, in part, by penetrating the murky worlds of financial secrecy created and protected by the US Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service, and the US Congress (ever-protective of Caribbean tax havens).

In some societies and economic sectors, impunity is now so pervasive that it is viewed as inevitable. When unethical behavior by political and business leaders becomes widely viewed as “normal,” it then goes unpunished by public opinion, and is reinforced as normal – creating an “impunity trap.” For example, with politicians in the United States now so flagrantly and relentlessly on the take from wealthy donors, much of the public accepts new revelations of financial impropriety (such as the Clinton Foundation’s morally dubious financial dealings) with a cynical yawn.

The situation in the global banking sector is especially alarming. A recent careful study of ethical attitudes in the financial-services industry in the US and the United Kingdom showed that unethical and illegal behavior is indeed now viewed as pervasive. Some 47% of respondents said that it is “likely that their competitors have engaged in unethical and illegal activity,” and 23% believed that their fellow employees have engaged in such activities.

The younger generation has learned the lesson: 32% of respondents employed in the financial industry for less than ten years said that, “they would likely engage in insider trading to make $10 million if there was no chance of being arrested.” The chance of being arrested for such malfeasance is, alas, probably very low.

Yet not all societies or sectors are caught in an impunity trap. Some societies, most notably in Scandinavia, maintain the expectation that their public officials and business leaders should and will act ethically and honestly. In these countries, ministers are forced to resign for petty infractions that would seem trivial in other countries.

Convincing American, Russian, Nigerian, or Chinese citizens that corruption can indeed be controlled might seem to be a futile task. But the goal is certainly worth embracing, because the evidence is overwhelming: impunity is not only morally noxious; it is also economically costly and deeply corrosive to wellbeing.

Recent studies have shown that when “generalized trust” in society is high, economic performance is improved and life satisfaction is higher. Among other reasons, commercial agreements are more easily reached and efficiently implemented. It is no coincidence that the Scandinavian countries rank among the world’s happiest and most prosperous year after year.

So what can be done to overcome an impunity trap? Part of the answer is of course law enforcement (such as the FIFA indictments) and protection for whistleblowers. Yet law enforcement is not sufficient; public attitudes also play a major role.

If the public expresses contempt and revulsion for bankers who cheat their clients, oil executives who wreck the climate, FIFA officials who countenance kickbacks, and politicians who cozy up to all of them in exchange for campaign funds and bribes, illegality for the few cannot become the norm. Public scorn might not end corruption immediately, but it can make life far less pleasant for those who are stealing the commons from the rest of us.

One candidate for US President in 2016, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, recently launched his campaign by asking why not a single Wall Street CEO was convicted of a financial crime in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. It is a good question, the kind that can help the US to overcome its impunity trap.

Yet we can ask an even simpler question. Why are those same bankers still fêted by President Barack Obama, invited to glittering state dinners, and reverently interviewed by the media? The first thing any society can and should do is deny respectability to political and business leaders who willfully abuse the public trust.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 12th 2024
EXTRACTS: "One of the more amusing exercises on the economic calendar is the International Monetary Fund’s annual review of the United States. Yet while everyone knows that the US government pays absolutely no heed to what the IMF has to say about its affairs, the Fund’s most recent Article IV review of the US economy is striking for one unexpected finding. Readers will be startled to learn that, in the IMF’s estimation, US government debt is on a sustainable path." ---- "What then could go wrong? Well, US institutions could turn out not to be so strong. Donald Trump has a personal history of defaulting on his debts. As William Silber has observed, Trump in a second presidential term could instruct his Treasury secretary to suspend payments on the debt, and neither Congress nor the courts might be willing to do anything about it. The gambit would be appealing to Trump insofar as a third of US government debt is held by foreigners. The damage to the dollar’s safe-asset status would be severe, even if Congress, the courts, or a subsequent president reversed Trump’s suspension of debt payments. Investors in US Treasuries would demand a hefty risk premium, potentially causing the government’s interest payments to explode."
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "An all-too-familiar specter is haunting Europe, one that reliably appears every five years. As citizens head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament, observers are once again asking whether far-right anti-European parties will gain ground and unite to destroy the European Union from within. To be sure, skeptics of this doomsday scenario have always argued that the far right will remain divided, because nationalist internationalism is a contradiction in terms. But it is more likely that specific policy disagreements – mainly over the Ukraine war – and drastically diverging political strategies will prevent Europe’s various far-right parties from forming a 'supergroup.' ”
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "While the dreadful legacy of his Conservative predecessors – the morally vacuous Johnson and the reckless Liz Truss – would make it extremely difficult for Sunak to offer a credible vision of a better future, many of his current problems are self-inflicted. For example, he supported Johnson’s bid for the Conservative leadership, a decision that reflects poorly on his judgment. Sunak has also been a Euroskeptic since he was a schoolboy and was an early supporter of Brexit."
Jun 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Why are so many young people attracted to far-right politics? Polls show that 36% of French people aged 18-24 support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, while roughly 31% in the Netherlands back Geert Wilders’s nationalist, anti-immigration ..... 26% of Americans aged 18-29 prefer former US President Donald Trump over the incumbent Joe Biden." ---- "Center-left parties had become increasingly associated with urban elites who benefited from a globalized economy in which immigrants provided cheap labor and well-educated cosmopolitans could seek financial profit or intellectual stimulation wherever they desired." ---- "Trump does not have to convince many young people to vote for him. If enough of them refuse to vote for Biden, either because he is too old, too conservative, or too pro-Israel, Trump could win November’s presidential election. If elected, he will continue to shatter the norms and wreck the institutions that allow democracy to function."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACT: "That said, even if Europe were to improve its deterrence capabilities, it would be unwise to assume that leaders necessarily make rational decisions. In her 1984 book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman observes that political leaders frequently act against their own interests. America’s disastrous wars in the Middle East, the Soviet Union’s ill-fated campaign in Afghanistan, and the ongoing war of blind hatred between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with its potential to escalate into a larger regional conflict, are prime examples of such missteps. As Tuchman notes, the march of folly is never-ending. That is precisely why Europe must prepare itself for an era of heightened vigilance."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: " Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack. In January, Cofnas published a post called “Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem.” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left." ---- "The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions. That was certainly true for me." ----- " But my admiration for the Chinese people and the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years persists. I still disagree with the consensus view in the West that the Chinese miracle was always doomed to fail. Moreover, I remain highly critical of America’s virulent Sinophobia, while maintaining the view that China faces serious structural growth challenges. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for mutually beneficial conflict resolution. My agenda remains analytically driven, not politically motivated."
Apr 11th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The insurrection began just after 8 p.m. on November 8, 1923, when Hitler and his followers burst into a political rally and held the crowd hostage. ---- The Nazi attempt to seize power ended the following morning, ---- After two and a half days in hiding, Germany’s most wanted man was discovered ----- Hitler was charged with treason, and his trial began on February 26, 1924. ---- .....the judge, having found Hitler guilty, imposed the minimum sentence....That miscarriage of justice was facilitated by the trial’s location in the anti-democratic south, and by the role of the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a conservative who was happy to allow Hitler to use his court as a platform to attack the Republic. ----- Like Hitler in 1924, Trump is using the courtroom as a stage on which to present himself as the victim, arguing that a crooked 'deep state' is out to get him."
Apr 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "If Kennedy’s emphasis on healing suggests someone who has been through “recovery,” that is because he has. Following the trauma of losing both his father and his uncle to assassins’ bullets, Kennedy battled, and ultimately overcame, an addiction to heroin. Like Kennedy, Shanahan also appears to be channeling personal affliction. She describes grappling with infertility, as well as the difficulties associated with raising her five-year-old daughter, Echo, who suffers from autism," ----- "Armed with paranoid conspiracy theories about America’s descent into chronic sickness, loneliness, and depression, Kennedy has heedlessly spread lies about the putative dangers of life-saving vaccines while mouthing platitudes about resilience and healing. To all appearances, he remains caught in a twisted fantasy that he just might be the one who will realize his father’s idealistic dreams of a better America."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACT: "....the UK’s current economic woes – falling exports, slowing growth, low productivity, high taxes, and strained public finances – underscore the urgency of confronting Brexit’s catastrophic consequences."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACTS: Most significant of all, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has suffered significant losses over the past two years. As a result of these Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin decided to relocate the Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland. Compare that with the situation prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia had a secure lease on the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042." --- "Ukrainian efforts have clearly demonstrated, however, that the Kremlin’s, and Putin’s personal, commitment may not be enough to secure Russia’s hold forever. Kyiv’s western partners would do well to remember that among the spreading gloom over the trajectory of the war."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "As the saying goes, 'It’s the economy, stupid.' Trump’s proposed economic-policy agenda is now the greatest threat to economies and markets around the world."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "Russia, of course, brought all these problems on itself. It most certainly is not winning the war, either militarily or on the economic front. Ukraine is recovering from the initial shock, and if robust foreign assistance continues, it will have an upper hand in the war of attrition."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "...... with good timing and good luck, enabled Trump to defeat [in 2016] political icon Hillary Clinton in a race that appeared tailor-made for her. But contrary to what Trump might claim, his victory was extremely narrow. In fact, he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes – a larger margin than any other US president in history. Since then, Trump has proved toxic at the ballot box. " -----"The old wisdom that 'demographics is destiny' – coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – may well be more relevant to the outcome than it has been to any previous presidential election. "----- "Between the 2016 and 2024 elections, some 20 million older voters will have died, and about 32 million younger Americans will have reached voting age. Many young voters disdain both parties, and Republicans are actively recruiting (mostly white men) on college campuses. But the issues that are dearest to Gen Z’s heart – such as reproductive rights, democracy, and the environment – will keep most of them voting Democratic."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "How can America’s fundamentalist Christians be so enthusiastic about so thoroughly un-Christian a politician?" ---- "If you see and think outside the hermeneutic code of Christian fundamentalism, you might be forgiven for viewing Trump as a ruthless, wholly self-interested man intent on maximizing power, wealth, and carnal pleasure. What your spiritual blindness prevents you from seeing is how the Holy Spirit uses him – channeling the 'secret power of lawlessness,' as the Book of 2 Thessalonians describes it – to restrain the advent of ultimate evil, or to produce something immeasurably greater: the eschaton (end of history), when the messiah comes again."
Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."