How to Restore Government Ethics in the Trump Era

From today’s New York Times by Walter Shaub, Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics:

Shortly after his inauguration, President George H. W. Bush counseled freshly minted White House appointees that, “It’s not really very complicated. It’s a question of knowing right from wrong, avoiding conflicts of interest, bending over backwards to see that there’s not even a perception of conflict of interest.” He paired this straightforward declaration with action, establishing unified standards of conduct for the executive branch and resolving his own conflicts of interest. These words and deeds set the tone for ethical governance.

Since the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act, our past presidents entered government with an appreciation for the importance of tone from the top. Though exempt from the conflict of interest statute, which bars other officials from working on matters affecting their financial interests, they all voluntarily divested conflicting holdings and put the proceeds in blind trusts or nonconflicting assets. They knew their exemption from the statute was not a reward for attaining high office but a pragmatic recognition that America needs its president engaged in urgent matters of state. By holding themselves to the same exacting standards as the rest of the executive branch, they sent a clear message to those serving under them.

This tradition came to an abrupt stop with President Trump. By continuing to hold onto his businesses and effectively advertising them through frequent visits to his properties, our leader creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency. As things stand, we can’t know whether policy aims or personal financial interests motivate his decisions as president. Whatever his intentions may be, the resulting uncertainty casts a pall of doubt over governmental decision-making.

This shift fundamentally changes the executive branch ethics program. I have been a student of that program since I first came to the Office of Government Ethics in 2001, appointed by Marilyn L. Glynn, then the office’s general counsel. Every past administration actively supported O.G.E.’s work and respected it for taking stands when necessary. That White House support provided the office with the leverage it needed to fulfill its mission.

I am not suggesting that it was always easy. Having served for much of my career on the front lines of the presidential nominee program, I regularly locked horns with nominees and White House lawyers in both the Bush and Obama administrations as we wrestled over our differing notions of how best to address ethical risks. Sometimes those deliberations were animated; occasionally they were heated. I am also sure that more than a few nominees felt bruised by the painful process of resolving their conflicts of interest. Even if we did not always agree, however, White House officials always understood that O.G.E.’s only goal — and, indeed, my only goal — was to protect the integrity of the government’s operations. The incidental beneficiaries of those efforts were the Bush and Obama administrations and the nominees we kept out of trouble. That’s why it is disheartening now to witness parts of the ethics program slipping away.

The Office of Government Ethics has been performing the same service it has always provided with respect to the current administration’s nominees. In fact, I have succeeded in moving President Trump’s nominees on average almost a week (six days to be exact) faster than I moved President Obama’s nominees during the last presidential transition, without compromising O.G.E.’s high standards. I am particularly proud of this accomplishment because this administration’s nominees generally hold far more complex financial interests than the last administration’s nominees, a circumstance that would normally be expected to slow O.G.E.’s work. Unfortunately, it has been harder to address other aspects of the lagging ethical culture in the current administration.

The cascading effects of the president’s departure from existing ethical norms have touched others in government. The tone from the top led one White House appointee to use her position to hawk the merchandise of the president’s daughter and another to endorse the president’s book. It led a cabinet official, whose recent wedding reportedly featured a chartered bus ride from the president’s hotel, to urge the public to see a movie he produced. The press secretary touts one of the president’s commercial enterprises as the “winter White House,” and the State Department has publicized it around the globe. A White House lawyer made the extraordinary assertion that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (‘OGE’) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.” Appearing to echo this view, the Office of Management and Budget challenged O.G.E.’s authority to collect routine ethics records. Even some presidential nominees have pushed back against ethics processes with uncommon intensity.

Affected, too, is the very official charged with responsibility for White House ethics, the counsel to the president. His office recently ginned up ten unsigned, undated waivers, many of which seem intended to have retroactive effect, raising the specter of a possible effort to paper over ethics violations. Worse, the counsel appears to be both issuer and recipient of two waivers. His deputy also beat back a press inquiry regarding the applicability of ethics rules to one of the deputy’s former clients. In addition, his office has dragged its feet on responding to O.G.E.’s questions about appointees, despite the office’s statutory duty to review their disclosures and certify their ethical compliance.

Projecting their own cynical partisanship, some defenders of this conduct dismiss any expressions of concern — or, in my case, resignation — as politically motivated.Underlying my own expressions of concern, however, is fidelity to the principle that public service is a public trust. I would not have gone looking for this particular fight; it found me. I can assure those reciting the administration’s talking points that I have not enjoyed the attention, nor have I enjoyed watching the negative effects on the ethics program. As I told the Senate during my confirmation hearing in 2012, I am a true believer in the foundational principles of the executive branch ethics program. I am also acutely aware that the program owes a debt to both parties for its past successes and that it will take both parties to restore the program to good health. To advocate for the executive branch ethics program is to advance the nonpartisan mission of an essential institution of our representative form of government.

Defenders of the status quo also seem unwilling to acknowledge the existence of a problem absent clear evidence of significant violations. This argument risks legitimizing an approach of bare minimum legal compliance. The existence or absence of identified violations is not the only measure of an ethics program — no program can detect every violation and those detected are often hard to prove. At its heart, an ethics program acts as a prevention mechanism through systems designed to reduce the risk of violations occurring. Those systems depend on adherence to ethical norms.

Recent experiences have convinced me that the existing mechanism is insufficient. The Office of Government Ethics needs greater authority to obtain information from the executive branch, including the White House. The White House and agencies lacking inspectors general need investigative oversight, which should be coordinated with O.G.E. The ethics office needs more independence, including authority to communicate directly with Congress on budgetary and legislative matters. Because we can no longer rely on presidents to comply voluntarily with ethical norms, we need new laws to address their conflicts of interest, their receipt of compensation for the use of their names while in office, nepotism and the release of tax forms. Transparency should be increased through laws mandating creation and release of documents related to divestitures, recusals, waivers and training. Disclosure requirements can be refined and the revolving door tightened. These changes would give O.G.E. the tools it needs to address the current challenges and, perhaps more importantly, reinforce for presidents the importance of setting a strong ethical tone from the top.

FED Chair says risk of financial crisis increases if Trump deregulates economy

From today’s LA Times by Jim Puzzanghera:

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen told senators Thursday that the risk of another financial crisis would increase if some Trump administration proposals to roll back regulations were enacted.

In her second straight day of Capitol Hill testimony, she walked back her statement last month that she didn’t expect another financial crisis “in our lifetimes.”

“I think we can never be confident there won’t be another financial crisis,” Yellen told members of the Senate Banking Committee.

The U.S. has “done a great deal” since the 2008 crisis to strengthen the financial system, she said. That includes forcing banks to hold more capital to cover potential losses as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul law.

“It is important that we maintain the improvements that have been put in place that mitigate the risk and the potential damage,” Yellen said.

President Trump has promised to dismantle Dodd-Frank, which Republicans have said has been too burdensome for banks.

In a report last month ordered by Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin proposed sweeping regulatory reductions, including changes that would reduce capital requirements for the biggest banks.

Yellen said she would not favor reducing those capital requirements.

Read the entire article here.

Gamers vs. Gainful Employment: Young Men Are Choosing Leisure Over Labor

A noticeable trend has emerged in the last decade: younger men are staying out of the labor force for longer periods of time or altogether. The cause? Economists increasingly focus on the growth of the “gamer” culture: men play more video games than women, and apparently they prefer the leisure of gaming to the frustration of personal growth that comes with gainful employment in the economy.

Past studies have shown an increasing prevalence of younger men to either avoid work or otherwise work intermittently, instead staying home and playing video games all day. This trend has intensified with the development of online gaming, where individuals play other individuals in live action games that happen in real time through various internet game providers.

According to a recent paper published by the economists Erik Hurst, Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils and Kerwin Charles at the Bureau of Economic Research:

By 2015, American men 31 to 55 were working about 163 fewer hours a year than that same age group did in 2000. Men 21 to 30 were working 203 fewer hours a year. One puzzle is why the working hours for young men fell so much more than those of their older counterparts. The gap between the two groups grew by about 40 hours a year, or a full workweek on average.

Although many economists have pointed to other factors including technological innovation, globalization, and the rise of service sector work, the paper argues that a significant percentage of younger men staying away from work can be traced to the rise of the “Gamer Culture.” That raises important questions about the gender gap at work, including the wage gap, but also whether productivity is stifled by a culture of technological fetishism that worships gadgets that enhance leisure activities rather than increase actual productivity on the job.

For a thorough review of the paper and this growing trend, read here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.

A New Kind of Tech Job Emphasizes Skills, Not a College Degree

From today’s New York Times by Steve Lohr:

ROCKET CENTER, W.Va. — A few years ago, Sean Bridges lived with his mother, Linda, in Wiley Ford, W.Va. Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability check. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.

Yet while Mr. Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college. When Mr. Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations center in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.

Now Mr. Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making $45,000 a year. In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money — and career ambitions.

“I got one big break,” he said. “That’s what I needed.”

Mr. Bridges represents a new but promising category in the American labor market: people working in so-called new-collar or middle-skill jobs. As the United States struggles with how to match good jobs to the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how a worker’s skills can be emphasized over traditional hiring filters like college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment and tailored training and a gateway to the middle class.

Read the complete article here.

House Republicans Are Trying to Pass the Most Dangerous Wall Street Deregulation Bill Ever

From Mother Jones, June 7, 2017 by Hannah Levintova:
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From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has opposed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Obama-era financial reform law passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis.  Trump has characterized it as a “disaster” that has created obstacles for the financial sector and hurt growth. In April, he repeated his promise to gut the existing law.
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“We’re doing a major elimination of the horrendous Dodd-Frank regulations, keeping some, obviously, but getting rid of many,” Trump said in a meeting with top executives during a “Strategic and Policy CEO Discussion,” which included the leaders of major companies like Walmart and Pepsi. He added, “For the the bankers in the room, they’ll be very happy.”
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The Republican Congress shares Trump’s dislike of Dodd-Frank and this week, the House plans to vote on the Financial CHOICE Act, a Dodd-Frank overhaul bill that will, as promised, make banks and Wall Street “very happy” if it becomes law, while undoing numerous financial safeguards for regular Americans. (CHOICE is an acronym for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.”)
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The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), takes aim at some of Dodd-Frank’s main achievements: It guts rules intended to protect mortgage borrowers and military veterans, and restrict predatory lenders. It also weakens the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s ability to oversee and enforce consumer protection laws against banks around the country—upending a mix of powers that have helped the CFPB recover nearly $12 billion for 29 million individuals since opening its doors in July 2011. The bill also weakens or outright cuts a number of bank regulations enacted through Dodd-Frank to keep risky investing behavior in check in order to avoid the economic devastation of another financial crisis or taxpayer-funded bailout.

Read the entire article here.

Behind Trump’s Climate Policy Change? Oil Lobbyists and GOP Lackeys

The data is self-evident. Conservative politicians in the GOP don’t believe the science of climate change because they take the most money from oil and energy lobbyists. Notice they hedged their bets by donating significant amounts to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign?

However, Clinton would almost certainly have upheld the climate accord, since she helped pave the way for an international consensus of countries to reduce their carbon emissions during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Top 20 recipients of oil and energy money from lobbyists and industry executives. This is why Trump and the GOP do not support common sense climate legislation and oppose environmental protections for American citizens and future generations.

By Pulling Out on Paris, Trump’s Policy “America First” Means “America Last”

Today President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord signed by his predecessor President Barack Obama less than two years ago. At the time, the agreement was hailed as the single most important policy initiative for countries to curb carbon emissions in an effort to slow the massive and potentially cataclysmic climate changes that have been accelerated by human activity and energy pollution over the last 100 years.

In pulling out of the agreement, Trump fulfilled a campaign pledge based on soliciting the fear of working class Americans that they would suffer economically and stoking their false hopes that doing so would bring back jobs in destructive industries such as coal-fired energy plants.

The truth is coal suffers not merely from the fact that it is pollution heavy, but also from the fact that is costly to retrieve, refine, and burn—so much so that cheap and plentiful natural gas, and not the alleged bogey-man of environmental regulations, was the single largest factor leading to the market decline of coal and, to a lesser extent, oil.

So, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement will not bring back jobs to those parts of the country that have historically relied on pollution-heavy technologies such as coal (in wide ranging places like West Virginia and Montana), and for that reason is economically inefficient and filled with false hope. What is worse, Trump’s policy change signals to the rest of the world that “American First” means American will no longer lead the world in making smart decisions to leave future generations with a habitable planet and ecology.

In short, Trump just said “Fuck You” to future generations who should be concerned about the lasting effects that relying on polluting technologies now will leave for our children and their children to clean up after we are long gone. Americans are rightly outraged, and we must work to ensure that this disastrous policy change is reversed—yet again!—in 2020.

In MT Special Election, Voters Must Reject GOP candidate Greg Gianforte

Not only is freedom of the press under assault from the rise of “fake news” and the lack of critical thinking in this country, it is also under physical threat from politicians who are treating reporters like punching bags.

Today Montana is holding a special congressional election for its “at-large” House seat to replace Ryan Zinke who Trump appointed to be Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. The contest is between Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a popular musician and rancher, and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who was rejected by the state’s citizens in November in his race to become governor against the popular Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock.

The special election is turning out to be referendum: not only about Trumps’ presidency and GOP policies, because many citizens of the state are deeply unhappy with proposed legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but also about the lack of civility and decency in American politics.

On the night before the election, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jones, a reporter for The Guardian at a campaign event, right before he was scheduled to give a televised interview with a Fox News correspondent and her crew. Here is how Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna described the incident:

At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!” 

This assault by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives on a reporter reflects the “zero sum” politics of elections in recent years, and it has to stop. The rise of social media and its outsize influence on electoral politics has come at a cost: the decline of civility and decency among and between citizens and their elected officials.

There is also another cost: with very little consequence for saying whatever people believe, the rise of “fake news” and outright lies have become part and parcel of this political in-fighting. This trend is disturbingly self-evident in the press release provided by the Gianforte campaign after the incident.

Shane Scanlon, who is Gianforte’s spokesperson, should not just be ashamed for lying about the incident in an effort to cover it up; he should also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement officials during the course of their investigation. What Scanlon describes in this press release is falsified by three eye-witnesses who confirmed the details supplied by the reporter to Gallatin County sheriff’s detectives that Gianforte assaulted him.

Unfortunately, over 200,000 Montana voters have already cast mail-in ballots before the campaign was over. If voters do not reject Gianforte at the ballot box today, he should withdraw from consideration. And if he fails to do that, and he is welcomed with open arms to Congress, it will be dark day for Montana history and American democracy.

Is the Gig Economy Working?—For Some, But Not For Most Workers

From this month’s The New Yorker magazine by Nathan Heller:

The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.

Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.

The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.

Read the entire article here.