Tuesday, February 17, 2009
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
A PROBLEM THAT WON'T GO AWAY
There is no area of our society that is immune to conflicts of interest. The revolving door between lobbyists and legislators -- and the conflicts and difficulties they give rise to -- was once again illustrated by Tom Daschel's failed nomination. Bankers and regulators often move in and out of bed together. Physicians and pharmaceutical companies are intricately bound by competing needs and mutual interests. Pentagon officials and defense contractors, accountants and their clients, reporters and their sources . . . . The list goes on and on.
The problem won't go away because the increasing complexity of our world requires that those who monitor and service industries know more and more about how they work in order to be effective. That creates pressures to recruit those who not only know those industries intimately but also retain ties with them. But then, of course, there are the advantages for those who are able to get on the inside track. Pressures of competition mean that any advantage will be thoroughly exploited, and no amount of deterrance will prevent most people from doing their best to maximize whatever advantages they can, legitimately or not.
On the other hand, with our increasing sophistication and knowledge about how thinking is shaped by unconscious influences, we know we need to worry about the impact of these special relationships: they impair and distort judgement, they skew decisions, they confound reality with powerful motivations. Impartiality and neutrality may be impossible goals, in the last analysis, but that only means we have to struggle to maintain rationality, integrity and prevent corruption. Disclosure is not enough.
Obama set out to put limits on influence peddling in Washington, and from the start he has been forced to make exceptions. It is so pervasive and so accepted a part of business as usual, one has to wonder what kind of goal is reasonable to strive for. At the same time, it is vitally important to restore integrity to the democratic process, and some greater degree of rationality, free of special interests, to public policy. Because of the power of unconscious thinking, we so easily lose sight of what really makes sense, what actually needs to be done.
Dick Cheney's career is the outstanding case in point. After serving as Secretary of Defense, he went on to serve as CEO of Halliburton, leaving that job to be Vice President in the Bush administration. One could argue -- and no doubt he himself would and did -- that the knowledge gained in each job was invaluable in understanding the whole. But that is a perfect example of the "military-industrial complex" that Eisenhower warned us about at the end of his second term, the point of view embodied in the CEO who proclaimed "What's good for General Motors is good for America." Who could maintain an impartial and objective perspective in the face of such merged experiences and convictions?
Are we destined to have a partial and corrupt view of the issues we face? Will the example of Cheney set the standard, or will significant reforms be possible? And even if reforms prevail, will it be possible to establish clear boundaries that protect us from the ever-present danger of unconscious influences distorting decision making. We would have to really want to make those changes occur in order to be constantly vigilant and enquiring.