making local government more ethical
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about a book by Lewis Hyde entitled The Gift, which had a lot to say, philosophically, about gift-giving and -receiving, an issue of relevance to government ethics. I just finished Hyde's book Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, which just came out last month from Farrar Straus. It's a fantastic book about the philosophical bases of copyright and patent law (I used to be in book publishing), but Hyde says a lot that applies to the philosophical bases and the origins of government ethics, as well.

Intellectual property law, as the book's title implies, deals with a sort of commons, a cultural commons. To define and preserve a commons, one must distinguish between what is private and what is public. It is because the private-public distinction is central to government ethics that the philosophy discussed in this book, especially the philosophy of America's founding fathers, is relevant to us.

In Milwaukee County, according to an article in Sunday's Journal-Sentinel, a county supervisor is seeking to add to the county ethics code a confidential information provision that would not limit the prohibition to what is common in ethics codes: information divulged for someone's benefit.

As I've written before (1 2), this is not a government ethics issue, because there is no conflict between the public interest and the official or employee's personal interest. In fact, there are many situations where divulging confidential information is in the public interest, for example, in the course of blowing the whistle on improper conduct by other officials or employees.

Those who, like me, are fascinated by Vernon, California, the ultimate company town, with an ethical environment that breaks nearly all the rules, will be happy to know that it was given a long treatment in a front-page article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. There are no new revelations, but a few good quotes.

From state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre:  "It's like they said of Mexico — it's the perfect dictatorship because they have elections. Vernon is the perfect corporation because it pretends to be a city."

Who is the best sort of individual to select as an ethics commission member?  Some people believe it's a member of the clergy, because who else is more ethical? And there are many clergy members on ethics commissions across the country. But this shows either a misunderstanding of government ethics (that it's about being good rather than dealing responsibly with conflicts of interest) or a preference for appearances, even if it gives the public the wrong impression about what government ethics is all about.

Some people believe the best EC member is a lawyer, because an EC has to interpret a law, the ethics code. It's true that EC members who are not lawyers may need the advice of a lawyer, especially when the language of the local ethics code is overly complex. But this is true of people in every walk of life.

The other reason that lawyers are valuable on an EC is that they are professionals accustomed to working with an ethics code of their own. But this is true of nearly all professionals and an increasing number of corporate employees.

Four years after I wrote a blog post entitled The Ethics of Today's Municipal Pension Plan Problems, according to an op-ed piece in the New York Times, New Jersey agreed with the S.E.C. never again to fraudulently hide its underfunding of the state’s public pension system. And the Republican candidate for New York state comptroller asserted that — if you do the math the way any ordinary financial analyst or economist would — New York’s pension system is underfunded by tens of billions of dollars and that, as a result, the state is essentially insolvent.

The lead article in yesterday's New York Times was on charities set up by members of congress. I've written a few times about the use of charities to get around campaign finance and gift provisions (1 2 3), but this is an area of special creativity, where new ideas, and new reasons for regulation, arise frequently. For example, the foundation on which the article focuses employs the congressman's son, a Rialto, CA council member, as its CEO and President.