making local government more ethical
A post yesterday in Coates' Canons: NC Local Government Law Blog raises an interesting issue about the situation of a local government candidate who has an interest in a contract with the local government which, by NC law, is prohibited not for candidates, but for a winning candidate the day he or she takes office. This provides a good occasion to look at the intersection of candidates and local government ethics codes, outside of the more common campaign finance issues.

This week, according to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) passed a new ethics code, largely based on the recommended code drafted in October by the Code of Ethics Workgroup, set up by the Cuyahoga County Transition Advisory Group Executive Committee (the transition referred to is a change in form of government; see my blog post on this).

I could not find the final code. But the only major change mentioned online involves allowing county employees with seats on nonpartisan government bodies to keep their jobs (see a West Life article from January).

Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, the authors of the new book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It (Princeton University Press), point out that egocentrism is in our nature. We naturally see the world from our point of view. We squeeze what we see and experience into our view of ourselves. We never get too far away from the baby's concept that the world exists for us, even if no longer for us alone.

Egocentrism (what they call the "egocentric bias") is at the heart of unethical behavior, in the government ethics sense. When the public interest conflicts with an offical's self-interest, that self-interest is what leads the official to deal irresponsibly with the conflict. It is the official's self-serving judgments that lead him to different conclusions than others have regarding what is a fair solution to a conflict situation.

"Most of us dramatically underestimate the degree to which our behavior is affected by incentives and other situational factors." This is one of the most important sentences in Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It, a new book by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Princeton University Press).

Ethical Fading
This sentence is central to the authors' concept of "ethical fading." Ethical fading involves the elimination of the ethical dimension of a decision. Goals, rewards, informal pressures, even compliance systems effectively blind us to the ethical implications of what we do. The result is that we do not see our behavior as ethical, but as something else:  acting for our agency, acting strategically, considering the financial costs and benefits, pushing our party's platform, doing what we are required to do by law, doing what it takes to look good.

How important is ethics training? According to Justice Ginsburg's dissent in Connick v. Thompson, a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29, it is the difference between life and death.

Violence happens. The world is violent. People are naturally violent. This is what people say.

Politicians are all crooks. Government ethics is an oxymoron. Don't be so naïve. This is what people say.

As Michael N. Nagler says in his book The Search for a Nonviolent Future, "when we have negative expectations, life obligingly fulfills them." We have a choice. We can speak in double negatives, like "Stop violence" (or "Stop corruption"). Or we can speak in positives, like "Let's cooperate, mediate, work things out" (or "Let's discuss what's in the public interest").

We also have a negative view of power. Power, we think, is used to oppress, to harm, to control. But as Nagler points out, there is more than one kind of power.