making local government more ethical

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Robert Wechsler

Dan Ariely, an economist at M.I.T., made up a test that is easy to cheat on, in order to see how social situations might affect students’ choices whether to actually cheat or not. As described in his new book, Predictably Irrational, he found that students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments did not cheat at all. Reminders of other moral codes, such as a non-existent honor...

Robert Wechsler

There is an assumption held by people involved in government ethics that putting one’s personal interests ahead of the public interest is bad, that a healthy democracy depends on government officials working for the public interest rather than for themselves.

But not everyone holds this view. In fact, the prevalence of the opposite view provides a great deal of support to unethical conduct, especially at the local government level.


Robert Wechsler

How harmful can it be for a potential contractor to give money to the favored charities of someone who oversees a county’s finances? And how harmful can it be for a county official to work with people he trusts, rather than competitively bidding out the county’s business?

The answer to both questions, given by the disaster that's hit Jefferson County, Alabama, home to the city of Birmingham, is a lot.

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Robert Wechsler

Ethics problems in Louisiana have shown up in this blog several times, so it’s heartening to be able to report that Louisiana is now putting into law a series of ethics improvements, some of which apply to local governments. For example, this week Gov. Jindal signed bills allowing local ethics entities to issue subpoenas and eliminated a hoophole, I mean loophole, allowing people to give...

Robert Wechsler

“Ethics” is an unfortunate name for what appears in government ethics codes. When people think about ethics, they think about right and wrong, about moral obligations, about being honest and upright, about the Golden Rule.

This isn’t what government ethics deals with. Government ethics deals with a limited area of conduct: conflicts of interest. And most people don’t realize this, or understand conflicts of interest.

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Robert Wechsler

The ethics rules of the Minnesota State Senate limit conflicts of interest to instances where a bill would provide a financial benefit to a senator or his or her employer that is not shared by other similarly situated individuals or firms. This is a common standard.

According to an article in today's Star Tribune, a Minnesota senator brought to the ethics committee two bills she had sponsored...