Low bar fail on political gift-giving

August 28, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More

Look what passed as necessity for Condoleeza Rice:

In 2008, Rice historically became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Tripoli since 1953. She and Gaddafi are reported to have enjoyed a private dinner, during which a State Department report indicates the Libyan leader also showered his visitor with an estimated $212,000 worth of gifts — including a diamond ring in a wooden box, a lute and an accompanying DVD, and a locket with Gaddafi’s own picture inside.

Also included among the gifts: “Wonder-Womanesque wristbands” and an autographed copy of his revolutionary Green Book with an inscription that expressed his “respect and admiration,” according to The New York Times.

There are, of course, strict rules about the acceptance of gifts by public officials but when it comes to foreign leaders, diplomatic concerns take priority, as “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.”

There is more information regarding the gifts here. This attitude that there is EVER a necessity for a politician to accept something of value (other than an official publicly-disclosed salary) is utter bullshit.  If I were in charge, no politician would ever accept anything more than a modestly-priced meal from anyone, and even a meal sends up red flags.   It is a well-established principle in psychology that accepting a gift, even a small gift, implants an urge to reciprocate, and often to do so way out of proportion to the modestly-priced gift, as established by psychologist Robert Cialdini:

“Because once you’ve benefited somebody, and once you’ve helped elevate their outcomes, that person will feel honor-bound to benefit you, and help your outcomes in return,” Cialdini says.  Using reciprocity is not complicated, Cialdini says.  All it takes is a little foresight — and the willingness to help others before they help you. In the sometimes-cutthroat world of modern business, that may seem to be a leap of faith.

I’ve heard many stories on the streets about politicians and judges accepting week-long vacations, jewelry and many other valuable in-kind gifts, and this rampant political corruption disgusts me.

Image by Winston67 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

We need strict state and federal rules that no politician will ever accept more than the cost of a modest meal.  We need to send out a mass mailing to the officials and business leaders worldwide that our people cannot accept gifts and that it would be an insult to offer gifts.  And that goes for you too, Clarence Thomas.   Tell your friends that you are not allowed to accept any more $19,000 bibles.

If you want a politician to stay at a resort to spend time with your group, the politician should pay his or her own way, and they should be thrown in prison if they don’t.   I’m often skeptical of slippery slope arguments but, in my mind this is a legitimate one.

If we can’t pass and enforce a low-bar rule like the one I’m proposing, people will remain ever-suspicious of their leaders, and for good reason.

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Category: Corruption, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    I was in a few situations while in Korea where to refuse would have been a diplomatic gaffe and worse, would have embarrassed the giver. Americans do not understand that embarrassment and in Asia it is extremely important. But the gifts were not on the scale of Condi’s – a small embroidered tassel, a small statuette – and I turned them over to the Command office to be added to the other things the Command received over the years.

    Here in the U.S. I don’t accept lunches with contractors or architects/engineers I work with. It’s a matter of appearance and conflict of interest. I do weigh each situation individually, and have occasionally had lunch with persons with whom I have a contractual relationship – but only when I pay for my own.

    In the private world, there are vast deals made over such gifting. In the public sector, it is just wrong. Lobbyists. Four letter word in my dictionary.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: When I was with the state government, I also had a hair trigger for appearance of impropriety. Sometimes I didn’t want to make a scene (where someone grabs the check and pays for everyone at the table) so I sometimes sent a check for my part of the meal after I got back to the office. It makes life awkward for those of us who take that line in the sand seriously.

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