THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY IN AMERICA

HOW THE ETHICS WARS HAVE UNDERMINED GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, AND SOCIETY

A cautionary lesson, now grown dismayingly familiar, about well-intended reforms producing unintended bad results. Ever since the ``Big Bang''—the moral cataclysm of Vietnam and Watergate two decades ago—the US has promulgated the most far- reaching ethics-reform measures in its history, affecting government, business, science, and the scholarly community, according to Morgan and Reynolds (a D.C. attorney and a law professor at the Univ. of Tennessee, respectively). Yet, despite the passage of laws such as the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, cynicism about institutions has spread rather than diminished. The authors attribute much of this morass to reformers' mistake in focusing not on actual impropriety but on the appearance of impropriety, an appropriate standard for ensuring judicial impartiality but not for other settings where such neutrality is elusive. The result is ``a story of the substitution of appearances for substance, of technicalities for judgment, of opportunism for self-discipline.'' Among ethics controversies covered here are the scientific fraud charges against Nobel laureate Dr. David Baltimore and a colleague; Stanford University's accounting overcharges related to federal research grants; and Whitewater. Some conclusions are debatable (e.g., in criticizing costs incurred by independent counsels, the authors fail to note that many result from delaying tactics used by executive-branch targets). Many readers will also wish for deeper coverage of such fields as medicine and religion. However, reformers will be troubled by many implications of the regulations discussed here, including the ensnaring of ordinary citizens in the net of the government; apathy; and loopholes that enable politicians to circumvent rules. While too single-minded in its conclusions (haven't these ethics codes done any good?), this analysis offers disturbing reminders that ethicists need to think through the full consequence of their new rules.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-684-82764-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1997

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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If that promise of clarity is what awaits us all, then death doesn’t seem so awful, and that is a great gift from Sacks. A...

GRATITUDE

Valediction from the late neurologist and writer Sacks (On the Move: A Life, 2015, etc.).

In this set of four short essays, much-forwarded opinion pieces from the New York Times, the author ponders illness, specifically the metastatic cancer that spread from eye to liver and in doing so foreclosed any possibility of treatment. His brief reflections on that unfortunate development give way to, yes, gratitude as he examines the good things that he has experienced over what, in the end, turned out to be a rather long life after all, lasting 82 years. To be sure, Sacks has regrets about leaving the world, not least of them not being around to see “a thousand…breakthroughs in the physical and biological sciences,” as well as the night sky sprinkled with stars and the yellow legal pads on which he worked sprinkled with words. Sacks works a few familiar tropes and elaborates others. Charmingly, he reflects on his habit since childhood of associating each year of his life with the element of corresponding atomic weight on the periodic table; given polonium’s “intense, murderous radioactivity,” then perhaps 84 isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. There are some glaring repetitions here, unfortunate given the intense brevity of this book, such as his twice citing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s call to revel in “intercourse with the world”—no, not that kind. Yet his thoughts overall—while not as soul-stirringly inspirational as the similar reflections of Randy Pausch or as bent on chasing down the story as Christopher Hitchens’ last book—are shaped into an austere beauty, as when Sacks writes of being able in his final moments to “see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.”

If that promise of clarity is what awaits us all, then death doesn’t seem so awful, and that is a great gift from Sacks. A fitting, lovely farewell.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-451-49293-7

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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