the Clinton Foundation and the new gift economy

The Atlantic’s David Graham describes the “forthcoming book by Peter Schweizer [that] has excited the political world with allegations of quid pro quos, in which foreign governments gave to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton, then serving as secretary of state, did them favors—essentially alleging bribery in foreign affairs.” (For additional coverage, see Jonathan Chait, “The Disastrous Clinton Post-Presidency” or Graham, “A Quick Guide to the Questions About Clinton Cash.”)

I don’t think the real issue here is potential bribery. According to the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S. Code § 201, “a public official” receives a bribe if she or he, “directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for: (A) being influenced in the performance of any official act …”

So bribery would have been committed if the Clinton Foundation accepted money “in return for” some favorable treatment by Secretary Clinton. That is the kind of quid pro quo that the Justice Department alleges in the pending case of Senator Menendez. But it isn’t how things usually work in power politics, and it isn’t the heart of our systemic problems with money in politics.

A New York Times’  news story, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” suggests how things actually work. A financier gives the Clinton Foundation $31.5 million. At an event with Elton John and Shakira to celebrate the gift, Ms. Clinton lauds the donor’s “remarkable combination of caring and modesty, of vision and energy and iron determination,” … adding: “I love this guy, and you should, too.” The same financier later on receives US State Department approval for a joint venture with a Russian uranium firm that affects control over this military/strategic commodity.

In a contract-based economy, parties agree to some kind of exchange before the goods, services, or money change hands. That has the advantage of efficiency and reliability. But when it comes to money and politics, such an agreement has the disadvantage of being a felony that can lead to imprisonment of no more than 15 years. There is an alternative, however–the older culture known as a gift economy. In a gift economy, goods circulate because A gives presents to B in the hopes that B will later give favors to A, but A studiously avoids any contract or explicit expectation.

The traditional reason is honor: it’s dishonorable in many societies to expect a return. In the current political environment, honor has the additional buttress of 18 U.S. Code § 201.

Yesterday’s New York Times editorial, after raising “questions about the interplay of politics and wealthy foreign donors who support the Clinton Foundation,” hastens to acknowledge: “Nothing illegal has been alleged about the foundation, the global philanthropic initiative founded by former President Bill Clinton.” However, the editorial warns, “accusations … will fester if straightforward answers are not offered to the public. [Hillary Clinton] needs to do a lot more, because this problem is not going away.”

I’m actually not sure what Ms. Clinton could do or say that would reduce criticism of the nexus between huge contributions to the Clinton Foundation, favorable treatment of its donors by the US government, and personal benefits to the Clinton family. It’s a gift economy, and exhaustive investigation is unlikely to reveal a quid pro quo or lead to any legal action (or legal exoneration).

Donors to the Clinton Foundation don’t necessarily know what they want when they give; they may have a mix of motivations, including altruism. The Clintons don’t take specific actions for donors just because of the money. But they do accept their gifts at glitzy events with Shakira and express their love for the donors. As in Beowulf, “treasures will change hands and each side will treat /the other with gifts; across the gannet’s bath,/ over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring/ presents and tokens” (Heaney trans., lines 1859-63) The public can see what this amounts to, with or without additional disclosures. The question is whether voters should tolerate it.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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