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Monday, January 30, 2012

I Disclose ... Nothing

The Hard Truths About Disclosure
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
The New York Times Sunday Review
Originally Published January 22, 2012

IN New York and a growing number of American cities, diners are encountering sanitary grades in restaurants’ windows — A, B or C. That system is an example of helpful disclosure, researchers say: information that is simple and comprehensible, important to recipients and easily acted upon. I recently chose between outwardly identical Japanese noodle shops on East Ninth Street in Manhattan based on the system, walking into the A rather than the B.

But as greater disclosure has become the go-to solution for a wide range of problems — from unethical campaign financing to rising corporate carbon emissions — it has often delivered lackluster results, researchers say.

Just last week, the Obama administration announced plans to require drug companies to disclose a wide variety of payments and gifts to doctors, from speaking fees to the purchase of breakfasts for office staffs, in the hope of reducing commercial influence on prescribing practicesPresident Obama has promised to run the most open, transparent administration in history. But is more disclosure the solution?

If recent history serves as a guide, disclosure laws — meant to elucidate — do not necessarily lead to greater transparency or prevent the things they were meant to deter. Every holder of a subprime mortgage that is now underwater once signed an elaborate disclosure statement required by the Truth in Lending Act describing precisely the risky terms of their loan. Likewise, “super PACs” in the presidential campaign are technically compliant with financial disclosure laws, but have so far proved successful at hiding many of the sources of their money.

Everyone agrees that openness is a virtue in a democracy. So what is going wrong?

One fundamental problem is that disclosure requirements merely get information onto the table, but themselves demand no further action. According to political theory, disclosure is both a citizen’s right and a tool to ensure good government and consumer protection, because it provides information that leads to informed decisions. Instead, disclosure has often become an endpoint in the chain of responsibility, an act of compliance with the letter of the law rather than the spirit of transparency.

“In the beginning, disclosure was a means to an end, and now it’s often an end in itself,” said Kevin P. Weinfurt, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University. “People think, ‘If we’ve disclosed we’ve fulfilled our responsibilities.’ ”

The entire story is here.