Translated: my interview in an Icelandic newspaper

As an expert in the field, Britta Bohlinger is interested in fraud and risk. She focuses on finance, politics and business. Britta, who previously worked for investment banks and a broker dealer in London, is now settling down here in Iceland. She blogs about Icelandic society and wants to connect with the academic and political areas of the population, with a view to providing benefit to the community.

“There is no particular romantic reason for coming to Iceland. I wasn’t in love with one of the common pull factors or anything like that”, says fraud and risk expert Britta Bohlinger.

We are in a cafe in Reykjavik, surrounded by the headquarters and high rise buildings of the Icelandic financial district. Britta was born in Germany, not far from the border with both Switzerland and France, but after graduating from university in the UK and eight years of working in the fast-paced investment banking sector in London, she no longer wanted to be part of this particular environment.

“Some say, one year in this business equals seven normal years”, she says smilingly. “It’s an intense and demanding world that I entered while still doing my social sciences post-graduate degree, not being from a family of bankers. It has undoubtedly given me a different and critical view of the financial sector, certainly very different from what tends to be the norm, in places such as the City of London.”

Not very long ago, Britta lost both her parents shortly after they had reached retirement age, and she says it has affected her way of looking at things.

“I wondered what I wanted to do and achieve in life, and how I could make an impact. After I left the bank I travelled and visited various countries, including Iceland. I could see myself here, and now this is my second winter here.  What’s more, I did see that Iceland responded relatively quickly to legal proceedings related to the collapse, a number of bankers went to prison. I know well that the outside world has taken note of these issues and sometimes with admiration, but it doesn’t always quite match the experience Icelanders themselves had. I do try to see it realistically, not in a rosy light.”

The strength of the Icelandic society lies in its small size, but it also results in certain risks. Short lines of communication are often a good thing, but a close-knit society can also create gray areas.

“This is a small community with relatively high equality, which I consider extremely significant pillars, especially after living in London where inequality has been strikingly high, with a shrinking middle. With the economic balance comes a certain pressure and political willingness to take on certain issues. This crucial feature of the Icelandic society has been demonstrated since the collapse and is likely to continue.

Iceland, however, is part of a globalized world where crime occurs across borders. The situation in distant countries can affect us here in Iceland, with immigration impacting the economy, and other areas.”

German native Britta Bohlinger does not appear particularly impressed with the Icelandic common phrase “Þetta reddast – It will work out.”. She says it is important to try to anticipate which areas of the society may become exposed to the risk of fraud, tax evasion and corruption and how it can preferably be prevented or at least mitigated. It is always better to act before the damage is done.

“Risk and fraud both carry negative meaning, it is therefore vital that those who work in the financial and political sector realize the consequences resulting from a failure of mapping the risk of fraud”, says Britta.

She left work within the internal controls divisions of large investment banks with limited confidence in this side of the operation. Major scandals, such as the recent case of Wells Fargo bank accounts debacle in the US, support this impression.

Ethics and moral values blend into this debate and how we grow the essential characteristics within the school system and society.

“If we take the financial sector as an example, the discussion of ethics is often very abstract, rarely embedded within the daily work of those who work in the sector. It is key though, to link the activity of the individual to any consequences it may entail. We live in a society based on ethics and trust, but perhaps we do little to think about how these aspects color our daily lives and how central they are in glueing and keeping the community together.

Another problem in this respect is the supervisory challenge the government faces. The revolving door and related brain-drain which impact regulatory bodies, tend to go in one direction, with experts in regulation moving over to the corporations that the regulator is supposed to supervise. Banks usually offer significantly higher financial incentives than the financial supervisory entities. “

A new yet familiar image of Icelanders celebrating the boom with champagne may evoke a similar fury as it did before the crisis in 2007. Tourism is fueling this new economic boom, paralleled by rising property prices and housing costs, many people are asking themselves whether Iceland has established a new bubble.

“I, like others, see that there are certain warning signs – red flags,” says Britta. “There is great pressure on the Icelandic society, these challenges require that Icelanders remain vigilant: rising property prices and rents, the large numbers of travelers, for example, impact the working conditions and terms of employment. Awareness of the risk of corruption has increased here after the collapse, yet the debate has been limited, it seems to me. Pressures related to tourism contribute also to a risk of unhealthy trading practices, tax evasion, illegal employment and a potentially overall weakening of the legal status of workers, in certain sectors. This is well known abroad [for instance London and New York where human trafficking presents a severe and growing issue], and it is critical for Iceland to increase awareness of these risks, in particular in times when such drastic and fast changes occur.”

This profile feature interview Vill finna glufurnar í íslensku samfélagi (Will find cracks in the Icelandic society) was published in Icelandic on Fréttatíminn (Newstime) of 17/18th February 2017 and was available at the time of publishing here  (see also Interview PDF) and is still available on the newspaper’s Facebook page. Fréttatíminn became defunct in April 2017, its chief editor created a new political party.

Voter fraud and intimidation: a pragmatic and rational approach to realpolitik

Listen to the audio recording of this article:  

Much has been written and said in the past weeks and months, within the U.S. general election cycle, on a long journey that seemed to bring out the worst in many people.  In fact the sentiment was strong, not just unhappy were voters with the tactics and demeanor witnessed but “disgusted” as a New Times/CBS poll found.

Across social media and traditional print and other mass media, concerns have been raised about the lack of civility and the loss of meaningful debate, leaving many  U.S. citizens as well as the global audience in states of anxiety triggered by the possibility of dysfunction and gridlock as well as market volatility, further amplified by the risk of a recession and impaired growth .  Not to speak of severe reputational damage to the whole nation which had grown used to bask in the world’s envy, an aspect I had discussed also in my article on Iceland’s parliamentary election 2016 and reputation risk.

Much heated debate around corruption and fraud has contributed very little to a civil and well informed debate on the value, mechanisms and potential remedies to voters concerned of such.  Instead we witnessed extensive ridicule, media theatrics and wide dismissal of the notions – just to learn that today’s election is marked by vigilantes, by a “call to action” to “hunt down signs of fraud”, by extensive mistrust, a fear of hacking and a pervasive lack of confidence in fair and free elections.

This is going to gnaw at the American democratic foundations and reputation for a period beyond the election process and it is going to leave scars which will not be wiped away by either presidential candidate winning (or losing).  The damage done and what is to come evokes comparisons to the most unfortunate Brexit Referendum.

What has been emerging from this claim of voter fraud is a range of aggressive voter oppression tactics, with counter-measures of activists, civil rights groups and election monitors.

While voter fraud – fairly narrowly defined – indeed may not be very widespread but rather used as political weapon in the rhetorical armory of an election campaign that only knows winners and loser (but has little appetite to solve, improve or look at meaningful discourse and negotiation).  Voter suppression and intimidation as well as voter manipulation  may be the real and much more dominant and pressing issues here.

Voting, to begin with, on a Tuesday (ever since 1845) may be the least questioned but most powerful factor in voter suppression.  In addition, legislation and rules ranging very widely across the 50 states of the federal nation, meaning that a whole host of vital aspects differ among states. For instance, whether voters will receive pay for the time they spend queuing and voting at polling places plays a key role in voter turnout.  Clearly every low-paid worker and every parents with an ill child on the day is facing a dilemma.  This has nothing to do with voter fraud but is a subtle indirect way of voter suppression.


[Credit to Baker, Moore, Lacher; Game available on NY Times ]

These considerations aside, what can citizens actually do when they suspect voter fraud or voter suppression? A range of tools and sources are available in order to arrive at meaningful and constructive means which entails establishing facts and engaging critically and relatively independently at a fact-based conclusion.

The plethora of studies, media outlets and influences on social media plus time constraints leave many citizens in a state where it appears impossible to check the facts.  In particular, citizens lacking an effective strategy to quickly and efficiently check the facts.

What questions help a responsible citizen to cut through the jungle of information?

  1. Who conducted the study and how is the individual or the organisation linked to the presidential candidate? That means: was there an endorsement or is there non-partisanship?
  2. Who funded the study (on voter fraud or on the near-absence of such)? Was it independently financed?
  3. Has a conflict of interest been declared?
    For instance, a media outlet that has endorsed one candidate or the other is likely to support the endorsed candidate’s view.  Check carefully for potential bias and consider whose agenda you may be buying into.
  4. Does the study or the report/summary of the study/studies appear to be balanced?  For instance, does it discuss the findings from several angles and show the limitations of the studies? Does it refer to alternative studies and findings which do not support the purported view?
  5. Check statistics and keep in mind:
    – that there are studies which find significant voter fraud and there are studies which argue the opposite on Voter Fraud
    – the fact that any factual findings can be interpreted and that researchers, think tanks and even governmental agencies are rarely as neutral and objective as we have been encouraged to believe – this is rooted in the fact that any research, report or polls need to be financed (for instance is sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Institute which is not neutral but belongs to the liberal spectrum)
    – that simple answers are often tempting but tend to be too limited or wrong.  In the long run, it is more sustainable to embrace the complexity of things and that people tend to have agendas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as citizens are clear about it and can make informed choices.  This way, it can even strengthen trust in the system whenever transparency and accountability are given higher priority than obscuring such agendas and intentions.

Actions that can be taken:

  1. Report voter fraud and voter oppression (in its form of intimidation) if and when you observe it, use your national hotline (see links below).
  2. Check the Federal Election Committee for more details on how to identify voter fraud and voter intimidation and how to report it.  Remember that reporting fraud is an act of loyalty to your country, you support the democratic process by blowing the whistle on misconduct.
  3.  Become active and inform yourself thoroughly on the legislation, the facts, the statistics – and help others to become better informed, using word of mouth, traditional means of interaction with others, including your community and constituency district.
  4. Remind others, and remember, democracy is best served when citizens engage in fact-based respectful discourse, arguments are healthy and a diversity of views is no threat. Spreading inaccurate information and misleading others is severely harming your well-being and sense of safety. Aim to avoid it and discourage others from doing so – no one wants to live in a world where nothing and no one can be trusted.

Sources and a range of selected further readings, spanning the political spectrum