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Larry Lessig Wants to Change Congress

larry lessig

Larry Lessig, Stanford intellectual extraordinaire and founder of Creative Commons, is here at Harvard Law School to talk about his new campaign Change Congress as part of the Berkman@10 lecture series.

He begins with a quote from Ronald Reagan:

A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can exist only until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy

The implication is that democracy will lead to collapse because of the greed of the masses.

The next story is about Prof. Drummond Rennie. In the drug industry, “detailers” are paid by drug companies to convince doctors to prescribe that company’s drugs. There are currently 2.5 doctors per detailer now. Rennie writes about how studies of drug efficacy are also swayed by money. In published drug trials, there are overwhelmingly positive results for trials of drugs in which the trial is funded by the drug company that produced the drug.

Next, Lessig talks about geeks. He spoke up at a Microsoft conference (the only one he was invited to) about the possibility of using the law as part of the code to eliminate spam. The geeks thought that creating code with the government was ridiculous.

Are geeks right in their skepticism of government? We sometimes lose hope when Congress gets something wrong. And it’s not just hard policy questions they get wrong, but also easy ones. An example is copyright terms. Policy-makers always agree that you should limit copyright extensions but governments around the world forever extend copyrights.

The same applies to health policy. The World Health Organization was recently planning to release standards which said that no more than 10% of calories per day should come from sugars. As a result of pressure from the sugar industry, the US Food Nutrition Board promulgated a regulation that stated that a full 25% of calories per day could come from sugar, more than double the WHO recommendation. “Another public policy case that we get fundamentally wrong,” says Lessig.

Finally, global warming is another area of public policy that the government is getting wrong. Scientists do not question the basic assumptions about the reality of global warming and the necessity of human action to stop it (because we started it). However, in a study of 600 media articles from 1988 to 2002, 53% of them questioned the global warming consensus, in part based on junk science which opposes green policies.

These mistakes make people lose faith in government. But government isn’t stupid. There is a process which is “queering” the process. It has to do with lobbyists. “Somesay” that lobbyists extend/support/amplify legislative efforts (Hall and Deerdorff) without changing legislators minds. Yet, even if this is true, money supports certain issues (combatting Internet piracy) and ignores others (welfare) and the presence or absence of money is this way shifts the focus, if not the opinions, of legislators.

As an illustration of the effect of the perceived influence of money on politics, Lessig tells a story about parents opting out of vaccinating their kids because of the lack of trust in medical regulation due to pervasive conflicts of interest. He also mentions the case of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Prevention Act, which makes it very difficult for people to get out from under crushing credit card debt. He tells how the bill was rejected during the Clinton administration thanks to the lobbying of Hillary Clinton. Then, when the bill was reintroduced in 2001, when Hillary Clinton was a Senator and had received $140,000 from credit industry lobbyists, she voted for the bill. Lessig says the he believes that her decision to change her position was not based on money, but that the mere presence of money creates a perception of corruption and a lack of trust. Lessig thinks that it is not as much about whether or not money has an effect on a certain outcome. It is about money degrades trust.

Lessig’s proposition is that public financing is the answer. Maine and Arizona have such laws and Senator Dick Durban has submitted a bill for a similar federal system. The left supports public financing far more than the right. Lessig says that the right should support public financing more strongly because regulation is a power which legislators lord over business in order to receive donations from them. With public financing and no need for donations, their would be less of a disincentive to deregulate industry and the size of government might shrink.

Lessig’s campaign to change Congress has 4 principles:

1. No money from lobbyists or PACs
2. Vote to end earmarks
3. Support reform to increase Congressional transparency
4. Support publicly-financed campaigns

The first stage of the campaign to Change Congress was pledging support for reform through online badges showing support for the pledge. The second stage is a wiki set-up to figure out which legislators actually live up to their pledge to support these principles. A candidate first takes a pledge and then his or her ability to live up to that pledges will be tracked and mapped by ordinary people. Then, like EMILY’s List, Change Congress will provide financial support for politicians who take the pledge. The next step is to recruit to web workers and geeks to make this plan work.

Lessig then steps back to his opening discussion of political rhetoric. Our founding fathers did not want legislators to be dependent because they wanted them to be able to make decisions independently from vested interested. Jefferson was very far-sighted when he wrote of legislators who receive money: “they will purchase the voices of the people and make them pay the price.” They people would suffer from corruption at the top, which would soon infect the entire body politic. The problem of democracy is not wealth being pumped down, as Reagan feared, but the wealthy, who benefited from the Reagan revolution, pumping public money up so it benefits the elite.

Finally, Lessig, compares the corruption of money to alcoholism. We cannot address all the important problems America has to deal with without first solving the problem of money in politics. Lessig believes that people of privileged like us at Harvard, have a responsibility not to be passive and to take action on this issue.

note: The above picture is a Larry Lessig at a different event, but he was dressed pretty much like that today.

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