Is Our Republic Lost?

Over the weekend I finished Larry Lessig’s most recent (and ambitious) book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It. Amongst those of us who considered Lessig our foremost voice on issues of Internet policy, his abrupt pivot to focus on government corruption was both disorienting and disheartening: here was our best Internet thinker, now tilting at government windmills. I mean, fix government? Take the money out of politics? Better to treat all that as damage, and route around it, right? Isn’t that what the Internet is supposed to be all about?

Well, maybe. But after the wake up call that was PIPA/SOPA, it’s become clear why Lessig decided to stop focusing on battles he felt he couldn’t win (reforming copyright law, for example), and instead aim his intellect at the root causes of why those battles were fruitless. As he writes in his preface:

I was driven to this shift when I became convinced that the questions I was addressing in the fields of copyright and Internet policy depended upon resolving the policy questions – the corruption – that I address (in Republic Lost).

Lessig, ever the lawyer at heart, presents his book as an argument, as well as a call to arms (more on that at the end). Early on he declares our country ruined, “poisoned” by an ineffective government, self-serving corporations, and an indifferent public. To be honest, it was hard to get through the first couple of chapters of Republic Lost without feeling like I was being lectured to on a subject I already acknowledged: Yes, we have a corrupt system, yes, lobbyists are in league with politicians to bend the law toward their client’s bottom lines, and yes, we should really do something about it.

But Lessig does make a promise, and in the book he keeps it: To identify and detail the “root” of the problem, and offer a prescription (or four) to address it. And yes, that root is corruption, in particular the corruption of money, but Lessig takes pains to define a particular kind of corruption. Contrary to popular sentiment, Lessig argues, special interest money is not directly buying votes (after all, that is illegal). Instead, an intricate “gift economy” has developed in Washington, one that is carefully cultivated by all involved, and driven by the incessant need of politicians to raise money so as to insure re-election.

Lessig calls this “dependency corruption” – politicians are dependent on major donors not only to be elected, but to live a lifestyle attendant with being a US Congressperson.  Lessig also points out how more than half of our representatives end up as lobbyists after serving – at salaries two to ten times those of a typical Congressperson (he also points out that we grossly underpay our representatives, compared to how they’d be remunerated for their talents in the private sector).

Lessig likens this dependency corruption to alcoholism – it “develops over time; it sets a patter of interaction that builds upon itself; it develops a resistance to breaking that pattern; it feeds a need that some find easier to resist than others; satisfying that need creates its own reward; that reward makes giving up the dependency difficult; for some, it makes it impossible.”

In short, Lessig says Washington DC is full of addicts, and if we’re to fix anything – health care, energy policy, education, social security, financial markets – we first have to address our politicians’ addiction to money, and our economic system’s enablement of that addiction. Because, as Lessig demonstrates in several chapters devoted to broken food and energy markets, broken schools, and broken financial systems, the problem isn’t that we can’t fix the problem. The problem, Lessig argues, is that we’re paying attention to the wrong problem.

Lessig’s argument essentially concludes that we’ve created a system of government that rewards policy failure – the bigger the issue, the stronger the lobbyists on one or even both sides, forcing Congress into a position of moral hazard – it can insure the most donations if it threatens regulation one way or the other, this way collecting from both sides. Lessig salts his argument with example after example of how the system fails at real reform due to the “money dance” each congressperson must perform.

It’s pretty depressing stuff. And yet – there are no truly evil characters here. In fact, Lessig makes quite the point of this: we face a corruption of “decent souls,” of “good people working in a corrupted system.”

Despite Lessig’s avowed liberal views (combined with his conservative, Reagan-era past), I could imagine that  Republic Lost could as easily be embraced by Tea Party fanatics as by Occupy Wall Street organizers. He focuses chapters on how “so damn much money” defeats the ends of both the left and the right, for example. And at times the book reads like an indictment of the Obama administration – Lessig, like many of us, believed that Obama was truly going to change Washington, then watched aghast as the new administration executed the same political playbook as every other career politician.

In the final section of his book, Lessig offers several plans to force fundamental campaign finance reform – the kind of reform that the majority of us seem to want, but that never seems to actually happen. Lessig acknowledges how unlikely it is that Congress would vote itself out of a system to which it is addicted, and offers some political gymnastics that have almost no chance of working (running a candidate for President who vetoes everything until campaign finance reform is passed, then promises to quit, for example).

The plan that has gotten the most attention is the “Grant and Franklin Project” – a plan to finance all candidacies for Congressional office through public funds. He suggests that the first fifty dollars of any Federal tax revenue (per person per year) be retained to fund political campaigns, then allocated by each of us as a voucher of sorts. In addition, we’d all be able to commit another $100 of our own money to any candidate we choose. Uncommitted funds go to our parties (if we do not actively wish to use our voucher). Any candidate can tap these resources, but only if that candidate agrees to take only vouchers and $100 contributions (bye bye, corporate and PAC money).  Lessig calculates the revenues of this plan would be well above the billions spent to elect politicians in our current system, and argues that the savings in terms of government pork would pay forward the investment many times over.

Lessig ends his book with a call to action – asking us to become “rootstrikers,” to get involved in bringing about the Grant and Franklin Project, or something like it (he goes into detail on a Constitutional convention as a means to the end, for example). And it’s here where I begin to lose the thread. On the one hand, I’m deeply frustrated by the problem Lessig outlines (I wrote about it here On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA), but I’m also suspicious of any new “group” that I need to join – I find “activist” organizations tend to tilt toward unsustainable rhetoric. I’m not an activist by nature, but then again, perhaps it’s not activism Lessig is asking for. Perhaps it’s simply active citizenship.

I could see myself getting behind that. How about you?


Other works I’ve reviewed:

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

19 thoughts on “Is Our Republic Lost?”

  1. Shock Therapy (excerpt from, That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum)

    To get to that higher ground, to be able both to articulate a program the radical center and then to generate a mandate for it, we need to overcome or change the perverse political incentives that now keep such ideas and candidates promoting them on the fringe. How can we do that?

    The only way around all these ideological and structural obstacles is a third-party or independent candidate, who can not only articulate a hybrid politics that addresses our major challenges and restores our formula for success but—and it is a huge but—does this in a way that enough Americans find so compelling that they are willing to leave their respective Democratic and Republican camps and join hands in the radical center. Only that could change a political system that rewards our politicians for postponing hard decisions and blaming the other party rather than making those decisions. In business and politics, people respond to incentives, and when the incentives are perverse, people behave perversely. Move the cheese, move the mouse; keep the cheese where it is and the mouse doesn’t move. We need to change those incentives before the market or MotherNature does it for us. We need to move the cheese, and only a compelling third-party candidate, with a compelling hybrid politics, can do that…

    The historian Richard Hofstadter compared third parties to bees: After they sting, they die. While third parties and the proprietors of the small businesses suffer from this process, voters and customers do not. To the contrary, they get what they want. We would like to see the emergence of a very big bee that can sting both parties in a way they can neither ignore nor shrug off.  When an independent presidential candidate makes a strong showing, the dynamics of the two-party system impel the major parties to capture his or her voters, if at all possible. In this way those voters can exert greater influence over the policies of the victorious candidate than do the voters who actually supported the candidate in the election. This has happened three times in the twentieth century…

    Such a candidate would have the same impact as a philanthropist, improving the lives of other people after he or she is gone. Philanthropists’ bequests do change the world for the better, and an independent presidential candidacy can change America—and therefore the world—for the better as well. Of such a candidacy two things may be said with some confdence: First, it would not win the presidency. Second, over the long term it would probably have a greater impact on the course of American historythan the person who did.

      1.  Mmm cheese… still craving it, like Hope and Change. Sadly, these won’t pair well with whine this year.

        Imagine, a consensus of citizens who agree on a platform to serve constituent priorities.

        Remember that dairy parable—“Who Moved My Cheese”?

        In the story “Hem and Haw” are affected by problems and consider new pathways. In the process they seek platforms, fear changes, share rewards, and shift outlooks. Like “Sniff and Scurry”, politicians may also be amazed as they discover and savor change too. And then tell two friends…

  2. I don’t buy it. That new “Fraklin Project” would generate another administrative branch, needing huge resources, so and so. Taxpayers’ would end just paying for the illusion of this “new and never-done-before” project.

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