In our hearts, we know what’s wrong, and we know that it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the money that flows into political campaigns, the revolving door between industry and agencies that should be regulating without industry influence, the political bashing that obscures the real issues, the real reasons why our food is unsafe, our cellphones were never properly tested to assure that they do not produce cancer, why our financial system collapsed, why the jobs went away and people lost their houses while the big banks and the big car companies somehow made out okay.
Sometimes, it takes a smart professor to parse the issues, and present them in a way that makes logical sense. Here, the professor is Lawrence Lessig, well-known for his work in the synchronization of copyright issues with the realities of new technologies. Lessig has shifted focus. In his new book, Republic, Lost, Lessig explains how and why we have accomplished the decimation of our democracy, and what we ought to do about it. This is not a book about politics. Instead, it’s a book about economics, foolish decisions, and fundamental thinking about what a country ought to do, ought to be.
The fundamental problem is relatively simple. Special interest groups, including big companies, big industries, unions, and others with vast money to spend, now control the agenda, and the decisions, made by our legislators. This is accomplished by funding political campaigns that now cost so much money, candidates are unable to raise the funds in any other way. Money is distributed not as bribes, but within a “gift economy,” in which lobbyists control the flow of funds, favors, and even the words in legislation that few legislators ever manage to read before voting. The size of this gift economy is spectacular in its size and influence, resulting in a sustained distraction for even the best-intentioned legislators whose time and decision-making processes are, according to Lessig, dominated by this system.
Where Lessig is clear about what the problem is, why and how it has gobbled up our representative form of government, and how much money is involved, he is less wonderful when it comes to solutions (which is to say, Lessig is clear thinking and often quite brilliant in his assessment of the current situation, but even his big brain struggles with what the heck we should do now). Still, he does present several seemingly sensible ideas.
Of course, the first solution is the simplest: let’s eliminate large contributions, and instead, share the burden with many small contributions. (In this regard, Obama had the right idea.) The Grant and Franklin project would allow each person in the U.S. to contribute $50 (Grant) of their Federal taxes plus $100 (Franklin) more to one or more individual candidates, or to their favorite political party. No more PAC or political party funding–candidates can receive a maximum of $150 per person. Here’s the kicker: for candidates, this would be voluntary. That is, each individual candidate would decide to follow the Grant and Franklin path–and those who do not, well, the American people would know who they are. Lessig: “If a substantial number of candidates opted into this system, then no one could believe that money was buying results.”
Then, the “clever lawyer” part of Lessig kicks in with an idea that’s intriguing, if not altogether practical (why should we rely upon practical ideas?–this is nation built by dreamers!). Lessig again: “Here’s a quiz. What’s required to be elected to the House of Representatives? You’d think that one requirement is that you be a resident of the district from which you’re to be elected. All the Constitution requires is that at the time fo the election, you be ‘an inhabitant of that State in which you shall be chosen'” And with that, Lessig is off and running…
Why not, he asks, run one candidate in several districts with a flash of anarchy in his or her midst. The only reason he or she is running is to force the other candidate to “publicly commit” to the Grant and Franklin approach. And for those candidates who do manage to get elected (inevitably, some will), he or she commits to: holding the government hostage until Congress enacts a program to remove the fundamental corruption that is now the rule in our government, and once that program is enacted, he or she will resign from office.
Lessig goes further: he wants a constitutional amendment. Here, he enters a deeply analytical, harshly critical approach to his own idea, using his legal powers to define a path that could make an amendment possible. And, he reckons, some rich and powerful people are likely to come along for the ride.
He’s better on describing the cause and current situation than he is on prescribing the proper solution, but it’s unreasonable to expect one person, however smart, well-educated and clever, to define a plan to rebuild the republic. But he has taken the first step: he has clearly detailed the current situation and analyzed it in ways that break through any specific political dogma or belief system or party affiliation. And I know that his thinking has affected my thinking, and, presumably, some tens of thousands of other people’s thinking, and that’s a start.
So here’s the question from my side: I buy the analysis, and I want to be part of the solution. My starting place follows Lessig’s suggestion: I need to spend some time visiting a few websites, and figure out how I might insert myself into the process. His suggested websites:
BTW: The publisher is Twelve Publishers. It’s an imprint of Hachette, a larger publisher, but Twelve is delivering on a small, powerful idea: publish a dozen important books each year. And make them count. I like their approach enough to include it here:
- Each book will enliven the national conversation.
- Each book will be singular in voice, authority, or subject matter.
- Each book will be carefully edited, designed, and produced.
- Each book will have a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.
- Each book will be nationally advertised.
- Each book will have a national publicity campaign.
- Each book will have a digital strategy.
- Each book will be worthy of the attention of discerning book reviewers.
- Each book will have the potential to sell at least 50,000 copies in its lifetime.
- Each book will be marketed and distributed by the Hachette Book Group, the company with the best hit ratio in the American publishing business.
- Each book will be promoted well into its paperback life.
- Each book will matter.