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Filmed on Tuesday January 17, 02012

Lawrence Lessig

How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It

Lawrence Lessig is director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, founder of Creative Commons, and author of Republic, Lost; Code; and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

A dazzlingly incisive presenter, Lawrence Lessig specializes in identifying deep systemic problems in public process (such as copyright malfunction and Congressional dysfunction) and then showing how they can be cured. Currently he is bearing down on the corruption of Congress by the practice of private funding for public elections through campaign contributions. He writes: "The dependency of modern campaign finance is the single most important cause of the bankruptcy of Congress. Fixing this bankruptcy is the single most important reform effort that Americans face just now." As he did with helping fix copyright problems via Creative Commons, he has a plan for reforming elections to reestablish Congressional trust and effectiveness. (Public trust in Congress is currently at 12%.)

Lessig is director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University and author of Republic, Lost (2011) and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (2000 and 2006).

Public Funding for Public Elections

Larry Lessig gave a rousing performance for the 100th Seminar About Long-Term Thinking. In a lawyerly fashion he laid out evidence of a new type of corruption that is disrupting the American republic, and he offered a remedy for that corruption. Lessig has a very distinctive visual style of using slides that punctuates, word for word, the clear logic of his argument.

He said the type of corruption rampant in the US Congress is not the old type of bribery, where congressional representatives had safes in their offices to hold the cash they received for voting in certain directions. That is now illegal and eliminated. This new type of corruption is more subtle, indirect and harder to outlaw. Corporations legally donate money to the election campaigns of legislators, who in turn tend to vote in favor of the interests of those corporations. Non-profits like Maplight can graph the evidence that a representative voting in favor of a particular corporate-friendly law will receive 6 or 10 or 13 times the funding than someone who opposes the law. He cited studies that showed the ROI (return on investment) of lobbying to be 1,000%. It was one of the sanest expenses for a corporation. But the distortion is not just one sided. The issue that Congress spent the most time on in 2011 -- a year when US was waging two wars, dealing with a near economic depression, and revamping health care -- was the bank swipe fee. Who should pay the credit card use fee -- the banks or the stores? There were corporations on both sides of this minor argument, but each side was promising campaign funds, so this was the issue that got all the attention of the officials. But the real money to be made in Congress is the relative fortune to be made as a lobbyist after leaving office. The differential in wages between a staff member and a lobbyist has escalated a hundred fold in the past 40 years. Now 43% of staff go on to become lobbyists. The promise of a well-paying job working for corporate interests later is enough to warp voting now.

None of this is illegal, but Lessig argues that we have a constitutional argument for eliminating it. The Constitution talks about the republic being "dependent on the people alone." But now it is dependent on corporate funders, and more and more JUST on corporate funders. His solution is to return the republic to being dependent on the people alone. His solution is an innovative kind of campaign finance reform. Give every voter a $50 campaign voucher. The $50 comes from the tax pool. It can be given to any candidate who accepts only money from the vouchers (and maybe a limit of an optional voluntary $100 per single voter). Thus all campaign money would come in very small amounts from The People. Lessig calculates that the total amount of money raised this public way would be 3 times the amount raised by private means in the last election cycles, and therefore more than adequate. But it would break the grip of corporate influence over what is voted up. The result would not be harmonious utopia, but the usual give-and-take compromises of politics -- which the US has not seen in decades. The issues that people cared about would return to the agenda.

Lessig spent the remaining time and some of the question and answers talking about the real-politic necessary to pass this reform. A similar public financing scheme works in places like Sweden, where one elected legislator told Lessig he had never had to worry about where his funding came from. But the US has a fierce free-speech component not found elsewhere, and ironically, since spending money is viewed as a type of free speech, this complicates reform. As a free-speech advocate himself, and a constitutional lawyer, Lessig talked candidly about the difficulties of reform. He ended by saying that it would probably be a generational task. Overcoming institutional racism and sexism took more than one generation, and returning the republic to the "people alone" could take just as long, although in this case, the republic might not last that long without reform.

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