Larry Lessig’s stunning talk short talk on Money in Politics
Remains a great intellectual hero of mine. Here he is rounding into form.
Larry Lessig: I’m a little hesitant to speak because there’s a lot of teachers of mine in this room, on the Internet and of other subjects, like economics. But the teacher of this for me is Jim Cooper, who has been in Congress, he is one of the youngest members elected in the history of Congress and as old as he is right now that means that he’s been around as long as all but 20 other members of Congress.
And I think the first thing to recognize which he taught me is how the place has changed. It’s easy for us to think that we have problems that we want to talk about or problems that have been there forever, and on some level they have, but we’ve seen the kind of, you know, hockey stick here too. And the hockey stick here too is the radical increase in the kind of influence, the economy of influence that produces the type of problems that we’re talking about.
Now I uses words like ‘economy of influence.’ Jim summarizes the problem in Congress is that Capital Hill has become a farm league for K street.
It’ a much more compelling way to understand the problem. And not just a farm league for K street not necessarily just about members but increasingly staffers who think of their life as a business model focused on a life after public service, their [future] life as a lobbyist.
The part that I want add to the story though, you know…and I think in this group it could grok well…is the instability of the system that we’ve produced. And one way to see it is this: the Constitution hands out a resource in a democracy that we all have, called the vote. And that resource, the Constitution says, must be absolutely equal. So if your district is architected so that your vote is .1% bigger than mine the constitution says we gotta redraw your district so that our votes are exactly equal. And those votes happen in discrete moments. We have a primary, we have a general election. In those discrete moments, we all are equal and the product of that equality is a very conservative (with a small C) system. Radical change has done happen overnight because you got to convince a bunch of people to support the change and having to convince a bunch of people from all across society is a really valuable thing.
Alright now contrast that with the second election that we conduct every two years, that’s the money election. The money election is the election which we conduct, where people give their money to candidates, so that candidates can then run their elections.
And the thing that, you know, has happened slowly, and now much more quickly since Citizens United is the concentration of influence in the money election. So .26% of Americans, one quarter of one percent of Americans give two hundred dollars in a congressional election. .05 give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate.
.01, the one percent that the 1 percent get more than $10,000 dollars in an election cycle. And .0000063%, [that is] 196 Americans have given 80% of the super PAC money in the presidential elections so far. 196 Americans.
So what that means is, if you look at the graph for votes, everybody’s basically equal. If you look at the graph for money influence and it’s basically nothing till you get to the very top, and the tiniest slice of the 1% is having this kind of influence.
Now, why is that a problem? Well, it’s a problem because the instability that it produces for the democracy. Because what that means is: whenever you have an issue, that you’d like to block reform on, block change on, where there’s an incumbent and that incumbent would like to stop anything that gets in the way, it’s a relatively small number of people that you’ve got to recruit to your cause. A relatively small number of funders are going to be sufficient to get the money you need to steer policy away from this kind of change.
PIPA/SOPA was an amazing victory at the end of a series of 20 years of defeats. A series of twenty years of defeats, because in the system, they could concentrate influence so much with this money, that they could block, they could protect against the emerging Internet, because that’s just the economy of influence that system has.
AT&T, you know, the outrageous things going in the context of Internet service right now…Jim spoke about people who do not have access to broadband. Some states like, you know, North Carolina began to have the communities that provided broadband service by community organizations. They would set up these broadband community organizations.
This broadband service was symmetrical fiber service. So North Carolina was the worst state in the nation, the symmetrical broadband service was cheap and fast when it could be provided. Last year, exactly a year ago, North Carolina passed, the 19th state to pass a law, basically banning communities from doing this.
Why did they pass this law banning communities from doing this? Because AT&T and Verizon have spent unbelievable amounts of money to get these state legislatures to stop this new competitor. And the point is, they can do this because we’ve created a political system where the tiniest slice of Americans actually get to call the shots.
And the only way to avoid, to go back to a system, where it’s a broad swathe of Americans who get to call the shots, so you don’t get this kind of steering by a tiny group of Americans is to begin to disaggregate the money-power game the way we disaggregated the voting-power game. Democracy solved the voting-power, somehow we’ve got to solve the money-power.
But until we do, every single thing we care about, and not just we in the Internet space, but everything we care about in global warming, health care, a tax system that makes sense, it’s going to continue to be susceptible to this highly unstable influence market that we have allowed to evolve over the period of just the last twenty years.