Democracy, Corrupted

Several years ago I read a great book called¬†Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig. Wrote a blog about it back when Occupy Wall Street was a thing. Lessig has since ran for President and subsequently dropped out of this year’s race, but I think the points in his book are a salient now as ever. His platform was to eliminate corruption government by changing campaign finance laws. Of the remaining candidates, I believe Bernie is the only one that has portion’s of Lessig’s platform in his. As I mentioned in my blog a few days ago, money influences people even when they don’t believe that it does. In fact, simply having a conversations with someone can either normalize or prime a certain behavior. For example, a lobbyist may call from the cable industry to discuss some topic that’s going to be up for vote in some time, they also mention donating to the next election cycle. That same day an unrelated bill may be up for vote that tangentially impacts the cable industry, because of this priming the politician will be more sympathetic to the cable industry than they may have been otherwise. In some cases this type of priming or normalization can result in some pretty disastrous policies for the American people.

This is a horrible problem caused by us vs. them mentality of current politics. It’s also caused by the need to raise money. The ability to disenfranchise voters is powerful, because it robs them of their voice and replaces their voice with a special interest voice. These voters aren’t being disenfranchised for no reason. This is a systematic effort to eliminate the influence of a group of minorities that would push for dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. This impacts a large number of groups, private prison companies, law enforcement, lawyers, etc. As the Pennsylvania Republican points out at the end of the segment, this voice has serious impact on the direction a state can go in a general election thus impacting policy.

All of the other things I write about are the result of policy, which fundamentally comes from who is in office. When elected officials abuse their position to prevent other people, who I might not agree with, from voting our Democracy is corrupt. It is important to note that the actions described in the video above, while likely coordinated by the RNC, happens at the state and city levels. These are areas that people, myself included, largely ignore when thinking of voting. With so much focus on the national elections, these smaller roles largely don’t seem to matter to voters. These policies impact us as much, or in some cases more, than national polices. These are the policies that prevent cities from deploying their own broadband or the lead to the militarization of police departments in cities like Ferguson.

Lessig started a group called Mayday.us which highlights candidates, mostly at the national level, that are working for eliminating corruption in government. I supported them last year and plan to do so again this year. I also believe it is time for me to get more actively involved in this and other movements to address the fundamental corruption issues in government. This is truly the only way to level the playing field so that the best ideas win out rather than the biggest budget.

Ethics in Politics?

“Who put the question mark there, you all know he’ll read whatever is on the prompter!” Mostly a quote from the movie Anchorman. The point is, should that question mark be there or not? In the US, the STOCK Act, designed to prevent insider trading by Congressmen, is moving forward for debate in the Senate. This type of law, even if there are debates about the need for this specific law because it should already be illegal, really drives the point home. Clearly, this is something that the majority of us would consider unethical. In business ethics courses (heh), this type of action is typically considered a big no-no and at many work places is considered very bad as well.

A personal example for me came from working at Verizon Wireless. My first co-op rotation there I was an equipment engineer, where I bought equipment and work with companies to build cell sites. For a Sophomore in college this was pretty awesome. I was buying stuff that was worth something like $40,000 like it was nothing. Pretty cool stuff right? Well, I started to deal with vendors and learned that no vendor was allowed to buy any of us lunch. Not even lunch. If anything was worth more than $25 as a gift, we had to return it.

Now, if you put this into perspective of what insider trading or campaign contributions, we can see where there’s an ethical problem. I was making $16/hour at the time, so $25 bucks was almost a quarter of a work day’s salary. Pretty big deal. Insider trading has made congress members a much higher return on their salary than that 25 bucks was for me. The perks provided by Lobbyists are even worse than lunch. They’ll buy you lunch, but it won’t be at Primanti Brother’s, it will be at some place that’s $100 a plate plus wine, then take you golfing later.

So where does this disconnect come from? If this is something that I knew was wrong when I was 20, why don’t these Congress members understand that at 50 and older? One of the problems are social norms, if everyone is doing it, why aren’t you? These social norms can be extremely powerful, as teenagers we were always warned about peer pressure to do drugs and stuff, cause drugs are bad, m’kay? The problem would become when everyone around you was doing this, and it was the only way to survive the situation there are powerful urges to conform.

Once someone has conformed, these social norms become their own self reinforcing type of “ethical” behavior. This begs the question if the end justify the means? Well, we also need to be aware if the ends are justified at all. I think in many cases, the ends are so influenced in both conscious and unconscious ways, that we don’t even know what the ends the politician set out to achieve are any more.

This is why it is important to have independent watch dog organizations and an independent judicial system. It is also why it is important to get money out of politics. Once money is out, the choices aren’t captured by the interests of the people paying you. Independence allows impartial review and a manner to determine which course is actually best for the whole.

Americans prize their rights, however, rights are threatened whenever there are powerful interests that want to limit those rights. Despite the fact that I talk about the US on here a lot, these ideas are transnational, and all citizens need to work to remove the influence of money from their political system. There are ways to do it. For the US Lawrence Lessig has proposed one idea in Republic, Lost and Reddit is working on their on PAC and Free Internet Act as another solution.

When I finish with my thesis I plan to become active in both Reddit activities and I suggest you look to find something similar.

Review: Republic Lost. Or the hand book for OWS

I just finished Republic Lost by Lawrence Lessig last night. If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big Lessig fan. I find his work extremely interesting and relevant to the changing world. It is a bit dry to be honest, all of his writings deal with how society, the market and laws interact.

In my opinion this book should be the handbook for anyone interested in the Occupy movement. I’ll explain why in a few steps. First, he mentions various different cases of inequity which are highly promenient in the US. He specifically addresses the 99% argument and does it a great deal of good. He fully explains what it means to be in the 99% in a way that has been missing in the dialogue. He actually says that the 1% isn’t the biggest problem it’s actually a much smaller percentage, but the 1% can cause a lot of damage as well.

In the book he systematically explains how and why money is a problem in the system. In many cases it’s not that there is quid pro quo corruption going on. More that it seems like there is corruption going on because of the money involved. As an outsider it’s hard to trust a system where the Teachers union (or wall street or exxon) can say I will give $1 million dollars to any candidate that supports tenure (or bail outs or deep water drilling). This is an implicit threat because if you don’t support these topics your opponent will, because it will give them campaign donations. As donations play a huge amount of time for a congressman (30-70%) anything that makes it easier to get money the congressmen will campaign to support.

There have been studies that question if these gifts actively change legislative voting behavior, but many quotes from former congressmen explaining that there is a sense of obligation to the donor. This isn’t a tit for tat type exchange, Lessig argues it’s more of a gift economy. Like what buy a round of beers for your friends, you don’t want money for it, you want them to buy you the next round. The fact that you bought instills (in most people) a sense of obligation to buy the next round. This analogue is perfect in fact, as Lessig argues that congress is dependent on these funds like an alcoholic. This is an illicit dependency as he shows that Congress should be “dependent on the People alone.”

Lessig builds an extremely will supported case that donations impact the legislative process by impacting what congressional leaders allow debate on. Even if it doesn’t impact votes, it impacts what is considered important by the congress. This is one of the ways that congress seems out of touch with regular people. I believe Lessig builds a strong enough case to demonstrate that something must be done. He actually has a few suggestions on how to deal with the problem.

The first is the old fashioned way of trying to build support through congress to enact real campaign reform. Lessig doesn’t believe this is realistic and gives it about a 0% chance of success. His next idea is to get about 300 well known people to run as super candidate to force the issues. Have these people run in multiple different districts (it’s legal) and garner enough attention to force the politicians to say they will vote for reform. Do this in enough state and in the right states and it might work. He calls this a kind of political terrorism. He gives it a 5% chance of working once you get started.

His next idea is to have one of those types candidates run for the of president making the promise to hold congress hostage until the reforms are made, BUT resign as soon as the reforms are completed. He argues that this is required for people to honestly believe that the changes would happen and for congress to actually enact the changes. There would be no negotiations other than making sure all the normal people get paid and services don’t impact most business. He also gives this one a 5% chance of working.

The final suggestion is to push for a constitutional convention. This would require 38/50 states to OK the convention. He, at length, describes all the potential problems and legal issues with the convention, which matter once the ball gets rolling. In addition to this he suggests creating about 300 shadow conventions where regular people are given the opportunity to make constitutional amendments. These could then be the basis for what is sent to congress.

In total, if you are part of the OWS movement you need to read this book. It will help give more firepower for your arguments against the 1% and it will give some guidance on what the first priority should be. I agree with Lessig that until we get money out of the system no other reforms are possible. We will not have a function government until the People are the only thing the government relies on for choices of legislature.