Monday, November 14, 2011

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.

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