On the occasion of the publication of Lawrence Lessig’s new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, the author was interviewed by Diane Rehm.
Asked about a letter he published in the Huffington Post to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, he replied,
Well, I was trying to argue and hopefully persuade the protesters to make sure that their protest speaks to the wider audience that could be behind them … it needs to be a fight against those who use their privilege to corrupt the system and the system which has produced the regulation which led to the collapse on Wall Street and the collapse of our economy….
The Occupy Wall Street people need to adjust their signs. It’s not the 99 percent, it’s the 99.95 percent of Americans who never max out in their contributions to even one campaign who we need to be worrying about because, of course, candidates pay attention to the people who max out to their campaign. And .05 percent of Americans max out to anybody in a political campaign. So when you spend your life raising money from the funders and the funders represent .05 percent of America, obviously you’re going to bend your attention and bend your policy in a way that focuses on them and not on the people, and that is a kind of corruption.
When Diane asked him, “Aren’t you talking about Capitalism as a whole and as we know it?” Lessig responded with a nice description of how crony capitalism and the political system have become locked in a deadly embrace:
No, … I’m a believer in free markets. I’m not against Capitalism, … I’m an opponent of crony-Capitalism. I’m an opponent of a Capitalism that uses its power not to innovate in the marketplace, but to come to Washington and buy special privilege and protection from competition in the marketplace.
I stand with Libertarian economists like, such as Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago who with a co-author wrote a book Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists which is emphasizing the way in which every generation of successful Capitalists who made their wealth in a free market eventually turn around to Washington and try to get from Washington protection from the next generation of successful Capitalists.
So the problems we have right now in my view are not about Capitalism, it’s about Capitalism corrupted and it’s about that corruption infecting the political system so they depend upon each other so tightly that the real competitors, the real free marketers out there, can’t even compete against the burden that’s been imposed upon them by this corruption.
Lessig’s solution is a form of public funding:
… every one of us gives at least $50 to the federal Treasury. So take that first $50 and turn it into a democracy voucher and then say to candidates that you can accept … the democracy voucher from anybody in the country so long as you agree to take only democracy vouchers plus contributions of up to $100….
So that means that candidates could opt into a system where they take no more than $100 from any individual, no PAC money and they get these democracy vouchers to fund their campaigns. Now $50 to every voter is $6 billion in an election cycle…. the last Congressional election had $1.8 billion so this is two and half times the amount from the last Congressional election. And so it’s real money and if done right candidates would have a real reason to opt into the system where they could get these democracy vouchers rather than spending all their time sucking up to the .05 percent of America that gives them the max contributions to fund their campaigns.
Diane Rehm asked whether the problem of money in politics has a partisan dimension:
When you think about money and it’s corrupting process, does it defeat both the left and the right or does it work to the benefit of one versus the other?
Lessig claims it doesn’t:
One of the most proud moments in the writing of this book was when a colleague of mine read it and he said, you sound like a right-winger in writing the book. And I was proud of that because I think the most important message I’m trying to convey is that this is not an issue that the left alone should care about.
Of course the left should care about it. We’ve seen in this administration how issues that are particularly sensitive to the left, global warming or healthcare, have been affected by this. But it’s the right as well that needs to worry about this issue, the right that fundamentally has policy objectives that cannot be achieved so long as we have this system of funding campaigns.
So, for example, think about the recent proposal by Herman Cain for a 999 tax plan. The biggest thing that would do is to completely destroy the industry inside of Washington that essentially sells special tax benefits in exchange for enormous amount of lobbying dollars in campaign contributions. The Wall Street Journal in December of last year had this piece about the explosion of these temporary tax provisions, as they called them. These extenders that require repeated reauthorization every couple years.
And they were puzzled. Why is there this business of temporary tax provisions? Well, the answer is when you have a temporary tax benefit, as that’s expiring the congressman has somebody to call and say, you need that research and development tax credit. We’re gonna need a lot of support down here to make sure that we get it. And so there’s an industry designed to flush money into the system so that if you’re a tax reformer and you want simple taxes or flat taxes or whatever you want, you’re not gonna get it so long as congress depends upon the complexity as a means to fund their campaigns.
There’s much more in this interview that’s worth listening to (or reading—there’s a good transcript). Lessig knows his subject deeply, and he explains it tirelessly and articulately. If we as a nation succeed in severing the connection between the funders and Congress, the lion’s share of the credit will belong to Lessig.