Thursday, July 24, 2008

Money Erodes Trust: Lawrence Lessig at Netroots Nation

(Photo of Lawrence Lessig at Netroots Nation, 19 July 2008, by Wylie Maercklein)

Money Erodes Trust: Lawrence Lessig at Netroots Nation

Last night's local (Austin, TX) news was focused primarily on the impending approach of Hurricane Dolly, where it will hit landfall, and how it will affect Texas/Austin, especially in terms of weather and our terrible drought. I was intrigued, however, by a solid segment on the fact that Rita and Katrina both damaged oil production in the Gulf, with spills as well as delayed return to pumping and refining. The angle was whether this would, again (as it did that year) drive gas prices up. The intriguing part was that this information was a direct contradiction to the lie being floated around by Republican leaders right now that hurricanes don't result in Gulf oil spills.

I know you know this, but I have to say it: The Republican interest in expanding drilling (to previously protected ocean zones or in Alaska) has NOTHING to do with lowering the price of gas.

The price of gas is permanently up. We are in Peak Oil's mudroom. There may be minor fluctuations if we come up with alternative energy sources which reduce demand briefly, but any temporary vacuum will be rapidly filled. The party is over, time to help pick up the mess and think about next week.

The Republican interest in expanding drilling NOW is because the money to be made from this change will be immediate, unrelated to actual oil coming from the ground -- instead in futures, markets, and tax breaks. Money which will flow to the major corporate sharks already in energy and to their remora.

We instinctively suspect this because our governmental leadership accepts money from oil companies in order to be elected. We understand that money erodes trust. [Go here to Follow The Oil Money in our government.]

Trust was the basic message of the speech by Lawrence Lessig at Netroots Nation on Saturday, July 19. Jesse and I were there and listened to Lessig's launch of his web-based project Change Congress. Founded by Lessig and Joe Trippi, "Change Congress is a national movement that aims to end corruption in the United States Congress by reducing the distorted influence of money in Washington...[It] organizes citizens to push candidates to make commitments on the following issues: take no money from lobbyists or PACs, vote to end earmarks, support publicly-financed campaigns, and support reform to increase congressional transparency." (Quote from Wikipedia.)

Lessig is known as one of the founders of Creative Commons, as a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and of the Software Freedom Law Center. He is currently a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty, he was the Berkman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and a Professor at the University of Chicago. He represented web site operator Eric Eldred in the ground-breaking case Eldred v. Ashcroft, a challenge to the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

His shift in focus, to address corruption in Congress, is good news. He began his speech by having us chant a mantra: "9%." We were called on to repeat this number at pertinent points during his presentation. Nine percent is the approval rating given Congress by Americans polled in a recent Rasmussen survey -- the first time ever it has dipped into single digits. This is a third of the dismal rating given Dubya the Dementor, for cripes' sake.

Lessig outlined several detailed, bipartisan examples of how the presence of money has eroded trust in governmental decisions made, whether or not it is actually the case that money distorted the outcome:

--The persistent belief by parents of autistic children that mercury in vaccines caused their child's illness, because the studies conducted to determine the truth had vaccine-maker money involved.

--The fact that Fannie Mae, a government entity, has made $900,000 in campaign contributions and has lobbied the very government of which it is ostensibly a part for special legislation.

--After the World Health Organization determined that the maximum intake of sugar in a healthy diet should be no more than 10%, the sugar industry successfully forced the U.S. standard to be set at 25% of the daily diet, a decision perceived as "bought and paid for", particularly since the World Health Organization declined to change their own standard.

--Hillary Clinton's 180 degree change on a vote about "regulating" credit card debt after she received contributions from credit companies.

--The recent revelation that the 94 House Democrats who recently reversed their previous votes and approved immunity for phone carriers who helped the National Security Agency carry out the illegal wiretapping program without proper warrants had received almost twice the dollar amount of contributions from Telco PACs than did Democrats who did not change their vote. Lessig is involved with, the money and politics exposure group which offers detailed information about this particular vote here.

It is possible that in each of these instances, the insistence on the part of the decision-maker that financial interests played no role in the outcome is a sincere belief. Their belief, their intention is irrelevant. What is relevant is that public trust in the honesty of our legislation has evaporated, and the source of that disappearance is the presence of money.

I have my own example from the private sector to share here. During the late 1990s I worked in the medical records division of a large cancer clinic. One of the seven physicians there confided in me often. He told me that 80% of the income generated from the clinic was from medications, mostly chemotherapeutics. He said this was typical, and the mark-up was allowed because (a) chemotherapy is perceived as what actually cures or extends the life of patients being treated for cancer, and (b) the drugs themselves are so toxic they require extensive hazmat handling.

The large speciality hospitals you see popping up in more affluent areas always focus on a medical discipline where such enormous profits are possible, either because lobbying by Big Pharma insures drug prices are passed on to insurance/Medicare, or specialized tests and surgery are likewise billed at a high rate without government intervention. The proliferation of these hospitals are not linked to actual medical need.

In our clinic, as you can imagine, the pharmaceutic reps were thicker than dung beetles in a feedlot. They wanted a means of influencing medication selection by our docs beyond the usual post-it notes and ballpoints emblazoned with drug names. So, every single day of the week, one of these reps brought in lunch for all 40 of us who worked at the clinic. Sometimes we got breakfast as well. These were not just pizza and sandwiches, often they were elaborately catered meals. Everyday working day of the year.

One the physicians there was a medical ethicist and was very vocal in his opposition to this practice. He was outvoted by his practice partners, however, who maintained they could not possibly be influenced as to which medication to prescription by a plate of lasagna and a cold soda: They were medical professionals, after all. My doctor friend secretly agreed with the ethicist's position, but he was unwilling to deprive the staff of such a massive job perk. We never had to think about lunch. We simply walked to the break room, filled a plate, ate and left. We didn't even have to do clean-up.

The six physicians who agreed to the free lunch policy took turns being the guinea pig who would come to eat with us staff and let the drug rep bend their ear for a while. But I noticed a couple of things in short order. One is that of the two anti-emetic drugs then battling it out for market share, one provided much better lunches than the other -- so much better that we would ask each other with anticipation, "Is it going to be a (insert drug name here) day?" And, along with that, the drug rep who brought these superior repasts was stunningly beautiful, in that conventional heteronormative sense. I am usually rankly ignorant of what passes for the straight world's erotic posturing, but even I noticed that when she would lean into a doctor and speak to him in a soft, authoritative voice, the physician (all of them male) would appear to curl his toes and flare his gills. So to speak.

Anti-emetics are the medications that can determine whether or not a patient is able to endure chemotherapy. If you puke out your guts 12 hours a day, refusing to eat and becoming dehydrated, your chemotherapy will be stopped and that's it, jill. So they are viewed as almost as important as the chemo itself. My doc friend told me there was no discernible difference between the two main anti-emetics then on the market, not in efficacy, cost, or side effects. He kept a little tally to insure he prescribed them both equally. But after the particular lunches from one of these drugs became commonplace, I noticed it was much more likely to be prescribed by the other physicians. It's just what came into their head first, I'm sure.

In his speech, Lessig asked the rhetorical question, "How much of the legislation from our government is enabled by extortion?", and his answer is, "All of it." The only way to change this is with public funding of public elections.

At this point, Jesse leaned over to me and whispered "The Supreme Court has ruled that limiting campaign contributions is unconstitutional because they equate giving money with free speech. Lessig knows this, he's a lawyer."

Lessig made several other points:

--We have entered an era of socialized risk, privatized benefits.

--Our government is getting easy public policy questions wrong (like how much sugar in a healthy diet) because of the distortion money creates in how information is spread.

--The corruption of dependence on private fundraising is subtle and leads good people to do bad things.

--Reform will have to be bipartisan, a "purple" effort in order to be successful.

He then talked about what the Framers of our Constitution meant when they protected freedom of the press: "There was no New York Times; there was no Washington Post; there was no Wall Street Journal." The "press" which needed freedom was pamphlets. Some of these pamphlets were brilliant and world-changing (Tom Paine, anyone?), some of them were vicious lies, but any restriction on their speech would be destructive to democracy, and our nation's founders understood that. He compared the realm of pamphlets to the current blogosphere. We as bloggers are instrumental to solving the problem of trust.

From here, he moved into the goals and practices of Change Congress. Citizens and candidates are being requested to pledge support to any of these four reforms:

--Commit to take money only from individuals, no lobbyists or PACs
--Ban all earmarks
--Support reform which will increase transparency in government, especially Congress
--Support publicly-financed campaigns

Once every candidate has made public which of these reforms they support, Change Congress will seek to trap reform and fund reform. New steps being announced by Lessig that day included the creation of a blogger council; issuing a "blast" to Congresspeople requesting a commitment to reform from them and then posting those results on the Change Congress website; and expanding targeted donations. He asked that in the future, when any one of us makes a campaign contribution of any size to a Congressional candidate, we add 9¢ at the end. The meaning -- that of the 9% approval rating Congress currently hold -- will spread and have an impact.

In his conclusion, Lessig played a clip of Al Gore speaking in March 2008 (available as video and transcript at, replaying several times the segment where Gore states "We have to solve the democracy crisis."

During the brief Q&A, the second questioner repeated the same point Jesse had made earlier, about the Supreme Court ruling which appears to block public funding of elections. Lessig responded by acknowledging the law, but urging us to not view a single SCOTUS decision as the boundaries we must eternally live within (Dred Scott comes to mind).


YouTube has, so far, only two small segments of Lessig's address:

"Trust is built in many contexts by keeping money off the table."

"Money changes outcomes."