October 14, 2007 ·
As promised, here’s the first lecture on corruption. It is an alpha version. I’m eager for comments and feedback. My first written feedback came from Aaron Swartz, with whom I had conspired last winter about making this move. I have reprinted his comments in the extended entry, with some replies.
I’ve also set up a page on the wiki where I will collect significant versions of the argument. Summary and criticism there would be helpful.
Comments by Aaron Swartz:
# Lessig on Corruption
(American) politics is filled with easy cases that we get wrong. The
scientific consensus on global warming is overwhelming, but we abandon
the Kyoto Protocol. Nutritionists are clear that sugar is unhealthy,
but the sugar lobby gets it into dietary recommendations. Retroactive
copyright extensions do nothing for society, but Congress passes them
over and over.
Similar errors are made in other fields that have the public trust.
Studies of new drugs are biased towards the drug companies. Law
professors and other scholars write papers biased towards the clients
they consult for.
Why? Because the trusted people in each case are acting as
_dependents_. The politicians are dependent on fundraising money. They
are good people, but they need to spend a quarter of their time making
fundraising calls. So most of the people they speak to our lobbyists
and they never even hear from the other side. If they were freed from
this dependence they would gladly do the right thing.
The scientists get paid to sign on to studies done by the drug
companies. The law professors get paid to consult.
How do we solve it? We need to free people from dependency. But this
is too hard. We should fight for it, but politicians will never
endorse a system of public funding of campaigns when they have so much
invested in the current system. Instead, we need norms of
independence. People need to start saying that independence is
important to them and that they won’t support respected figures who
act as dependents. And we can use the Internet to figure out who’s
acting as dependents. Projects funded by the Sunlight Foundation can
be used to identify politicians who decide in response to campaign
contributions and the Internet can work together to identify these
people and shame them.
So far, I agree with this summary.
Finally, there is another kind of corruption. Lessig represented a man
who was abused by the headmaster of his boarding school. The courts
focused all the blame on the monster, the headmaster, and decided that
everyone working at the school who knew the abuse was going on and did
nothing was immunized. But we cannot change the monsters — instead,
the real guilt lies with the good people who support them.
If politicians are those monsters, we are those good people. We are
Almost. I need to make this point clearer. The argument has three parts — (1) identifying that corruption, (2) arguing that norms must be an important part in remedying corruption, and (3) that our focus should be on those of us who can do something, not on those who can’t. I don’t think politicians are monsters; what links politicians with the abuser and the President is that they can’t do anything, or enough.
The argument is new, only half-finished, and has been made only
circumspectly in a couple fora. So it is not surprising that I do not
totally understand it.
I think there’s a disanalogy between politicians and the scholars.
Politicians need the money to run their campaigns, while scholars seem
to take it out of greed. This disanology becomes more severe when we
talk about solutions: we can make politicians less dependent on money,
but it’s less clear how to make scholars less greedy. I suppose the
norm regimes work for both, however.
This is an important distinction, but I don’t think that the problem with scholars is “greed.” I do agree, however, whatever the character of the problem, what unites both cases is that they both can be (somewhat) remedied by norms.
The first part is right: there is a lot of corruption. In fact, I
think there is far more than Lessig suggests. Our schools are taught
from textbooks which are chosen through a corrupt process. Our college
professors only receive tenure if they teach the established wisdom
(or something novel that’s close enough). Our corporations routinely
break the law to maximize profit. Our media routinely get the facts
wrong in service of their monetary interests. Our public intellectuals
sign their names on to corporate-written op-eds and PR-run
psuedoconferences. And so on.
But I think the diagnosis of the problem is only halfway there. In the
case of politicians, Lessig says they are good people who are forced
into doing wrongs because they need to raise campaign funds. This
means they spend most of their time with lobbyists who only give them
one side of the story. This is almost right.
Lessig is missing the power of the _filter_. Even if the politicians
knew all the right positions in advance and could not be swayed by
lobbyists, it would not help: these politicians would never get
elected. If a politician does not espouse pro-business positions, they
do not get campaign funds. If they do not get campaign funds, they
will lose to someone who can. This is very well documented:
Businessmen even have dinner parties where they interview candidates
to determine which ones agree with their interests and then go ahead
to fund those. (Lessig should know this, since I believe he’s attended
and possibly hosted such parties.)
Possibly, but actually no, no such parties. But the more important point in response is to acknowledge that solving the problem of corruption is not the same as getting a government that I (or Aaron) agrees with. Corruption is the amplification of money in the process. But even without that amplification, the other side may well have more votes. E.g., I disagree with the Supreme Court in many cases. In none do I think the disagreement has to do with money.
And, when politicians find a way to avoid relying on businesses for
money, like Howard Dean did, there is still the media to contend with.
Lessig has notably avoided saying much about the media’s complicity
(more on this later).
Lessig we suggest we have bloggers ostracize bad politicians. But all
politicians are bad in this sense — there is no other way they can be
This is very true. So the solution is not within the system. It comes from changing the system, or the rules governing the system.
And nobody who votes is going to check those blogs first.
Only 10% of the population even votes on the basis of issues; the
percentage whose vote will be swayed by corruption must be miniscule,
and most of those will be swayed in the (counter-productive) direction
of not voting.
For the other scholars, he is not even close. You are a scientist. You
spend long hours at a lab painstakingly measuring out various
chemicals. You have to work incredibly hard to avoid getting fired.
You don’t see your family. You needed to move to a strange city to get
the job, so your wife is out of work. You had to by a new house in
this town so the debt is crushing. You still haven’t paid off your
school loans. Now a man comes and says that he’ll pay you tens of
thousands if you just sign your name to your study. Better still, he’s
well trained in the tactics of persuasion and you find yourself
signing it even before you stop to think about the implications.
Yes, it would be nice if all scientists were good, strong men who
could resist such ignoble urges. But that’s not going to happen. Even
if there is ridicule and sanctions for some of the scientists who
engage in such deals, it will still be very hard to say no.
Let’s define a kind of regulation as “soft regulation.” Soft regulation is the sort that comes through norms. No doubt, soft regulation is not always effective. But that’s different from saying it’s not enough. Science doesn’t crumble because a handful of scientists are corrupted.
Why “instead”? Why not both?
I think we have to focus on the man with the contract and
pen. He works for a profit-maximizing corporation that will stop at
nothing (Lessig says they stop at the law, but that’s a joke) to make
such bogus studies. If you somehow convince all the scientists to be
good, strong men, they will invent their own scientists (look at
what’s happened with think tanks). If the journals reject the fake
scientists, they will take over the journals. If the government
rejects the new journals, they will take over the government. As long
as they’re in control, you will never win this game of whack-a-mole.
Lessig says he hopes this isn’t true because it is depressing. It is
hard to fix the profit-maximizing corporation. Sadly, the truth is
sometimes depressing. And I think fixing the profit-maximizing
corporation would be a good idea. But there is an easier place to
start: fix the media.
Any government, even dictatorship, relies to some extent on the tacit
consent of the population. (Hume) Usually this is done through
propaganda and the media and our government is no different. Media
campaign ads as well as the (often irrelevant and miniscule) campaign
news coverage are how the country decides who to vote for as well as
forming the basis for many of their other positions. (If all you know
about social security is that it will go bankrupt unless it is
privatized, then even the most left-wing person will support
privatizing social security.)
Fixing the media does not seem absurdly out of reach. The Internet is
helping a great deal and I think it is possible to do a great deal
more. This seems rather more practical than having people to listen to
bloggers when deciding who to vote for or teaching all scientists to
be good strong men.
Fixing the media is good and important. And indeed, the mechanism I imagine with peer-producers on the net is not that voters read and then vote, but that such work shifts the debate in, and through, “the media.” So I’m all for this. But I don’t think the problem with “the media” is that they don’t read enough blogs. There is real economics driving the spiral in that field, and it would take an extraordinary amount of resources to check that spin. (Though I do know of some very good news on this front to be announced (not by me) soon.)
But his (very powerful) last part is also correct: we are all
complicit. In some of his talks, Lessig goes further and points the
finger right at the people he is addressing. This is exactly right and
extremely courageous. I hope that we can find the courage to change.
Complicity is the punchline. Its recognition is the first step to change.