November 10, 2008  ·  Lessig

A Change Congress supporter writes:

“I am a supporter of your Change Congress movement and have followed your work for a long time. I am also an Obama supporter. I am writing to urge you to share your thoughts with your blog readers about what an Obama administration might entail for the Change Congress movement, and whether you think Obama is committed to government reform….”

Great question. I think many of us are so used to disappointment, we’re looking for it, and so not even a week after that extraordinary night, many are beginning to wonder what “change” here will really mean?

But I think we need a certain kind of understanding, or patience here. Imagine, by analogy, a loved one has cancer. She decides to get chemo-therapy to deal with the cancer. But on the way to the hospital, imagine she gets hit with a bullet from a drive-by shooting. (Dark, ok, but you’ll see the meaning here in a second). Now an ambulance comes and races this gun-shot victim with cancer to the emergency room.

This sad story is a picture of us just now. The “change Washington” rhetoric of this campaign is the analog to the cancer. The financial collapse is the analog of the shooting. And just as with the cancer patient, the collapse is an urgent, immediate problem that must be solved before the more fundamental, long term problem can be addressed.

This means we have to be a bit patient before the more fundamental issue gets addressed. Not that one shouldn’t be critical of decisions that will make it more difficult to cure the cancer. But that the lack of an immediate push on that problem is not inconsistent with the design to cure it.

I only hope they recognize that as with the gun-shot, cancer victim, there needs to be essentially two teams thinking about these two different kinds of problems. One focusing immediately on stabilizing the patient. The second on how the stable patient can be treated for the cancer. The skills of the former team are not necessarily the skills of the latter. And if Obama is to be the transformational president he can be, building a strategy around that transformation will be essential.

Update: A good sign: Podesta:

“I’ve heard the complaint [that] we’re leaving all this expertise on the side, because we’re leaving all the people who know everything out in the cold. And so be it. This is a commitment that the American public expects, and it’s one that we intend to enforce during the transition.”

  • Joe

    Wow, ummmm. I get the analogy, but how about unicorns and puppies next time?

  • Kip

    Wow, ummmm. I get the analogy, but how about unicorns and puppies next time?

    … imagine a puppy with cancer being shot by a unicorn on the way to the hospital.

  • ChristianK

    Times of crisis aren’t bad for pushing change at the basic level.
    They might even be the only time where you have the political capital to push such legislation.

  • John Millington

    You’re predicting the cancer treatment will take second place to the gunshot treatment, and then said nothing else about how/if Obama might treat the cancer. Got any predictions other than “be patient?”

  • Jeff Rose

    Well, admittedly I had to read it twice before I connected the dots, but it’s a good point if I understand the fable right. Basically, the team you bring in to do emergency bug fixes might not be the same team you want designing the next version. I guess that could be true, although I would think a top quality designer could easily take both roles. As for Obama being committed to government reform, it seems like his plan for a publicly accessible website and database that has the operations and finances of the federal government up for browsing is a huge step in the right direction. I think they call it Google for Government in their blueprint for change.

  • Kay

    The end point of this analogy is valid. However, the analogy itself is incomplete in an important way. In the analogy, having cancer is only accidentally related to being shot. Arguably, many of the current problems in Washington are symptoms, manifestations or side-effects of the larger problem (“cancer”). If we believe that–which Change Congress seems to believe–then we should probably think of an analogy that more intimately connects the two. So, for example: the individual is so stressed by the cancer, that she has a heart attack (or other dramatic manifestation of the underlying problem). Of course we should deal with the latter first, but we should do so in such a way that minimizes our obstacles in treating the former.

  • http://evanpayne.com Evan Payne

    I think the analogy can be improved: This loved one has indeed at last decided to go the hospital to pay through the nose for an incredibly painful procedure that may or may not remove the cancer that is slowly destroying her from within. But, when she gets there, the doctors discover that she also has been smoking three packs of unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes for the past THIRTY Years. This must be addressed first.

    Oh, and maybe also that bum liver from all the drinking she’s been doing.

    America is messed up, and its not a bullet that did it. This crisis was a long time in coming, and there’s more like it on the horizon. I personally hope that Obama and his team can address more than one issue at a time, or else we’re sort of screwed.

  • Rick

    When will you learn to avoid analogies? :) Seems like apples and oranges to me.

    Obama has the immediate power to negate Bush executive orders and those dastardly signing memos.He should go for it. Then he should declare signing statements off limits just to put focus on the Congress where it should always have been. Not a bad move on the whole since an initial appeasement to the Left would make them (us?) happy.
    Your call for patience is indeed correct, but not in the sense of action. That needs to be immediate. We’ll need to be patient in our expectations of results. Economically we are totally screwed and that’s not going to change quickly, especially since big-corporate tends to take market improvements as profit before it adds jobs back.

    As to Congress? Whew… deer in the headlights, especially Pelosi. Despite ongoing campaign rhetoric against earmarks we got a bailout bill that was biz-as-usual. They just don’t know how to act any other way. Strategy? Brighter headlights shining 24/7 on them; keep the pressure on. We (and Obama) would do well to keep the pressure there. This Congress needs to understand in short order that simply being “not Republican” isn’t enough.
    “Change Congress”? Keep the pressure on there as well. IMHO the tenets of the movement are fundamental to improved Congressional clarity and (important right now) efficiency.

    More philosophically….
    1. Perhaps the “right” and “left” need to chill out for a while. Indeed, in my view we should think of our political/cultural persuasions less as a “line” and more as an incomplete circle with the right and left separated not by the length of the circumference but only by the gap. It’s the “arcing” across this gap that creates so much strife for us. Less “polarity” from both sides is necessary right now. Issues like gun control and Prop 8 are probably best left on the back burner for now. Recall that Clinton, after finally fixing his administrative staff problems, mired himself in the “don’t ask – don’t tell” issue. Perhaps we should take heed and avoid the 3G’s for awhile (God, Guns, Gays).
    2. IMHO (again) it’s a bad time for Lessig to “unvolunteer” from the NN and creative rights movement (as if you actually can :) ). These are crucial issues to our human progress, especially (in my view) in the easing of cultural tensions that so complicate our lives here on the blue marble and, unfortunately, we humanoids have a lousy track record for managing our technology. It will be easy for the resolution of these and other issues to be dictated by short-term perceived economic need rather than long-term societal well-being. I think that Naomi Klein’s view that we have an opportunity to freshly evaluate our economic philosophy is the correct view. Time is short. It’s “all hands on deck.” Bring the skills you have.

    Can we start by eliminating a few nukes? Waddaya say we bury them under the Federal Reserve and put the Big Red Button in Congress?

  • Nick

    I still have a hard time believing that pushing for more regulation and larger government grants a straight path to reforming Congress, instead of feeding the addiction…

    Asking Democrats (or Republicans) to change Congress while giving them more influence/power/cash is like asking a teenager not to drink while handing her a fake ID.

    As much as I want to believe that Obama’s and the Dem’s reign will lead to lasting governance change, I can feel the soft forms of influence picking up, the capture swooping in, and the embers of a lean mean government dying…for example, let’s pay close attention to the treatment of the Big Three, who are bleeding cash and need a lifeline. Will the inclusion of MI’s gov and reps as advisors provide an image of impartial decisions? I think not.

    But im cynical and I guess I should give them a chance…

  • Jardinero1

    I have a better analogy.

    There is this frog and this scorpion and the scorpion wants to cross the river. The scorpion is all real nice to the frog and says if you let me ride on your back across the river I promise not sting you. The frog says yes you will sting me and the scorpion says no I won’t because if I do, you will die and we will both drown. And the frog thinks, wow, this scorpion is really different, he understands that we are all in this together, things are gonna be different, I can really trust this scorpion. So the frog lets the scorpion hop on his back and off they go across the river. Just as they get near the other bank, zip, the scorpion stings the frog. In its last dying moments the frog asks the scorpion why he did that? The scorpion replies, “Cause I’m a f$cking scorpion, you idiot.” The scorpion then swims the tiny distance left to the shore, laughs his a$$ off and sets off in search of another victim.

  • http://wordfaceoff.blogspot.com fdeblauwe

    Reading about the Obama team’s relationship with the “net roots” and his broadband advocacy, I decided to plot broadband penetration against Obama vote % and Obama % – McCain %. I did this with state data. Some correlation seems likely and the outliers make sense. See my Word face-Off blog. Seems to me that for electoral purposes alone, he should make broadband a priority. Of course, he sees it as an integral part of our economic infrastructure, an area where we are running behind much of the developed world.

  • anonymous

    As a long time fan of Lessig’s work, I found this comment really disappointing. I would recommend that Prof. Lessig read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine.” (If he has not already.)

    “The Shock Doctrine” illustrates how crises are exploited by those in power to further their agendas while those that are effected by the crises are too confused and powerless to do anything about it. It is a stern warning against the very argument that Prof. Lessig has made in his analogy.

  • John Millington
  • Rick

    @fdeblauwe
    Nice work. Great analysis.
    A rigorous approach might tend to kick out the data with results that are clearly not broadband driven. “Favorite son” states: AZ, AK, IL, HI, DE would be likely removals as well as DC due to overwhelming demographic issues. But as-is your conclusion seems valid. We can certainly ponder the old “chicken/egg” conundrum, I suppose, but it hardly seems worth it as we’d likely not get anything definitive from the exercise.
    Interestingly, it begs the question: If Obama’s traction was within the broadband user base, did McCain adequately address the narrowband (dial-up) users? Both campaigns tended to use high-end techniques which the dial-up folks tend to miss or ignore.
    Obama’s “broadband advocacy” is perhaps worthy of discussion in some other venue. Frankly, I’m hopeful that he might consider the cultural notion of “managing our technologies” rather then full-speed-ahead on the basis that it accommodates lefty thinking, offers potential short-term economic improvement, or simply that it might strengthen his base.

  • Future Caos Blog

    I guess he’s (Podesta) saying, expectations should go up. They’ve been so low for the last 5 years, they can’t help but to go up no matter who knows what or who knows who. Back to work and back to the future. Have fun!

  • Foresight

    Here’s a different analogy: The president and vice president get shot, and the whole world goes into a state of minor chaos.

    Considering that we have sophisticated web collaboration tools to manage communities, why do we still have a political system that is so entirely dependent on one person?

    I think we need to do more than change congress, and more than hope that our precious leader will be beneficent in his rule over us. I think it is time we started governing ourselves, ala http://metagovernment.org

  • http://www.iloveyourtee.com Traume

    With that many campaign promises made, someone’s going home disappointed. I predict that he will outrank former President Carter as one of the worst presidents we have ever had. Not because of his political party or his views, but because of the damage he will inflict on this country with the help of an already voter-deaf congress. Congress is already spending our money like a bunch of drunken sailors (sorry if I offended any sailors but was trying to drive home the idea).

    No, by the time this is all done, France will look at us and snicker that *we* are way too socialistic…

  • http://apocalypseroad.blogspot.com Hugh Sansom

    I was a great admirer of Obama. I voted enthusiastically for him.

    But listening to Prof. Lessig speak so fulsomely (in the actual meaning of “fulsome”), so glowingly — with absolutely no qualification, as if this were indeed the Second Coming — leaves me terribly concerned.

    There is simply NOTHING so far in Obama’s choices for advisers or cabinet members to sustain hope for a “transformational presidency”.

    Moreover, the idolization of the middle is purely fallacious. Where on earth do Americans, including Stanford law professors, get the notion that being in the middle means being correct? The notion is patently absurd.

    If being pro-civil rights in 1955 meant being left — and it did — then the left was correct. Being pro-union in 1932 was a leftist position. And it was the true position.

    There is a world of difference in giving a hearing to all sides and trying to find a solution that synthesizes all sides. It is a sad commentary on American discourse that even the _best_ educated clearly do not understand this.

    Moreover, Obama is most emphatically NOT giving a hearing to all sides. Entirely absent from his advisers are any representatives of labor, of the common people, of advocates for single-payer health care, of advocates for Arab or Muslim rights (most especially the rights of Palestinians in their own homeland).

    All of this points to a nascent Cult of Personality with Obama as the Revered One.

    Anyone moderately familiar with the history of the past three or four thousand years should be wary, at best.