February 2, 2009  ·  Lessig

The New York Times has an excellent piece about the Daschle debacle. It points to the fundamental point missed by the obsession with whether the former Senator(‘s accountant) made an error in calculating his tax: The real problem is not people who can’t understand and follow tax rules (i.e., all of us, at least on the understanding part). It is a system in which former Members can trade their status as former Members for millions of dollars.

This system is an economy. It only works if those being paid millions deliver millions (plus something) in value in return. And as the business model of being a public servant more and more becomes the business of becoming a well-paid ex-public servant, public servants within the system will do whatever they can to make this economy work. Think of it as a political life insurance policy — paid out when your public political life ends.

Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system. His plan was to serve the public as long as he possibly could. The voters in South Dakota terminated that plan. His desire is to return to public service, working on a set of issues that he feels passionate about. Indeed, issues he actually knows something about. So no doubt, he is a good soul in a bad system.

But his goodness doesn’t inoculate the system. And the system is why no one should count on real CHANGE till it, the system, gets changed.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    “Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system” I think you missed a few million dollars. Not saying one needs a virgin from the pure city of Chicago, but don’t get in bed with a whore:

    Daschle earned $220,000 from health care industry
    By DOUGLASS K. DANIEL – 14 hours ago

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Tom Daschle collected nearly a quarter of a million dollars in fees in the last two years speaking to leaders of the industry President Barack Obama wants him to reform as the administration’s health secretary.

    That was just a portion of the more than $5.2 million the former South Dakota senator earned as he advised insurers and hospitals and worked in other industries — real estate, energy and telecommunications among them, according to a financial statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics.
    http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hKcJEw8d1rCegiLNxA85ewoJyqBgD9633R3G0

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    Wasn’t Daschele either receiving a $100,000+ pension for his congressal/senate service or voluntary defered his pension to receive more later in life while he was whoring himself out for millions???

    I would suggest either giving up the reform hat and becoming a Democratic partisan which is more in line with a lawyers retorical skills or vice versa.

  • http://www.visual-meme.com Steve

    The difficulty is that it largely makes good sense for congress critters to become lobbyists after their public service because they are the best positioned to understand the system and to get things accomplished. In many cases, it’s a good thing that legislators do this, but the potential for corruption is, of course, quite obvious. Unfortunately there’s little we can really do about it. Sure you could ban somebody from joining a lobbying organization for a couple years, or what have you, but it doesn’t mean the lobbyists couldn’t make a commitment to a job two years down the line for a job well done.

    This, incidentally, is why I have a strong interest in publicly financed elections. It can do little about the potential quid pro quos that a congress critter plans for their retirement from office. But what it does do is free up legislators from having to spend most of their time raising money so they can focus on actually creating decent legislation. This would help get lobbyists and think tanks out of the business of writing legislation and put it back into the hands of the people we elected in the first place.

  • Gary

    “Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system. His plan was to serve the public as long as he possibly could. “

    So, if you are booted out of office in an attempt to hold on to power, that makes you innocent of being a lobbyist??? The entire crusade you are running for clean government and against corruption is sort of meaningless if this is true.

    Why should he desire to remain Seantor for Life, with all the associated perks, power and campaign money from lobbyists be considered “public service”?

  • Jardinero1

    The founding fathers believed the best way to limit these corrupting influences was to limit the size, scope and duties of the government.

  • B.Dewhirst

    I agree with Gary above… there is something else going on here as well.

    A congressman like Dennis Kucinich or congresswoman like Cynthia Mckinney isn’t going to wind up at a lobbying firm. There is a selection effect– those who wind up on K-street do so because they’re part of a good-old-boys-and-girls network which thinks a certain way. While in congress, they do well by their ‘friends’ rather than their constituents.

    This is why Obama’s efforts to stomp out lobbying influence aren’t going to work– there are still a great mass of people who see themselves as being closer to Citibank (where all their friends still work) than they do to an unemployed dockworker whose house is being foreclosed on.

  • Timon

    “Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system. His plan was to serve the public as long as he possibly could. “

    Nothing could be further from the truth, Daschle is as corrupt as a Nigerian customs agent. Read Matt Taibbi on him here: http://www.rollingstone.com/blogs/taibbiunbound/2008/12/the-whore-factor.php Some quotes:

    “In Washington there are whores and there are whores, and then there is Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle would suck off a corpse for a cheeseburger. True, he is probably only the second-biggest whore for the health care industry in American politics — the biggest being doctor/cat-torturer Bill Frist, whose visit to South Dakota on behalf of John Thune in 2004 was one of the factors in ending Daschle’s tenure in the Senate.

    “But in picking Daschle — who as an adviser to the K Street law firm Alston and Bird has spent the last four years burning up the sheets with the nation’s fattest insurance and pharmaceutical interests — Obama is essentially announcing that he has no intention of seriously reforming the health care industry. And I know that lots of public policy people are hailing this pick, saying Daschle is perfect for the job (“His new leadership position confirms that the incoming Obama administration has made health care reform a top and early priority for action in 2009,” Ron Pollack, the director of Families USA, told reporters), but when they say that I think they mean the following: “Out of all the bought-off Washington whores who could have been given this job, Daschle is the best one. His fake reform will go the farthest in its approximation of actual action than the fake reform of any other possible whore-candidate.” Actually that probably sums up the ideological profile of Obama quite well generally — but that’s another story.

    “Regarding Daschle, remember, we’re talking about a guy who not only was a consultant for one of the top health-care law firms in the country, but a board member of the Mayo Clinic (a major recipient of NIH grants) and the husband of one of America’s biggest defense lobbyists — wife Linda Hall lobbies for Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Does anyone really think that this person is going to come up with a health care proposal that in any way cuts into the profits of the major health care companies?”

  • Roberto

    Professor Lessig, this has got to be the single dumbest post of your blogging career. Apparently you think yourself such a genius that you can divine the motives and thoughts of other humans.

    Are you 6 years old? Seriously, Lessig. This is a shameful post. A shameful post which tells your readers not to question Purest Tom Daschle. “Of course” Tom’s “goodness” makes him “innocent”.

    “Of course” he just wants to serve the public!

    No reason to believe he’s actually been enjoying the millions and millions of dollars he’s been making the past few years. No reason at all.

    This is pathetic.

  • http://www.astorandblack.com Suits

    I agree ! I hope that this new administraion changes things and this is carried through

  • Carl

    “Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system.”

    I must admit I was struck speechless after reading this.

    First it was the offhanded “of course” thrown in there, a tact often use when no legitimate argument is available. But of course he is an innocent and upstanding individual and the proof is left as an exercise for the reader! Does the “of course” really add anything substantial to your argument, beyond assuring me that you think it is obvious? I’d suggest you respect your readership and present the references or arguments that make you believe this.

    Next, a corrupt politician takes advantage of the corrupt system to earn millions and he is described as “the most innocent in this guilty system”? Don’t get me wrong, the system is certainly culpable and I could believe that his corruption is a symptom rather than a cause if you were to make such an argument. But it almost comes across as if you are suggesting that he is an injured party in this situation, taken advantage of by the cruel forces of K Street. Or, perhaps you meant that Daschle and the system are both black as sin, but if you hold them up in the sun you’ll notice he’s a few shades lighter. Whatever the actual argument, you may want to clarify it. Quickly.

  • Chris

    Prof. Lessig,

    This sounds like a great opportunity for the Change Congress and maybe the Sunlight Network. Since tax returns are often published by politicians, could your movement host rollups of that data? It would become more apparent where the sources of income are so that citizens could better judge conflicts of interests. If folks could add notes as to where they had seen a politician accept a junket/gift/etc. it would also help folks like Dachle avoid forgetting about taxes.

  • anon

    Professor Lessig, i really hope you use your time at harvard to come up with some solid and coherent academic theory that governs your commentary on these matters because your man on the street approach to the postings like this on your blog do not serve the cause you promote yourself as a spokesman for. He didn’t know that a “gift” of a car service needed to be reported as income? Get real! I thought the idea was that we are all so corrupt in our own lives that we become willing to accept it in our leaders. How do you stop that cycle when we’re urged to accept corruption in public servants just because they are qualified for the job they are asked to do? Allowing Daschle his public mea culpa and then to go on with business as usual seems to be exactly the kind of thing you were supposed to be against and this Administration was supposed to be against.

    If you are willing to accept the idea of “good souls in a bad system” then what incentive are you offering for people to change the system? Are you ever going to draw *any* line in the sand????

    This is all just very disappointing…

  • http://blendedpurple.blogspot.com/ purple

    As someone who is self-employed, and does his own taxes, I’m not to sympathetic. Geithner and Daschle were either lazy, stupid, or lying. Two confirmed tax-cheat on the cabinet is not good.

  • Rick

    Daschle withdraws as nominee. Good move.
    Unfortunate but necessary to keep this administration on track philosophically. But “most innocent” works just like “least guilty” in the court of public opinion or, perhaps more importantly, with a Republican cadre that seems intent upon entrenching itself in holier-than-thou conservatism. Daschle becomes a martyr who allows Obama to retain the high ground.
    Progressives should make the Daschle example become the benchmark by which others in Congress must measure up.

  • Terry

    “Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system.”

    You’re a self delusional pathetic asshole. Daschle’s wife is a lobbist and was a lobbist when Daschle was senate majority leader.
    You seriously need your head checked because you’re a real schmuck.

  • derek

    @Terry
    A ‘schmuck’ is a penis or a detestable person. Not a good fit here (Daschle himself, perhaps, for thinking that he could come back).

    I think ‘schlemiel’ is a better fit for what this post reveals about Professor Lessig. If you want to go with the penis overtones, then ‘putz’ would be OK too.

    Even so, the bigger point is that the system is the problem. But Prof Lessig’s usefulness in advocating for changes to that system is deeply undercut by what he reveals about his grasp of it here.

  • Rick

    Hmmmm…
    Perhaps Lessig was a bit clumsy here but I don’t think he lacks a grasp of the situation. He was simply trying to put in a plug for a guy who is (and I agree) probably one of the “good guys” in the whole messy Washington power struggle. Let’s recall that Daschle was one of the few to have the guts to openly oppose the Bush administration’s policies at a time (2004 and before) when it was not politically wise. He paid for it with his 2004 loss in which the national Republican party pounded him with big-money and big-name support for Thune. Still, it was a close election.
    Perhaps Lessig’s lament is that in the Washington we have known it is difficult for a good guy to get anything done. It’s a dirty, nasty game in which the corrupt prefer to do business with the corrupt and alienate those who are not; political entrapment in it’s most insidious form.
    Daschle screwed up. Whether from maliciousness or ignorance, it doesn’t matter at this point. It was stupid and he knows it. He loses. Maybe in losing his expertise in a capacity for which he was imminently qualified, we all lose. I think Lessig grasps that full well.

  • anon

    Rick. I agree with you. I agree with Prof. Lessig. Sen. Daschle is probably one of the good guys. the question is whether Lessig is proposing a standards based or rule base approach to corruption. It’s hard to create a “teaching moment” when you adopt an approach that says that since Daschle is generally good and particularly qualified we’ll overlook the “corrupt” action of not paying taxes owed. I question whether Prof. Lessig can be the leader of an anti-corruption movement while adopting a case-by-case approach to determining who is corrupt.

    I also believe that grammatically, systems are not corrupt, people are. So I completely reject the good guy caught in corrupt system argument, otherwise known as nazi defense (acknowledging that here I invoke godwin’s law). If Prof Lessig is really describing the “corruption” problem as poor “innocent” senators caught in a corrupt system they are a victim of, “requiring” the intervention of outsiders to fix it, and absolved of the personal responsibility owed to their constituents, then I wish he’d at least quote me a federalist paper or a reading from Locke that would help me understand what political theory of responsibility he is working from!

  • http://uspolitics.about.com/b/2009/02/04/media-focus-on-daschle-tax-bill-ignore-53-million-income.htm Kathy

    On Tuesday, I wrote about my concern that the media focus was on the tax issue, not the potential corruption issue. I’ve been playing Don Quixote on money and politics for a long time. So I was intrigued by this statement.

    You wrote: “Daschle, of course, is the most innocent in this guilty system.”

    How do you know this? There is no evidence for the assertion in this post and, in fact, there is counter-evidence: the fact that the voters of S.D. kicked him out of office. Also, Daschle had known for six months that he owed back taxes (according to media reports) — and yet he chose not to pay them until his nomination was in the hopper. This behavior suggests something other than innocence.

    I do not think it is humanly possible to take $2 million from a lobbying firm over the course of two years and then be able to be “unbiased” in a new job where those very same people want access. Not Humanly Possible.

    I agree with you that public financing of elections is an idea whose time is long overdue. I am not convinced, however, that it will solve the Golden Revolving Door problem. Daschle is not running for office — so his ride through the money circuit is not for advertising dollars and consultants, it’s for his own pocket.