March 11, 2009  ·  Lessig

More people I admire missing the point (for which, as I’ve said again and again, I’m happy to take responsibility but which, again and again, begs clarification): this time, Ed Brayton.

Ed says:

Lessig is arguing that that the bill is bad policy and that Conyers is being paid off by the publishing industry to get the measure passed.

No. No. And again, Ed, no. To be “paid off by the publishing industry” is a crime. It’s called bribery. To be given a campaign contribution in exchange for introducing or passing legislation is also a crime. Any quid-pro-quo for legislative action is banned six ways to Sunday.

But as I said and said and said, I am not accusing anyone of any crime. I’m not even accusing anyone of anything unethical. My charge is that by (a) introducing legislation that has no good public policy justification behind it and which (b) does not benefit your own constituents while (c) being disproportionately supported in financial contributions by the single industry that would benefit from the legislation, you invite the charge (as 88% of citizens in my district believe) that “money buys results in Congress.” WHETHER OR NOT “money bought” this result, you have committed this wrong. The wrong is the relationship, and the suggestion the relationship begs. It is not — and again, NOT — that the person accused is “being paid off” by anyone.

I make this point over and over again in the (now close to 1 billion) talks I’ve given about “corruption.” They’re collected at lessig.blip.tv. I understand how it is rational for no one (or very few) to spend the 20 to 60 minute necessary to watch those talks completely. But here’s a four minute clip about another popular Democrat. Watch this, and maybe the idea of “good soul corruption” will become clearer.

What could a “good soul” do to avoid the charge of being “good soul corrupt”? Well, the simplest is to make sure the that the only time you introduce legislation that 33 Nobel Prize winning scientists believe would harm science (or the equivalent), it plainly benefits your constituents. A bit more difficult, but certainly appropriate: As a chairman of a committee, refuse to solicit or accept contributions from the interests your committee regulates. And most important, and ultimately: pass legislation that provides for “citizen-funded elections” — so that when you support legislation with no good public purpose behind it, no one could believe it was because of the money.

And what could a good soul citizen do to end good soul corruption? Join our donor strikestrike4change.com — and thereby refuse to support any federal politician who doesn’t support this plainly corrupt system.

  • Justin

    I wonder how many of these people you have been responding to as of late have even been reading/listening to what your saying or if they are just getting talking points from a staffer and quoting and politicizing accordingly. I feel that you might be beating your head against a wall, that’s not to say I don’t believe it must be done.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Hmm, let’s see if I can make the point with a positive return to me.

    I just recently had a _Guardian_ column about some Wikipedia conflicts:

    Inclusion or deletion? In the end, it’s actually about money

    One money quote, literally, was

    “Partially at issue here were the tensions created by Wikia (a venture capital-funded startup also co-founded by [Jimmy] Wales) which has no major financial connection to Wikipedia but has been described … as an “effort to take the success – and, indeed, the underlying philosophy – of Wikipedia and commercialise the hell out of it”.

    When I publicized the column, I took care to stress clarification like: “I do hope people grasp that the “money” part is meant to be a multilayered observation, connecting the two concepts explored – an examination of the costs that every article creates, and the pressures of commercialization. Not something silly, like a potential strawman of deletionism being a plot to enrich Wikia’s digital-sharecropping gains.”

    Because I know there’s going to be a contingent which will rant something like “You’re saying Jimmy Wales wants articles deleted from Wikipedia in order to enrich his company Wikia!”. No, it’s really a more subtle point – about how money can shape and influence systems.

    However, there is no escaping that fact that I am saying this influence is possible. And Jimmy Wales doesn’t like me saying that at all. Because the implications are less than praiseworthy.

    But at a certain level, slamming critics, even if they are right, is just a “cost of doing business”. That’s always an option.

  • http://sleepyhead.org Judson

    I think you are more positive about congresspeople than most. I understand your point, but when most people see one group paying a person a lot of money, and that person doing what they want, the details of their relationship are not important. They are working for hire. The fact that congress has added layers of redirection to obfuscate this relationship is simply not relevant to most people. It takes too long to explain to other people, and will likely be left out in the propagation of the idea.

    I have watched your presentations, and you give great examples of how people *could* be “good soul corrupted”, and I strongly support change congress. Your talks haven’t convinced me at all that anyone actually is “good soul corrupted” though, and in the absence of any evidence, I just have to assume they are old-fashioned corrupted. (occam’s razor and all that) :)

  • node

    “I’m not even accusing anyone of anything unethical.”

    “WHETHER OR NOT “money bought” this result, you have committed this wrong.”

    These are inconsistent statements. You ARE accusing someone of doing something unethical (a.k.a. something wrong). Just admit that and the inconsistency is gone.

  • Anonymous

    Introducing legislation that APPEARS to be perfectly designed for one of your largest donors gives the APPEARANCE of wrongdoing – even if there is no wrongdoing.

    - This particular piece of legislation certainly APPEARS to have been written by the industry in question.

    - It has been introduced by a Congress member who benefited directly from those organizations’ campaign donations.

    - This Congressman’s constituents are not calling for this legislation, are likely to be against it, and will not benefit as a result of its passage.

    - Thus this APPEARS to be quid-pro-quo, EVEN IF there was none.

    - EVEN IF the Congressman were planning to create and introduce this legislation in the absence of campaign funding from those who will benefit most if it passes, the very existence of the funding in conjunction with the legislation creates the appearance of conflict of interest.

  • http://www.coises.com/ Coises

    Professor Lessig,

    Perhaps it is time to replace the term “corruption” with some other word which is less prone to misunderstanding. It seems that no matter how carefully you define it, upon encountering the word most people think they know what you mean, and what they think isn’t what you mean.

    Then again, in light of the video presented in this entry, I’m not sure I know what you mean. Based on the video alone, I would have surmised that you define “Good Soul Corruption” solely as a result of the perception of improper influence by the electorate, who then cease even to try to exert their own influence, as they have already concluded that their participation is futile. Up to this point, I thought the primary source of the systemic corruption with which you were concerned was that money buys access, so that decision-makers receive most of their input from the largest stake-holders on any particular question, and thus get a highly skewed view of the overall impact of potential legislation.

    In either case, the word “corruption” plants an entirely different, and (I think and hope) unintended picture in people’s minds. As you are well aware from the use of terms like “piracy,” “theft” and “intellectual property,” the response of the gut to loaded words is hard to shake, and the only real solution is to stop using them.

  • Chad

    Perhaps Lessig’s next project could be journalistic ethics. It seems that standard practice now allows the presentation of interpretation as fact. It is the difference between “infer” and “imply”. It’s hard to know what someone is implying without telepathy, but one may infer whatever one pleases.

    However, I find the argument quite strained to begin with. If Lessig does think that the legislators are uninfluenced by campaign contributions, then he should be fighting the misconception, not the funding method. I understand and condone the inference drawn by spectators, given this incongruity. It makes Lessig’s protestations of credulity look like ass-covering.

  • Dierk

    These are inconsistent statements. [...] something unethical (a.k.a. something wrong) [...] [/blockquote]

    No, they are not. You are, led by the context, confusing terms the same way those complaining Lessig is accusing Conyers of an actual crime are. While right and wrong are often used as a fitting shorthand for ethical evaluation neither of those terms is always concerned with morals. For ionstance, 1 + 1 = 3 is wrong without any ethical application. Just as, for the record, 1 + 1 = 2 is right – without it being an ethical statement.

    You can now see how ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ have applications in logic which are in no way concerned with ethical evaluation. Since many of our behaviours are more or less ruled by logic – or more correctly: our behaviours can be analysed as if they are ruled by logic – you can apply the terms in question without implying moral right or wrong.

    As I read Lessig’s statements he is arguing about a factual wrong and a PR disaster [even if the bill's intent is factually and morally right, the connections behind the scenes are fishy].

    BTW, ‘corruption’ does not mean direct quid-pro-quo, it does not mean getting money for a specific outcome, both of theses are subsets of the set ‘corruption’. These subsets are relatively clear, they are usually defined as crimes, they do not – contrary to popular perception – constitute a major and damaging phenomenon in an otherwise healthy democracy. The real problem is the everyday degeneration of basic ideals. What in some circles is called ‘the Beltway’ in the US.

  • http://www.akahele.org Gregory Kohs

    To follow up on some comments made by Seth Finkelstein, it is interesting to note that the “completely separate” Wikia, Inc. now receives monthly rental checks from the Wikimedia Foundation (from monies provided by the Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund), so that the non-profit entity may share office space with the for-profit entity. The Foundation claims they reviewed bids by about 10 potential landlords, but in the end, they came down to two bids — a low one, and a higher one from Wikia, Inc. They extended an opportunity to Wikia to “adjust” their offer, so that it could be selected as the “winning” bid. To me, that sounds like a wired deal. I’m told by those involved in the deal, though, that it was not. Who can you trust?

  • Walter

    Professor Lessig,

    Thank you for answering my question over at Freakonomics. I asked about your interest in the actual impact of money on policy vs. your interest in the impact of money on trust. You clarified that you are in fact concerned with both.

    I am also concerned by both, but particularly by the actual impact of money on policy.

    I’m disappointed by the above post because it seems to me that, when confronted by an actual legislator and a specific policy, you are retreating from any stand on impact-on-policy to focus exclusively on trust.

    It is true that putting forth a bill that doesn’t help the member’s constituents, but does help his donors invites “the charge (as 88% of citizens in my district believe) that ‘money buys results in Congress.’ ” It is further true that “WHETHER OR NOT ‘money bought’ this result, you have committed this wrong.”

    I agree with you on all of that.

    But 88% of citizens in your district believe that for a reason. They believe it because the connection appears so obvious that it seems reasonable, absent another explanation, that money IS in fact buying results.

    You have, yourself, suggested that money has led to bad results on climate change, copyright, and nutrition policy. Yet when you decline to insist on the connection in this instance, when you focus only on trust, you devalue your message.

    For my own part, I am discouraged when you downplay the actual impact of money on policy. I believe there is a connection, that money too often buys results, and that this is a problem. But when one of the thinkers I most respect (you!) decides to tackle the issue, and then declines to really make the case that money buys results, I start to question whether I could be wrong.

    I believe money buys results. And yet, IF THAT IS NOT THE CASE I WILL CHANGE THAT BELIEF! The influence of money seems implicit in the current campaign finance scheme. But if it isn’t, if I am presented with a plausible alternative, then I can shift my opinion.

    In that way, focusing purely on trust and shying away from making the case for money buying results treats the American public like children. It assumes that we will continue to believe that money buys results, whether or not it actually does.

    Maybe that’s true. Maybe the only thing harder than getting money out of politics is getting trust back into the system while the money is still there.

    But I hope you will not abandon the connection between money and policy outcomes. If that connection is faulty, I hope you will say so, so that I can alter my own opinion on the subject and restore my own trust in the legislative process. Or, if you truly do believe that money buys results, I hope you will expand your efforts to make that case.

    Thank you for your continued good work.

    Walter

  • Wes

    It’s an interesting coincidence you’re been tackling the Conyers open access ban because I just spent the last week or so struggling to get access to a scientific article that was locked away (from me) by copyright.

    I’m a computational biologist and a friend, who is a land surveyor, asked me to write him a very small utility program to align sets of survey coordinates. It turns out that there is a clever algorithm for calculating the rotational part of the alignment that was developed to align protein structure coordinates.

    After a bit of searching, I managed to track down the exact name of the algorithm and it turns out that there is even a Wikipedia page on the algorithm. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page is just a brief summary that doesn’t have enough information to know how to handle special cases (all points in the same plane, etc.).

    Fortunately, or so it seemed, the Wikipedia article links to the DOI of the original article. I followed the link and found the article’s abstract and a link to download the full PDF. I tried to download the full PDF and it asked for a user name and password and, when I failed to provide that, the site wanted to charge me $40 to download the PDF. Now, $40 may not sound like a lot but times are tough (for scientists, among others) and, in order to get some necessary experience, I’ve taken what is nominally a part time job (but that has way more than a full time work load). That means I’m trying to get by on a salary of about $15,000 for the year. $40 is a lot when you’re trying to get by on $15,000 a year. What am I supposed to do – not eat for a couple days to be able to afford to download the PDF?

    Plus, there’s the principle of the thing. The paper in question turns out to be a little two page note in the “short communications” section of the journal – and it was written way back in 1976. Why am I asked to pay $40 for a two page article written back in 1976?

    Anyway, about a week later I had some other business over in the vicinity of a well funded college and I stopped by their library. After some complicated discussions with the library staff I sat down at a computer that was available to the general public. I tried the DOI link in the Wikipedia page and the PDF just downloaded seamlessly – no request for a use name or password, no demand that I pay $40 – the PDF just downloaded right to the desktop. I’m not sure if what I did was legal or not – but I did get the paper.

    Some of you are probably thinking that I got the paper (for free) in the end anyway so what does it matter? But to me, the whole situation just seems very inefficient and arbitrary.

    I could have had the paper a week ago with a single mouse click. Instead, I had to carefully plan out when I would be over near the college library and do the whole parking and walking across campus and discussing with the reference desk. What could have been a single mouse click turned into a week of waiting and an hour or so of library logistics. And why me? If it’s really so important that there are barriers to letting me have the paper (if for some reason the economy needs to beat up on computational biologists who are not currently affiliated with well funded colleges) then why let me have the paper at all?

    Anyway, while I recognize that the world isn’t perfect, I have to say that I’m feeling pretty angry at John Conyers right now.

  • Anonymous

    Congressmen are intellectually outclassed by the complexity and volume of the issues they face. What then constitutes due diligence?

    One standard for congressional due diligence might be (1) eliminate conflicts of interest, and (2) avoid unambiguous incompetence.

    It’s a low standard, but a simple one. Many professions have higher standards. But politicians would have difficulty with them, and in professions with too-high standards, practice diverges, making enforcement difficult.

    How do Conyers’ actions stand with respect to this standard? It is uncontested that he wilfully chose to not eliminate a conflict of interest. His comments reflect a standard of care which in a non-politician would be troubling, but which clearly avoids unambiguous incompetence.

    If a congressman fails to exercise due diligence, while being paid by a benefiting party, it seems reasonable that there be a presumption of corruption. The burden to demonstrate that the cause was instead merely a politician’s common unprofessionalism, would then be on the congressman.

    By this standard, Conyers’ introduction of HR 801 was corrupt.

    A final note. Protestations of innocence and integrity have almost no significance. People don’t think of themselves as doing evil. A politician systemically behaving unethically and feloniously will still think themselves a moral and ethical public servant. That’s why we have law enforcement, and why some professions at least, have professional standards.

  • DM Grant

    If she didn’t do it for the money, what did she do it for?

    Come on, she did it for the money.

  • http://danielhaggard.com Daniel Haggard

    Hi there,

    I understand that you have a problem with the way politicians accept donations from special interest groups and I completely agree with it. But by conflating that issue with the open access issue you are making this discussion very difficult to follow.

    I came to your blog to find arguments for and against the open access debate – and went through reading the relevant posts here and on the huffington post. But I’m having a hard time – because largely you address the issue of payments by special interests. Conyers took offense to this discussion – and perhaps he was wrong in not being able to see the the precise aspect of your nuanced charge of ‘good soul corruption’ – and so I had to wade through much of his defense against his presumed charge. Quite frankly neither of you are helping me get to the issue I came here to educate myself about. You are both making it hard as you pursue other agendas and defend personal pride.

    At the bottom of Conyer’s reply – he acknowledged his appreciation of the substantive arguments for open access. But he also stated a counter-argument. That counter argument was that the peer review process was also valuable to science and that this process is funded through the charges journals impose for access. The counter argument is that this peer review process would be threatened by the lost revenue. He asked for your reply to this argument – and even expressed eagerness to receive it. But in your reply to Conyers I couldn’t find any response to it.

    No doubt you have addressed it elsewhere – for I doubt a thinker such as you wouldn’t have considered the response. But like Conyers, I don’t know where I should start looking. And that’s presumably why he’s asking for your contribution. But to continue beating the political donations drum while you’re trying to conduct a discourse about open access isn’t helping this debate at all. For both Conyers and myself are left without an answer.

    If anyone could point me in the right direction to finding a reply to Conyer’s point – I’d be grateful. :)

  • http://www.ottomankonak.com akyaka

    Professor Lessig,

    Perhaps it is time to replace the term “corruption” with some other word which is less prone to misunderstanding. It seems that no matter how carefully you define it, upon encountering the word most people think they know what you mean, and what they think isn’t what you mean.

    Then again, in light of the video presented in this entry, I’m not sure I know what you mean. Based on the video alone, I would have surmised that you define “Good Soul Corruption” solely as a result of the perception of improper influence by the electorate, who then cease even to try to exert their own influence, as they have already concluded that their participation is futile. sikiş izle Up to this point, I thought the primary source of the systemic corruption with which you were concerned was that money buys access, so that decision-makers receive most of their input from the largest stake-holders on any particular question, and thus get a highly skewed view of the overall impact of potential legislation.

    In either case, the word “corruption” plants an entirely different, and (I think and hope) unintended picture in people’s minds. As you are well aware from the use of terms like “piracy,” “theft” and “intellectual property,” the response of the gut to loaded words is hard to shake, and the only real solution is to stop using them.

  • http://empleweb.com/ Sandra

    Politicians should not accept donations from special interest groups. It is a clear conflict of interest and its against the essence of democracy!

    • http://www.bing.com/ Amber

      Too many compliments too little space, tahkns!

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