March 5, 2012  ·  Lessig

I was very happy to see a review in the New York Review of Books of Republic, Lost. (My first in that publication, ever!). Ezra Klein of the Washington Post does a nice job in surfacing a critical part of the argument in the book — what I call the gift economy of lobbying, as opposed to the transaction or cash economy that people often imagine such corruption would be. My book, as he puts it, “is the story of how lobbying has managed to undermine a nation.” A nice pull quote from a beautifully written essay. 

But there is also something surprisingly incomplete and frustratingly incorrect about the review that I wanted to flag here — if only because people have grabbed onto both to declare “see, money isn’t the problem in DC.” Technically, Ezra isn’t saying that, and if he were, he’d have no basis to say it. 

First, the “frustratingly incorrect” bit: 

Late in the review, Ezra writes: 

Lessig’s strongest argument in favor of this claim is that money poisons the citizenry’s trust in government, and thus its interest in participating in government: 

“When democracy seems a charade, we lose faith in its process. That doesn’t matter to some of us—we will vote and participate regardless. But to more rational souls, the charade is a signal: spend your time elsewhere, because this game is not for real. Participation thus declines, especially among the sensible middle. Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends.”

There are two separate points being made here. One is that the rise of money is behind the decline in trust in government. The other is that money empowers ideologues and alienates the middle. Neither claim stands up to scrutiny.

Notice the sentence that is bolded. Nothing in my book is trying to make the (hopelessly complicated) empirical claim that historically, the presence or absence money explains the variance in trust in government, or that the rise in money explains the decline in trust. “Trust” has a million components. It would take a superstar econometrician to untangle those elements. Nothing in what I’ve written tries to undertake that impossibly difficult historical inquiry. 

To see why, imagine the following. Imagine in the 1960s, Americans were trusting of Congress. That trust notwithstanding, imagine that quid-pro-quo [qpq] corruption was nonetheless high, if unnoticed. Then, in the 1970s, Watergate-like events convince America that qpq corruption is indeed rampant. Trust drops dramatically, even if “gift economy corruption” [GEC] is low. Then imagine that in the 1980s, QPQ corruption gets driven out of the system, while GEC begins to rise, taking off in the 1990s. Everyone begins to believe Congress for sale, not in the QPQ sense, but in the GEC sense. Trust thus remains low, even though money in the GEC sense is only just taking off.

If these were the facts, then my claim about the corrupting influence of money would be true, even though aggregate trust would be uncorrelated to the rise of money. Which is to say, again, that you can’t look at the aggregate “trust” number to measure whether the presence of money makes people less trusting. I said nothing about the former; my claim is about the latter; and the aggregate levels of trust across time tell you nothing about the dynamic that I am describing at any particular time. (You can read the most extensive section in the book about this question of trust in government (as opposed to the dynamics of trust generally) here.)

Which leads to the “surprisingly incomplete” bit: 

A central part to my argument is that the current system for funding campaigns may actually exacerbate polarization. I don’t assert that it does — to the great frustration of my editors and activist friends, I am obsessively careful throughout this section of the book to insist I am just pointing to correlations, and don’t have the data to demonstrate causation. (“In this odd and certainly unintended way, then, the demand for cash could also be changing the substance of American politics. Could be, because all I’ve described is correlation, not causation.” p98) But I do suggest that the pattern of positions taken by both parties is consistent with the desire to raise campaign cash. 

This pattern, however, is interestingly mixed, or complicated. For some issues, it requires both parties to take more similar positions. On other issues, it requires the parties take more divergent positions. As I say, 

[T]he correlation should concern us: On some issues, the parties become more united—those issues that appeal to corporate America. On other issues, the parties become more divided—the more campaign funds an issue inspires, the more extremely it gets framed. In both cases, the change correlates with a strategy designed to maximize campaign cash, while weakening the connection between what Congress does (or at least campaigns on) and the potential needs of ordinary Americans. (p98)

How this works is not obvious or straight forward. It might not even be right. But what’s frustrating in Ezra’s review is that he doesn’t even seem to recognize that I made the argument. Again, he takes the summary from page 8 of the book, and claims it doesn’t “stand up to scrutiny” without even examining the actual argument that page 8 was intended to summarize. As he writes: 

Nor is it clear that more money leads to more power for “the extremists at both ends.” For one thing, the timing doesn’t work. Polarization begins to accelerate in the 1980s, not the 1990s. For another, it simply seems unlikely. If you’re talking about lobbying, or fund-raising, the money is with the corporations. But the biggest employers of lobbyists — the Chamber of Commerce, GE, the American Medical Association, the National Association of Realtors — aren’t interested in endless partisan warfare.

Put aside the timing point (which is correct but not relevant): the frustration is that I describe precisely how this very fact is consistent with fundraising driving polarization. Ezra either ignores it or misses it, when what I was keen to understand is whether it was right.

Or put differently: Everything Ezra says in the paragraph just quoted, and in the paragraph after that —

Conversely, small donors, particularly on the congressional level, tend to be more ideological types. There’s good evidence that legislators who make extreme statements have an easier time fund-raising than those who don’t. When House Republican Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care address, he raised $2 million in under a week. The thing about the “sensible middle” is that they, quite sensibly, don’t spend all that much of their time following congressional races, or even politics. So politicians looking for small donors need to find the engaged, invested voters who are actually interested in primary campaigns, and those voters are usually so engaged and invested because they have chosen a side, and done so strongly.

— I also say. But my book puts these two bits together to suggest how the drive for cash might have a role in explaining each. Ezra hasn’t through “scrutiny” shown how that claim “doesn’t stand up.” He has simply ignored the claim.

Those mistake on their own wouldn’t bother me much. It’s a long book. There’s lots to miss. The bigger problem is the ultimate conclusion that the review (and its title) suggests — that money isn’t the problem we should be worrying about. (“Which suggests that as big a problem as money is in politics—and make no mistake, it is a big problem, as the rise of the Super PACs shows all too clearly—it is not the only one, and it is probably not even the worst one.”)

He gets to make this suggestion because of a very clever point that he notes that I hadn’t seen myself. The review links my book and Jack Abramoff’s, Capitol Punishment. Obviously, I wrote my book before I read Abramoff’s, and I was very happy to see the way that our two accounts of the problem are similar.

But Ezra noticed the interesting point that all of the lobbying that Abramoff describes is for petty stuff (in the grand scheme of things) and yet the argument I’m making is about the big things (the Republic, for example). And so Ezra writes: 

[Lessig and Abramoff’s theories] do more to illuminate the workings of small issues in American politics than big ones. In that, they’re like quantum mechanics. Abramoff’s methods are fine for winning favors for small clients, and Lessig’s model goes a long ways toward explaining why politicians might listen when Hollywood signs up some high-powered lobbyists to tighten copyright protections, but neither is much of a help when it comes to the major clashes in American politics. You need a theory of general relativity to explain the big stuff. And that theory is partisan polarization.

In fact, this is not like “quantum theory,” because these effects do have an effect at both large and small scales. Quantum effects don’t. (See Lisa Randall’s wonderful new book).

It is true, as Ezra argues, that money is not going to change the roll-call vote of anyone on any issue of any import. It doesn’t, as Ezra writes, “decide which votes ended up in the ‘nay’ column and which ended up in the ‘aye’ column.”

But it is a big mistake to infer from this that money isn’t playing a crucial role on these issues. Its role, we both agree, is to change the substance of the bill upon which there is a final vote, and sometimes, crucially. 

I made this point repeatedly in the book, most directly when discussing the health care bill. I quoted former Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD) who was describing for me just how money has its effect. The first example he offered was about “single payer health plans.” As Pressler said:

There should have been an up or down vote on [single-payer health insurance], or a vote at least on cloture. There was neither. For some reason, it just went away. Barack Obama abandoned it completely, although he had said he was for it. Some Republicans are for it—I was for it way back and Nixon was for it … on a much more significant basis. Bob Packwood had a plan for it. But the point is, when they really started doing the health care bill, everybody disappeared who was for a single payer system. I would suspect that is because of the insurance companies’ contributions, especially to the Democrats. p151

You don’t get much bigger than this. Pressler’s point is that here is where the money is having its effect — in the crafting of the options that will eventually get voted upon. Ezra recognizes this — he says in his review, “That’s not to say that lobbyists and interest groups don’t have a hand in the construction of these laws—before they came to a vote. … But in the end, it didn’t decide which votes ended up in the ‘nay” column and which ended up in the ‘aye’ column.”

And then he draws from that (contradictory) acknowledgement this conclusion: 

Which is to say that while moneyed interests are decisive in passing laws and influencing provisions that few Americans care about, they’re much weaker on the issues where Americans are watching.

So money can remove an issue from a public vote, even if it couldn’t win with the issue if there were a public vote. I don’t get why that means money is weaker. Maybe it means money is smarter — fight where the battle is least costly, and the other side can afford to give you the most. 

In the end, what separates Ezra and me is our own sense about which problem is fundamental. Ezra is focused on polarization. I’m focused on the money. I think the money is a more fundamental problem, in part because I think it helps explain at least part of the polarization. In that sense, it is a “root.”

Not because, as Ezra says I say, money “is the problem in American politics.” (emphasis is Ezra’s).

Not because money is “the single cause of everything that ails us.”

Not because fixing this problem is “the one reform that would make democracy hum.”

But instead because fixing this problem “would be generative.” 

Fixing this problem is the one “intervention that would give us the chance to repair the rest.” That is the sense in which money is a root: Fix it, and you can fix the others. Without fixing it, you won’t fix the others.

I am surprised this sense of “the root” is so hard to grasp. Never have I said that fixing the money gets us utopia (as if anyone should want utopia), or that the only problem our democracy has is the money. (Thus making the editor’s choice of titles especially weird: “Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money.” Who said it was?) What I have argued is that money is the problem we must address first, if we’re to succeed in any other reform.

And if that were the sense that was understood, then Ezra’s last sentence in his review would be perfectly correct — that as big as the problem of money is, “it is not the only one, and it is probably not even the worst one.”

True, not the only one, and not the worst one, but still, the root, just as addiction is the root with an alcoholic. As I write at the end of the book: 

Think about the alcoholic and his plight. He might be losing his family, his job, and his liver. Each of these is a critically important problem, indeed, among the most important problems a person could face. But we all recognize that to solve any of these “most important” problems, he must solve his alcoholism first. It’s not that alcoholism is the most important problem. It’s not. It is just the first problem.

So, too, with us. There is no end to the list of problems we as a nation face. Whether big government or bad health care; complicated taxes or global warming; a ballooning deficit or decaying schools. But we won’t solve these problems until we solve our first problem first: a dependency that has corrupted the core of our democracy. 

These other problems are certain much “worse problems.” We just won’t get to them until we fix this first problem first.