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September 6, 2015

Lessig: Winning by losing

As of this morning, Lawrence Lessig is $9,000 short of his million dollar Kickstarter goal of funding his presidential bid. It look very much like Larry will be running for president.

It is a weird bid with virtually no chance of winning. Which makes it easier to support it.

Ethan Zuckerman’s post is what you should be reading about this. You should stop reading this post and go to his now.

Still here? Ok, that’s a mistake, but it’s up to you.

Ethan and I agree about Larry’s brilliance, his dedication, and his good heart. I’ve know Larry for about fifteen years, and I trust him twice as much as I distrust every other politician in the race. I completely agree with him that we’re never going to get to where we need to be so long as money buys elections and thus buys politicians. I think Larry would be a better president than almost all the people running. I love the cleverness of the electoral hack that Larry’s come up with.

But here’s my concern.

I agree with Ethan that Larry has no real chance of winning. If so, then his campaign is a “winning by losing” tactic: if it demonstrates that there is wide support for real campaign finance reform, then we’ve all won. Big Time, as one esteemed politician once said.

We will have won if Larry garners enough support in the early part of the campaign to force the issue onto the agenda. Thinking about him at the debates bringing the conversation back to the funding issue makes me happy.

But, there is one slightly longer-term danger that worries me. When Democrats step into the voting booth on primary day, some percentage of people who think campaign finance reform is important are going to cast their vote for Bernie, Hillary, or Joe because they don’t want to “waste” their vote on a symbolic gesture. But there are virtually no people who think finance reform is important but not all-important who are going to vote for Larry instead of for a “real” candidate. The result could very well be, I’m afraid, that Lessig’s totals in the primaries will under-represent support for campaign finance reform. His candidacy may therefore make finance reform look more marginal than it actually is.

So, there’s a possible lose-by-losing outcome here. That’s my fear.

But I find this very hard to think about without knowing who his VP candidate will be, for this is not really a referendum. In a referendum, your vote on an issue is independent of your vote for a candidate. In this case, though, you’re also voting for a president-in-waiting who will take over once Larry resigns. If you favor campaign reform but don’t like his VP, will you still vote for Larry? And vice versa? The results are going to be hard to parse, which is not true of actual referenda.

If the primary results undercount the support for the issue, my hope is that that actual vote count will be far less influential than Larry’s presence in the campaign before the voting begins. Assuming that he can’t actually win, I and all (?) of his supporters hope that Larry does well enough on the campaign trail that his campaign gets coopted by one of the more electorally plausible candidates, so that campaign finance reform becomes a major issue in the campaign.

For that to happen, we need to support his campaign now. Which I do. But, weirdly, I don’t support only his campaign.

This addendum will self-destruct, possibly very soon.

My family talked briefly this morning about who Lessig’s VP might be. One of us thinks it’ll be a conservative. I have an odd hunch that I recognize makes no actual sense: Al Gore for VP?

But another had the interesting idea that Lessig will promise it will be whoever comes in second in the Democratic primaries. That way, if you prefer, say, Sanders to Lessig as an actual president, but you support campaign finance reform, you could get both by voting for Lessig. Of course, Sanders wouldn’t want his vote split. I find this all difficult to think about…


November 11, 2010

Lessig backs Tea Party

Now for the de-sensationalizing of that headline.

Lawrence Lessig is indeed finding common cause with the Tea Party, but only with one part of its agenda: fighting earmarks — a position that has put the Tea Party at odds with many members of the Republican Congressional delegation.

If any of the Tea Partiers want to back the end of gerrymandering, I’d be happy to tip my liberal hat at them.


October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.


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