By Byron Gordon | January 19, 2012
The surest way to losing our democracy is by ignoring the appalling level of corruption that now grips it. After listening to a talk given by Laurence Lessig, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, I found myself too livid to even begin writing this post but finally came to terms with the reality of our disappearing democracy.
You see corporations are allowed to donate unlimited cash to the campaigns of legislators, who in turn tend to vote in favor of the interests of those corporations. Lessig cited the non-profit, MapLight, which can graph the evidence that a representative voting in favor of a particular corporate-friendly law will receive up to 13 times the funding than someone who opposes the law. Lessig cited as example the issues tackled by Congress 2011. In a year when the country was still waging two wars and still dealing with the effects of a near catastrophic economic recession, Congress spent most of its time on the bank swipe fee. Remember this? It was a relatively minor issue having to do with who was going to make more money, the banks or the merchants. But why did it dominate the attention span of Congress? Because corporations on both sides were promising sufficient campaign funds which in turn drove the attention span of legislators. Lessig made it clear, citing studies that the return on investment of lobbying is 1000% and is the surest expense a corporation can take to maintain its power and influence over citizen representative democracy.
Not to depress all of you who are reading this now but is there a plan to stop this corporate corruption of congress? Yes, and according to Lessig, it begins with the establishing of publicly funded campaigns. Lessig’s approach would be to give voters a $50 campaign voucher. The taxpayer pays for the voucher and it’s up to the politician to gain your voucher for funding of his/her campaign. Lessig says the amount of money that could be raised through the voucher system could easily surpass the amount currently raised by private means today. This would in turn force politicians to focus on a citizen-driven agenda as opposed to a corporate-driven agenda. Lessig also stressed that a new constitutional amendment would need to be passed, limiting additional private contributions to small dollar amounts (say $50 or $100) and preventing corporations from dominating the congressional agenda. Lessig also cited the need for a constitutional convention, which could only happen if two-thirds of the states—34 out of 50 state legislatures—passed an application calling for a Convention.
I interviewed Lessig back in 2008 on the problems and shortcomings of current copyright laws and he was correct in how we must stop criminalizing the human inclination to share and focus on the new hybrid economy which encourages such sharing, like Wikipedia, for example. Lessig is now championing the need to save our democracy from corporate theft and we, the citizenry, are only to blame for it if we lose it entirely.
Remember what Gordon Gekko said in the movie Wall Street? “You’re not naïve enough to believe you live in a democracy?”
After hearing Lessig speak, I’m reminded of Gekko’s prescient words and wonder if the great American experiment in democracy is coming to an end. Do you have reason to be optimistic about the fate of American democracy?