lessig on institutional corruption

Professor Lessig is presenting on Institutional Corruption today at the Kennedy School as his first public appearance at Harvard since his return a few months ago.

Professor Lessig likes to introduce three ideas to frame his talk today: 1) influence, 2) independence and 3) responsibility.

Relying on his framework of the four modalities of control that he used in Code, Professor Lessig explains how the law, markets, norms and architecture together exert influence, and that depending on your policy objectives, these four forces can be complementing or conflicting. He suggests that together they form an “economy of influence” that we need to understand if we want to make effective policy.

He continues to explain “independence”, in the sense that something is not dependent on something. Independence matters, because it means that you try to find the right answer for the right reason, as opposed to doing so for a wrong reason you might be dependent on.

Independence, however, does not mean dependence from everything. Lessig reframes independence as a “proper dependence”. In legal terms, it means that a judge depends on the law for her judgment. So independence is about defining proper dependence, and limiting improper dependence.

Responsibility is the third concept Lessig goes into. He tells us about a case he represented in 2006: Hardwicke vs ABS. It was a case that focused on a series of events concerning child abuse, all perpetrated by a single person. The question that was raised: Who is responsible? Lessig makes the argument that responsibility does not lie with the individual, that this individual has no power to reform, and that this is pathological. Instead, he makes the case that responsibility in this case is all the people who knew about the wrongdoings, but refused to pick up the phone. Nevertheless, the focus of the law was on the one pathological person. Lessig suggests it is more productive to focus responsibility on those who have the power to make changes, instead of those are pathological and are not in a position to reform. He notes it is ironic that the one person who is least likely to reform is held responsible, while the one entity who could do something about it, was immune.

He raises another example of “responsibility” gone awry. He cites Al Gore and his book “The Assault on Reason”, and lambasts its narrow perception of responsibility. It focuses on former president Bush, arguably the man least likely to reform, and instead forgets those who could have done something about it, suggesting that they also have been critically responsible.

His argument is one of “institutional corruption”. What it is not: what happened with Blagojevitch; it is not bribery, not “just politics”, not any violation of existing rules. Instead, institutional corruption is “a certain kind of influence situated within an economy of influence that has a certain effect, either it 1) weakens the effectiveness of the institution or 2) weakens public trust for the institution.

He explains the system of institutional corruption using the White House. Referring to Robert Kaiser’s book “So Damn Much Money”, he argues how the story of the government has dramatically changed in the past fifteen years and how the engine of this change has been the growth of the lobbying industry. He illustrates this with numbers: Lobbyists pay with cash which members use as support for their campaigns. The cost of campaigns have exploded over the years, and subsequently, members have become dependent on lobbyists for cash – he cites that lobbyists make up 30-70% of campaign budgets! This is not new, he carefully explains, but citing Kaiser again, what is new is the scale of this practice has gotten out of hand. Members /need/ and take /much more/, becoming /dependent/ on those who supply. This is only during the tenure, but institutional corruption also needs to be understood as something after tenure: 50% of senators translate their senate tenure into a career as lobbyist, while 42% of the house do the same. This suggests a business model, focused on life after government, that perpetuates itself, and influential people who end up becoming dependent on this system surviving, both during and after their time in Congress.

He goes on to give example after example of institutional corruption. He mentions the important work done by maplight.org that tracks money in politics, who have shown that members who voted to gut a bill had 3x times the contribution from lobbyists than those who voted against. Simply put, policies get bent to those who pay. He cites a study by Alexander, Scholz and Mazza measuring rates of return for lobbying expenditures, who conclude that ROI is a whopping 22,000%! He again cites Kaiser, who suggests that lobbying is a $9-12 billion industry.

Why does this matter? It matters if it
1) weakens effectiveness of institution or
2) weakens public trust of institution

In the first case, he argues how lobbying can shift policy. He cites a study by Hall and Deardorff “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy” on how the work of congresspersons shift as a result of lobbying. Imagine you’re a congressperson and you see it as your goal to work on two issues: one is to stop piracy, the other is to help mums on welfare. The line of lobbyists that will happily help you with stopping piracy is long, whereas not so many will help you with the latter – so work of the congressperson shifts, and thus work of Congress shifts.

Lessig suggests it also bends policies. Does money really not change results? Citing the Sonny Bono case of October 27, 1998, he shows how in copyright lobbying power had a powerful influence in getting the copyright term extended for another twenty years. Does this advance the public good? A clear no. Lessig backs this up by telling how in the challenge at the Supreme Court, an impressive line-up of Nobel Prize winning economists, including Milton Friedman, supported this and that it would be a “no brainer” to sign the support that copyright extension did not advance the public good. But he concludes that there were “no brains” in the House. An easy case of institutional corruption. There are two explanations: Either they are idiots, or they are guided by something other than reason. He suggests of course it’s the latter. It is not misunderstanding that explains these cases.

Lessig continues to explain how corruption can be seen as weakening public trust. He tells us about how the head of the committee in charge of deciding the future of healthcare is getting $4 million from the healthcare industry. Or how a congressperson ended up opposing the public option even though the majority of his constituency supports it. The idea is not that there might be a direct link between the money and the vote, but that if you take money to do something that is against the public interest, people will automatically make that link, and this weakens public trust. If you don’t take money and you go against the popular vote, that won’t reek of corruption.

Lessig goes on to discuss different fields: medicine and the healthcare industry, citing research by Drummond Rennie from UCSF that shows how there is an overwhelming bias in favor of sponsor’s company drugs. How there are 2.5 doctors to 1 detailer (a detailer being someone who is like a lobbyist for the pharmaceuticals, promoting the drugs to doctors, often giving “gifts”). How the budget for detailing tripled in the past ten years.

Lessig asks us: how can we find out whether these claims are true? Do detailing practices either weaken the effectiveness of medicine, or weaken the public trust for it? What would it take to know?

There is also the issue of “the structure of fact finding” that Lessig suggests is corrupt. Again, he argues we need to understand whether this is a process by which results are affected or trust is weakened. He cites how sponsor funded research can cause delay, and mentions the case of “popcorn lung”.

Lessig makes a strong case that we need more than intuition. That we need a framework or metric to know for sure. Because we all have ideological commitments, that we need to escape this in order to have a proper understanding of corruption. This is, in short, the aim of his new project: The Lab. It should be a neutral ground with a framework that determines whether and when institutional corruption exists, to develop remedies for institutional corruption when it exists. He sees the initial work having three dimensions: 1) data – necessary to describe influence and track its change; 2) perception of institutional corruption and understand how it has changed;
and 3) causation – what can we say about what causes what in these contexts in alleged corruption. Having this information, we can then design remedies.