Live-Blogging ConConCon: Larry Lessig, from the Left

Earlier today, Glenn Reynolds gave the “Keynote from the Right” speech; Larry Lessig will be providing the same, from the Left.  The gentleman making the introductions is speaking about how consultants provide a buffer between big-money corporate interests and the general public, such that it can appear to be more grassroots or otherwise not affiliated with the corporation in question.

Josh Silver is advocating for better funding of elections, decrease of special interests, etc.

Larry Lessig: “I’m not in this fight for a constitutional convention for academic reasons.”  It is “essential to solving a critical problem of democracy that we face.”  He promises to fail in being the Left keynote speaker tonight, and that the Right will agree with him.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to the one who is striking at the root.”  ~Henry David Thoreau, 1846.  Hence the genesis of “Rootstrikers.”  “Government is an embarrassment; it has lost the capacity to make even simple decisions.” The view that government doesn’t work is a view shared across the political spectrum.  The only institution with a support of the majority of Americans is the only non-democratically elected one: the Supreme Court.

Heavy use of slides. We now have a sponge on a brain – brainwashing.

Now onto the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which extended the term of existing copyrights by twenty years.  Prof. Lessig points out that copyrights are meant to be incentives, and therefore prospective.  “No matter what the US Congress does with current law, George Gershwin will not produce more.”  Milton Friedman allegedly signed on, on the condition that the term “no brainer” be included in the brief.  However, large corporate interests (e.g. Disney) heavily supported the copyright extension, thus ensuring that the copyright extension was passed.

Now obesity.  I love the academic dilettantism – obesity, juvenile diabetes, and high fructose corn syrup.  Since corn is so inexpensive, and sugar is so expensive, HFCS abounds.  Lessig points out that sugar is heavily tariffed, whereas corn is so heavily subsidised that the cost of producing it is negative. The cost of vegetables has gone up; the cost of a Coke and a Big Mac have both gone down.  Thus, a shift in the change in how food is made. (What I didn’t know before, nor had heard: cows do not digest corn very well, so it festers in their stomachs, thus necessitating antibiotics, etc.)

Genesis: product of too little government and too much government.  There is not enough regulation of financial innovations, such as derivatives, which are also invisible to the market and thus not subject to market forces.  In 1980, 98% of assets were traded on public markets, subject to anti-fraud market; however, by 2008, 90% of assets traded in economy were in ‘shadow’ economy, not subject to anti-fraud requirements.

This created “the dumbest socialism every invented:” ‘socialised risk, privatised benefit.”  Lessig used a legal term, “insanely stupid,” to describe the 2008 TARP bailouts.  The problem, he says, is that money drives the policy.

Approval ratings for Congress are between 11% and 12%.  The number one answer that Rock the Vote was given when kids would not turn out to vote was the belief that no matter who was in charge, corporate interests would reign supreme.

Lessig speaks to the Right: “Ronald Reagan gave birth to an extraordinary movement.”  He expressed a fear of government spinning out of control, from internal problems (e.g. bureaucrats); the external problem is “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.” It exists until people figure out that they can vote themselves entitlements.  Now, Professor Lessig asks if the bureaucrats and the mobs are the real problem.

(I have a feeling that he will find another cause that is part of this, rather than showing how it’s not true that entitlements and a gigantic regulatory state have contributed to the growth of government.)  Al Gore attempted to de-regulate the telecoms, but was told that they donated too much money to campaigns and that they wouldn’t so donate if deregulated.

All economists agree that 1981 tax cuts worked beautifully – on the left and the right.  It is now still “temporary” and in existence.  The recipients of the research credits are large corporations, which donate to keep their tax sheltered status.  (This reminds me of how Sarah Palin pointed out that General Electric has not paid corporate taxes in years, despite generating billions in profits.)

Now, as a conservative, I can understand the problems of the revolving door of campaign contributions and goodies (tax breaks, regulations, etc.), but will point out that it also applies to unions – we call it the biggest money-laundering scheme out there – and is due to the overbreadth of power in Washington, D.C.. If Congress did not have the power to hand out money for research, it wouldn’t matter if big corporations wanted to keep the gravy train flowing, because the initial Constitution prohibited the gravy train.

Clayton D. Peoples, University of Nevada, statistical study on bills and campaign cash, found that there is a statistically significant relationship between campaign funding and bills in seven of the eight studied House sessions, studying over 17,000 bills. The exception was

Martin Gilens claims that policy outcomes reflect policy preferences of wealthiest 10% of America and bear no relationship to the other 90%.  (Can I go all Thomas Sowell here and point out that a lot of Americans will be in that 10% earning capacity in their lifetime?  Or can I go all Roxe redhead and point out that likening the top 10% to those who are wealthy enough to influence Congress is flipping ridiculous? The top 10% of earners means a homeowner who has a mortgage and huge tuition bills for their kids at college, with maybe a few hundred to throw on campaigns if they feel like it.  They are small business owners who hate onerous regulations, but are fought by the very, very wealthy corporations who know that today’s small business is tomorrow’s competition, so one that pushing down small and medium businesses benefits them?)

Buddy Romer: conception of small-dollar funded elections.  Permit candidates to fund their election with small dollar funding only.

Congress: a farm league for K Street.  It’s a business model for life after government; 50% of Senators left to become lobbyists, and 42% of Congress left to become lobbyists.  It is a system upon which they all depend.  (Arguably, term limits could also make this worse – because then it’s more out-of-work Congresscritters looking for work.  Sheesh.)

Larry Lessig then describes several ideas, most of which are “insane” and highly improbable at best.  He is allegedly too ashamed to describe the “insane” ones in detail.

Prof. Lessig then points out that Congress can propose any Amendments that it would like and send them out to the states right now.  However, Congress is a Convention of insiders who have a monopoly over what is proposed.

The argument for a convention: (1) an Article V Convention is not a Constitutional Convention; there is a procedure for proposing Amendments to the Constitution.  It is a platform upon which we can talk about changes.  (2) Congress can constrain that process.  The Necessary and Proper Clause can be used by Congress to restrict any result that exceeded the initial limits of the Article V Convention.(3) A faction could capture the Convention, but 3/4ths of the states (38 states) must ratify it.  Lessig points out that there are at least thirteen solidly red states, and at least 13 solidly blue states, so there is little to worry about.  He also quickly mentions that one house in a state can block it; all states but Nebraska (I think!) have bicameral legislatures.

Oh, dear, we’re back to Bush v. Gore.  Somehow, no one thinks that the dissent was just as politically motivated as was the majority.

As a policy matter, the Convention would bring attention to matters in more than one hundred forty characters.  With diverse support, there would be pressure on insiders; calls for a convention terrify people in Washington D.C. and provide some control.  (This is reminiscent of Glenn Reynolds and “The beauty of the Sword of Damocles is that it hangs, not that it falls.”)

Lessig describes himself as a “populist” about the “We the People” idea, and goes WTP! to the idea that the People cannot provide checks on elected government. The people, in Lessig’s view, are dangerous to the insider monopoly in Washington D.C., but not to the health of the nation nor to the structure of a free republic.

Now back to reality.  The argument, in Lessig’s view, is not enough; we need to demonstrate to people why a Constitutional Convention makes sense.  We need to convince them by showing them – that amateur politics is better than professional politics (akin to the Olympics?).  Lessig believes that the most impressive political action that Americans could take would be to develop focus groups/mock Conventions, consisting of randomly select delegates from voters, let them make their proposals and their ideas.  (In a reference to having felons be chosen for an official Constitutional Convention, Lessig endorses their participation in the mock ones, since the nation has felons in it.)

Finishing off his lecture, Lessig returns to “A Republic, if you can keep it” by Benjamin Franklin, in response to the form of government wrought by the Philadelphia Convention.

Question and Answer Session: A man from the group who wants to have a Socialist Constitution spoke.  Larry Lessig said that he isn’t that radical, believes that our government used to have Rod Blagojevich -like levels of corruption.

Connecticut has small-dollar contributions to campaigns; yet Linda MacMahon ran.

Lessig: California – Meg Whitman and Carly did not win; I will add that, of course, Linda didn’t win, either.  (The RdL run-down: Gateway alumnus Rick Snyder won in Michigan; Rick Scott won in Florida; Carly, Meg, and Linda all lost.)

Suggestion that Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC fund all future Conferences and the mock Conventions.

More questions: Lessig responds that the Supreme Court, without any impetus, has been doing a good enough job on taking away civil rights on their own.

Why should I believe that big corporations wouldn’t pay state legislatures to put people in who would extend the Sonny Bono act to five hundred years?

Lessig again returns to his idea mock conventions, consisting of randomly selected delegates from the voting rolls.  While not a perfect system, we should demonstrate our ability to do this first. I would add that it’s very expensive for corporations to buy the delegate process in fifty states, and, once having bought it, will have to deal with the three-fourths ratification process.  I would be more concerned about entrenched special interests in the state legislatures doing this.