considering Lessig

So Lessig isn’t saying no to Congress quite yet. This really should excite me; to call Lessig one of my heroes is not a stretch at all.

Lawrence Lessig 1 by Mario Carvajal. License:

My initial response was, I think, pretty solid: Lessig would make a very good Congressman. He’s proven in his Creative Commons work that he can build coalitions, work multiple sides of an issue, and (perhaps most importantly) build a winning staff. He’d have a better grasp than almost anyone in Congress on the critical issues of technology and the Constitution. And he’s right that imbalanced influence is one of the core problems in American political life, and that this is clearly a change election where issues like this can be discussed in ways they normally can’t.

But watching the video, I can’t help but think that this is not yet the right time for Lessig’s version of this message. He spent years refining the framing around free culture and Creative Commons, and it paid off. With his finely tuned message he was able to persuade not just tech geeks in the US but creators, lawyers, and policymakers around the world. In contrast, by the time of these elections, he’ll have spent only about a year working publicly on the ‘corruption’ issue. And this lack of time shows- the message is too unpolished, and the substance isn’t there yet. I badly want his latest video to inspire me- but it doesn’t.

First, the message. If you’ve got one key word you’ve chosen to discuss the issue at hand (corruption), it doesn’t bode well when you have to redefine it almost immediately when you use it. To paraphrase, the video says basically ‘well, there is corruption, but I don’t mean corruption like that.’ The maddening ineffectiveness of this tactic will be familar to anyone who has had to explain the difference between free and free over the years. It may be that I’m just too sensitive, but to me this and similar linguistic/framing/messaging problems make the quasi announcement possibly the least persuasive Lessig video I’ve ever watched- there may some day be a polished message there, but it isn’t here yet.

I’m not incredibly inspired by the substance either. The solutions (no PAC/lobbyist money, no earmarks, public financing) are good as far as they go, but they are not terribly new, and they are very top down- focusing on what should be prevented rather than what should be enabled. Part of the genius of Creative Commons was the bottom-up approach- using the motivations of large numbers of individals to counter systemic problems. Similarly, Obama refuses PAC/lobbyist money, but his campaign puts even bigger emphasis on bringing nearly a million people into the system. I’d love to see Lessig (and/or put emphasis on bottom-up factors like transparency, so that people outside of DC can analyze, diagnose, and mobilize to highlight and resolve problems, or perhaps on issues like broadband access, so that a greater number of people can become not just speakers but also publishers. These aren’t necessarily great suggestions, but Lessig’s don’t seem to be either right now- I’d like to see him apply his talent to improving them before he puts them so forcefully to the public. Even the great ones need time to solve difficult problems like this.

So what’s the bottom line? I’d support Lessig if he decides to run, and if he’s elected, I’ll be thrilled that he’ll be my representative when I arrive in California in ’09.1  But I really hope that he reconsiders and instead spends more time refining and strengthening his critically important message. It would be great to see, in two or four years, dozens or hundreds of candidates powerfully wielding the sharpened, focused message I know he can produce, instead of having him rush out alone this year, wielding the more blunt tool he’s created to date.

  1. Ed. later: I though the district covered all of southern San Francisco, but it actually covers only southwest San Francisco, and because of the location of the train station I’ll probably be in southeast San Fran when I move there. So he won’t be my rep. Oh well. []

13 thoughts on “considering Lessig”

  1. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to listen to Lessig’s presentation on this topic yet, but your analysis seems reasonable based on other things I’ve read. Your point about top-down vs. bottom-up action is especially pertinent, I think. To expand on this a bit:

    Corporate lobbying of Congress has an incredibly high return on investment, often 100-1 or even more; see for example this recent Washington Post article about the travel industry spending a few million dollars on lobbyists in reasonable expectation of getting the US government to spend $200M on advertising in support of that industry. Thus any major corporation would be insane not to intensely lobby Congress, and almost all do, whether directly or indirectly through trade associations. (West coast high-tech companies have historically been the major exception. Microsoft for one found out just how expensive being an exception can be.) This is why it has traditionally been incredibly difficult to restrict by fiat corporate lobbying and corresponding congressional prctices such as earmarking; the economic pressures to preserve the status quo are overwhelming.

    By contrast, it isn’t economically rational at all for the average individual to attempt to persuade Congress to do something, since their investment in time and/or money typically far outweighs whatever benefits they might personally receive. It’s more akin to an altruistic act, and hence relatively few people do it.

    Getting back to Lessig’s work with the copyright system, what made Creative Commons successful was not just the years Lessig spent refining the message. It was also the fact that there was a critical mass of individual people who cared intensely about copyright issues, not just for moral reasons (a la Stallman) but also for economic ones: The affordability of content creation tools (both hardware and software) lowered the barrier to individuals creating their own works, and the availability of the Internet as a distribution medium increased the payoff for their so doing. The result was that lots of people had a small but nonetheless significant return on their investment in learning about the copyright system and attempting to influence it, and in aggregate their efforts were able to provide somewhat of a counter-balance to the activities of corporate copyright owners.

    I think the most effective strategy to counter corporate influence on government is exactly analogous: First look at the general problem of making it easier for individuals to effectively lobby government and increasing their personal benefits (direct or indirect) from such lobbying. Then look at how such individuals’ activities can be supplemented by more top-down approaches to achieve the desired result of counterbalancing the lobbying efforts of particular corporations or industries.

  2. ethan: if I had suggestions, trust me, I’d give them. But I have no great solutions, which is part of why I’m suggesting that Lessig should spend *years* thinking about improving them. If I thought it could be solved overnight, I’d certainly do that instead of telling him not to run.

    Frank: yup, exactly. And I think Lessig will come to agree with that after more thinking about it, and probably come up with some brilliant solutions. But he doesn’t have them right now, sadly :/

  3. Unfortunately, Lessig doesn’t allow funding by non-permanent residents, even those who have valid working visa in the US…

    Other than that, great news, can’t wait for him to really run, and I hope his influence will be as good as it was in the CC movement.

  4. Unfortunately, Lessig doesn’t allow funding by non-permanent residents, even those who have valid working visa in the US…

    That’s federal election funding rules, not Lessig, I’m pretty certain.

  5. I don’t have any brilliant solutions to offer either. however I think it’s possible to get at least a general idea of what possible solutions might look like, again arguing by analogy from the copyright case.

    First, as I implied above I think that corporate lobbying is here to stay for reasons of economics if nothing else, and that attempts to restrict it in major ways through Congress or the courts will probably be as unsuccessful as previous attempts to reform copyright in major ways (e.g. Eldred). The alternative approach (by analogy to copyright) is the creation of mechanisms to promote an alternative world of effective lobbying by citizens, just as the GPL and other FOSS licenses created an alternative domain to the proprietary software industry.

    Second, as noted above we need to reduce the barriers to entry for citizen lobbyists by providing them inexpensive and effective tools that they themselves can control and enhance — the lobbying equivalent to the GNU tools and other technologies that spurred FOSS development (e.g., online source code repositories, bug systems, Internet-based distribution mechanisms, etc.) Such a citizen lobbyist toolset would enable individuals to know where to lobby, about what, and to whom; it would also enable them to collaborate effectively with each other and form larger “lobbying projects” (analogous to FOSS projects) to combine their efforts to be more effective. Ideally as with the FOSS world more fundamental tools could be combined to create higher-level “lobbying applications” that would both provide more extensive capabilities and also be accessible to and hackable by more people.

    Third, as in the FOSS world (and unlike the proprietary software world) the returns to most individual participants in citizen lobbying will be primarily non-economic (at least in the sense that they won’t involve immediate economic rewards). The most effective approaches to citizen lobbying will be those that are designed to leverage that fact, e.g.., by building positive emotional connections between individuals doing the lobbying (who might have little or no economic stake in the issue) and the individuals (not necessarily the same ones) affected by the issue at question. (The Kiva microfinance system is an example of this in a somewhat related area.)

    Fourth, just as FOSS developers and activists have built sometimes problematic but generally productive relationships with corporations such as IBM, Sun, Red Hat, etc., individual lobbyists will need to find ways to productively cooperate with corporate lobbying efforts when and where it makes sense, as opposed to just painting all such efforts as negative. (This works in reverse too: If citizen lobbying efforts become more effective then corporate lobbyists will have to become more sophisticated in their efforts to work with them, as opposed to following traditional “Astroturf lobbying” approaches.)

    By analogy with the FOSS world, the end vision would be of a robust “citizen lobbying ecosystem” that includes effective activities by multiple actors at multiple levels: spontaneous lobbying campaigns by individuals and small groups, larger more formalized campaigns institutionalized either in separate NGOs (analogous to FOSS nonprofits) or under umbrella NGOs (analogous to the Software Freedom Conservancy and similar efforts), cooperative efforts with corporate players whose interests are aligned, and possibly hybrid organizations that combine aspects of citizen lobbying organizations and political parties. (I consider the latter more unlikely at the national level, given the way the US electoral system is structured, but they might emerge at a local level.)

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. I apologize for the length of these ramblings (and I really should make a separate blog post about this) but I thought you and possibly others might have at least some interest in them.

  6. No, great comments, Frank. I agree completely with this kind of thinking, as I noted in the post.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the messaging, which I think was Ethan’s question, and one where I have less constructive feedback for Lessig.

  7. You link to an article where Obama refused $100 from a registered federal lobbyist. According to Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank (see for the rest of the article):

    “The Obama campaign, as of late March 2007, has accepted $159,800 from executives and employees of Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power plant operator.

    The Illinois-based company also helped Obama’s 2004 senatorial campaign. As Ken Silverstein reported in the November 2006 issue of Harper’s, “[Exelon] is Obama’s fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on the 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects the public will not only pay millions of dollars in loan costs but will risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default.”

    “Senator Obama has all the necessary leadership skills required to be president,” says Frank M. Clark, chairman of Exelon’s Commonwealth Edison utility.”

  8. JB: certainly; I didn’t mean to imply by the link that Obama is perfect. Every candidate is going to have buckets like that, even if the corporation itself (or their lobbyist representatives) is barred.

    This is really a great example of why Frank is right- corporations will always seek to benefit themselves in the system, no matter what rules you put in place. So we have to go further than Lessig’s proposal, and enable and empower individuals rather than just hobbling ‘special interests’, however you want to define them.

  9. The question is never who is perfect. In fact perfection, as posed against the status quo, is false dichotomy. Nothing is perfect, so perfection is never really on the table. This leaves the status quo as if it is beyond question. The issue concerns what Obama stands for, particularly on life and death issues.

    Obama’s hawkish sabre-rattling against Iran (including his hope for sanctions, see his commentary to the Chicago Tribune on September 26, 2004), Obama and Clinton’s agreement that single-payer universal health care is impossible (despite Jeff Cohen & Normon Solomon pointing out that a majority of Americans saying they’d pay higher taxes to make universal health care happen), and Obama’s continued funding of the Iraq occupation (even when Democrats control Congress) make me think nothing substantive will change under an Obama administration.

    Before Prof. Lessig can be sent to Congress he too will have to deal with these issues, not just debates about copyright. If Lessig does run for Congress let’s hope his platform includes clear stances on properly restricting corporate power replete with specific examples of what he’d do to address corporate crime, fraud, waste, and abuse.

  10. […] running in the fall isn’t much better If he were to run in the fall, he’d have to be on the dem. primary line in June- which isn’t much more time than the special election, really. So this is almost certainly the end of this particular dream right now. I’m personally glad- Lessig is a hero of mine, but this was not the right time for him yet. […]

  11. [BTW, JB, I have no idea why, but your posts are all getting flagged as spam by my blog; sorry about the delay in posting them.]

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