TED Radio Hour
9:38 am
Fri March 14, 2014

Has Money Taken Over American Politics?

Originally published on Sat March 15, 2014 2:34 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Solving It.

About Lawrence Lessig's TED Talk

Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig says corruption is at the heart of American politics. He says the campaign funding process weakens democracy and he issues a bipartisan call for change.

About Lawrence Lessig

Lawyer and activist Lawrence Lessig has spent years arguing for sensible intellectual property law for the digital age. He was a founding board member of Creative Commons, an organization that builds better copyright practices through open source principles.

In 2007, Lessig turned his attention to what he calls a fundamental problem that blocks all types of sensible policy — the corrupting influence of money in American politics. In 2011, Lessig founded Rootstrikers, an organization dedicated to changing the influence of money in Congress.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today - solving it. Four ideas about solving systems in the U.S. that seem a little, well, broken, like the political system. So say you want to run for Congress. Well, these days, it will cost you between $1 and $2 million just to run. Millions more if you want to be in the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: I think most Americans would be shocked - not surprised, but shocked if they knew how much time United States senator spends raising money.

RAZ: So that is an actual senator, Dick Durbin from Illinois. And he told NPR that if you are a politician in America, then raising money, it's basically your second job.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DURBIN: Talking about raising money and thinking about raising money and planning to raise money and, you know, going off on little retreats and conjuring up new ideas on how to raise money.

LARRY LESSIG: You know, they spend anywhere between 30 percent and 70 percent of their time calling people, attending fundraisers to raise money.

RAZ: This is Lawrence Lessig.

LESSIG: I'm a professor at Harvard University.

RAZ: And he says that this second job, constantly raising money, it's this weird thing where everyone who does it knows there's something kind of seedy about it. So they even have a rule that says congressman and senators can't raise money from the government offices.

LESSIG: So they race off Capitol Hill to these call centers just next to Capitol Hill. There's one for Democrats, one for Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DURBIN: And we sit at these desks with stacks of names in front of us.

LESSIG: Lists of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DURBIN: And short bios and histories of giving.

LESSIG: They simply sit there dialing, dialing, dialing, dialing, dialing through the lists, calling people to ask for money.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DURBIN: And this goes on and on and on and on and on.

LESSIG: You know, at Harvard, B. F. Skinner, the psychologist, created this image of the Skinner box where, you know, a rat or a pigeon learns which buttons to push in order to get the food that the rat or the pigeon wants to survive. If you look at that image of the Skinner box, I think you see a pretty good picture of the modern American congressperson because what they're doing for those two or three or four hours a day is just intuitively learning what they need to say, what they need to do to raise money.

RAZ: But not raising money for ordinary people, but from Lesters. This is the story Larry Lessig tells on the TED stage. In the U.S., there are about a 144,000 people named Lester. Now imagine those 144,000 Lesters were given extraordinary power, enough power to rename the country Lesterland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSIG: So 144,000 are called Lester, which means about .05 percent is named Lester. Now Lesters in Lesterland have this extraordinary power. There are two elections every election cycle in Lesterland. One is called the general election, the other is called the Lester election. And in the general election, it's the citizens who get to vote. But in the Lester election, it's the Lesters who get to vote. And here's the trick - in order to run in the general election, you must do extremely well in the Lester election. Now what can we say about democracy in Lesterland? Number one, United States is Lesterland.

RAZ: OK, maybe you saw that one coming. But Larry Lessig is serious about this. In the U.S., the number of people who have real influence over the political system is the same number of people named Lester .05 percent of the population.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSIG: Now you say, really? Really, .05 percent? Well, here are the numbers from 2010 - .26 percent of America gave $200 or more to any federal candidate, .05 percent gave the maximum amount to any federal candidate, .01 percent - 1 percent of the 1 percent - gave $10,000 or more to federal candidates. And in this election cycle, my favorite statistic is .000042 percent. For those of you doing the numbers, you know that's a 132 Americans gave 60 percent of the Super PAC money spent in this cycle we have just seen ending. So I'm just a lawyer. I look at this range of numbers, and I say it's fair for me to say it's .05 percent who are our relevant funders in America. In this sense, the funders are our Lesters.

RAZ: Now money in politics isn't new, right, but it is bigger than ever. And one reason is Citizens United. That U.S. Supreme Court decision that all but eliminated restrictions on election spending by outside groups. And the other one, well, you can trace it back to 1995 when leaders in Congress shortened the work week.

LESSIG: They show up. They start voting on Tuesday night. They hang around for a couple days, and then they're supposed to leave the capital, not move their families to the capital.

RAZ: And the idea was for them to spend more time in their home districts, but it also meant they spent less time with each other. They stopped hanging out and building friendships across party lines, and basically became competitors instead of collaborators.

LESSIG: What the competition between the Democrats and Republicans has done is radically increase the cost of campaigns so that they need to spend, you know, anywhere between 30 percent and 70 percent of their time calling people to ask for money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSIG: And the question we need to ask is what does it do to them, these humans, as they spend their time behind the telephone calling people they've never met, but calling the tiniest slice of the 1 percent? As anyone would, as they do this, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money. The become, in the words of "The X-files," shape shifters as they constantly adjust their views in light of what they know will help them to raise money, not on issues 1 to 10, but on issues 11 to 1,000. OK, now every single one of you know this. Yet, you ignore it. You ignore it. This is an impossible problem. You focus on the possible problems, like eradicating polio from the world or taking an image of every single street across the globe or building a fusion factory in your garage. These are the manageable problems so you ignore...

(APPLAUSE)

LESSIG: So you ignore this corruption. But we cannot ignore this corruption anymore because there is no sensible reform possible until we end this corruption. So I want you to take hold, to grab the issue you care the most about - climate change is mine, but it might be financial reform or a simpler tax system or inequality. Grab that issue. Sit it down in front of you. Look straight in its eyes and tell it there is no Christmas this year. There will never be a Christmas. We will never get your issues solved until we fix this issue first. So it's not that mine is the most important issue. It's not. Yours is the most important issue, but mine is the first issue, the issue we have to solve before we get to fix the issues you care about - no sensible reform. And we cannot afford a future with no sensible reform.

RAZ: Larry Lessig's big idea isn't to eliminate money from politics altogether. Instead, he wants a system where money is given to voters, like a tax rebate - $50, $100 say, right. And then you, the voter, could give that money to whichever candidate you want. There would be just as much money available to each candidate as before. It would just come from a wider range of people.

LESSIG: If you, as a member of Congress, were thinking how do I raise my money, not from the .05 percent, from the 150,000 Americans who are funding campaigns right now, but from the millions who could possibly be funding your campaign in small-dollar contributions, you would be much more keenly focused on the need to appeal to a wider range of Americans.

RAZ: What would you have to do to make that change?

LESSIG: It would simply require a statute in Congress. So, for example, Congressman John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, has what he's calling the Government By the People Act. And that statute would create a small-dollar funded elections where candidates would be raising money from the wide, vast array of Americans as opposed to the tiny fraction of the 1 percent. Or the Americas Anticorruption Act, pushed by a group called Represent. Us, would create a $100 voucher that everybody would use to help fund campaigns. Again, radically changing the way we fund campaigns. Those statutes could be enacted without any constitutional change if we created the political movement to force Congress to actually adopt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSIG: This is a solvable issue. If you think about the issues our parents tried to solve in the 20th century, issues like racism or sexism or the issue that we've been fighting in this century, homophobia, those are hard issues. But this is a problem of just incentives, just incentives. Change the incentives and the behavior changes. And the states that have adopted systems small-dollar funded systems have seen, overnight, a change in the practice. When Connecticut adopted this system, in the very first year, 78 percent of the elected representatives gave up large contributions and took small contributions only. It's solvable, not by being a Democrat, not by being a Republican. It's solvable by being citizens, by being citizens. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Larry Lessig wrote about his idea in the book "Lesterland." He's given three TED talks including this one called "We the People." Check it out at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.