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Why we in tech must support Lawrence Lessig

I'm an entrepreneur and a programmer. I've been fortunate to work in an industry that has seen incredible growth the past 10 years. It's amazing that an entrepreneur can launch services that reach millions of people with very, very small amounts of capital. Startups can compete with established services on a level playing field because the internet does not discriminate between different services. The internet is neutral. This has enabled an explosion of services that has provided massive amounts of value to the entire world.

I'm not here to convince you of the importance of net neutrality. This has been done thoroughly here, here, here, and here. Instead I want to talk about a much deeper issue.

Losing net neutrality would be extremely harmful to our society and our economy, and it's not hard to see this. And yet, the government seems to have a lot of trouble understanding this. The government could fix this problem instantly by reclassifying the internet from an "information service" to a "telecommunications service". Why don't they?

Whenever I'm fixing a bug in a software system, it's important I get to the root cause of the bug. If I only fix one particular manifestation of the bug, the bug will just pop up again in a different form. Something similar is going on with our government. I believe that Lawrence Lessig has thoroughly and articulately elucidated the root cause of our government's seeming stupidity, and that anything less than fixing that root cause is a losing battle. But I'll get back to that.

Government "stupidity"

It's not just net neutrality. Our government has made what appears to be stupid decisions on many, many issues. Consider copyright extension. The government consistently and frequently extends copyrights on existing works, preventing those works from entering the public domain. It is wrong in every single case to extend a copyright, as the only reason for having copyrights is to incentivize the creation of works in the first place.

Now consider your taxes. Have you ever wondered why you have to fill out a tax return? For most people, the government already has all the information needed to automatically fill out your taxes. A bill was proposed in 2011 that would have made this a reality – to give you a pre-filled tax return that you could then adjust on your own if there were any problems. It would have been cheap to implement, voluntary to use, and would have saved billions of dollars in tax preparation costs and millions of hours in time. Pre-filled tax returns have been shown to work in other countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. Yet, the bill died.

These are just simple and easy to understand examples, There are endless examples of terrible government decisions in climate change, healthcare, the lead up and response to the 2008 financial crisis, agricultural subsidies, and pretty much any area you can think of.

It's easy and convenient to conclude that these decisions are the result of members of our government being stupid. If that's the conclusion you've made, I don't blame you. It's a conclusion I've made in the past, and it made me completely apathetic to government. It made me believe that's just the way government is, and we have to work around that to live our lives.

The root cause

But let's consider an alternative explanation. It's not easy to become a representative or a senator. Getting elected is a brutally competitive game – you don't win by being stupid. You get there by being smart and cunning.

I believe that the decisions made by our elected officials are calculated and smart – from their perspective. They want you to think they're dumb, that that's just the way government works. The more apathy in the citizenry and the more people believe that's just the way things are, the less likely people will challenge the status quo.

That brings us back to Lawrence Lessig. I don't think anyone has done a better job at explaining what is going on with our government than he has.

His explanation is very simple. In order to get elected in America, you need a lot of money to run an election campaign. The vast majority of that campaign money comes from a tiny fraction of Americans - only 0.05% of people. If you don't get the support of those people, you won't have enough money to realistically run for office. So that tiny fraction of funders selects the people we vote for in elections. And naturally, the funders only select people who favor their interests.

So you end up with a government that represents the interests of the funders and not the people as a whole. You end up with a government full of people who are good at catering to the interests of people who can give them the money to get elected/re-elected. The system selects for those kinds of people.

This is how companies like Comcast and AT&T influence policies enacted by Congress. They spend tons of money lobbying to get laws passed to limit competition and preserve their monopoly status. They lobbied extremely heavily to get Congress to put pressure on the FCC to prevent them from classifying the Internet as a telecommunications service, which would have ensured net neutrality. This article and this video explain the connection between lobbying and net neutrality very well.

There is only one solution to this problem – funding for elections must be spread out so that "the funders" equals "the people". Lessig has many proposals for how to do this. One idea is for everyone to get a small voucher (say $50) to donate to candidates of their choice. That $50 comes out of the first $50 in taxes you paid that year. This would create many billions of campaign dollars every year, more than enough to spread the influence of money across the whole population.

Lessig has explained the influence of money in politics much better than I ever could, so check out his excellent TED talk and his extremely well-written book.

Our apathy is misguided

When I talk to people about this problem, almost no one disagrees. There's almost universal agreement that government is beholden to special interests, that the way campaigns are financed is hugely corrupting. And yet almost everyone is apathetic and believes it's impossible to change the system. I'm reminded of George Orwell's "Animal Farm". After enough time, a way of life becomes the way of life. You forget that things can work differently, that things have worked differently in the past.

I don't want to live in a world where the government is constantly trying to trade off the public good for the benefit of a special few. Instead I want to live in a world where the government represents and works for the people. I know, that sounds naive. But if you don't strive for it, you most assuredly won't achieve it. Much, much crazier things have happened.

This issue is so important and touches so many aspects of our society that I believe it's our duty as citizens to fight for change any way we can. We have to support people who are working day and night on this, who have excellent ideas on how to achieve reform. Lawrence Lessig is certainly one of those people.

Supporting Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig's latest initiative is called the MayDay PAC, the "SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs". The MayDay PAC is raising money to get people elected who are committed to eliminating the unbalanced influence of special interests. Once you get past the irony of it, it's actually a brilliant idea. Check it out and read the FAQ.

So yes, at the end of all this I'm asking you to make a political donation – $10, $100, or whatever you can afford. I'm not involved in politics in any way and am not affiliated with Lessig or the MayDay PAC. I'm just a concerned citizen. At worst, you'll be losing a couple bucks. At best, you'll be helping enable one of the most important reforms, if not the most important reform, in a generation.

If you're still not convinced, here are links to the MayDay PAC and many of the excellent talks and writings produced by Lessig:

Reader Comments (1)

Interesting post. One question: do you really think things used to be different? Was there a time when money had less or no influence in politics? Was it 20 years ago, or 100? And is there any evidence that policies were a lot better as a result?

May 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAntonio

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