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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Losing Our Republic by 'Dependence Corruption'

“Think about it like this:  Imagine a compass, its earnest arrow pointing to the magnetic north.  When we turn with the compass in our hands, the needle turns back…to track the magnetic north, regardless of the spin we give it.  Magnetic north was the intended dependence.  Tracking magnetic north is the purpose of the device.  Now imagine we’ve rubbed a lodestone on the metal casing of the compass, near the mark for “west.”  The arrow shifts. Slightly.  That shift is called the ‘magnetic deviation.’  It represents the error induced by the added magnetic field.  The lodestone creates a competing dependence.  That competing dependence produces an error.  A corruption.  However subtle, however close, however ambiguous the effect might be, the deviation corrupts.  Depending on the context, depending on the time, depending on the people, that corruption will matter.”

Thus, the author of “Republic, Lost,” Lawrence Lessig, illustrates the nugget of truth at the core of his book.  He calls it “dependence corruption” which is a pattern that is weakening our government.  Lessig also describes this in other words as a “bending” of one’s purpose or work to protect gifts from outside resources.  In other words, a deviancy away from one’s primary purpose in order to protect one’s gifts or resources. It is a pattern that explains the corruption at the heart of our system without the need to assume the existence of evil or criminal personages at the helm.  He describes a dependency on a flow of money that draws our institutions and our representatives away from the purpose they were intended to serve: the welfare of the People.  The compass serves as an explanatory metaphor for the corruption in our system that he describes as “dependence corruption.”  Another point he makes emphasizes that it is not just money but money in the wrong place; a place where we all recognize that it will, it can, it could cause even the most earnest representative or institution to deviate from their true purpose. 
In essence we have a Congress that has become dependent on outside resources; a flaw that tends to bend policy away from serving the People to serving special interests.  We also have a public that prefers to look for Evil Villains rather than for deviance corruption, and they end up condemning those Villains rather than attempting to fix the system and our processes or procedures.  “The two flaws combined tend to condemn the republic toward impotency and ruin, unless we can find a way to exclude the corrupting dependency on money” used in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. 

Let us explore a few examples of the money in the wrong place, bending toward other interests than those of The People, resulting in “dependence corruption.”
Money In the Wrong Place:

1)      Elections – this is Lessig’s main theme in his book: the deviances from our purpose of serving The People to a dependence on money bending representatives from serving the will of the people to aggrandizing one particular segment of society and a particular set of ideas or policies.  We are on a road to losing our Republic – our representative democracy – because of these distractions from our true purpose.

Hopefully, it is not really necessary to go on at great lengths about the flaws in our electoral system.  Perhaps a mere listing will serve to remind us what we are up against:

a)      Citizens United decision that makes corporations into the equivalent of individual citizens with the right to free speech which cannot be denied.  The act of supporting candidates with money is seen as equivalent to freedom of speech and any limit to that is seen as a restriction of the right to free speech.  The SCOTUS opened the flood gates for corporate contributions to soar to unrestricted heights, and for wealthy individuals to be able to give of their wealth to third party organizations mostly called PACs to support chosen candidates without having to reveal oneself, the amounts given or the causes supported.  The McCutcheon decision threw this bone further than before removing restrictions on combined contributions to many PACs or candidates. 

b)      The dependence upon this money source is what distracts office holders from serving their real constituencies, for it influences the bending of their true purposes when they must always be soliciting money and then asking themselves how each action will affect their donors. That constitutes a double distraction from their duty to serve the People of their districts, and the nation as a whole. 

c)       Once in office, these representatives of “The People” are even more distracted by the gifts and monetary support of lobbyists who work for corporations and labor and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or the NRA, and who call upon them for loyalty to causes that they espouse, sometimes so vigorously that the staff of the members take part in writing laws and regulations that favor them, and that forget the people at home.

2)      Lobbying- there is nothing quite like the lobbying machine for illustrating the existence of money in the wrong place.  It isn’t that lobbyists are carrying wads of cash into the chambers of Congress and openly bribing members as they speak or as they deliberate.  That time is past.  But let us not think that the resources represented by lobbyists are not a distraction from and a corruption of the true north: the focus on the general welfare and the rights of the People rather than the welfare of the funders of the lobbyists. 

Lessig points out that lobbyists of today are not rogues.  They are men and women who are well-educated, and most are very ethical in their conduct.  They work hard to stay within the law and most are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a particular field and able to advise and guide congress in the important tasks of writing regulations and legislation. Much of a lobbyist’s work today is in the form of legislative subsidy – providing advice, research, support, guidance for issues the legislators mostly believe in.  But, at least one, and probably more, of those subsidies has potential for corrupting the legislative process.  The demand for campaign cash has turned the lobbyist into a supplier in at least the last thirty years.  It is not money the lobbyists provide directly; it is money from their employers – the special interests – who hire them and who pay their salaries. 

The lobbyists are at the center of an economy that feeds the frantic dependency on campaign cash that has grown among members of Congress.  That need for cash gets fed only if the members can provide something of value to the donors.  And there is the danger once again – money in the wrong place.  The special interests need special favors from government to enhance their enterprises.  The members need ever greater sources of cash to finance their campaigns.  The two meet in the legislative arena and change the way Washington works.  The manipulators of our government are the special interests represented by the lobbyists who provide a suite of essential services, including the infusion of campaign cash.  And, don’t forget, most of this is done within existing law.  It is not criminal, but it corrupts the process by deviating from the true north – the purpose – of the legislative body to serve The People, not the wealthy or their special interests.

 If lobbyists are essentially providing benign services to congressional office-holders, mainly in areas already of interest to the congressmen, what is the harm?  Lessig cites an important paper entitled “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy” by Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff, in which they set forth three reasons why this is harmful.

 First, “representation [can be] compromised without individual representatives being compromised, but not every issue the representative supports will have the same ‘subsidy’ behind it.  Second, such a system of subsidy may in the end block effective access to representatives in government.  Virtually everyone accepts the fact that money buys access to members, and access is power.  But, the larger the subsidy, the greater the access, so smaller subsidies will not buy the same degree of access or power.  As Lessig comments: “a system that makes lobbyists the ticket to influence is a system that wildly skews the issues that will get attention.  This, in time, will distort results.” 

Lessig moves on to ask some questions that center on this deviation, this bending, this corruption of the process.  First he asks:  “Why Don’t We Have Free Markets?”  He begins his answer by discussing Type 2 diabetes, showing that over the past two decades children in some communities account for over half of the new cases of type 2 diabetes.  Interestingly, that rise is tied to an “epidemic” rise in obesity or extreme obesity.  But that’s not all: between 1960 and 2006, the percentage of obese adults has nearly tripled, and obesity-related disease costs the medical system $147 billion annually – a greater burden than the health costs of alcohol and cigarettes.  So again he asks: how did we go from being a relatively healthy country to one spending the highest proportion of our GDP on the health consequences of not eating healthy food? 
Why we make these bad food choices is a complicated question.  One reason is that we have given others control of what goes into our food and they have realized the enormous demand for food that is sweet, salty and full of fat.  The ideal food for many mixes all three in ever-increasing amounts!   Lessig says it is “astonishing to recognize just how unfree the market in foodstuff is,” and to realize the huge gap between our pro-free market rhetoric and the actual market of regulation of food production we have produced here at home.  He uses the conglomerate of companies housed within ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) with revenues exceeding $69 billion in 2009, as one example of what is happening.  According to one estimate, “at least 43% of ADM’s annual profits are from ‘products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government’.” 
We subsidize corn products, and thus high fructose corn syrup (and even the corn-derived ethanol additive in our gasoline).  Our government also protects milk, with at least ten federal orders that regulate how milk is priced; almost 60% of milk production is under federal regulation.  It is estimated by the OEDC that the subsidy increases the price of milk by about 26 cents.  Cheese costs 37 cents more in the US than in other countries, and butter 100% more than in other places.  Of course, there are similar interventions that subsidize and protect US companies and products:  shrimp producers, cotton producers, banana producers, peanut farmers, domestic lumber, and steel, just to name a few products.

In spite of the rhetoric proclaiming that these subsidies and protections help small farmers and small businesses, the reality is that they are aimed at the world’s richest and most powerful corporations and corporate farmers. The same story can be told about steel. As Lessig indicates, this protectionism hurts American business, it hurts American jobs, developing nations, as well as any American attempts to sell the ideology of free trade on the international market.  Protecting enormously profitable corporations from more normal competition through higher tariffs, subsidies and helpful regulations or lack thereof,  helps to produce higher prices for consumers and higher profits for these large profitable companies, but it harms small businesses, small farms, and even the cows on those farms (because the cows don’t digest corn well, they become sick and have to be fed a lot of antibiotics, resulting in an explosion of resistant super-bugs that then have to be dealt with by the Department of Agriculture that favors the use of antibiotics!). 
“So the government protects sugar, and the government subsidizes corn.  As a result, more foods get made with high fructose corn syrup. Meaning more cattle get fed antibiotics.  The quantity of high fructose corn syrup thus goes up in our diet, and it is at least plausible that the cruel consequence of these interventions in the market is that our kids get fat and sick.  Or, more sharply, the government distorts the market, which distorts what we eat, which distorts our kids’ bodies and health.”

And there is one fact to keep clear.  The beneficiaries of these policies spend an enormous amount to keep them.  The campaign spending of the sugar industry over the past two decades is high and growing. The lobbying and campaign spending of the corn industry is even higher.”
We could repeat a similar question and answer as concerns our schools, gun violence prevention and our financial system, but hopefully this exploration will suffice to expand the point about the nugget of truth found at the beginning of this piece:  the problem with money in our election system, our legislative process, our tax system is that it serves to bend the purpose and mission of our representatives away from the true “north” of our political system.

When money is put into wrong places, like the legislative or regulatory processes, the tendency is not only to bend the attention of a representative, but for that member to become dependent upon
those resources for re-election (or even for the promise of a career after politics).  The story of subsidies, tariffs and favoritism above is the story of the corruption of political and governing processes: a deviance from our true purpose. 

It is perhaps worthwhile at this juncture to present a series of quotes from the author that further illustrate his main point and some of the elements that enter into consideration on this topic of deviation and corruption.  They also provide a fitting conclusion to this exposition.

 “As the Federalist Papers put it – oddly…because in practically every other instance, the Papers use dependence in (its usual) negative sense – “dependence” means a Congress “dependent on the People alone.”   Dependence – meaning answerable to, relying on, controlled by.  Alone – meaning dependent upon nothing or no one else.  So, in a single line, in a way that frames the core of my claim that ours is a corrupt Congress, the Framers gave us a “Republic”; to them, a republic was to be a “representative democracy” …” dependent upon the People alone.” A representative democracy that developed a competing dependency, conflicting with the dependency upon the people, would be ‘corrupt’.”

“…there are three undeniable effects of this economy of influence, each of them a reason for concern, and all three together a demonstration of the urgency there should be in solving it.

 First, and most obviously: the Fund-raising Congress is distracted. 

If members spend up to 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money that means they have less time to do the sort of things …Congress traditionally did.  For instance: deliberate…as a body.  Instead, the job of members is increasingly that of raising campaign funds.

 Second, relative to the constitutional baseline, the work of the Fund-raising Congress is distorted. 

At the end of a powerful and creative analysis of the effect of lobbying on policy outcomes, Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues present data that contrast the public’s view of the most important problem facing the country today with data ‘reflecting the concerns of the Washington lobbying community. This is a picture of ‘disconnect’…a consequence of who is (really) represented in Washington.”  Several instances stand out:  Law, Crime and Family Policy are high on the Public’s list of important problems, the lobbying sector is about 75% less interested; the Public also puts Economics and Tax high on its list, but Lobbyists are about 80% less likely to be interested.  Same with Education.  The Lobbyists are most interested in Health questions, Environment and Transportation (could it be because some of the largest corporations make their profits in those areas and are hiring the lobbyists?).

 Third, Trust (or perhaps a loss of). 

“Even if you assume that everything I’ve described is completely benign…there is still an undeniable whopper of a fact that makes it impossible simply to ignore this competing dependency upon funders… The vast majority of Americans believe that it is money that is buying results.  That belief has a…series of effects.  It undermines trust in the system.  It leads any rational soul to spend less time exercising democratic participation. Of all the reasons Americans give for their lack of election interest, the most troubling is their belief that candidates are not very worthy of respect because they are beholden to their financiers.  The belief that money is buying results (and that government is run for the special interests) produces the result that fewer and fewer of us engage.”

 Next time: a critical look at Lessig’s solutions to our problem of dependence corruption.