The strategy for non-fiction books of this type is well understood: it's anecdote-plus-conclusion. A story, followed by the lesson the author wants us to learn from it. As an academic, Lessig has the research chops to find the anecdotes that best fit the narrative case he's making, and to lay them out in wonderful detail. But his real gift is in the art of stringing them together into a story. That means that this book is as persuasive as it is enjoyable to read. This is very good indeed, because if Lessig is to succeed, he'll need to persuade a great many people.
Lessig is most comfortable in the section where he describes government corruption, telling not the story of corrupt individuals, such as Rod Blagojevich and Jack Abramoff, but that of an entrenched set of incentives that skews the motivations of political actos -- the system itself. Lessig, a liberal, takes great pains to extend a hand to Republicans, and makes arguments that are direct appeals to Republican priorities. "The single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other," he says, "it discriminates against all sides in favor of itself." The corruption happens at the level of the institution, not the individual, he argues.
All along, we are reminded how difficult this problem will be to solve. Not only is it rooted in the deepest part of the political system, but there are a host of interests who will fight any reform. The businesses and individuals who make large contributions to government will oppose reforms because they are a threat to their power. Politicians will oppose them because they threaten the system that allows them to stay in power. And lobbyists will fight them because ultimately they threatens their entire profession. At every point, Lessig points out counter-arguments to the case he's making, explains difficulties that may not be obvious, and generally reminds us that the problem is large and solutions will be difficult.
So his focus is not so much on the solutions, but on the first step: laying down the argument for why change needs to happen. Seventy-five percent of the book is a deep examination of the problem of corruption: what corruption means (from an almost philosophical perspective); the specifics of how corruption operates in our particular system; and an analysis of how our government will continue to fail us, given the present system.
The bulk of the first part of the book consists of detailed scenarios of government activities that seem obviously to put the interests of specific parties (read: corporations) ahead of the interests of the nation at large. His telling of the lead-up and aftermath of the current financial crisis is worth the price of admission by itself. (Fun fact: credit for many of the key deregulations, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the decision that federal agencies should not regulate the growing derivatives market, goes to the Clinton Administration.)
But consider the case of food subsidies and tariffs. These manipulations began during the Great Depression, when the cost of actual staple foods -- flower, rice, etc. -- was high enough that starvation was not unheard of. The government introduced tariffs to protect domestic farmers, and subsidies to lower the costs of food. But the system has now been in place for close to a century and political money has twisted it into shapes that have no hope of being justified by any actual utility. We place tariffs on sugar, so that sugar in the U.S. is two to three times as expensive as in other countries. And we subsidize corn production: the US government spent $73.8 billion between 1995 and 2009 subsidizing corn, driving its price close to zero. One result of these policies is that High Fructose Corn Syrup was nonexistent in 1980, but accounted for 41 percent of all sugar consumed by Americans by 2006. Another result is that cattle raised in the U.S. are now fed almost entirely corn, which they don't digest well, requiring antibiotics on a massive scale and producing poorer quality meat. And even though the subsidies account for huge outlays for the federal government and the tariffs make products more expensive for Americans (the sugar tariffs cost the overall economy an estimated $3 billion per year, while providing $1 billion of extra profits to domestic sugar producers), they've proved impossible to eliminate under the current system. Every time a politician floats the idea of reforming or eliminating the farm bill, they're reminded that a small percentage of the money the beneficiary companies make is allocated to campaign contributions, and crucial for the reelection of a large number of senators and representatives.
Again, Lessig takes great pains to point out that eliminating these influences is in the interests of both Republicans as Democrats. Reform of the tax code and the education system can't happen under the current system. The government has grown wildly under every Republican president in memory. Folks on the right want a smaller government, a simplified tax code, and efficient markets. How the current system has blocked those reforms just as much as those of the left is also explained in the book. But the point is that this effort can only succeed by finding common ground between these two groups, and finding a way for them to come together on the central issue that prevents everything else from being addressed.
The subtitle of the book promises solutions, and in the last 50 pages it delivers. But it's complicated. To be taken seriously, a solution must be presented with a strategy for how it's going to be brought about. It must deal with the realities of a relatively disengaged electorate, an entrenched political system, and the boundaries set by Supreme Court decisions. And so what we get is actually nine pages of solution, and 41 pages of strategy.
Lessig points out another problem with this, or any similar system: For every type of reform that's been tried in the past, money has continued to find a into the system. "Block large contributions from individuals, and they become soft contributions to parties. Block soft contributions to parties, they become bundled contributions coordinated through lobbyists. And on it goes," he writes.
Calls for constitutional conventions have served an important function in pushing Congress to pass reforms.
But I don't think this is intended to be the be-all end-all solution so much as a starting point for a larger discussion. And in fact, Lessig recognizes that a large-scale debate is a necessary step in reform.
It sounds a bit like shooting for the moon: we'll get the states to call for a Constitutional Convention, which will then propose an amendment to the Constitution that'll transform how congressional elections are financed, and will then be ratified by three-quarters of the states. But it does address three important obstacles to any solution. First, it harnesses the intelligence and creativity of a great many people to a problem that Lessig himself admits he hasn't quite found the perfect solution to yet. Second, it bypasses the usual means of reform (Congress, presidential elections, etc.) which the lobbyists and other interested parties have learned so well to manipulate. And lastly, such a convention would be free to propose solutions that would otherwise be subject to be striken as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
So how do we begin a popular movement that might end with states petitioning for a convention? Lessig calls for mock conventions to happen all across the land: assemblies of regular people to think of these, and other, problems, and come up with solutions that might work. Not only would these conventions come up with a spectrum of solutions which could be evaluated and selected from, but they'd build national support for the idea that a convention like this could work.
Properly presented, the strategies and aims of Lessig's book could make it the handbook the protesters have been looking for -- and provide a pathway for them to ride out the winter ahead.