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on November 2, 2011
Lawrence Lessig has written a timely book for anyone who is concerned with the state of Our Union. There is no way around it, the subject matter is depressing. Our Country is in a bad way and most regular Americans are not really sure what to do about it. This book is a good place to start. Not only do you get a clear understanding of the major problems with excellent historical context, you get suggestions on how to effect change. This book which clearly articulates a problem and then offers solutions resolves the depressing aspect. There are things all Citizens can do, starting today. The book offers suggestions on how to begin with many resources and links. Whatever level your time, energy and resources allow, You will be able to do something to help. Do not be put off by the enormity of the problem. At this point our only choices are to accept our broken, corporate controlled government or as American Citizens have done at critical times in our history stand up and remind others that our Republic is responsible to "The People" alone. This is not a Liberal or Conservative issue. This is not even the 99% vs the 1%, although the 99% are suffering more from the current state of Our Union. I found this book to be an easy and enjoyable read despite the serious subject matter. I strongly encourage everyone to read this important book. As one of the 99% we have to do something. This is a great place to start.
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on October 22, 2011
Lessig explores the concept of a government responsible to the PEOPLE, as the Constitution calls for, and how the current system of campaign finance has warped it so much toward being a government responsible to the CONTRIBUTORS that even the Supreme Court used those words (in the infamous Citizens United corporation-as-a-person decision). The picture he draws of moneyed influence is truly appalling--all the more so as the influence is almost never overt bribery, but often just hints and signals (as in "if you aren't able to vote for X, I'll have to contribute $1,000,000 to your opponent").

Can it be cured? Lessig offers several possible prescriptions, the most serious of which is calling for a Constitutional Convention, and at least while I'm reading the book, I can believe that maybe there's some hope for our republic. There are many good ideas here, and the arguments are rich and comprehensive.

Read this book if you want to understand what's really wrong with government, why nothing gets done, why the posturing and pandering grows and grows, and why life is getting steadily worse for the 99% of the population who aren't rich. And--especially--read it if you want to know what you can do to make things better.
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on October 14, 2011
I have written a review on my blog and will cross-reference, [...]
This is a book about one of the biggest challenges we face, and the root cause of many of our problem--the dependence of politicians on money, which skews our political debates and outcomes towards big government and big corporation, and against the people themselves.
Reading the book, you understand more about the enormity of the problem, how it hurts our country and our loved ones, and why it is so difficult to solve--though why we must try.
If you've seen one of Lessig's presentations, available online, you probably already realize that Lessig can address hard issues in an informal, easy-to-understand way, making this an easy read, though full of ideas.
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on May 29, 2012
When it took Jon Stewart of The Daily Show to bring to my attention the fact that Lawrence Lessig had written a new book, I suddenly realized how apathetic I had become to the politics of the day. In his sixth book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It, Lessig has examined the issue of corruption in our government and the loss of trust in our institutions and in Congress specifically. Corruption in this instance refers to the fact that money appears to define access to our politicians and to their influence.

In the same way that Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, his first book, gave me an understanding of how law and government regulation and control works within our Internet world of electronic commerce, 'Republic Lost' tells us how the framers of the Constitution attempted to protect us from the influences of bribery and of corrupt practices from the very beginning and goes to great length to show us how our legal system has continued to work to accomplish this, at least up until recently. Lessig's perspective exposed me to the realities of our subsidized market economy and he colored his discussions with a wonderful assortment of facts to show the 'unprecedented dependence' on absurd campaign funding of our elected officials that exists today.

His quote of the chairman of Archer Daniels Midland, "the only place you will see a free market is in the speeches of politicians. People who are not in the Midwest do not understand that this is a socialist country," captured my full attention and set the stage for Lessig's extended market education, using free markets, market efficiency, effective education and safe financial markets as examples, more information than I ever wanted to know. He has also coupled this with the realities of the market sizes, the extensive lobbying activities that are now common and unlimited campaign contributions, thanks to 'Citizens United'.

Building upon this foundation, Lessig describes our democracy as something that's been deflated by special interests, an economy of influence that draws our democracy away from the will of the people in favor of itself. We have institutionalized a system of funding dependence and corruption composed of bad governance and lost trust, which feeds upon itself and is both self-sustaining and self-protecting. When you add to this the results of a poll commissioned for this book, where three out of four Americans believe that "campaign contributions buy results in Congress", we have sufficient reason to at least look further for solutions to reform the heart of this corruption, the perceived 'influence' of money.

In the last section of this book, Professor Lessig has fearlessly taken on the task of looking for ways to solve this 'unsolvable problem' that he has so eloquently laid out. Unfortunately, our politicians by themselves are incapable of ridding the systems of the 'influence peddlers' that support them. But the system can be changed and corrected by the people who are fed up with bloated government, tax inequities, poor healthcare, the high costs of living, our failing financial systems and a changing climate. Lessig explains to us how the mechanisms of constitutional law are already in place to allow for the wrongs in the system to be addressed, which makes this very much worth the read for anyone who lives in and loves this country. Lessig makes a great case by offering us shocking facts of how the system is broken for everyone and is already far beyond repair. He has presented us a sobering picture that provides a focus for our anger, unfortunately not a very optimistic picture but it is a real eye opener for readers! The solutions will need to be apolitical but as you will learn, it is not impossible to do... but it will be difficult. I for one am ready for change...

Bob Magnant is a novelist who writes about technology, globalization issues, Internet security and US policy in the Middle East. He is the author of "The Last Transition...", a fact-based novel about Iran and "Domestic Satellite: an FCC Giant Step", a study of competitive telecommunications policy.
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on September 15, 2012
I was very excited to read this book. I'd heard good things about it, and was delighted to see a book about campaign finance made for a general audience.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend this book. In fact, I was surprised by how much I disliked it, given that I'm very much on board with Lessig's core cause of reforming campaign finance.

Here were some of my issues:

* The author's writing style is so unusual that it can distract from the substance of the text. The single most annoying Lessigism is the pervasive use of the word "souls" to mean people, as in "any sane soul would," "pathologically stupid souls," "an alarm for free-market souls," etc. Is this a book on campaign finance or a headline about a maritime disaster? Nobody talks like this, and running into this usage breaks the flow of the text. There are other awkward stylistic choices made throughout the book, like the phrases "Congress is broken, because corrupted" or "It is the stuff of modern life, to be managed, not condemned, because if condemned, ignored."

* About the first 75% of the book tries to explain to the reader why they should care about campaign finance, but treats the reader as if they were a hostile skeptic. Maybe I'm just not in the target audience, but...I already knew campaign finance was a problem! That's why I'm reading the book. I don't need dozens of pages of text to convince me. To me, this made the book seem way too long, despite its totally reasonable page count.

* I wanted to learn a lot more about how current campaign finance law works. When I read in a newspaper that "Bigcorp has donated $45 million to a candidate," I still don't know exactly what that means. Does that mean Bigcorp gave to a candidate's PAC? Is that just the total of the contributions of all of Bigcorp's employees, including people who may have no feeling about policy toward Bigcorp? Or, is that what lobbyists have bundled together? How does a SuperPAC differ from a regular PAC? What exactly did the Citizens United ruling change? I wanted a more systematic treatment of how campaign finance currently works. I didn't get this. I wanted to know the history of campaign finance reform and what rules have survived the ongoing attempts to dismantle them. I didn't get that either.

* Lessig has an annoying habit of tediously and repetitively reminding readers that he's not saying that money directly gets results but merely that money creates the _appearance_ of impropriety. Similar wording on this point is repeated countless times throughout the text, to the point where I was rolling my eyes every time I read it. It's interesting that the author is so tentative and careful about whether or not to directly link money to policy in parts of this book, yet later claims that campaign finance is such a problem that it justifies his ultimate goal, which is, um, to rewrite the Constitution (see below)

* The author talks about making political donations anonymous, which is something I've long thought could make a difference - how can you do a favor for someone if you have no idea if they've followed through on their promise to contribute? But Lessig presents this as little more than a straw man and dismisses the idea. Lessig's conception of anonymous contributions involves a system where donations are made public, but the donor can later revoke the contribution. I guess the theory is that you never know if a donation actually went through or was revoked immediately afterward? This is an incredibly weird way to do anonymous donations (first objection: they're not anonymous!). If you wanted to treat the issue seriously, you could get an anonymous donation system by empowering a federal agency to collect contributions, monitor per-person spending limits and then anonymously transfer the money to candidates. Does that have its own problems? Sure! But it's an actual anonymous contribution solution, unlike Lessig's strange straw man.

* In the part of the book on solutions, Lessig proposes a system where everyone chooses to allocate $50 of their federal taxes to a candidate or political party. In addition to that, they're allowed to donate up to $100 a year of their own money to candidates and parties. So, my first objection here is that you do your taxes in April, and elections are in November. What's the workaround for that? This would also do nothing to curb "independent" expenditures, like ads funded by SuperPAC's. There are two reasons Lessig proposes this idea:

1. He makes the good point that public financing of elections has the unfortunate side effect that your tax dollars may go to support a candidate you find truly distasteful. By giving people a choice on their tax forms of where their money will go, that problem is eliminated. This makes sense to me.

2. Lessig believes that this system can get past the Supreme Court, because it requires a candidate to choose (all or nothing) between the existing system of campaign of finance and this new system, and is therefore not a mandatory restriction. Lessig argues that the amount of money available through his quasi-public financing system will be so great that candidates will choose it over having to raise funds the old-fashioned way. Yet, just pages earlier, Lessig explains that he thinks the Supreme Court was ideologically motivated to misapply the Constitution in the Citizens United case. If Lessig believes the problem is that the Supreme Court will misinterpret the Constitution when it sees fit, how can Lessig be sure that his view of the Constitutionality of this plan will be accepted by a Court that, as even he admits, has a pre-existing agenda against campaign finance? In fact, during the health care case, the Court struck down a voluntary Medicaid grant that it considered "coercive" because the amount of money was so large that no one could turn it down - why couldn't the Court use the same reasoning here to strike down Lessig's plan? Lessig doesn't address it.

* There is no serious treatment of straightforward public financing of elections. Lessig raises a great objection to it, which is that your tax dollars could go to some very disagreeable candidates, but that's it. I think this solution deserves at least a few pages of analysis.

* One of the proposed solutions is to run a presidential candidate who promises to veto all legislation passed by Congress until campaign finance reform is enacted, at which point they'll resign the presidency. Um.

* The finale of the book is a multi-page call for a Constitutional Convention - Lessig believes that we should freely tinker with the Constitution in order to address the problem of campaign finance. This is such an outrageously extreme solution that I couldn't believe what I was reading. He casually admits that people might support changes like a balanced-budget amendment or an anti-abortion amendment, without taking the time to go through whether that would be good or bad for the country - he includes it merely in a spirit of showing that all sides of the political spectrum can contribute ideas to the amended Constitution, without attempting to adjudicate whether life under these new Constitutional provisions would be good or bad. He also naively believes that nothing too untoward could be included in the Constitution because so many states would have to ratify it. It's ironic that someone who studies the workings of Congress doesn't see the near-exact analog to Congressional riders, where small, unpopular provisions are added to documents that are long and otherwise broadly supported. Lessig says earlier in the book that he believes campaign finance got truly out of hand after the 1994 elections, when Republicans took over Congress for the first time in decades. This, he argues, suddenly made races intensely more competitive, because Republicans had tasted victory and Democrats had tasted the embarrassment of minority status. If that's true, then we've been dealing with our insane campaign finance arms race for just shy of twenty years. Does Lessig really think that 240 years of experience with this Constitution needs to go out the window for such a recent development? Reading this section of the book, I felt cheated. The rest of the book did not, in any way, justify this radical solution, nor did I think I was buying a book about rewriting the Constitution. I thought I was getting a book on how campaign finance works and how it might be fixed...

On the other hand:

* The chapter on how political science research misses the corrupting influence of money is very good. Lessig mentions several statistical analyses by political scientists showing that campaign contributions had no effect on how a member of Congress voted for an issue, but then refutes these by astutely pointing out that money's influence is felt well before the final roll call vote takes place. Money is applied at the committee level to keep bills from being proposed, money is applied to committee chairman to keep certain topics from coming up for a vote, but most importantly, the mere presence of huge pools of private money (even in the absence of an actual contribution) frightens members of Congress into taking positions that will get them money or that will prevent their opponents from receiving donations (if a candidate knows that Exxon will help candidates who oppose climate change legislation, that candidate may decide not to support climate change regulation, either out of a desire to raise more money or out of a desire to prevent their opponents from getting that Exxon money - even if he or she never takes money from Exxon)

* Lessig emphasizes that, aside from the policy distortions created by corrupt financing of campaigns, the knowledge that the democratic process is so widely subverted leads to a debilitating lack of confidence in public institutions and voter participation. This isn't a point emphasized very often, and I think it's important.

On balance, I can't recommend reading this whole book. The two points in my "On the other hand" section could have been turned into a really great article and that would've been just as rewarding as getting through this.
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on December 29, 2012
I have to agree with the author's premise, that the main problem in politics is campaign finance: politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) are beholden to their wealthy campaign donors. If they won't play ball, they will never even make it onto the ballot! So politicians create legislation that is favorable to the moneyed interests, even though it is not favorable to Americans in general. Take the financial crash of 2008. That was largely a result of bipartisan legislation drafted by Republicans and signed by President Clinton. It basically scrapped the protections created by the Glass-Steagall act during the Great Depression of the 1930's! That set the stage for financial institutions and banks making risky bets with depositors' money. When the bets went bad, oh, well, too bad. The taxpayers will eat the cost, and the bettors could just move on to the next deal. That should make you mad whether you're a Republican or a Democrat (or Independent, Green party, Peace and Freedom, etc)
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on November 3, 2011
This is a must-read for anyone, conservative or liberal, concerned about the problems facing America.

The author shows that large campaign contributions from special interest groups encourage Congressional action (or inaction) that is contrary to the will and interests of the general public. The corrupting influence of this money is one of America's core problems because it blocks effective action on the other problems such as the lack of free and efficient markets, poor schools, high health care costs, and the financial crisis of 2008. There are less obvious effects as well: Congress people spend too much time fund raising and not enough time focusing on priorities, which leads to public mistrust and a lack of participation in our democracy.

The author is a self-described former Reaganite who is now a liberal/libertarian. Several chapters are devoted to showing how this corruption defeats the agendas of both conservatives and liberals: Conservative Congress people vote against free markets when it benefits their contributors. Liberal Congress people vote against reasonable regulation when it benefits their contributors. The book, however, is not a diatribe against Congress people. The author often quotes them to support his arguments. He believes that most go in with good intentions, but get quickly caught up in the system and focused on the interests of their large contributors.

The book ends with four strategies to end the corruption.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 15, 2011
American government is an embarrassment, and has lost the capacity to make the most essential decisions. Author Lessig presents a good case that money corrupts Congress - however, even the data within the book documents the fact that most Americans already know and/or believe this. Thus, the bulk of 'Republic, Lost' is not needed, and the material should instead have been condensed into an article.

On the other hand, Lessig does add four important perspectives. The first is that when we speak with reverence of the founding of our republic and the wisdom of their creation, we forget that the mess our government is in today grew out of that supposed genius. Unresolved problems include having the world's most expensive health care system - that also lags many others in outcomes, bloated and inefficient bureaucracies (eg. 17,000 State Dept. employees in Iraq), no climate policy, decades of a failed War on Drugs, an on-going War on Terror that never ends, has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives - and probably created innumerable new terrorists, a decades-long invasion from Mexico that has allowed millions to live in the U.S., sop up our welfare dollars, and rob Americans of jobs, a military/Homeland Security apparatus that costs more than that spent by the rest of the world - combined, decades of enormous trade and government deficits, a floundering economy due to outsourcing millions of jobs to Mexico and Asia, biased studies on most every topic crafted to confuse and obfuscate, and a government dominated by special interests.

A second good point Lessig makes is his explanation of why it is difficult to prove the link between campaign cash and votes. Yet, we all know it is there. A third is that supporters of the status quo and/or relaxed business restrictions always receive far more in campaign cash than those opposed - those opposed mostly don't exist because they were driven 'out of business.'

Lessig's fourth new insight relates to the conflicting outcomes from supposedly scientific studies, using the purported link between cell-phone usage and brain cancer. Overall, the data is roughly balanced - about as many studies finding a link as the number not finding a link. However, when one segregates the studies according to whether industry-sponsored or not, a clear pattern emerges. About 75% of those sponsored by industry reported no linkage, while about 75% of those not sponsored by industry did find a link. Lessig reports similar findings in other contentious areas. Thus, the source of a study's funding is needed to assess its credibility.

Interesting also to learn that the primary users of the Freedom of Information Act are not journalists seeking evidence of wrong-doing, but businesses seeking to find out what government regulators are up to and what their competitors have disclosed to government agencies.

Lessig adds that we've created a structure that seeks to make rich those best connected to government and politicians, and that these 'second-rate' minds can't make it in the private sector. The latter may be a bit of an overstatement - more importantly, readers should not conclude that 'the rich' is only comprised of these government manipulators - business leaders have found they can squeeze enormous amounts out of corporate coffers by stacking compensation committees with their friends, and they don't need government's help to run that con. As for rich athletes - they too are taking advantage of taxpayers who fund their stadiums etc.
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on December 3, 2011
Granted, the idea that money corrupts Congress is not exactly novel, but Lessig makes the subject worth reading. While not accusing individual members of corruption, he points how our current campaign finance system unfairly favors the rich and powerful at the expense of the average American. Before you think: Duh,this is an obvious fact, Lessig concedes that many political scientists have argued that money does not affect Congressional voting. As a good academic should, he then criticizes their methodology and allows the reader to form their own conclusion.

I would urge conservatives that expect this kind of book to have a leftist agenda to give it a chance. There is no partisan or ideological bias in this book. Lessig makes strong arguments that the current campaign finance system impedes conservative goals, such as a flat tax. He even (partly) defends Citizens United--which surprised me a great deal.

Having said all this, I have some doubts on the practicality of his solutions. One idea he proposes is a Constitutional convention, which seems to me to be an impossible goal. He also suggests a voucher plan, where everyone can allocate $50 of their taxes to go toward a clean money fund. I can't see any of these ideas passing Congress. This flaw notwithstanding, it's an excellent book by a thoughtful scholar and well worth reading.
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on October 29, 2011
Actually Lessig, a law professor at Harvard, offers at least 4 different plans of varying but low probability of accomplishment. He describes the problem as "dependency corruption," meaning that there is a constant interchange of political actions and campaign cash, or threat of contributions to opposing candidates, between members of the United States Congress and various interested parties. As there is no explicit trade of campaign contributions for a particular vote, the process is legal and has become so ubiquitious that those involved have difficulty seeing how things could be different. Campaign contributions are not the only incentive a member might have to pay close attention to the views of contributors. Another incentive is the high paying lobbying work they might obtain after serving in Congress, and they may not want to do anything that might jepordize the opportunity of such employment. The Congressional salary of $187,000 per year may seem good to many of us, but apparently retired members, or former Congressional staffers, can make several times this amount as lobbyists.

Oddly, proving that there is a clear link between campaign contributions and votes has been something political scientists have had difficulty documenting. Lessig argues, convincingly to me, that some of the reasons they have trouble making the connection are 1) most of the important politicking has been done before a vote on the floor of the House or Senate, 2) members adjust their views in advance before asking for contributions, so there is no explicit evidence of a change in a member's view as a result of asking for contributions, 3) and that often the contributions are given to avoid a bill being passed or to preserve the status quo, as when a "sunset" provision for a tax loophole is due to expire. Lessig also argues, convincingly in my view, that even if nothing that a layperson would consider corruption occurs, the agenda and time devoted to actual legislating suffer under the current campaign finance system. Lessig also stresses that apparent corruption that campaign contributions from interested parties creates greatly reduces public trust in the actions of Congress, justified or not.

Lessig gives numerous examples of regulatory, agricultural, and tax policies that to me seem inexplicable without reference to campaign contributions. For example, the high price of sugar in the United States benefits both the tiny number of American sugar growers and the rather larger number of persons involved in producing corn syrup, a substitute. Lessig tries to come up with examples that will convince both big-government Democrats and small-government Republicans that something is very wrong and that neither would suffer a partisan disadvantage as a result of campaign finance reform. It is not always a matter of individuals, corporations or unions asking for favors, and later (or earlier) contributions to a campaign; it can be a member of Congress asking for a contribution, with an implied "or else something bad will happen to a law or regulation you depend upon."

Lessig's proposed solutions strike me as at best long term propositions. One option he favors a system when candidates voluntarily agree to take only small ($100 max) contributions and what looks like an improved federal tax payer campaign check off, but this time for specific Congressional candidates of the voter's choice rather than for the President. He also suggests a constitutional convention. He also has less plausible options, such as both presidential candidates from the major parties declaring they will veto all legislation until campaign finance is passed, whereupon they will resign the Presidency.

Lessig does have some favorite words that struck me as odd. He constantly refers to individuals as "souls," some good, some bad. He also occasionally refers to those who share his conviction that reducing the influence of money on politics as "rootstrikers" apparently mimicking a quote from Thoreau. I enjoyed the book, but don't expect anything to come of it.

I published a nearly identical review at
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