I bought Lawrence Lessig’s most recent title Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress And How To Stop It more for the “how to stop it” part and less for the extra illustrations of business interests corrupting the lawmaking process. To be already familiar with that area of corporate management known as “government affairs” and its mission to trade cash for influence on Capitol Hill by way of K Street lobbying firms is to be desperately thirsty for thoughts about relief, for plausible solutions rather than more problem review.
(I haven’t gotten to Lessig’s prescription yet. I’m still plowing through David Graeber’s hugely important anthropological takedown of mythological economics Debt: The First 5,000 Years as well as Robert Elias’ The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted The American Way Abroad.)
What I didn’t expect to encounter in the interim was this 90 captivating video minutes of Lessig sitting with infamous former DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff. ‘Casino Jack”, a reformed professional destroyer of democracy once so oily and egregious as to have served 3 1/2 years in prison for political corruption, issues a mea culpa I wasn’t expecting, loudly and clearly blowing the whistle on the lobbying industry, its methods, ethos and apologists.
While one might reasonably expect the appearance to be a plug for Abramoff’s new book, the discussion with Lessig is nothing short of amazing and enlightening. As a first-hand account of how the hidden, excruciatingly free market for political results specifically destroys representative democracy, this is rare, must-see, must-share stuff – particularly for anybody laboring under the delusion that we’re in trouble because markets aren’t free enough.
Monied lobbying is a market that withers democracy and fecalizes every area of the political spectrum. The cash-shoveling traditions of Abramoff’s old K Street stomping grounds are why record-low congressional approval rates today reign on the center, right and what passes for a left. As with all markets, this one’s beneficiaries and owners are few, while the rest of us, left uninvited on the outside, tend to pay lots of its costs. As profoundly inequitable as this is, it nonetheless comes complete with intellectual blessing; corporate influencers and their hired libertarian think tanks from Cato to Hoover to Mises expressly oppose campaign and lobbying reform. They forbid limiting the “freedom” of boardroom checkbooks to make a mockery of checks-and-balances government. Voters get the government that corrupters pay for, and Abramoff, speaking as a former buyer of legislation, reminds everybody that not only does this market exist, it is profoundly free by any definition.
Like Wendell Potter did to the private health insurance industry, or John Perkins did to the neoliberal go-go bankers spreading third world poverty, with his new book, Abramoff just might take his place in the pantheon of Great Whistleblowers Of Late Capitalism.
(Now, to find the time to read the damn thing.)