TOC Can pronaocracy be changed into democracy? Your Turn

January 20, 2009

Some years ago, a senior executive of a large French company let me peeked at the limits of power.

The project we were discussing was not constrained by the realities of competition nor by resource availability. Not confined to an advisory role, however exalted, his authority was undiluted and he was genuinely in favor of my proposals. But he knew the project required changes in behavior deep down in the operations he headed. He told me how he felt powerless to effect such changes. Had he insisted, he would have turned what was a legitimate project into a pet project, his orders mercilessly delayed, deflected and distorted into failure.

Given the respective scale of our two companies, he was Gulliver to my lilliputian power. But he was Gulliver paralyzed under the ropes of his own troops. Since we shared a common, if diminutive, size, I had in his eyes more of a chance than him to convince those troops to change. With far less power, I had far more potential.

Cynics will say that this senior executive was just giving me a polite brush-off. Experience however tells me otherwise.

Take the new US President, invested today with powers few will deem inconsequential. What if he found half an hour in his busy schedule and met with Lawrence Lessig over the issues the latter raised recently with Samuel P. Jacobs (*)? "The flaw [in the policy-making process] is that public policy-making questions are being guided not so much by a focus on what makes good sense from a public policy perspective, but what makes good sense from a campaign finance perspective."

Lawrence Lessig will not deny that, powerwise, he stands next to President Obama in the same proportions as I did next to my French executive. His project, nothing less than the eradication of pronaocracy in the United States, is highly likely to be praised by the US President. If, as I am inclined to think, the latter gave Lawrence Lessig the same answer as I received, would it be a brush-off or plain good sense?

No legal issue is more important to our Information Age than eprivacy. Democracy itself is at stake. David Carr reminds us (**) the business model of the traditional newspaper is in a decidedly deathly decline. How much longer can democracy rely on its historical alliance with a free press?

Before rushing to point out the promise of Internet, optimists should read Jesse McKinley's story (***) on how it helps opposing activists target the supporters of a recently approved, but hotly contested, California initiative. It happens a California law "requires donors of $100 or more to disclose their names, addresses, occupations and other personal information". Suppress privacy and Internet exposes everyone to public retaliation.

What should we think then, of Stephanie Clifford's article (****) on plans by Google, this notorious champion of our privacy. "Six senior Google executives have given $25,000 to Obama's inauguration fund"? Does this strike you, dear reader, as "how to build trust" in democratic institutions?

Beware before passing judgment. Does this cash contribution imply President Obama is corrupted from day one? This would be a gratuitous insult to both man and country. Does it mean that Google should not be allowed to lobby elected Federal representatives, from the President down to the most junior US Representative? Wrong again. How else can elected officials learn the positions advocated by major US economic actors?

The issue is, democracy is the one found in a corrupt situation when it declares itself unable to salute its new chief of state on its own dollar, let alone capable to select one without private funding in ever more colossal amounts. In so doing, democracy seems to ignore that to take money from those who seek to benefit from you in the future creates a conflict of interest. Do not laws and regulations have an impact on Google's business?

A resolute President can convince Congress to pass better campaign financing laws. Perhaps, but this approach has limited power. Shielded by their right to enjoy freedom of speech, business interests will assuredly find ways to spend money in favor of those who fail to reject their support.

What we need is to build a system whereas candidates can vie for voters' approval in such a way that costs are minimum and that spending past this threshold delivers negative returns. Our Information Age simply awaits its Marketing Revolution, which I claim must be rooted in eprivacy itself.

Courtesy of Susan Saulny (*****), I found a quote from a young man with little power but unbounded ambition, a quote President Obama and Lawrence Lessig should both keep in mind. "Change won't come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grassroots". "With the right words everything could change", says another quote from the same source, this time courtesy of Michiko Kakutani (******).

Can President Obama find the right words with which to boost Lawrence Lessig's potential in his grassroot fight for democracy?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Lawrence Lessig: A cutting-edge legal mind turns to an age-old problem: corruption, by Samuel P. Jacobs (New York Times) - January 11, 2009
  • (**) ......... Let's Invent An iTunes For News, by David Carr (New York Times) - January 12, 2009
  • (***) ....... Marriage Ban Donors Feel Exposed by List, by Jesse McKinley (New York Times) - January 19, 2009
  • (****) ..... For Inauguration, Google Plans a Party to Cross Party Lines, by Stephanie Clifford (New York Times) - January 12, 2009
  • (*****) ... On Bus to Washington, Old Friends and Organizers From Chicago Will Reminisce, by Susan Saulny (New York Times) - January 19, 2009
  • (******) . From Books, New President Found Voice, by Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) - January 19, 2009
January 2009
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