TOC Amending the US Constitution (part 2/3)
or Democracy in the Information Age
Your Turn

March 16, 2010

Last week, we took up Lawrence Lessig's challenge of amending the US Constitution so as to restore Democracy in America.

Our method is to make campaign money irrelevant and so our first step was to find a way to pick candidates for better reasons than their ability to raise money from willing donors or their capacity to draw a check on their personal fortune. We advocated drawing a decentralized pool of recommenders from local elected officials nationwide, small enough and smart enough to be called upon by candidates at minimum expense.

Candidates however use campaign cash today to reach out to potential voters and, in view of the sheer number and relative inexperience of the latter, designing a system to sollicit them efficiently while ensuring exaggerated spending would meet with steep negative returns is surely a much tougher second task. But surely too, constitutional amendments are powerful instruments.

Before looking for a solution though, we ought to examine Matt Bai's analysis of political corruption (*).

Three years ago, as Lawrence Lessig was preparing to fight pronaocracy full time, Matt Bai had already suggested that modern technology could drive down campaign costs. While not opposed to "publicly financing our campaigns", he warns us today "[lobbyists'] corrosive money will always leak into the system". This creates an issue because, for him, "politicians just can't seem to imagine any worse fate in life than losing an election".

He is right on both counts. No constitutional amendment can hope to succeed without relying in some way on new technologies. No campaign finance reform will work unless one first breaks up the arm race generated by the candidates' all too human mindset. On the other hand his dark, realistic assessment gives us the clue as where to look for a solution. Lobbyists and candidates being what they are, we must focus on voters.

Let us then travel further down the marketing yellow brick road. Comparing candidates with packaged lettuce (1) may insult Lactuca sativa but considering their campaigns as so much spam is close to the mark. Anyone living in Massachusetts will long remember how last January every family dinner came to be rudely interrupted by ever fervent telephone calls by the two would-be US senators and their backers.

A robot talking in President Obama's voice even invited itself to my table, despite my public pleas for greater privacy. With due respect, I would not have been surprised to hear from Edward Kennedy. Indeed the late senator had made a life commitment to extending better healthcare to the nation and knew more than most about Massachusetts politics. His opinion, had it been possible, would have been the only one I would have welcome.

As we saw a few years back, the issue with spam is clear. As long as marketers refuse to value other than in words the one limited resource they need, i.e. consumer's attention, they will end up overexploiting it in a bidding frenzy to the sole benefit of communication channels' owners.

The science of economics proposes an easy way to right such an "externality". Enable consumers to put a price on their attention and spam will disappear, the media auction replaced with a more efficient voter auction. Less hypocritical, it lies bare the fact that candidates pay for each voter.

Could the law simply let candidates "raise as much money as they want in contributions maxed at $100 per citizen", as Lawrence Lessig mentions (2)? The flaw is obvious. Willing supporters are not the problem. The undecided ones are and the price of their attention must be capped too.

Price controls are unfortunately as difficult to enforce as spending limits unless, that is, the price is free. Yochai Benkler would be pleased. But can Democracy survive such a dictatorial measure? Besides isn't this service already provided today, for a fee, by the media? Have we circled back?

This actually is a Copernician revolution. Instead of taking the candidates as our focus, we are now looking at the voters. And in a democracy voters have duties as well as rights. The French Revolution drew its administrative boundaries so that all voters could physically go to their assigned ballot place and come back home on the same day. Even this demanded a significant sacrifice from most rural voters, in the majority at the time.

When in today's Irak and Afghanistan, some literally risk life and limb in order to vote, my proposed amendment would impose a much lighter onus. On a ballot basis, require each citizen to grant a minimum of personal access to each candidate's message in exchange for the right to cast a vote.

Only a French hater will fail to see the beauty of my proposal. At a small personal cost to all voters, it does prime the wanted negative effect we experienced in Massachusetts. Above a certain threshold, extra political communication is perceived by non believers as excruciatingly annoying. Still I expect that, true to type, pragmatic Americans will point out the practical impossibility of implementing my theory.

This would be forgetting we have entered into the Information Age. Building an Internet site, complete with texts, speeches, videos, games and whatnots, requires far less money than calling every voter every night or buying television spots by the hour. And certifying a citizen he or she has spent a reasonable time on each candidate site is a mundane task for the online testing centers which proliferate today.

No doubt many details in this scheme remain to be worked out, although spelling them out goes well beyond the scope of a constitutional amendment. Meanwhile critiques will contest citizens can be tested, show how easy to cheat it will be and complain about the Digital Divide.

Tests would actually provide much necessary statistical feedback. To verify a citizen's attention, each candidate should be free to pick his or her questions although what constitute acceptable answers would be left to the appreciation of a jury of professional test manufacturers. Pity the candidates whose preferred answers cannot be objectively derived from a visit to their sites. Obfuscation and innuendos would no longer do.

Cheating is to be expected. But one thing is for a candidate to engage in a suspiciously criminal behavior, another is to corrupt enough individual citizens as accomplices. The amount of money required would be staggering, hence noticeable. Undercover FBI agents would have a field day.

The one legitimate objection would be that today not everyone has access to Internet in the United States, at least on the broadband connections demanded by video presentations. Yet dropping the latter from consideration would be both counter cultural and downright discriminatory.

Why not instead turn the logic on its head? If broadband Internet access is so vital to Democracy, perhaps money can be found to connect all citizens who want to vote. According to Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham's report (**), the Federal Communications Commission proposes to "establish[...] high-speed Internet as the country's dominant communication network". Can this plan receive a better fillip?

This proposal is exclusive of neither others' constructive suggestions nor positive traditions, on the contrary. The freer a campaign from the influence of money, the more genuine its endorsements, whether by word of mouth or from lobbyists. The less necessary electoral corruption, the more important the media singling out officials corrupted to the core by the power of their elected positions.

Still candidates are spies as well as spammers. Next week, we will turn to making money irrelevant when it comes to information gathering.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ... Laws for Sale, by Matt Bai (New York Times Magazine) - March 7, 2010
  • (**) . Effort to Widen Internet Access Sets Off Battle, by Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham (New York Times) - March 13, 2010
  • (1) lettuce was the produce picked to illustrate Alina Tugend's article on consumer choice, quoted last week
  • (2) see How to Get Our Democracy Back, by Lawrence Lessig (The Nation) - February 22, 2010
March 2010
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