Monday, July 19, 2010

I'll Have Another Hit of Hope and Change, Please

So it's been, hoo boy, over a year since I posted anything here. I'm once again going to try to get in the habit, and I figure I should start out with something strong. So here's an amazing presentation by Larry Lessig that provides a useful primer on the topics of broadband policy, cybersecurity, and copyright, then bends all three of these topics into a larger point about America's political process. It is very much worth the time to watch.

It's almost an hour long, but I think it stops 20 minutes too soon. He never answers the question of, well, what do we do now? I see that he's promoting a website for Fix Congress First. They appear to have a well-thought-out public campaign financing bill. But is that really the answer? Is there any real possibility this can get passed? (My guess: no.) Could it stand up to Supreme Court review? (Probably not, unless one or more of the conservative justices keels over while the Democrats still hold the White House.) If it did become law, would it solve the problem? That's hard to say, but at least it would be a huge improvement.

In any case, this seems like a hard thing to do as an insurgency. Lessig hits the crux of the problem when he notes that people commonly react that of course the powerful business interests run everything--it's always been like that! Certainly there has always been a certain amount of influence-trading in Washington D.C., but I have a hard time believing that it has always been like this. Nonetheless, I think the tendency among the public to believe that this is the way it always has been and always will be, until the end of time, amen, may present an insurmountable barrier for the popular uprising approach to political reform.

What I'm trying to say, in a long-winded way, is that my one source of crushing disappointment with the Obama administration has been its complete unwillingness to confront any powerful business interest. There were many things I admired about candidate Obama, but highest among them was his apparent dedication to changing Washington and improving the political process. I had hoped it would be the administration, rather than Lessig and his merry band of outlaws, spearheading the movement for political reform. I had hoped that he would confront entrenched interests and use his platform to show how badly they had served the public in the past and how directly their current interests conflicted with the public interest. None of this has happened.

Obama prevented a depression, passed landmark health care legislation and financial reform, and has done a lot of other good things. But he has done nothing in the realm of political process reform. Lessig is right that the FCC totally rolled over on the broadband plan. And Greenwald is right the administration only made it past the entrenched interests on health care reform by buying them out. And something not so different just played out on the banking regulations. It is honestly shocking to me how fearful this administration has been of entrenched business interests. Given the populist mood in the country, I should think the White House would relish a good fight with an unpopular industry (like the banks, or the health insurance companies, or Comcast). That, frankly, is the sort of press they need. But instead, when they get even a whiff of a fight like that coming, they turn tail and head for cover.

I don't know what to conclude. The Obama administration having been a letdown on this, I don't see any viable path towards political process reform in the near future. Between that and the new requirement for a super-majority to pass anything in the Senate (fodder for another blog post), the federal government has truly reached a new level of dysfunction. Despite Obama's legislative successes of the past couple years, I am deeply dismayed about the prospects of the federal government competently addressing any of the major challenges that will come its way over the next 10+ years. We are in a bad way to be sure.

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