All posts by maxnovendstern

Gov 2.0 and the Promise of Reform

By Max Novendstern

“Gov 2.0” is the name of a government reform movement predicated on the idea that Internet technology can improve the functioning of American democracy.

This idea is very modern — it’s grounded in theories about the power of online networks and the economics of digital information sharing. Yet the idea of Gov 2.0 is also very old, a product of reformist impulses that are as old, indeed, as the Republic itself: Gov 2.0 is based on the belief that the institutions of our democracy — Congress, federal agencies, local planning boards, and so on — can, through design, be made better.

In the tech sector, they call this belief “innovation”; in our Constitution, it’s known, more eloquently, as the belief in the “more perfect Union.”

Among those who advocate for Gov 2.0 reform — including disheveled professors here in Cambridge, tech gurus in Silicon Valley, and government officials in the highest ranks of the Obama Administration — none seems to seriously believe that Twitter accounts and iPhone apps will perfect our Union. What they believe, they patiently explain, is something much more profound. Gov 2.0 isn’t a faith in technology per se; it’s a faith, rather, in what might be called the “technological essence” of the U.S. Government itself.

Imagine, for a moment, a history of America told in strictly technological terms. Our Framers, like engineers, “designed” our government from top to bottom; they beta tested it as the Articles of Confederation (it flopped); they re-launched as the Constitution; and they created a system of user controls and sysadmin responsibilities, which, collectively, are the procedural protocols of our democracy. Our government, like technology, was created, and it can therefore be changed, made more efficient, more effective, more open – that, in short, is the promise of Gov 2.0.

To understand this promise – what it means, exactly, and why it might now actually be realized – you have to understand a bit about the history of the Internet. No one writing an article in Perspective Magazine in 1995 (the year Netscape IPO’ed) could have predicted that fifteen years later, the World Wide Web would have exploded in size to 1.5 trillion pages – a number roughly equal to ten web pages for every person who has ever lived.

What accounts for this growth? One compelling answer has to do with the nature of the Web as a network. The Web is open and radically distributed. Instead of connecting users to a centralized provider of data (like spokes connecting to a hub), the Web connects users to each other (“end 2 end,” “peer 2 peer”). The web is not a “service” — which you pay for and get things from — it is, rather, a “platform,” a neutral space for you to give and get from people just like you. Platforms are powerful because they are, in the words of Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, “generative”: users can innovate, co-create, and collaborate in ways that the platform designers never dreamed of. No centralized authority, for example, needs to decide that users should get blogs with images of cats that look like Hitler; you can set up said blog yourself, and so can your friend.

The history of computers is, in a sense, the history of the victory of platforms over services. The PC beat out dedicated information appliances because PCs allowed software developers to code functions on top of them. The World Wide Web beat out centralized networks like AOL and CompuServ because they threaded together the service provision dreams of all sorts of end users. And eventually, those original end users who dreamed of services to provide to others were beaten out by a new set of websites in the wake of dot com crash of the early 2000s. These new sites had funny names like Blogger, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Facebook, and they were, without exception, platform-based rather than service-based. They didn’t provide data to users; they helped users provide data to each other. In 2005, tech visionary Tim O’Reilly dubbed this cohort of sites “Web 2.0.” It’s from Web 2.0 that Gov 2.0 derives its name. And today, Tim O’Reily is Gov 2.0’s biggest evangelizer.

Gov 2.0 suggests that just as platform thinking helped the computer industry, so too can it help the U.S. Government. Indeed, it suggests that the platform model of production — “collaborative peer production,” to use Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler’s phrase — corresponds in an essential way with the structure and function of a democratic society. In democracies, after all, there is no centralized authority, no central server, that provides services to the people from above; in democracies, the people provide for each other. Just as Wikipedia obviated the professional encyclopedia class, empowering amateurs to create, so too might technology be able to render professional government less essential, empowering citizens to provide for the solutions to the problems fellow citizens face. Rather than the government provisioning services in exchange for tax money (like a vending machine), the government can (like a platform) enable citizens to participate in provisioning services to each other. This is the “new compact between government and the public” that Tim O’Reilly refers to when he outlines his model of “government as a platform.”

Consider the following example. In 2008, the CTO of the city Washington, DC created a contest called  “Apps for Democracy.” The contest challenged DC residents to build iPhone and Facebook apps that would help solve real-world civic problems. Within 30 days, 47 teams built apps for the city – ranging from neighborhood wikis, to real-time crime reports on your iPhone, to guided tours of historic districts – at an estimated value of 2.6 million to the city, for a contest costs of 50 thousand. Note the platform dynamics: the city government, in many cases, provided the data that these apps relied on, and the city set up the context for their creation; but the apps themselves were created by citizens for fellow citizens, peer to peer.

Today, the former CTO of DC, Vivek Kundra, has moved into the Obama administration as the nation’s CIO, and is working to extrapolate this model on a mass scale. His is designed to enable private sector civic entrepreneurs to build applications on top of government data. The projects that we can expect are like those that we’ve already seen: iPhone apps for reporting potholes in your city; video games that help schoolchildren learn healthy eating habits; online forums for local political debates; neighborhood social networking services; disaster relief databases that coordinate citizen skills; etc.The virtues of platform thinking are all there: innovation beyond the imagination of the system framer; huge cost savings by the U.S. government; and deep empowerment of citizens. When Jefferson wrote that he hoped that every citizen “feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day,” he might well have been talking about code hackers and iPhone apps in DC.

Among the problems Gov 2.0 faces is the task of convincing people that the Internet is not a joke. For all Web 2.0 has done to empower us, its impact on the problems we face in our day-to-day lives remains depressingly small. The revolutionary potential of total worldwide connectivity manifests itself, in too many instances, in banality and ephemera — in Ashton Kutcher Twitter feeds and clips of cute cats playing the piano. The web has given us Facebook and FarmVille and Lolcats – the question remains: Can it do more? Can we use the potential for “end 2 end” collaboration facilitated by the web to solve the fundamental problems our cities and country face every day?

“Better government” was, of course, the promise of the 2008 Obama campaign. And it’s the promise of the Tea Party Movement as well. The feverish heat of our politics today, it seems to me, is only a natural response to the sickness of the American body politic. What’s exciting about the Gov 2.0 reform movement, then, is not its diagnosis, but the fact that it might actually have a cure.

Photo by James Duncan Davidson

The Marketplace of Ideas

An interview with Professor Louis Menand

Max Novendstern: I thought I’d start with the title of your book, “The Marketplace of Ideas.” I read your title as a sort of exhortation – that the university should be more engaged with the ideas, the institutions, the people that make up the “marketplace” beyond its walls, on the “outside.” Is that right?

Louis Menand: That’s a good explanation of the title. Most of the essays in the book deal with a certain frustration that professors feel about the relevance of their teaching and scholarship. We all think that what we teach and write about is relevant and we want it to make a difference to students and to people out there in the world. But we’re impeded by the nature of the institution in which we were trained and in which we do our work. The book is an effort to explain why the institution evolved in this way.

MN: It seems that your career is a counter-example to some of the claims you make in the book. You say that professors envy those who “battle with the forces of the market.” But as a writer for the New Yorker, you’ve been able to do battle with those forces, no?

LM: I’ve been able to write for a larger audience than most academics do. But there’s a lot of important scholarship that doesn’t reach an audience outside of the academy, either because it’s theoretically difficult, methodologically difficult, ontologically difficult, or, sometimes, because people don’t want to hear it. I think this can be frustrating. I wasn’t thinking about myself when I wrote those words. I was thinking about the university as a whole.

MN: What would be an example of someone who brings his or her scholarship to bear on the world outside of the university? Is that what the “public intellectual” category denotes?

LM: That’s one form it can take. Public intellectuals are people who do have some message that they want to convey to the public beyond their peers at the university, and so they find venues for doing that. I think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think everyone needs to be a public intellectual. I do think all of us, at some level, want to feel that the work that we do, in the form that we’re doing it, makes a difference, even if it’s just to our students, not to a bigger readership.

MN: So what form should that take?

LM: My book isn’t really big on recommendations. My general feeling is that if you want professors to do things differently from the way they do them, you have to train them differently, which would mean having graduate education different from the form it takes now. That would be the key area for reform. Right now we’re training people in a very intensive and time-consuming process to be specialists. And then after we’ve given them their credentials and their jobs we’re asking them to do all kinds of things that transcend specialization. But we haven’t trained them to do that, and we don’t reward them for doing that either. We create specialists and we reward specialization. If we value other things, like general education and interdisciplinarity, then we should be training people to do them. But we’re not really doing that.

We create specialists and we reward specialization. If we value other things, like general education and interdisciplinarity, then we should be training people to do them. But we’re not really doing that.

MN: That to me was one of the most biting aspects of the book. You pointed out that the “less social authority a professor enjoys, the more restrictive the barriers to entry are.”

You pointed out that if you want to argue in front of the Supreme Court you need to go to Law School for three years; if you want to do open heart surgery you need to go to Medical School for four years; but if you want to produce scholarship in the English Department you need to go through a nine year program.

LM: There’s a piece in the Times this Sunday stating that it now takes 9.3 years to get a doctorate in the humanities. This issue of time-to-degree has been around for the last fifteen or twenty years, but it’s become very pressing recently because the time to get the degree is getting longer and the number of jobs available relative to the number of degrees awarded is shrinking. Everyone is becoming aware that the situation is crazy. From my point of view, the main reason it’s crazy is that you don’t want intelligent college students taking one look at this profession and saying, “Later for that. I can’t afford to take the risk.” You want to make your profession attractive to intelligent people to get into or you’re going to die.

MN: So if I were a student interested in engaging with ideas – at a high academic level, let’s say – what would you recommend to me right now?

LM: I would have a hard time recommending that you get a degree in the humanities. Not only would it take on average 9 plus years, but the prospects of getting a good job are small. And that’s just not a good state for a profession to be in.

I would have a hard time recommending that you get a degree in the humanities.

MN: In your book you explain that general education was first justified as an attempt to make education more “worldly,” that a school should make good citizens. Is that still the justification for general education programs?

LM: It’s the justification for the new general education program, at Harvard. What happens when general education programs are created is that the faculty looks at the education they’re giving their undergraduates and they ask, “Is there anything in this education that assures us that students will be educated in way that will make them better citizens when they leave?” If the students are just cherry picking their courses and majoring in an academic discipline, there’s no guarantee that they are going to be learning stuff that they need to know to function effectively in the world. General education traditionally has been – there are exceptions, obviously, but traditionally – has been a way of teaching students in a way that helps them prepare for life after college. That’s the Gen Ed piece of the curriculum, and it’s what the new general education program is all about.

MN: It seems that Harvard in particular – and this is really just anecdotal – that Harvard in particular takes very seriously the idea that students should be able to engage with the world “outside” the university when they graduate. Student here learn to read, to care about – maybe to write for – publications like The New York Times. Is that something that defines Harvard?

LM: Yes. It’s part of the DNA of Harvard. I think students think in terms of careers and public leadership roles after college. It may even be that we tend to admit students who are like that to begin with. But it’s certainly a part of the culture at Harvard, and it may not be a part of the culture of other universities.

MN: Do you think that comes at a cost for Harvard? I mean, do we lose anything…?

LM: No. There are other places you can go to college. I think it’s something that we feel we do well. We train people for leadership roles.

Do you think that comes at a cost for Harvard? No. I think it’s something that we feel we do well. We train people for leadership roles.

MN: Something that struck me when I first got here was that most Harvard students aren’t here to become future professors. They have other things in mind. And yet one thing that professors do very well is train you and judge you by the standard of whether you’re going to be a good future professor.

So we have this tension. And it makes day-to-day life a little bizarre: I’m around all these people who are doing these exciting, unrelated things, and most of them have nothing to do with the classroom – with the one thing that ostensibly unites us, the thing all these professors are here for. What are your thoughts on this Professor?

LM: I think this is also particular to Harvard. The General Education reform was a part of a general review of the whole college experience that President Summers initiated. One of the concerns that faculty had was that students’ main interests are outside the yard. We wanted to feel that we were contributing in some way to issues that students cared about and activities they cared about in our teaching, and General Education was a way to do that.

MN: I told some of my friends that I was going to be interviewing you and I asked them to give me suggestions. Something that kept coming up – and this gets us a bit away from your book – was the point that the flip side of all this diversity is a loss of community, the loss of the sense that there is an undergraduate “class” at all.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Ross Douthat or Keith Gessen writes about the Harvard experience, but they both strike on this chord. Keith Gessen has said of Harvard: “I don’t think there was an idea of a humanistic education, of forming people.” Ross Douthat has said: “Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.”

The idea being that because there are so many people doing so many different things here, that because everyone is so driven and diverse, you get the sense that there is no direction your four years here is supposed to take. You get the sense that there’s no common experience of being in this university, no project that the university has for, you know, “your soul.” Is that valid, do you think? Is that general to all universities these days?

LM: It’s not unique to here, but Harvard falls into the category of universities where that doesn’t happen.

MN: Is that just part of the bargain of going here?

LM: Yeah I think so. You couldn’t impose a great books curriculum like Columbia has on Harvard. There are two reasons for that. One practical reason for that is that Harvard’s too big. It’s much bigger than Columbia. You couldn’t find faculty who are competent to teach or who would want to teach a great-books-type course. You would have to have 1650 students a year going through that program. That wouldn’t be possible unless you gave it all to graduate students and that would sort of defeat the purpose.

The second thing though is this DNA issue. Harvard, even for undergraduates, is very much about specialization. Students come here and many of them don’t know what they want to do and a lot of them change their minds. But a lot of them do know that they want to do and they don’t want to (in their minds) waste time doing some required thing that’s not relevant to them. So the General Education curriculum is intended to ease people in to areas that they otherwise wouldn’t have explored, but it gives them a broad menu of choices to fulfill those requirements so they that don’t feel that they are being coerced.

Students apply to Columbia knowing they’re going to take the great-books requirements, so they’re already self-selected to do it. Students are self-selected to go to Harvard because they’ve got some big interest that they’re already interested in pursuing. The faculty is the same way. It’s just not a general education kind of place, in that sense. Those critiques are right. But students who want something different probably shouldn’t come to Harvard.

It’s just not a general education kind of place, in that sense. Those critiques are right. But students who want something different probably shouldn’t come to Harvard.

MN: Right, I suspected that you’d say that. I don’t know if you heard about or went to Harvard Thinks Big? A roommate of mine put it together. Part of his justification – a justification you allude to in your book – is the idea of examining ideas produced within departments by people outside of those departments. In this case, using Sanders Theater and then the internet to reach a wider audience that would serve as a standard to measure their ideas against.

My question then is: does the internet – and these tools that allow you to distribute information out of the university to mass audience more easily – are they a future for this sort of “more worldly engagement”?

LM: It’s possible. I think in general if you asked President Faust and other educational leaders what the future of the university will be like, they would say it’s going to get bigger and broader and there’s going to be more access. Libraries are going to be more accessible to the public, and scholarship is going to be online. Presumably courses are going to be available online. And so I think the Ivory Tower model will be superseded.

The history of higher education is all about democratization. It’s about making it more and more available learning to more and more people. So I don’t see that stopping.

Presumably courses are going to be available online. And so I think the Ivory Tower model will be superseded. The history of higher education is all about democratization. It’s about making it more and more available learning to more and more people. So I don’t see that stopping.

MN: It seems to me that while the number and types of people who are admitted to Harvard has expanded, the barriers to getting in here, at the same time, have gotten higher. So we’re becoming less exclusive internally and more exclusive externally. Do you think the internet is something that can overcome that tension?

LM: There are these online universities like the University of Phoenix that do that kind of distance learning. They are very effective and I think they’re very important. But they serve a very different student from the typical liberal arts undergraduate. People want to go to residential college for four years, they want to take courses in classics and history and neurobiology and so on, and they don’t want to worry too much about what they’re going to do after they get out. That’s a privileged opportunity. There will always be many levels of ways to get a college education. But I think the Harvard kind of experience is still going to be very much in demand and hard to get into.

MN: So my final question: what if we look at the internet on the production side, not just the consumption side – as a way to help faculty not just students? I was recently talking to Professor James Kloppenberg [of the History Department] about Twitter. I said it could help him reach out to new people, and help him, you know, “engage with the marketplace of ideas.” I offered to set him up with an account at our next office hours. I’m not sure he bought it!

What about you, Professor Menand? Do you buy the case that social media and the internet can give new reach to our ideas? Do you have a Twitter account?

LM: I don’t. I am not a person who has an instant opinion about everything. I need to think about things first, so my tweets would arrive very, very late.

Saving Women

Nick Kristof’s Post-Feminist Crusade

By Max Novendstern

You cannot blame an author for a book he or she never attempted to write – and you therefore cannot blame Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn for the fact that their extraordinary new book, Half The Sky, is not a book about feminism. But you could be forgiven for being confused. Its subtitle after all is “turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide,” and this suggests the book’s central argument: that the emancipation of women is the world’s most important and pressing moral struggle (“the paramount moral challenge” of our time, as they say) and also its most promising opportunity.

Is that feminism? If it’s not, you might wonder, then what is? But the question should perhaps be rearranged: If this isn’t feminism, then what about feminism needs to change?

Half The Sky has the effect of freeing the issue of women’s emancipation from the vocabulary of contemporary feminism – a vocabulary dominated by the identity language of theorists like Judith Butler, who characterize gender equality as a battle for “contested meaning” – and rewriting it into a vocabulary of collective, global struggle, that of development, of foreign policy, of international law, and of public health. These are the buzzwords of Kristof and WuDunn’s book. Its central claim is that the great questions of global prosperity and development  – the questions of war and peace, of health and economic growth – are not peripheral to the issue of women’s emancipation, but central to it.

The authors describe their own awakening to this fact. They write that back in the 1980s, as young reporters, they “assumed that foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear proliferation.” After all, “It was difficult back then to envision the Council on Foreign Relations fretting about maternal mortality or female genital mutilation.”

The pair won a Pulitzer Prize for their work covering the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which claimed four hundred to eight hundred protestors’ lives. Tiananmen was the human rights story of the year. Yet they found a report, while still living in China, that “thirty-nine thousand baby girls die annually in China because parents don’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive – and that is just in the first year of life.” In other words, every week as many infant girls died from poor medical care as had protestors that fateful day in Tiananmen Square. “Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage,” they write, and “we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.”

The sheer scale of this issue is simply breathtaking. Following the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, they note that every year at least two million girls worldwide “disappear” because of violence, negligence and discrimination. In India, girls from ages one to five are “50 percent more likely to die than boys of the same age.” And the best estimate is that “a little Indian girl dies from discrimination every four minutes.” Globally:

It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.

The moral force of the book derives from its impulse to humanize these facts. We read about the numbers. There are one million to two million women currently enslaved as prostitutes in India; women aged fifteen to forty-four worldwide “are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined”; and in Niger, a woman has a lifetime 1-in-7 chance of dying in childbirth and that “for every woman who dies in childbirth, at least ten suffer significant injuries.”

But more than the statistics – much more – the book gives us a tour of the truly unspeakable suffering and tragedy and sometimes the redeeming hope that dwells behind them. It tells the story of Srey Rath, “a self-confident Cambodian teenager whose black hair tumbles over a round, light brown face.” Rath was twice sold into sex slavery – into brothels in Malaysia and Thailand where she was locked up and raped by customers for fifteen hours a day for no pay – until she escaped and made a new life for herself as successful, charming street vendor.

It also includes the story of Mahabouba Muhammad, an Ethiopian woman who at fourteen years old was raped and then married to her rapist (a common practice) only to get pregnant and suffer from an obstructed labor. The baby died in her uterus and she lost control of her bladder and her legs. The village thought she was cursed so they put her into a distant hut to die. She spent that night flailing a stick to scare away the hyenas, and then she crawled for an entire day to reach a local missionary, who took her to a nearby clinic, saving her life.

Half the Sky is not a fun book to read. Yet it is a hard book to put down, and for this, in particular, Kristof and WuDunn deserve very high praise. It’s not easy to be a crusader, and one the hardest parts of being one is to get anyone to listen. You cannot be relentlessly dark or too self-righteous or overly pedantic. The book, in fact, achieves an almost-perfect tone. Its prose is consistently gorgeous, its content rigorous, research-based, counter-intuitive (“One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance is to deworm students”) and relentlessly human.

Style matters. Especially for “protest literature.” Half The Sky is not just a book about struggle but a book of the struggle. It positions itself as a founding document for a future movement, as an exemplar of the form.  “So let us be clear about this up front: we hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts,” the authors write.

And they want you, the prospective reader-turned-activist, to refer to their book as a guide. “Resist the temptation to oversell,” they tell their readers at the end. They note that “what ultimately mattered [in the anti-slavery movement, for example] wasn’t just the abolitionists’ passion and moral conviction but also the meticulously amassed evidence of barbarity.” One of your best strategies is simply to bear witness to cruelty. They say that a future movement should “strive to build broad coalitions across liberal and conservative lines.” And they emphasize: “Helping women doesn’t mean ignoring men.”

Thus whatever the success of this “incipient movement” to emancipate women worldwide – a cause to which I, personally have been converted, and which I imagine most readers of the book will be too – this much is clear: the movement’s scope, its voice, and its strategies will judiciously avoid the vocabulary of contemporary gender studies. Indeed, the authors say decisively at the end: “if the international effort is dubbed a ‘woman’s issue,’ then it will already have failed.”

Consider an alternative book called Feminist Futures, published in 2003 and edited by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, and Priya Kurian. This book, typical of the genre, was written in an expressed attempt to “forge an alliance” between development studies and cultural studies, such that flexible movement could be maintained between “political and economic macrostructure and local discourses and practices.” As one essay puts it, studying development from a gender perspective demands “an acknowledgement that Third World actors, elite and non-elite, male and female, organized and not organized, contribute to the construction of the discourse and practice of development.”

Kristof and WuDunn have no interest in forging that alliance between development theory and critical feminism. They are apparently entirely uninterested in the discursive role that women play in constructing their cultural realities, or, for that matter, in their privilege as Western writers.

And this is to their discredit. Four decades of critical feminist theory have raised too many important ideas for them to be left untouched in a domain (development and the emancipation of women) where their dogs fight daily. For example, it is simply no longer tenable to talk as a white American male about development issues without adopting a stance of epistemological humility and a cultural sensitivity. I firmly believe that universalist goals such as shared human rights and dignity are doggedly worth fighting for; but that’s not to say I don’t worry about mistaking the local for the universal, or the contingent for the permanent. Kristof and WuDunn repeatedly scold “Westerners” for “invest[ing] too much effort in changing unjust laws and not enough in changing culture…” yet they never so much as mention why Western-led efforts to transform another’s culture might go wrong and why. They admit that development is hard and often tough to predict, but they don’t admit that development as a notion, the idea of linear progress along Western terms, is itself the subject of important and sometimes inscrutable debate.

The authors pay no heed to these cautions – to these debates about agency, stylization, and discursive embeddedness (or to the older debates about the patriarchy, the sisterhood and the creation of “the other”). They ignore these debates at their peril, but also to their credit. Critical gender theory – I’m not the first to suggest – has the paradoxical effect of impeding the very social change that it advocates. For example, how can one seek to emancipate women without consensus even on what is meant by “woman”? How can one pledge support to the cause of the marginalized and oppressed worldwide, while denying one’s own prerogative to transcend one’s culture and fight for the other? In the authors’ words:

So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize footbinding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures…

Kristof and WuDunn decide to bowdlerize the complexity of gender studies for the sake of their movement. In other words, they ignore gender studies for the sake of the women themselves. As I read through the book, the one question I continued to ask myself was, “Why?” Why is all this happening to women? Why all the rape? Why the cross-cultural and systematic neglect and oppression and violence? This book does not seem to care about the answer to that question. Indeed, it only cares about the solution. The authors’ is an unfailingly materialist and pragmatic approach. To everything, they apply the question, “Does this benefit the emancipation of women?” And it must be said – loudly and clearly – that the result is refreshing and extremely admirable. If their book is at times too simple, it’s only a reflection of their stunning ambition. They want to succeed at the task of liberating women, and they want this book to be the open cry in a worldwide campaign. That is the book they set out to write. Let us all hope they have succeeded.

Only Money

By Max Novendstern

Lawrence Lessig’s campaign to fix congress and save our democracy

In June 2007, Lawrence Lessig, the “Godfather of the Internet,” stunned his fans by giving up the defining cause of his career and announcing a second act: fixing Congress. There’s a “corruption of the political process,” he wrote on his blog, and for the next ten years he was devoting himself to fixing that corruption. “I [do not] believe I have a magic bullet,” he confessed. “Indeed, I am a beginner.” But to Lessig, the problem of congressional corruption is the “most important problem”: in it lies the key to saving our democracy.

Since Lessig’s announcement two years ago, our country has witnessed a bleak parade of Washington’s many dysfunctions. We’ve witnessed a massive collapse of our financial service sector, resulting, in part, from the systematic deregulation efforts of the 1990s. We’ve celebrated the resounding election of Barack Obama and subsequently watched him flounder. We’ve witnessed a health care reform bill gutted by insurance companies that now teeters on the verge of defeat. We’ve seen a Republican caucus use unprecedented procedural tactics to obstruct the proper functioning of the Senate. Then, Ted Kennedy’s seat was lost to a Republican and, a day latter, the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United, overturning two decades of precedent in order to expand the reach of corporate America into our political process. Support for the Congress has collapsed. Fewer than 25 percent of Americans approve of its work; 58% rank the 111th Congress among the worst in our history. Critics have begun to call the body a “nihilistic institution” and America “ungovernable.” In a lengthy Atlantic cover story, James Fallows concluded that this is the “American tragedy of the early twenty-first century”: to have a “a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.”

If he succeeds, history may deem Lawrence Lessig’s blog post prophetic. Writing before the financial collapse, the health care reform debates, or Citizens United, Lessig began what will be—if he succeeds at all—the largest reform movement of our lifetime.

Lessig first rose to national prominence as one of the nation’s most forceful advocates for the “free culture movement”— a movement based around freeing art and ideas from an outdated intellectual property regime. His books Code, The Future of Ideas, and Code V2 are considered to be founding documents of the cyberlaw discipline. As a constitutional law professor at Stanford, Lessig took the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act to the Supreme Court, lost, and then founded Creative Commons, a nonprofit that distributes licenses to writers and artists online, allowing them to override their own intellectual copyright entitlements, and free their ideas.

Lessig has achieved what one fan described as a “weird kind of celebrity.” He talks with a bookish monotone, and his lectures—which invariably go viral on the Internet—feature PowerPoint slides with black backgrounds and short phrases flashing across the screen., to a strangely compelling effect. Lessig embodies that rare and extremely admirable figure, the “professor activist” (close cousin of the “public intellectual”) who can leverage academic rigor beyond gates of the academy, who can take innovative research and use it to better the world.

Today, Lessig spends his time writing articles, making video lectures and organizing thousands of followers on his re-launched website, In 2008, Lessig returned to Harvard as a law professor, founded Change Congress, his movement’s organizing center, and initiated the Institutional Corruption project here at Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics. The main focus of his efforts so far has been to rally support behind the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill introduced in the House by Democrat John Larson and Republican Walter Jones and in the Senate by Democrats Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter, which would institute a publicly financed campaign system. That bill is Lessig’s chief priority.

Lessig’s message is consistently simple and resounding: Congress is corrupted by money. The only way to fix Congress is to get the money out of the system. And if we do not fix Congress, then we cannot fix our country.

His organization, Change Congress, is propelled by an intellectual zeal rarely found in activist groups selling procedural reform. Since the Citizens United ruling, his movement has taken on a frenetic pace: thousands of letters have poured into the Change Congress office, and Lessig, who is nothing if not hard -working, seems to be churning out new articles, videos and emails daily. The entire scope of his efforts so far has been to drive home again and again that the best path to restoring faith in our democracy is to pass citizen-funded elections through the Fair Elections Now Act. Yet in the wake of Citizens United, Lessig has added a new goal to his agenda. According to Lessig, our country needs nothing less than a Second Constitutional Convention. He wrote on the Change Congress website on January 26: “We can’t build a movement to secure fundamental reform with the constant fear that an activist Supreme Court will strike that reform down. Instead, we must establish clearly and without question the power in Congress to preserve its own institutional independence. And we can only do that by effecting a change to our fundamental charter—an amendment to the Constitution.”

Following his campaign, you get the same sense that you got following Obama’s: that this is an impossible delusion (a Second Constitutional Convention! A black president!) that might actually work. You get the sense that he’s tapped into something fundamental, that, somehow, he’s aligned himself with history.

To understand Lessig’s case one must begin with a sobering admission: we are currently entering the fourth decade in which our country has failed to pass a single substantial policy reform or deal with a single one of our major national problems. One must begin by acknowledging that, from Reagan’s failed push to “roll back big government” to education reform to immigration reform to today’s health care debates, our country is less able to effectively solve our national problems than any other developed democracy. This is a tough fact to swallow, particularly for those of us proud of the achievements of American democracy. But it’s clear. Think of a problem—the declining middle class, or our energy economy, or the national debt, or the food industry—and ask yourself: why hasn’t this been solved? We have the solutions—we know what to do—but we’ve failed, again and again, to putting them into action in a meaningful way. Thus to understand Lessig one must first acknowledge the dispiriting reality that we’ve lost our ability to govern ourselves. That “our democracy,” in Lessig’s words, “is broken.”

To Lessig, it’s no mystery how we got to this point: in a word, money. Washington used to be a place to go to get power; now, it’s a place to go to get rich. Political scientists have found that, since the industry began in the1970s, lobbyist have been able to bring corporations and interest groups anywhere from 600% to 2000% returns on every dollar they invest. So we’ve seen a boom of lobbying. From 2000 to 2005 alone the lobbyist industry nearly doubled, to its current value of 2.1 billion dollars per year. And in parallel, Congress has “developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash.” The financial costs of getting elected have risen precipitously. Members of Congress now spend anywhere from 30% to 70% of their time raising funds for their own reelections. In 2008, the total cost of campaigns in this country was the highest in history, 5.3 billion dollars—more than five times what it was in the early 1980s, even after adjusting for inflation. This nexus of cash is what Lessig calls “the economy of influence.” Money passes from the hands of the interest groups to the lobbyists, from the lobbyists to the congressmen in the form of campaign donations, and, then, through legislation (pork barrel spending, earmarks, and “compromise”), money passes from the congressmen to the interest groups.

The effects of this profusion of money into Washington are manifold. Congressmen become dependent for reelection not on “the people”—as the framers promised us—but on those with the money. Legislation thus gets bent away from the public good. Laws that the public dislikes—the farm bills, the tax loopholes, the defense spending excesses—remain on the books, and the “easy cases,” like global warming, fail to be addressed. This is corruption, Lessig says. It’s not the money-in-a-paper-bag corruption of the old days, but a different, more pernicious kind. It’s a systematic perversion of the process, a bankruptcy of our governing institutions. The most telling and dangerous effect of money, thus, is the cumulative one on the credibility of the institution itself. Americans stop trusting their government. According to a recent poll, 88% of Americans believe (rightly or wrongly) that money buys votes in Congress. Because of money in our politics, the American people become cynical, they disengage, and our democracy becomes less responsive and more corrupt.

It’s not hard to see these dynamics at work today. Obama was swept into office on a tide of change and hope. His first year as president, however, has been characterized by the stark contrast between the enormous promise of the change—the promise of sweeping investments through stimulus, of climate-change reform, of financial re-regulation, of comprehensive health care reform—and the depressing reality: united and embittered opposition from Republicans, the relentless compromising and capitulating, and the angry distrust roiling around the country. The election of Scott Brown was a manifestation of this anger and disillusionment. So are the Tea Partiers. And so is the present state of the Democratic Caucus.

In this world of political despair, however, Lessig’s message is ultimately one of hope. His organization is based upon the premise that we need only enact a few bold procedural reforms—like citizen-funded elections and a Constitutional amendment—to make our country work again. But one wonders: is this true? Perhaps our problems are deeper. Has a culture of individualism undermined our ability to come together as a people and govern on behalf of the collective? Or perhaps our Constitution is simply too antiquated and too sclerotic to meet the demands of the modern world. Perhaps our present state is an indication of a broader failure of the American experiment in self-governance. To Lessig, the problem is money, only money. I’d like to think that he’s right.