Wow: Larry Lessig Interviews Jack Abramoff

from the don't-miss-it dept

I just came across this, which actually happened a month ago: Larry Lessig, who is focused entirely on figuring out ways to stop systematic corruption in Washington DC, interviewing disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, widely considered the perfect example of corruption in DC. The 1.5 hour discussion is an attempt to not just go over Abramoff’s history, but to educate how the Congressional system works. It’s worth watching in its entirety:

There’s certainly a lot of talk about how much of a role money plays in Congress, and how direct some elected officials are in “soliciting bribes” (in Abramoff’s words). He actually says that it has become “more subtle” these days than in the past, and that this might be the way that some elected officials “feel better about themselves” in asking people for money in exchange for influence.

One key point that Abramoff makes, is that government is a “tool to wage war.” He talks about how Congressional hearings are kangaroo courts designed to just cause problems for people or companies that someone doesn’t like. He notes that “even if it goes well,” you have to spend a million dollars just to get ready for the hearing. So, setting up a hearing is a way to cause problems for “enemies.” Indeed, we’ve talked about how legacy industries regularly use government as a weapon against competitors and upstarts — and how troubling it can be when new comers get sucked into the system.

There’s a long discussion about the power of staffers on the Hill, rather than the actual elected officials (who “never read the actual bills”). They note that staffers are the real power. Abramoff talks about how he never wanted to hire the actual Congressional Reps, but always focused on hiring staffers. And then he makes a key admission that won’t surprise many people. He says that, early on, he focused on hiring people when he had job openings. But, later, he would talk to staffers — especially chiefs of staff — and just let them know he had a job opening for them whenever they wanted it. And he would ask them: “When do you want to start?” If they said “two years,” he knew that the guy was already working for him, but on the inside. As he says “I really hired him that day,” even though he went on for two more years working as a chief-of-staff to someone in Congress.

Abramoff notes that most lobbyists, staffers and elected officials aren’t taking it to the criminal level — like he did. And that the real problems are in what’s already legal. He notes that, for himself, he didn’t care about what was legal or what wasn’t — he just wanted to “win” at any cost. But he says most others are at least more conscious of staying on the legal side of the line, even if it’s “legally” corrupt.

From there, they go into a discussion of Abramoff’s own suggestions for reforming the system. That part of the discussion is really interesting, but feels a bit more down in the weeds, as Lessig and Abramoff more or less debate their own personal plans (and their own books) for reforming Congress, campaign finance and lobbying. And, finally, there are audience questions, which are interesting, but don’t really delve that deeply into the overall discussion. Either way, definitely worth watching.

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Comments on “Wow: Larry Lessig Interviews Jack Abramoff”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The only way to change it is to change the dynamics of it.
The discussion of laws and politics happens where they congregate it is all focused in one place with feel people actually doing the debate.

For change to come for real those debates have to happen in the open, with the public, the public must get interested and have the tools to do it, that means communicating ideas, exchange of data and so forth, which is all possible today, what there is not is an easy interface that anyone can use, we can call this the lack of the iPhone moment, that made an interface that made it sexy to interact with a phone like it was a computer.

Don’t know how it will turn out, if you give people the real power to enact laws, but seriously it can’t be more bad than letting a few mostly professional liars do that job.

Anonymous Coward says:

Perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. As he mentions in the video, a lot of centralized power can be a good thing for lobbyists (though it can also be a bad thing if lobbyists don’t have anything that those in power want, such as is the case in a dictatorship, not that I propose such a system).

Why should we allow other officials to pass laws on our behalf? Why can’t laws be directly voted for by the people? Sure, this may make it more difficult to pass laws and may slow down the legislative process, but what’s wrong with that? Any important laws will be easily voted for by the people. The people should propose bills and if they get enough signatures in a petition they get voted on by everyone. and the people can vote for or against them and they can even have a line item veto.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It was always a tyranny of the majority, that is the whole point of having a democracy.

Besides, politicians are no better, some of them are even ex-convicts, but what is worse they all came from the same society you are calling stupid, they share all the flaws of the stupid people you are afraid of and most of them are equally if not more stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified.

With people voting and requiring a majority to enact anything actually would be better it means fewer laws and only ones that everybody can agree and live with it, that was the whole point of the creation of representatives, but we are approaching a time where we won’t need representatives to vote for things for others they can and should make their voices heard.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

This is the cry I so often hear from those who live on the backs of the sheep. It attempts to justify their treatment of the people who pay their wages.

But it misses another very important point: many other voters are very smart/highly educated/well informed/fully qualified, etc.

In direct contrast it can also be said that many (most?) politicians are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

The only realistic reason to avoid letting the population vote on every law is that it would be both expensive and impractical. However that may be changing with continued advances in both security and technology.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

I see no reason with it being expensive, it will reduce the number of laws passed and that’s what we need.

“Ignorance is no excuse to law” assumes that we can practically know the law. These days that saying doesn’t really apply like it used to because there are lawyers who specialize in very narrow fields of law. No one can practically know all the laws today.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

(In reference to my last paragraph, can someone remember the famous quote that mentions something like this? I remember reading one, I know it was written by someone famous like Thomas Jefferson or Madison or Abraham Lincoln, can’t remember who it was).

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

I think it was an English judge named John Selden sometime between 1584 and 1654.

The full quote is “Ignorance of the law excuses no man: Not that all men know the law, but because ’tis an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to refute him.”

Courtesy of

Thanks for making me look that up. I always have wondered where it came from. As for famous, well the quote is the judge far less so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

Here is an interesting quote, though it’s still not the one I’m thinking of.

?The current convention of law-as-instruction-manual suffers the idiocies of central planning, forcing everyone to go through the day with their noses in rule books instead of using their common sense.” -Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard

After looking some more, I found the quote.

“It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

It takes considerable money to establish and maintain the voting booths and security checks across the nation each time an election or other vote is required. This expense would be required for each attempt even if the law was voted out. Unfortunately that can add up to a lot of money, especially if some small but rich group wants to try pushing through a special interest law like this one.

Of course that excuse would disappear if we could utilize the internet for voting purposes. That is not currently realistic, but with security technology constantly improving it may soon become possible.

As a side note: Ancient Greece once had exactly such a system of direct democracy in which all citizens could directly vote on all issues and laws. To this day it remains the most stable example of democracy in action and was a golden period for the Greek citizens. However it drove their neighbouring rulers crazy and they were eventually defeated in battle. Look it up, it’s worth the study.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: many voters are stupid/ignorant/uninformed/unqualified, etc.

I consider myself smart, educated, and informed, but there are many issues that I have no understanding of and would simply defer to experts in that field. I don’t think anyone is so well-rounded they can vote confidently on any issue, and few are so interested in legislation that they would read each law in its entirely in order to vote with full knowledge. People have lives and other interests and we need that. I am happy to choose someone to represent me in these matters in a professional manner.

The biggest problem is that I have very little choice in representatives. I had three times as many options for mayor than I did for congress or the senate, and our two party presidential elections are a joke. We need to get the money out of elections and have more choices.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps a solution is to have a constitutional republic where the constitution says that all laws passed must apply to everyone (ie: all races, genders, etc…) equally. So, for example, the majority can not vote for something like enslaving a racial minority (which may seem absurd today, but in the past would not have been and we shouldn’t make assumption about our distant future because a lot of things in our legal system today were probably perceived as absurd when the founding fathers wrote the constitution, such as IP lengths and retroactive extensions and patent abuse) because if they do that then courts will strike it down on a constitutional basis. Perhaps the constitution should require a 2/3 or a 3/4 public majority vote to amend.

Toot Rue (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Require a supermajority or even higher for anything that adds a regulation or increases spending. Tyranny of the majority isn’t as much a factor when a large percentage of us agree we want to be tyrannized.

Implement the converse proposition – require a superminority to remove a regulation or reduce spending – and I think we’d have an eminently well behaved government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In the information age is just ridiculous that laws don’t expire.

Courts should compile a list of laws used and see what is used for what is used and the effects that laws have on the system, then we would get some useful information to see what needs to be done and what should or could be trimmed to make the system more lean.

Things only will change when some geek comes up with an interface that others can use to create, modify, debate and vote laws, then we bring the discussion to the streets and not Washington they already proved they can’t be trusted to do the job of representing people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Congressional Reform

One of Abramoff’s suggestions for reform is that various people be banned from donating. That will not work. As the record companies have demonstrated with payola, simply passing the money through an intermediary is enough to get around any ban. No, what is needed is to take away the overwhelming motive for asking for so much money in the first place. Government financing of re-election campaigns is the answer. There should be enough government money available to parties to finance a modest re-election campaign. Congress critters have to be able to think, “The government financing of the campaign is enough, provided I am not extravagant.” The money goes to the party, not the candidate, so that the party could change the candidate without losing funding. That allows parties to discipline candidates who get themselves into trouble in office.

The other thing is to change your electoral system to the same as we have in Australia — preferential voting. Every single member of our House of Representatives has been elected by 50% or more of the electorate. That is better and fairer. Third parties have a better chance of winning. First-past-the-post inevitably degenerates into two parties. Then one of the parties goes bad (Republicans, in your case) and the other one follows them down. Result, two parties that are nearly as bad as each other and no way out. That is where you are now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Congressional Reform

I don’t really see term limits as a solution. If anything, that could make the revolving door problem even worse. People will enter Congress not thinking “I will be working for this institution in thirty years”, instead, they will enter thinking “Who will I work for when I’m done working for Congress and how can I do them favors while in Congress”. and you would have a lot more people who have worked for Congress (which is harder to publicly track), a Congress that regulates many industries, what, are you going to force all these people to never work for any industry?

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Congressional Reform

I don’t think that would solve the problem. Let’s say I can’t give you money, can’t run ads “independently” etc… Well, I can still hire your most trust advisers to come back and advocate my position to you. I win.

The problem is that the government has things that some people want. As long as the government can hand out goodies to politically powerful groups, they will. What we need to do is to decentralize power as much as possible. When the rep gets approached, I don’t want them to say: “I don’t need your money.” I want them to say: “I can’t do it.”

As an alternative, we could radically decentralize the power to a point where lobbying is just not worth it.

Anonymous Coward says:

One interesting point that was raised in the video is the return on lobbying investment.

If the return on lobbying investment is so high then why don’t more entities lobby to the point where they receive a normal return.

I have two possible answers for that.

A: Morality. For instance, the tech industry has long stayed out of Washington (though that’s now changing) because they saw them as corrupt and they were too busy innovating and didn’t want to participate in what they seen as corruption.

B: We have a winner takes all system. So, perhaps we indirectly have a ‘winner donates all’ system. Why should the loser donate anything?

firefly (profile) says:

Connect the dots - Leahy's chief of staff leaving for Obama admin.

On Thursday, Leahy backed off on DNS. On Friday, Leahy announces that his Chief of Staff Ed Pagano is leaving to be Obama’s liaison with the Senate. And here we read that Abramoff “would talk to staffers — especially chiefs of staff — and just let them know he had a job opening for them whenever they wanted it.” Also, there’s the big splashy White House announcement supposedly against SOPA/PIPA. Anyone want to speculate on how these dots are connected?

I, for one, trust Leahy, who took very unpopular stands against both the Iraq and Vietnam wars. I think he really views piracy as stealing and has been blinded by his passion against stealing to the nuances of this issue. I think Vermonters might be getting through to him that eating Gilfeather turnips isn’t stealing. John Gilfeather of Wardsboro, VT, and the developer of the Gilfeather turnip, would cut the bottoms and tops off them before selling them, so that no one else could grow them – DRM for the 19th century.

Full disclosure: I’m from Vermont.

nevermore669 says:

Another Link

I absolutely LOVE Linux (kubuntu user), but flash support for linux absolutely sucks!

I had problems watching this video from youtube, so here is the link to the Harvard page. It’s a quicktime vid, on an rtsp stream. I had trouble with it, too (it wouldn’t open – my gecko-mediaplayer plugin was just saving the playlist shortcut in the cache and not actually playing the video). I had to open the shortcut (playlist file) in Kate (gedit will do) and remove some garbage from the beginning of the url (RTSPtext), which left me with a valid url that I could paste into the streaming dialogue of vlc and play the video.

Heck with it! Here is the rtsp link: rtsp://

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Another Link


VLC can play flash videos, also it can parse Youtube links and play them directly, it does all the job and after the video starts it gives you the temporary url to the video if you click on the video properties, it is much easier than using Wireshark which can get you the same information or using Chrome’s development tools to watch the network transactions which gives you the same information or using TamperData in Firefox to watch the network.

Osno (profile) says:

Not being from the US, I always found it weird (and disturbing) that it’s legal in the US to give any money to an elected official. Both Abramoff and Lessig seem to think that it’s impossible that no money is given, but still that’s the way it works almost everywhere else. The only reform needed is no money or perks of any kind (including employment) to anyone in an elected role, or their staff. Lobbying should be used to explain the problems, not to push for legislation. And officials should use this information to vote based on their beliefs and those of their constituents. I, being an outsider, don’t see the problem with that.

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