One of America's most important and influential public intellectuals, Lawrence Lessig, an internationally renowned writer, a social critic, a political activist, a Harvard law professor, and, above all, an indefatigable and relentlessly brilliant scholar, visited Lafayette last Wednesday to deliver the keynote address at ABiz's annual Top 50 Privately Held Companies luncheon. Although Lessig may not be popularly well-known outside of legal and media circles, many of his creative, engaging, and fast-paced multimedia lectures, particularly those he's delivered at national TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences have gone viral, collecting millions of views and educating the public on everything from copyright law to broadband infrastructure to his newest and perhaps most important cause, campaign finance reform.
I flew down to Lafayette the day before, so that I could attend a private party that night with Lessig and about two dozen others, including - righteously - the leaders of a few big businesses and local Chambers of Commerce. I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
In the wake of Citizens United, Lessig's argument against the corporatization of political campaigns resonated strongly with like-minded liberals, an argument that was bolstered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's blistering dissent in the subsequent decision in Hobby Lobby. Corporations, according to a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court, could donate unlimited amounts of money to influence American elections, a right that has never been afforded to individual citizens; and, if those corporations are closely-held - like so many of America's largest companies are - they may also claim "personhood" for the purposes of denying employees, on religious grounds, insurance and health care benefits to which they would have otherwise been entitled.
I was interested to hear what Lessig would say to an almost exclusively conservative audience of successful businessmen and businesswomen in the heart of what is now a deeply red area of the country. After all, some of these folks, even a couple of college political science professors who moonlight as "economists," once argued that the federal government's temporary moratorium against awarding new offshore oil and gas permits in the aftermath of the largest environmental disaster in American history would result in the collapse of the Lafayette economy: tens of thousands of jobs, gone forever.
That, of course, didn't happen. Actually, in the next two years, Lafayette became one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. According to a recent study by Harvard and the University of British Columbia, Lafayette is now the happiest city in the country. (My hometown, Alexandria, placed fifth).
Forty years ago, Lafayette had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country, but today, it should be clear that a substantial bulk of that money had just been sitting in banks, collecting interest, waiting for the right time to spend and the right price to buy.
I asked Lawrence Lessig if he'd ever been to Louisiana. "New Orleans," he said, "but I've never been here in Lafayette." Ironically, perhaps, Lafayette, the birthplace of the modern-day Louisiana Republican Party and a bastion of conservatives who believe in market deregulation, first came across Lessig's radar after it successfully defeated entrenched, multinational telecommunications companies and rolled out a municipal fiber-to-the-home broadband initiative, arguably the most "progressive" accomplishment of any city in the American South. Early on, Lafayette leaders, including Republican City-Parish President Joey Durel, recognized that the Internet wasn't merely a service; it was a public utility that powered the new economy.
Shortly after Lafayette rolled out fiber-to-the-home, a service that offers exponentially faster Internet access to residents for less than they'd pay from private-sector providers, the state Legislature, at the behest of telecom lobbyists, passed a series of laws, which were enacted by Gov. Bobby Jindal, that made it nearly impossible for any other city in Louisiana to do the same thing. And not long after, Jindal squandered and ultimately rejected $80 million in federal broadband funding for Northeast and Central Louisiana, areas of the state that suffer from some of the worst Internet infrastructure in the entire country, creating a "digital divide" that prevents rural and inner-city, predominately poor, and predominately African-American citizens from competing in an economy built and reliant on high-speed internet access.
Jindal, however, wasn't worried about providing a modern-day utility to the citizens of Louisiana; instead, he feared that a cheaper, faster, federally-funded, and locally-owned broadband service would undercut the profits being made by entrenched, out-of-state, mega-billion dollar telecommunications companies:
"This grant called for a heavy-handed approach from the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private businesses," said Jindal. "We have an administration in Washington that wants to run car companies, banks, our entire health care system and now they want to take over the broadband business. We won't stand for that in Louisiana."
That's a bunch of delicious red meat. It's also a pack of lies that distracts from the real issues here: Broadband infrastructure is not the same thing as the broadband business, and Jindal's decision to sabotage an $80 million federal grant, at the behest of telecom lobbyists, foreclosed the opportunity to dramatically improve Internet access for those in Louisiana who need it the most.
But somehow, in conservative Lafayette, under a Republican city-parish president, citizens were willing to invest in Internet as infrastructure - the same way they do for water, gas, sanitation and electricity. Today, the dividends are starting to pay back. For the first time in its history, Lafayette is now actively (and often successfully) competing for large technology companies offering high-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, Bobby Jindal continues to offer countless millions, if not billions of dollars, to dirty, risky, and expensive manufacturing facilities throughout Louisiana, facilities that rely on a rotating supply of low-paid employees from vocational schools and the hope, despite the science, that these "technologies" aren't actually poisoning our aquifers or contributing to seismographic disturbances or, more broadly, destroying our environment.
But even if the particular industry isn't sustainable, Jindal hopes the type of jobs they offer can be. So, while he guts higher education more than any other governor in the country, he's also invested in expanding and propping up vocational and technical colleges. Ordinarily, that would be a good thing, as long as those investments were made in concert with increasing investments in public and higher education and in engineering, technology, mathematics and science, a subject that the Ivy League educated Brown graduate prefers to outsource to radical religious fundamentalists and New Earth Creationists.
To quote Vice President Joe Biden, "Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value."
At the party the night before his presentation, Lessig was pensive and soft-spoken, but even from across the room, I noticed that he was soaking in conversations from a variety of people who all represented different political, economic and sociological perspectives. Yet, somehow they all seemed to agree with his central thesis: The influence of money in our political process, regardless of where it may be from, erodes our ability to be a truly equitable democracy.
The next day, during his keynote speech in front of approximately 770 people, Lessig did something I've never seen anyone do in front of a group of almost entirely white, predominately conservative Republican, and almost exclusively successful audience: He delivered a rapid-fire 45 minute multi-media presentation that plainly, politely and unequivocally unpacked the inheritance of conservative white privilege, beginning with the Civil War and then reminding the audience that during Reconstruction Texas and other Southern States, as a way of circumventing the 15th Amendment, held "whites-only primaries," which effectively ensured that only white candidates would be on the ballot.
Lessig also quoted from another scandalous moment in American history, the Tammany Hall scandal where William Tweed said: "I don't care who does the voting so long as I get to do the nominating."
Lessig juxtaposed Boss Tweed's quote with the idea that there is now a "green primary," which he was careful to say does not mean environmentalists. In the same ways in which the whites after the Civil War were able to "do the nominating," the massive influence of corporate donations today, according to Lessig, allows the wealthy to unduly influence support for candidates aligned with their interests, even if those interests are not shared by the vast majority of a candidate's constituency.
In America, money talks.
I encourage you to watch Professor Lessig's recent speech on this issue at TED, which was very similar to what we heard in Lafayette.
Lessig never mentioned this, but I encourage those in Louisiana to think about it: Where did the higher-ed money go? And the health care money? Medicaid Expansion? What about the broadband money? Or the money to build high speed rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge? And the sand berms? The levee board suit? Why are we privatizing our schools and our prisons and our hospitals? Louisiana now faces a $1.2 billion deficit under Jindal, a remarkable figure considering the promises that we'd be exponentially making more money if the state just followed Jindal's prescription. Who is running our government? Who is really calling the shots?
After Lessig wrapped up his remarks, the audience cheered, and he spent the next 30 minutes signing books and taking pictures with an unlikely audience: A group of highly successful Lafayette businesspeople who all seemed to recognize the corrosive effects of our current campaign finance regime.