Tim: Larry, one of our readers has asked: What do you think if you reach all the goals that you have right now for the Mayday PAC, what will prevent lawmakers from finding other loopholes in laws that do something that’s similar but not quite the same as campaign contributions. We’ve seen it with FISA and DMCA that people can’t necessarily get some sort of legislative advantage—they’ll try it again and try it again the next year. So if you get rid of all corporate money in government, do you think that’s the only avenue for undue influence? What is the answer to someone who says that this isn’t enough to really remove that sort of influence in government?
Larry: So there is an idea good enough for government work that I think we need to embrace and understand. It is a standard way below the standard of typical technologists. It is a standard that’s hard for, I think, technologists to accept—but here’s the idea: If we change the way elections are funded, we will give Congress a chance to actually think of something other than what the big funders care about, when they make a decision. Now they could still make the wrong decision—they could still make a stupid decision. They can still make a completely biased or ill-informed decision. There is no guarantee that this creates good government. But what it does do is give them the freedom, ‘the freedom to lead’, as Buddy Roemer used to say. Because they are no longer focused on what this tiny tiny fraction of the 1% care about. So nothing we are offering is about perfection. We are offering the first necessary step. To get us out of the pathology that we are in right now.
Tim: Okay. So another critical and this one is a slightly different type of critical questions that a lot of our readers have, and I think this is also widespread, is they object to the idea of regulating the money that can be given to a political campaign, and they say that that is equivalent to speech; one reader asks, and I am going to say that this is somewhat facetiously, that aren’t you in that way, also calling for a prohibition of documentaries of the political bench, or books written by politicians who are in favor of a particular candidate? Distinguish the way money per se as a campaign contribution in that form is different from other forms of material support, and why it is that it is okay to limit contributions to a certain dollar amount for a person or group as opposed to other ways that people influence political campaigns themselves.
Larry: Great question. So the Mayday PAC is aiming at changing the way elections are funded. And the proposals that we pointed to don’t necessarily do anything directly about limiting people’s capacity to spend their money to speak.
Tim: But then we already have such restrictions anyhow with campaign contribution limits.
Larry: Right. But we are not focused on restrictions—we are focused on increasing the range of people who participate in the funding of elections. So there are two basic models that we’ve got: One is the voucher program—you can see it at reform.to—a voucher proposal, where every voter is given a voucher that they use to fund small dollar elections. The other is matching grant where you give a small contribution—it’s matched up to 9:1—that’s John Sarbanes’ proposal. Those two proposals don’t restrict anybody’s ability to contribute anything. Or don’t restrict people’s ability to spend their money speaking at all. All this is doing is making it, so candidates don’t spend all of their time literally 30% to 70% of their time, focused on the tiniest fraction of the 1%. So there are lots of people out there who are talking about much more radical changes—limiting the ability of people to contribute at all, stopping corporations from their ability to speak. We are not talking about that as the first steps of reform. We say, let’s change the way elections are funded. That is the first step. And that is the step that Mayday PAC will push into Congress.
Tim: Now that is obviously, a large and first step. Is there a 30-year plan for the Mayday PAC? What do you envision? Does a candidate it doesn’t seem like so much of a candidate-based idea as it does surely financial and organizational based. Will you organize a slate of approved candidates that are your recommendations? Or is it entirely at the policy level of who and how money is distributed?
Larry: Yeah. So God forbid, this is a 30-year project! We don’t have 30 years to fix this problem. The first step is getting our Congress to pass this fundamental reform. And we are going to make that step in two stages: The first stage in 2014 is to create the idea in people’s mind, it is kind of a Roger Bannister moment, it is like, “We can actually do this”, “We can actually elect candidates on the basis of this issue.” Because nobody in Washington believes you can. Nobody in Washington believes people care about this issue. So we are going to break the four-minute mile marker. We are going to elect people on the basis of this. Then in 2016 we are going to elect the majority of Congress focused on this issue. And then they pass this reform. Then Step 4 of our plan is, once we have a Congress that has been elected through this clean money like technique, then that Congress needs to begin to focus on the constitutional reforms necessary to preserve this independence that has been created by the statutory reform that we want to pass. Now, there are lots of reforms Congress needs. There are lots of reforms our political system needs. We are not saying this is the only—it might not even be the most important—but it is the first one. It is the reform that has got to happen before anything else can happen. Because it is the one reform that breaks the power of money to steer or control the way political policymakers function.
Tim: It’s a dependency for a lot of other things?
Larry: Absolutely. It is the first dependency for a whole bunch of other reforms.
Tim: Larry, one of our readers says: “I really like the idea of this PAC, I want to contribute, but I don’t want to undermine my other causes,” and as an example, he says, “Politician A is wrong on every issue but campaign finance reform—Politician B is right on all the other issues.” So he asks then specifically, will this PAC be promoting both liberal and conservative politicians who advocate on this one very important issue. The Mayday site says that five races will be targeted—what races and why those particular ones?
Larry: Yeah. What we know is this issue cannot be won unless we get those Democrats and Republicans to support it. So absolutely, by 2016, we’ve got to have a significant number of Republicans joining a very significant majority of Democrats, if we are going to win. And we are desperately finding and looking at candidates in the Republican Party who believe in this issue. There is a guy running for Senate in New Hampshire against Scott Brown—a guy named Jim Rubens—who has openly embraced the idea of vouchers as a way to fund elections. That’s the kind of Republican we are looking for. Now, I think I understand people looking at it and saying, “Well, this is just one issue, and I’ve got my other issues. Like I care about global warming, and so I care about global warming, and should not be worried about that issue first.” And I think that made sense for much of the 1990s and maybe the beginning part of this century. But the thing people have to recognize now is no matter what the issue is, you are not going to get sensible reform of that issue—until we fix this issue first. So the idea is not that I want to weigh this as more important than anything else. Again it is the dependency. It is: This has got to be fixed if you are going to get climate change or Wall Street reform, or simpler taxes, or deal with the debt, or student debt—all of these issues depend upon fixing this issue first. So if we fix this issue, then lots of different policies can flourish. If Republicans win or Libertarians win, then what they want to do is going to be easier once we have this change than it is right now. And the same thing with the people on the left. This is just enabling democracy to work. And then once it is enabled to work, then people will actually care enough to show up and do something in the democratic process.
Tim: When is it that people will know precisely which races are the ones that your PAC is going to choose to actually focus on?
Larry: Yeah. We have to first figure what the resources are before we pick. We can’t pick in advance. Because you don’t announce troop movements before the troops are ready to move. Like if we said, these are the five races and we want that to be engaged, then those five races will find a million reasons a million ways to attack what we are trying to do. So I get that that creates a little bit of anxiety and uncertainty. This is the only thing I can offer in response to that anxiety and uncertainty: We are in this for a long-term objective. We don’t care about winning. Five races won’t make it so that we get the legislation we want—it is not going to change anything really in Congress. Except break the four-minute mile barrier. Break the idea that this is impossible. So we want to do this in a way that it builds a movement that, in 2016, will be back with us so that we can win many many more races. So if we screw it up this year, if we pick the wrong kind of candidates, if we pick candidates that are only Liberal Democrats, or we kick out a bunch of Democrats in the name of crazy nonresponsive Republicans, we won’t be able to rally these people back with us when we get to 2016. So it is a hard choice—we’ve got about 15 people we are looking at right now. And a million dimensions to be considering. But the ultimate objective is clear—we want fundamental reform passed in 2016. And we want to be able to enable the movement to do that.
Tim: Now you’ve certainly been involved in things that are very political in nature before. You can think of the Creative Commons as having a lot of political implications. You’ve also described “law as code”—where does this fit in? I think you’ve called this “trying to change the operating system.” Can you explain a little bit about where the analogy falls when you talk about how much this sort of change affects everything else?
Larry: Yeah. I mean, I was pushed to do this, by Aaron, by Aaron Swartz. Seven years ago he came to me and he said, “How are you going to make any progress on the internet issues, or the corporate issues until we fix this corruption?” So what I recognized at that point was: All these other issues that as passionately as I cared about them, they were not going to get solved or addressed until we solved this issue. So this is fundamental. In the sense, it is the operating system. Because this democracy depends upon this operating system functioning in a way that is reliable and encourages people to participate in it. Now once you begin to think about that analogy, there is a lot that connects to the internet community. There is a great piece by Noam Scheiber in ‘The New Republic’ that basically says why Silicon Valley should care about this issue. He makes the point this is both metaphorically and actually the network neutrality debate. It is actually a network neutrality debate, because what we realize is: Unless we can deal with the money in politics problem, we are never going to have enough resources to step up and take on the cable companies and things like that. That is not the interesting point. The interesting point is: What we need is a democracy on the same model as a neutral network, right? We want a democracy that is in some sense is end to end—it is allowing people, all the people to participate in selecting the things they want. It is trying to disable the kind of entities in the middle that have the capacity to block or control how things are developing. And so, in that sense, I think that this project is fundamental to, is analogous to the work that I have always been doing in the context of internet politics. But even if it weren’t, the thing that is absolute is that: People have got to recognize that if we don’t fix this, we don’t fix anything. And we’ve got a whole slew of things that have to be fixed.
Tim: Are there any countries in the world right now that have a system that is, in your mind, close to what you are proposing? I don’t know of any countries that for instance use a voucher system to let people express what they believe in that way—I am wondering: Is there any place or country or two that actually does something like this?
Larry: Well, most other mature democracies are different in two really important ways: 1) They are parliaments. 2) They don’t have a First Amendment the way we do. Because they are parliaments, elections are not regular. So there is not a permanent campaign, there is a time when they govern, and the majority party actually can govern, and then there is an election. The election could be six weeks or two months or something like that. That’s a really important difference. And number two, no other country has interpreted their free speech provision to be as restrictive as our Supreme Court has interpreted ours. So what those two constraints mean is there won’t be any country that has something precisely analogous to what we have. But here’s the thing that every other successful democracy has, that we need—the members of parliament, or the members of those congresses do not spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money from the tiniest fraction of the 1% in those countries. In parliaments, I spoke in the Swedish parliament about Creative Commons, but I also talked about this issue. A member of parliament came up to me—in fact, he was a geek, he was a free software coder, he worked on the GNU Linux kernel, the Linux kernel, and he said to me, “In my eight years in parliament, I’ve never, literally never once asked anybody for money. Never. That’s just not what we do.” It kind of struck me, as a shocking idea. Imagine a congress filled with people who are not constantly thinking, “What does that rich fat cat want me to do so that he or she is going to fund my campaign so that I can get back into getting into power?” It seems impossible to Americans to imagine a different system. But the reality is no other democracy comes close to the craziness of this system. And it is completely trivially possible to create this alternative. If we had a voucher system, that would cost $3 to $4 billion a year. Now the Cato Institute the libertarian think tank estimates that last year the amount of corporate welfare the United States government spent was $100 billion. So if we could spend $3 to $4 billion a year, and cut that corporate welfare by 10%, we would have paid for it two to three times over, right? So this is a trivial problem to solve from a financial perspective. But it would radically change the incentives of our government to be answering to these crazy extreme crony capitalist like demands or to the bailout demands. Whatever your complaint is, it would refuse, it would remove those kinds of crazy constraints.
Tim: I think a lot of people might object in the same way that they do that they fail to check the boxes as they contribute to the electoral campaign on taxes, and say, “I will support it if I want, but I don’t want to be required to give money to anyone else’s campaign systematically. I don’t want to be part of it.”
Larry: Yeah. That’s a great great concern. And that’s why I really personally favor vouchers. The presidential campaign fund is basically a system where the federal government decides how much money each candidate gets and then writes them a check. And people aren't happy with this, right? We say, “Hey, why is my money being used to subsidize speech I don’t believe in?” And, “why does the federal government get to decide how much people get to spend on a political campaign? It seems just wrong.” Now the voucher system is fundamentally different. What a voucher system says is we are going to rebate the first, in my proposal, $50 of your taxes in the form of a voucher. And then you can use that voucher—either tear it up if you want—but you can use that voucher to find candidates who agree to fund their campaigns with small dollar vouchers and maybe contributions up to $100.
Tim: They are not using the Federal Election Commission as a sort of intermediary in that way, like the current checkoff vote?
Larry: Exactly. You, the individual, are choosing who gets the money. And it is your money you are giving to them, right? Well, people say, “No, no it is tax money you are getting back.” Now you got to embrace your inner tea party—“What do you mean tax money? It is my money. The government had it, it is giving it back to me. And I’m taking that money and I’m giving it to the candidate I care about.” And everybody else is doing the same thing. So nobody is subsidizing anything. There is no government bureaucrat who is deciding how much anybody gets. There is no equality norm that says everybody gets the same amount—it is just like voting. But instead of my resource being a ballot, my resource is a voucher. It is exactly the same idea but now extended to the funding of campaigns as well as to the selecting of a candidate.
Tim: Let me ask one more question that may also be about people’s inner tea party here: The biggest comparison people have drawn in our comments is, they say there is this effort called the Wolf PAC, and that is aiming for constitutional as opposed to legislative reform. Can you briefly distinguish why it is that you are going for something slightly different? They also have in mind fairness of elections, and fairness of the way they are paid for, but you’ve decided that constitutional reform directly is not the way to start.
Larry: So I love Wolf PAC. I work with Wolf PAC. I flung myself to every corner to the country to testify on Wolf PAC’s behalf in favor of the call that Wolf PAC is making for state legislators to vote to demand Congress created Article 5 convention—I am all for that. But we’ve got to move on a number of different fronts at the same time. Even if we got a constitutional change tomorrow that said that Congress had the power to limit the amount of money that was given to Super PACs or something like that, we still would need to pass a law to change the way elections are funded. The Supreme Court has no doubt made this problem much worse. But even if the Court had gotten every decision right, we still would have a system where the tiniest fraction of the 1% funds campaigns. So nothing we are doing is against Wolf PAC. I support Wolf PAC. But we’ve got to both change the statutory regime that makes it possible for us to have citizen funded elections where everybody is funding elections, not just the tiniest fraction of the 1%, and also back-stop that change with whatever constitutional reform as necessary. That’s why the plan that we’ve set up is four steps. The fourth step is: After we’ve got a Congress that is elected under the right way, pass the kind of constitutional reforms that is necessary to preserve the changes that we had enacted through legislation.
Tim: Do you see any irony in a Super PAC with the stated goal of removing the sort of influence that Super PACs have had?
Larry: Yeah. It’s ironic. Our slogan is “Embrace the Irony.” But it is not anything more than ironic. Because if you think of the history of reforms that have made this a more just democracy, you know there was a time when only white males could vote. And a bunch of people thought, “That’s unjust.” So they brought about an amendment that in theory at least (it took a hundred years before this was relevant) but in theory at least, that blacks could vote too. Of course, it was only black males. But there it was—blacks could vote too. Now when they did that, they used an unjust system to produce a more just system. If somebody had said, “Why do you want to use this unjust system to give blacks the right to vote?” I would have said, “Oh yeah, why not? Let’s use whatever we can to get a more just system.” The same thing when women did not have the right to vote. And then men, pushed on by women of course, but men said, “Okay, let’s change the law to give women the right to vote.” That was an unjust system being used to create a more unjust system. So too here. My view is: A system that allows people to contribute unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs is an unjust system—we need to change it. But we are going to change it using the system that exists. We are going to use whatever legal means we can to bring about a more just system. And when we get to that more just system, people will be able to create PACs, independent PACs too—they just won’t be able to contribute unlimited amounts to these PACs. Because that system produces a world like what we saw in 2012, where 132 people contributed 60% of the money spent by these Super PACs. So we need to create changes. We are going to do that in every legal way we can, including by employing this unjust device to produce a more just system.