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The perils of openness in government
October 11, 2009 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Against Transparency. "How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement--if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness--will inspire not reform, but disgust. The 'naked transparency movement,' as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff." [Via]
posted by homunculus (94 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, penned by Lawrence Lessig. I haven't read it all yet but when I first loaded the page I was shocked.
posted by mathowie at 11:02 AM on October 11, 2009


It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

And this would be bad why?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:03 AM on October 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


"It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff."

What's wrong with pushing misplaced faith over a cliff?
posted by Brian B. at 11:05 AM on October 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


I kept reading and hoping this would turn out to be about Photoshop, but alas.
posted by Behemoth at 11:06 AM on October 11, 2009 [9 favorites]


I thought it was a very interesting article, particularly given the Conservatives in the UK (who are poised to form the next Government) have brought Tom Steinberg of MySociety on board as an advisor to help them extend exactly these sorts of activities.

I have always thought that in public as well as personal life, total transparency is a recipe for distrust rather than trust. Dodgy connexions between issues are easily imputed and only refuted with difficulty. Take Jack Straw, for instance, the UK Justice Secretary, who has been criticised just today for supporting a fundraising campaign in his home district, which approached the Emir of Qatar and obtained £1.5m funding for a new mosque.

Add it up as "foreign despot + Government minister + £1.5m + home district" and it sounds like the epitome of corruption. But, if you look at it another way, what is an MP meant to do when his constituents want to build a mosque - tell them to get lost? Oppose their campaign?
posted by athenian at 11:09 AM on October 11, 2009


Well, we've tried invisible corruption and back-room dealing for so long, why dismiss transparency without even really trying it?

And how do we judge transparency without knowing *all* the fact - that is, without being transparent about it?

Lessig makes plenty of good points though, and the article is well worth the time it takes to read it.
posted by DreamerFi at 11:18 AM on October 11, 2009


will inspire not reform, but disgust.

Disgust can also lead to reform.

I'm only a couple of pages in, but the arguments he's putting forth are thusfar unconvincing.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:21 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the "transparency movement" flows largely from two sources :

(1) social networking --- Facebook will give the CIA a wealth of information about the next Che Guevara. So I say social networking sites should change people's expectations for elected officials.

(2) George W. Bush --- Can anyone make a better argument for transparency than "look at the previous 8 years"?
posted by jeffburdges at 11:22 AM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


So, the argument put forth is that transparency is bad because the public pays attention to the wrong things? That isn't an argument against transparency, it is an argument for better reporting of the things which are transparent. The public doesn't need to be kept in the dark -- it needs a Fourth Estate which is less focused on sensationalistic ratings grabbing and more intent on creating clarity out of chaos.

But then at the end of the article, the focus shifts from being about transparency to being about campaign finance reform? And along the way, he takes sideways snipes at revealing the connections between doctors and Big Pharma, peer-to-peer networks, craigslist, and content aggregators? I don't think he's arguing against transparency. I think it was a convenient framework upon which to hang his general malcontent screed about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and these damn kids with their newfangled ideas need to just get off his lawn.
posted by hippybear at 11:22 AM on October 11, 2009 [16 favorites]


"Let their actions refute such libels. Believe me, virtue is not long darkened by the clouds of calumny; and the temporary pain which it causes is infinitely overweighed by the safety it insures against degeneracy in the principles and conduct of public functionaries. When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property." -- Thomas Jefferson
posted by jeffburdges at 11:29 AM on October 11, 2009 [11 favorites]


Somebody got to Lessig! We are through the looking-glass here.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:29 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Surely if, as Lessig seems to conclude, the all-encompassing and unspecific cynicism that he envisions to be the consequence of transparency puts pressure on elected officials to give up on private campaign funding altogether and embrace a public funding model (as, for example, corruption under the governorship of John Rowland in Connecticut and his impeachment led to that state's adoption of public funding), that cynicism is a good thing?
posted by enn at 11:30 AM on October 11, 2009


How does Lessig square this with his own Change Congress which makes accusations similar to the ones he's complaining about constantly? Oh wait, towards the end he starts pushing his own campaign finance reform agenda (not that such a reform would be a bad idea) but talk about lack of transparency. He's holding up transparency as a straw man, pushing his own reform agenda behind it.

Transparency simply reveals the data so that others can look at it. THe inferences we reach from that data can be for good and bad. Politicians have always pulled out meaningless data to pull out of context and parade around to mar the other guys image. All this transparency does is give them a bigger data set.
posted by cyphill at 11:32 AM on October 11, 2009


It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

If our political system is actually that shitty, then faith in it belongs at the bottom of a canyon in a hundred pieces.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:39 AM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


THe inferences we reach from that data can be for good and bad

I think his point is, the inferences are always bad. Partly because people don't have complete information -- "transparency" often devolves into "X gave $Y to Z" -- and partly because people don't have adequate attention spans, all you'll accomplish is to reduce people's confidence in the government.

I'm not convinced that's a bad outcome, though.
posted by spacewrench at 11:46 AM on October 11, 2009


"Nobody made a greater mistake than they who did nothing because they could do only a little." 
- Edmund Burke</pre?

posted by blue_beetle at 11:51 AM on October 11, 2009


Anybody who ever suggest Lessig for the Supreme Court: I accept your apology.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:52 AM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Basically what's happened here is that an idealistic and somewhat naive (by his own admission) lawyer has decided to push his idealistic ideas of reform by entering the world of politics, and now that he's there, he's seeing things from a politician's perspective.
posted by baf at 11:57 AM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


For those short on time, a summary: Transparency can sometimes be bad. The solution is unknown.
posted by storybored at 12:00 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The argument appears to be that "if we had transparency, people would sometimes misread the data (and blame politicians for things)". Which is a terrible argument in and of itself - let's get the data out there and then we can refute the misreadings using actual reasoning and mathematics.

And yet his example is so bizarrely unsupportive of any argument against transparency - something like, "people see politicians consistently take large donations and then change their opinions, and somehow use that to deduce that politicians opinions are swayed by these donations."

Well, yes. It's pretty clear that this is exactly the case - politicians are swayed by donations! And it's an essential part of people's political record, one that is revealed only by transparency. Is he proposing that corporations be allowed to make secret contributions to political campaigns?

Am I completely missing his point?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:03 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Regardless of the pitfalls of transparency, and the likelihood of ever more disruption of the sausage-making process, I fall very strongly onto the "total transparency" side for one simple reason: It evens the playing field. Corporations and the government seem to have no qualms about knowing what sort of toothpaste I use, or how frequently I get certain prescription medications, so if they're going to keep a file on me, I want a file on them.

I DO want to know what corporate ties my doctor may have -- if he gets money from Pfizer and every time I go in he's finding some excuse to shill their latest drug, then I know he's not truly working in my interest. And the same goes with political contributions -- I want to know if my Senator was paid by a lobbying group in a manner or time that seems to have influenced their vote.
posted by chimaera at 12:06 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks, storybored. (And, eponysterical, no?) The fact that I read many paragraphs in without having any sense of what Lessig's thesis is was pretty disappointing. The endless throat-clearing got so ponderous I just had to give up. I mean, it takes until paragraph eight before he offers this startling observation:

But will the effect of these projects--at least on their own, unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations--really be for the good? Do we really want the world that they righteously envisage?

How fascinating and insightful. Eleven paragraphs later, there's this equally vague claim:

And it is this that the naked transparency movement has not done. For there are overwhelming reasons why the data about influence that this movement would produce will not enable comparisons that are meaningful. This is not to say the data will not have an effect. It will. But the effect, I fear, is not one that anybody in the "naked transparency movement," or any other thoughtful citizen, would want.

I couldn't go any further, though I did do a quick count and found about thirty-five sentences which ended in question marks.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:12 PM on October 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


So, the argument put forth is that transparency is bad because the public pays attention to the wrong things? That isn't an argument against transparency, it is an argument for better reporting of the things which are transparent. The public doesn't need to be kept in the dark -- it needs a Fourth Estate which is less focused on sensationalistic ratings grabbing and more intent on creating clarity out of chaos.

I think it was a convenient framework upon which to hang his general malcontent screed about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and these damn kids with their newfangled ideas need to just get off his lawn.


I think you misunderstand his argument. He's structured it rather oddly, but the crux of it is not transparency --- it's attention. That is, it takes attention and time to study and issue and truly determine whether the actions of an individual are corrupt or not. It takes a lot less time to pluck a few sugestive facts out of a pile of data and lay them on the table, sans comment. When it comes to public opinion, the implication can be as damaging as conviction.

You seem to suggest that it is the job of the Fourth Estate to filter out such things for us, to grab us by the scruff of our necks, as it were, and force us to pay attention to truly important subjects. But that's one of the things he touches upon in his article --- the Fourth Estate has not been and will not be untouched by the revolution. When any news sources is competing against all news sources, sensationalizm inevitable predominates, because you have a million hacks fighting over quite small and limited scraps of citizen's attention. That's why he mentions that only 10% of papers have more than 4 investigative journalists. 40% of papers have none. Investigative journalism costs money and takes time and much of the time, as with other forms of prospecting, you dig and dig and come up with fuckall. Newspapers can't afford to take those kinds of risks anymore. It'll be left to non profits and the kind of rumor publishing you see a lot in tech industry coverage --- one of the blogs linked to in the recent FPP about the Sidekick debacle published near-verabtim, an email from an annonymous source it admitted it could not indentify, and many of whose claims it could not verify. But hey, some of it seemed to match up with some stuff they knew, so far better to get the email out there now and break it. And so such things become truth....it all becomes another data point floating in the ceaseless churn. Any data point immediately accessible, no heirarchiy to determine their importance and determine which you should pay attention to.

We may soon have all the data in the world and no facts; no facts because no commonly held reality, no agreed upon truth. (Yeah, yeah, the sky's blue, the earth round, that's not the kind of thing I mean.) I'll have my sources, you'll have yours, and we'll each be content to watch the other damned, certain in our knowledge of their herasies.
posted by Diablevert at 12:13 PM on October 11, 2009 [9 favorites]


I linked to this article on my Facebook page. One commenter made a couple of pertinent points that challenged my thinking on transparency policy (capital letters are as the commenter posted):

"Two thoughts - the first (believed to be) from Bismarck that "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made" - has a certain truth. As Hibbing & Theiss-Morse argued in 1995 "It is Congress's transparency that makes it the least-liked among the major institutions of government" (they conclude "If open debate is seen as bickering and haggling; if bargaining & compromise are seen as selling out on principle; if all support staff & division of labour are needless baggage; if carefully working through problems is sloth; and if all interests somehow become evil special interests, it is easy to see why the public is upset with the workings of the political system."

Related is the second thought - information is power - the way the media is able to accumulate the freely available information (they use Freedom of Information legislation) and MANIPULATE & REDISTRIBUTE it, according to their prejudices - doesn't help democracy. A Free market isn't really free if it is being distorted by "abuses of a dominant position"

I hope this helps the discussion.
posted by baggymp at 12:14 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


This struck me:
The naked transparency movement marries the power of network technology to the radical decline in the cost of collecting, storing, and distributing data. Its aim is to liberate that data, especially government data, so as to enable the public to process it and understand it better, or at least differently.
Regardless of the merits of that kind of thing, which I'll get to in another comment, What's interesting is that so many people are working to create "Transparency" the way Lessig described it not of the government but of ordinary people. You hardly ever hear anyone in power complain about the credit reporting bureaus and all the random vendors selling completely un-verified "Background Checks".

Seriously try googling your name of the name of a friend of yours and you're likely to get an ad offering your own (or your friend's) personal information. To give you an example, when I search for "Kevin R. Marcus" I get two ads from competing companies:
Sponsored Links

Find Kevin Marcus
Locate Kevin Marcus.
1 Minute to Search (free summary)
Public-#####-now.com

Find Kevin Marcus
Get current address, phone & more.
Easy to use, search for free!
www.usa-people-#####.com
See your ad here »
The reason I picked Kevin R. Marcus is that he's listed as the co-founder of Intelius, which is the company that most often shows up when I search for people's names now, although the ad doesn't show up on his own name, which is interesting. Also, almost everyone at that company hides their name on Linkedin.

--

That's just one particularly annoying example. Most of this goes around in the background, out of sight. We're getting a situation where those in power use that power both to shield themselves from review, but also use the aforementioned low cost network technology to give themselves, whether in government or in business a clear view of ordinary people.

We ought to have a one-way mirror, letting people see into government, but shielding them from unwarranted monitoring (both by the government, and especially private companies). Instead, it's being turned around. The government and private enterprise can see what we do, and shield their activities from review.
posted by delmoi at 12:23 PM on October 11, 2009 [10 favorites]


It is Congress's transparency that makes it the least-liked among the major institutions of government" (they conclude "If open debate is seen as bickering and haggling; if bargaining & compromise are seen as selling out on principle; if all support staff & division of labour are needless baggage; if carefully working through problems is sloth; and if all interests somehow become evil special interests, it is easy to see why the public is upset with the workings of the political system.

There is always, in open-government circles, the contingent that believes that if it can only get its hands on the right documents it will find the line item for Cadillacs for welfare queens, that every civil service position is a sinecure, and that every expenditure is a handout to a politician's friends. It's a mistake, though, to think that this is a result of transparency itself or that these people would be more trusting of their government if they knew less.
posted by enn at 12:28 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


This was on page 3:
This publicity was designed to serve two very different purposes. First, Brandeis thought that the numbers would shame bankers into offering terms that were more reasonable--a strategy that has been tried with executive compensation by the SEC, with the result not of shame, but jealousy, leading to even higher pay.
Okay, that is an enormous causal jump. It's pretty clear that CEO pay has gotten way out of control, but suggest a single cause, making the data public is to blame is absurd. It ignores two key factors:

1) the clubby nature of corporate boards filled with high level people from other companies who stand to benefit from higher overall pay for high level executives, and

2) the lack of control by the 'ultimate' shareholders: People who's retirements are being managed for them without much control. If Jane the public school teacher has 200k in retirement being managed by a state retirement fund, she has no say in how that investment is split between her and the boards of companies who the fund manager chooses to invest in (sometimes after a Kickback, at that)

It would be impossible untangle the true causality, but if you have a system that is intended to keep CEO pay reasonable then "A desire by CEOs for more money" should not be enough to cause it to brake down.
posted by delmoi at 12:40 PM on October 11, 2009


The information free market requires an engaged citizenry and responsible media in the same way that the economic free market requires an infinite number of participants and universal knowledge of prices. Neither will ever be fully realised. The question is whether the public and media are engaged/responsible enough and if not how to make them more so.

To all the gung-ho upthread about 'if our political system is destroyed by transparency, that just means it wasn't worth saving', I would respond that the collapse of a political system is not something to wish for under almost any circumstances. It doesn't take much imagination to work out what an 'uncorrupt outsider reformist' might look like if the main political parties and normal party politics were to fall apart - evangelical populist-nationalist bigot would probably sum it up.
posted by athenian at 12:41 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Were people aware of what is involved in the process of sausage making, they would completely lose faith in sausage. Instead, I propose a strict limit on the bribes meat inspectors are allowed to take, and that otherwise we let them do their jobs in peace.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:44 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


The endless throat-clearing got so ponderous I just had to give up.

Agreed. I was surprised how rambling this was, particularly as his presentations are usually succinct and to the point.
posted by johnny novak at 12:56 PM on October 11, 2009


That is, it takes attention and time to study and issue and truly determine whether the actions of an individual are corrupt or not. It takes a lot less time to pluck a few sugestive facts out of a pile of data and lay them on the table, sans comment. When it comes to public opinion, the implication can be as damaging as conviction.

This (thanks for the paraphrase btw) seems to be merely a variant on the age-old "false consciousness" argument, and I don't mean in the narrow marxist sense. It strikes me that arguing against partial transparency is not an argument against real transparency, and also that it's sort of a distraction: people determined to cherrypick or distort are going to do it with or without hard facts, and at least the available of the broadest possible set of information allows such to be refuted.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:12 PM on October 11, 2009


To all the gung-ho upthread about 'if our political system is destroyed by transparency, that just means it wasn't worth saving', I would respond that the collapse of a political system is not something to wish for under almost any circumstances.

I don't seriously think anyone actually thinks that the political system would collapse if people found out how bad it was, rather there would be a greater push for even more reform. In other words, transparency creates the evidence needed by those arguing for reform. That's the goal.

It also seriously overestimates the amount of faith people currently have in government. I don't think it's very high to begin with, especially congress.

That said, I think the end result of all this transparency is essentially nothing Hardly anyone is going to pay attention to this data if it was available (except for lobbyists). The only time it would enter the public consciousness is if there was some scandal where reporters would comb through the data to see who met with Scandalous figure X and when.
posted by delmoi at 1:28 PM on October 11, 2009


Not Lessig's best work. He was having a pretty bad day. Try again later. You could replace every occurrence of "transparency" in the article and replace them "secrecy" and it would make more sense. Not a lot of sense. Just more sense.
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:30 PM on October 11, 2009


How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious.

An obvious reason is that transparency is of very little use to the average voter. The average voter simply doesn't care about most of these issues, as their behavior makes plainly manifest, and there's no solid reason to expect voter or voting-public behavior to change in favor of the massive and wide-sweeping engagement with politics that would have to occur for much of this "transparency" information to be meaningful to the mass public. On the other hand, widespread availability of these sorts of information would be of tremendous use to various interest groups that actually have an incentive to gather and process it.

It's a mistake, though, to think that this is a result of transparency itself or that these people would be more trusting of their government if they knew less.

I take it then that you've recently read Congress as Public Enemy and could comment on exactly why the conclusions they arrive at are erroneous, and how or why the conclusions they arrive at are not actually supported by the evidence they bring to bear?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:32 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


A much shorter, and in my opinion more accessible, take on the same issue from a UK perspective for the tl;dr crowd.
posted by johnny novak at 1:32 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Next up: "The perils of open licensing and 'free' culture".
posted by jscott at 1:37 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is a very interesting article, if a little too loaded with rhetorical questions and speculation without too many declarations. Brings up some strong points and examples about misinterpreting information, though, so it balances out!

My own personal experience is that information about information (metadata is the common name that I'm sure most of you know) is often just as important as the information itself. And that's why the biggest secrets often aren't hidden, just totally misunderstood, or even ignored.

At the most basic level, maybe the speculative nature of the article reflects the theme of how difficult is is to interpret information correctly, or even if there is a "correct." If you took all of the information in a given puzzle, for instance, placed it all on a table, and came up with a solution that worked, would that be the right answer? Or would it just be a bunch of disconnected scraps of information that you decided to arrange in a particular way?

Those aren't even rhetorical questions, by the way. And it might not even be a for instance, either. Fun stuff, huh?
posted by MoreForMad at 1:41 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know, between this and the abysmal Supreme Court argument, I'm confounded to realize that Lawrence Lessig -- scholar, copyright reform advocate, an intellectual property guy who "gets it" -- is really quite a sub par debater of ideas. Whether it's litigation in a court room or convincing a guy on the street -- it doesn't seem to be his thing. Which is so ... odd.

I mean, I get it, he's based in academia, but cheesey pete. I couldn't stomach reading the whole darned rambling mess. Web 2.0 guy, indeed. Wow.
posted by cavalier at 1:49 PM on October 11, 2009


I think the main problem here is that some editor tried to make this article more exciting it is. I can't say I can pinpoint exactly what Lessig is trying to argue, but I'm pretty confident that he isn't arguing against transparency. I think his argument is that transparency could have some negative consequences and that it would be wise to try to mitigate those (but he doesn't have much in the way of suggestions). In the introductory paragraph quoted in the FPP he seems to making a much stronger argument, but he seems to have backed away from this by the time he reaches the conclusion. I'm left wondering what Lessig is trying to communicate.

The bit about political campaign contributions is particularly boneheaded. Without going through it in detail, I'll just say that his conclusion (At this time the judgment that Washington is all about money is so wide and so deep that among all the possible reasons to explain something puzzling, money is the first, and most likely the last, explanation that will be given. ... What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.) only makes sense if the belief that Washington is all about money is false. If we look at the data and find that it confirms our belief, we shouldn't automatically assume that there is some hidden explanation that we are missing. More specifically, corporations don't generally give away money for no reason. They give it away to politicians to buy influence. Fretting over who may or may not have bought how much influence, for how much money, and from whom is very much missing the forest for the trees.

Further along, when Lessig tentatively endorses campaign finance reform as a solution, he tries to slip in an unsubstantiated claim that removing corporate influence from campaign financing would somehow unfairly influence elections. We'd have to believe that corporations should have the power to influence politicians in order to believe his claim.
posted by ssg at 1:49 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This (thanks for the paraphrase btw) seems to be merely a variant on the age-old "false consciousness" argument, and I don't mean in the narrow marxist sense.

I'm not quite sure what you mean in reference to false consciousness in this context. Could you possibly explain it a bit more?

It strikes me that arguing against partial transparency is not an argument against real transparency, and also that it's sort of a distraction: people determined to cherrypick or distort are going to do it with or without hard facts, and at least the available of the broadest possible set of information allows such to be refuted.

He does address this in the article; that's when he connects these concerns to the idea of attention. The good facts only win if there's time for fighting, and if people care enough to sit in judgement. That's rarely the case, and in when it's not all the data is just ammo. It is enough to pressure the system to change behaviour, but not necessarily in productive ways, because all you've done is add another hurdle to the course, not changed the nature of the race.
posted by Diablevert at 1:51 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


let's get the data out there and then we can refute the misreadings using actual reasoning and mathematics

Lessig already explained why this isn't going to have the effect you might think, for a whole host of reasons.

To be clear: Lessig is not arguing for or against transparency or that those pushing transparency or open Internet exchange should get off his lawn. He's saying 1. that transparency and open exchange of information are here to stay, 2. that we've seen the consequences of that in the music and news industries, 3. that we're beginning to see the consequences of that in the political system (due to a number of psychological factors, such as the public's generally short attention span and susceptibility to manipulation by those with better access to information), and 4. that this is an area of importance to us right now for the sake of our democracy.

He's suggesting a new area of debate and study, that we might head off the failure of democracy as we didn't head off the failures of the music and media industries, due to a lack of understanding of some of the issues increased transparency and access to information raise.

Those upthread who took this as an opportunity to simply stake their claims as pro- or anti-transparency or denounce Lessig's argument as "rambly" missed the point. Diablevert and ROU_Xenophobe have the best readings of Lessig's argument I've seen thus far in the thread.
posted by limeonaire at 2:00 PM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


He does address this in the article; that's when he connects these concerns to the idea of attention. The good facts only win if there's time for fighting, and if people care enough to sit in judgement. That's rarely the case, and in when it's not all the data is just ammo. It is enough to pressure the system to change behaviour, but not necessarily in productive ways, because all you've done is add another hurdle to the course, not changed the nature of the race.

That is not a compelling reason to hide the data nor the behavior of the participants.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:04 PM on October 11, 2009


that was a really interesting article johnny novak, good thing to read alongside lessig's, thanks

here's a bit that i think summarises lessig's concerns;

"Lets assume, for the sake of argument, that consumer and media pressure is able to genuinely impact upon bad public services and wasteful government practices. And lets assume, for the sake of argument, that there are no class imbalances in the ability to convert information into power (i.e. that those dependent on social services simply need more information, in order to become the equivalent of the pushy middle class parent at the gates of the primary school). Then lets assume, for the sake of argument, that the piling of audit upon audit, of meta-analysis upon meta-analysis, could gradually go into decline, what sort of state would we have?

My instinct is that this would certainly deliver transparency, might offer a version of accountability, but would fail to achieve legitimacy.

...

So, following Mirowski, we might say that 'government 2.0' is the final realisation of the neo-liberal state. No auditors, no experts, no objective knowledge, no sense of the common good, just maximum freedom for individuals to form opinions and privately process information. As David Weinberger says in triumphant Hayekian style, "transparency is the new objectivity." In some instances, consumer perspectives may form the basis of action - demanding change if they're a prominent journalist or campaigner, selecting a different service supplier if they're a fortunate lay-person, or just mouthing off on facebook if they're not so lucky.

But siding with perspective over expertise cannot be the basis for legitimacy. Allowing people to express their frustration or disappointment, but without offering dialogue or improvement at the end of it, removes the security offered by expertise, but without offering anything in its place. Auditors act as the critics of experts, but they do so from some rival position of expertise; they damage legitimacy, but partly so as to then rebuild it. By contrast, a state laid bare only to the audit of general public dissatisfaction is surely heading towards a legitimacy crisis."
posted by doobiedoo at 2:05 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


"By contrast, a state laid bare only to the audit of general public dissatisfaction is surely heading towards a legitimacy crisis." From the article by Will Davies I posted earlier.

Which is presumably why the conservative/neoliberal right suddenly like the whole ideal of Democracy 2.0 and why Lessig and others are wary of it.

The Telegraph (the Conservative newspaper) has been engaged in just such a cynical exercise in 'transparency' in the UK, 'exposing' corruption in the way MPs handle their expenses. A story which deserved no more than a week's coverage and a couple of sackings, was spun out into a two month orgy of Government bashing.

If the Conservatives do get in I imagine they might change their minds about transparency after about six months or so, when they realise they quite like big Government when they are in charge of it, or when it becomes transparent that they are selling off big bits of it to their mates in the City.
posted by johnny novak at 2:06 PM on October 11, 2009


Also, I think delmoi's point is quite interesting. I was fascinated to learn, for instance, that anyone in my county can look up how much I've paid in personal property tax records and where I live just by typing my name (and they don't even need to know my full name!) into a couple Web forms, unless I specifically file an opt-out form every year stating that I don't want that information to be public. That's a very interesting consequence of data digitization and transparency—one ancillary to the specific point Lessig's making, but still one that has some relevance in the conversation about the relationship between citizens and the government in a time of increasing transparency.
posted by limeonaire at 2:09 PM on October 11, 2009


I think Prof. Lessig's main points are that transparancy alone won't do it, and that like with newspapers and music, the sudden removal of "controls" on access has created problems for those who previously had the control, and the potential effect on the future of the particular endeavour.

I also believe that people too often overestimate the general public's ability and willingness to actively study something and independently draw conclusions, so I agree with Prof. Lessig's assessment that with so much unprocessed data around, it's relatively easy to find data to support any particular viewpoint, or to draw a negative out of an innocent fact (expert practitioners - Limbaugh, Beck, etc).

One extreme example of what's possible, even when data is not available, is that there is discussion on the internet that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990.

(BTW I happen to agree with Lessig that a publicly-funded campaign system is the best single fix for undue influence on elected officials, and like a government single payer system for healthcare, is a no-brainer for anyone willing to actually study the issue in detail. I also know this sort of idea will be a non-starter in the US. So-shul-lizm, doncha know...)
posted by Artful Codger at 2:11 PM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


That is not a compelling reason to hide the data nor the behavior of the participants.

Right. And Lessig isn't arguing that it is.
posted by limeonaire at 2:12 PM on October 11, 2009


first page of article: It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

ZenMasterThis: And this would be bad why?

Brian B.: What's wrong with pushing misplaced faith over a cliff?

Read the article.
posted by koeselitz at 2:16 PM on October 11, 2009


my rather basic understanding of all this is;

1. the assumptions that allow decentralised information to fulfil its promise are disingenuous; citizenry will not become more "engaged" simply because of the ethical demand to become responsible auditors of government - neither will the press

2. why place the onus of responsible government into sideline auditing of an elected elite when decentralising power is the objective? why insist on this model of citizen engagement that seems to render both citizens and politicians impotent, instead of devolving power to local councils?
posted by doobiedoo at 2:24 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the thing is that the more transparent things get, the more people will be able to cherry-pick sentences and facts out of context, so that they can misinterpret them and spread fear. Consider what happened with HR 3200 and all the email forwards that claimed to find sinister things in the bill.

I'm not saying that the bills should be private, but the thing is that if we have too much information become public, there will be such a flood of information most people won't bother to analyze it. This means that pundits paid to spin the news and people who are so loyal to their party that they work backwards from their conclusions will be forming the opinions. And because of the transparency, they'll be able to say "Don't take my word for it... READ THE BILL/TRANSCRIPTS/LETTERS!" Of course, that will be a bluff, because nobody wants to pore over documents with pages in the thousands, but for the right audience, they'll take it to be true.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:26 PM on October 11, 2009


I take it then that you've recently read Congress as Public Enemy and could comment on exactly why the conclusions they arrive at are erroneous, and how or why the conclusions they arrive at are not actually supported by the evidence they bring to bear?

No. I'll grab it tomorrow when the library is open, but I have a hard time imagining what evidence could support such a position. A general public contempt for Congress in particular long antedates the level of transparency we have today; more broadly, the sort of people who don't trust government to begin with tend to assume that any information that is being kept from the public is being so concealed for the most nefarious possible reasons. Perhaps you could enlighten us.
posted by enn at 2:38 PM on October 11, 2009


That is not a compelling reason to hide the data nor the behavior of the participants.

I don't think he's arguing that behavious should be hidden. I think he's arguing Transparency:Does NOT Do What It Says On The Tin. That's something that needs to be understood.

The argument for transparency is, "we shall use the power of data-crunching to reveal previously unseen machinations of evil."

Lessing, I would argue, is saying that much of the time, what we're revealing is not evil but muddle.

However, if people believe the Evil thesis, then there's a huge opportunity, which will be exploited, for interested parties to present Muddle as Evil. This makes Evil seem a lot more prevalent than it actually is, obscures and dimishes true Evil by lumping it in which tons of Muddle, and cultivates contempt, apathy, and despair among citizens. These are all bad things, costs of increased transparency which ought to be recognized and acknowledged before we plunge into makign everything transparent, if increased transparency is to have the effects if proponents wish it to have.
posted by Diablevert at 2:41 PM on October 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


lupus_yonderboy: The argument appears to be that "if we had transparency, people would sometimes misread the data (and blame politicians for things)". Which is a terrible argument in and of itself - let's get the data out there and then we can refute the misreadings using actual reasoning and mathematics.

I found this article quite convincing, at least as far as it went; I agree with Lessig's main points, though not always for the same reasons. I'll try a little to explain why.

First and foremost, I want to say that I believe that most of the people who find this article generally objectionable might not have gotten to the top of page 10 (and understandably, since it is an intelligent and long article with lots of interesting bits to pore over). I say that because on the top of page 10, Lessig mentions what he thinks is the alternative solution to transparency: mandated publicly-funded elections. And I think he's absolutely correct, although I frankly believe that the current proposal for public election funding is very thin stuff compared to what we really need, which is a complete and total ban on campaign fundraising of any kind. At the risk of being hasty, I have a feeling most people who are in favor of transparency might agree that cutting out the whole fundraising thing entirely is a more direct approach.

The misunderstanding is partially Lessig's fault; he takes eleven pages through various territories to come to a conclusion that probably takes a sentence or two at most. The point of transparency is to figure out who is being "bought off" and unduly influenced by money; but transparency requires constant vigilance and a ridiculous amount of research, since you have to watch all the money and all the contributors and track who received it, and then you have to track all of the politicians' actions and somehow decide which may or may not have been unduly influenced; so the obvious solution is, ban (or at least reduce) the transfer of money in this sphere entirely so that any cash exchanged is simply a crime. Then, it becomes significantly easier to devise a 'transparent' system, since any candidate with campaign contributions (or campaign contributions over x dollars) isn't a candidate at all, they're a criminal.

I don't have any qualms with this solution to the problem, which I (like Lessig) think is the most elegant and direct one. In fact, I wonder if people pushing for transparency have thought it through; is transparency really the end they have in mind, or a stop on the way – and will it get them where they want to go? The system as it's devised now basically requires any candidate that's going to be successful to take money from sleazy people. That's a solid fact, and if you don't realize this, you haven't opened a newspaper in the last decade. So what's to be gained by pointing out that even the most honest, upstanding members of Congress are subject to back-alley deals? Not much; as Lessig points out, any hope that this will shame politicians into becoming better should have died when the attempt to do the same thing by publicizing CEO's severance package details had the opposite effect, provoking jealously that drove severance packages higher. The money remains the problem. The solution? Take away the money.

I quoted lupus_yonderboy's comment, however, because it highlights another interesting and useful point that Lessig's article makes, a point that I think we'd do well to remember. He mentions at the end of the bit I quoted that we need to get the data out there so that we can sort it out using "reasoning and mathematics." But this is precisely the problem that Lessig pointed out in his story about Hillary Clinton's history with a particular bill: political affiliation and the truth behind what politicians profess to be their intentions can't be sorted out using mathematics. At best, the system of transparency proposed by the proponents of openness is really just a better presentation of a whole heap of numbers and figures, the most significant of which represent the flow of money. But this is the point: since contributions and donations are all but mandatory in this country if someone wants to reach any significant public office, the assumption that "money" means "someone is being bought off" isn't predicated on the idea that one particular person has been corrupted; it's predicated on the idea that every single elected official in federal government has been corrupted. That may well be the case, but if it is, transparency isn't really going to help.
posted by koeselitz at 2:59 PM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


The philosophy of the ostrich.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:59 PM on October 11, 2009


The argument for transparency is, "we shall use the power of data-crunching to reveal previously unseen machinations of evil."

But that's a simplistic view of the motivations of transparency proponents. Many are probably so motivated, but I think more of us would simply like to make data available to see what conclusions people are able to draw from them. Here in Chicago, Harold Washington's Affirmative Neighborhood Information Program in the 1980s was an early example of this — the city, in the course of providing services, had accumulated new kinds of datasets (on things like the number, type, and condition of housing units in a neighborhood — I don't have any sources on this handy so my memory may be misleading me somewhat here) as it began to use computers in its operations, and Washington's administration decided to make these datasets available proactively to the public (rather than, say, releasing individual figures in response to media requests) (in practice, I think most consumers were community organizations). Washington certainly wasn't doing this to expose malfeasance in his city government; he was doing it because he recognized that the sorts of data which governments are in a unique position to accumulate are a public good which may be useful in ways other than those envisioned by their creators.
posted by enn at 3:01 PM on October 11, 2009


To put it in a simpler way:

The trouble with the movement for transparency is that it assumes that a really ideal and honest politician, a guy who would never take money from anybody for anything and who always votes his conscience, exists somewhere, and we can make sure all of our politicians are more like him by watching them closely. Whereas the reality of the matter is that unfortunately that ideal guy would never get elected today, not least because it costs money to run a campaign; so it makes more sense to stop worrying so much about making things transparent and tackle the problem a bit more directly by changing the way campaign money works..
posted by koeselitz at 3:10 PM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


it makes more sense to stop worrying so much about making things transparent and tackle the problem a bit more directly by changing the way campaign money works

That's not tackling the problem more directly; that's tackling a different problem. Honest government is not the sole purpose of transparency.
posted by enn at 3:14 PM on October 11, 2009


The problem with putting limits on transparency is that, if the whole process is not transparent, then the participants will shift any backroom dealings into the portion of the process that is opaque.
posted by JHarris at 3:14 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


enn: But that's a simplistic view of the motivations of transparency proponents. Many are probably so motivated, but I think more of us would simply like to make data available to see what conclusions people are able to draw from them. Here in Chicago, Harold Washington's Affirmative Neighborhood Information Program in the 1980s was an early example of this — the city, in the course of providing services, had accumulated new kinds of datasets (on things like the number, type, and condition of housing units in a neighborhood — I don't have any sources on this handy so my memory may be misleading me somewhat here) as it began to use computers in its operations, and Washington's administration decided to make these datasets available proactively to the public (rather than, say, releasing individual figures in response to media requests) (in practice, I think most consumers were community organizations). Washington certainly wasn't doing this to expose malfeasance in his city government; he was doing it because he recognized that the sorts of data which governments are in a unique position to accumulate are a public good which may be useful in ways other than those envisioned by their creators.

It should be pointed out that, whether that view of the transparency movement is simplistic or not, it's not really the point of Lessig's article, and he probably would agree with you on most of your core statements there. As he says in the article:

... I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness.

and his thesis seems to be not that transparency is an unqualified evil but that transparency is not an unqualified good, and that it won't accomplish some of the things that people often hope it will. I agree; as I said, I think the system is a bit more stinking and fetid than people think.

Or if I were more charitable, I might say that the system is less stinking and fetid than it looks up close. Arlen Specter gets huge campaign donations from Comcast; Hillary takes lots of money from the financial industry; Obama took lots of coal money; and so on. When I was being subjected to classes in political science, my professors were constantly trying to remind students that this system of lobbyists and contributions actually has its way of working; it's a common knee-jerk reaction to hate lobbyists with a passion, but the lobbyists for smaller interest groups are often the only thing there to make sure that somebody is paying any attention, and it all balances out in the end in a kind of democracy of cash. I think there are problems with the sustainability of this model, of course, but it's certainly less 'evil' than anyone is likely to think at first glance.

Anyhow, since the system really is like this – with more money and such flowing around in all directions than any honest, decent American is likely to expect – the thing to do isn't to waste time explaining to everybody exactly how the cash flows around. It's to stop the flow.
posted by koeselitz at 3:21 PM on October 11, 2009


enn: That's not tackling the problem more directly; that's tackling a different problem. Honest government is not the sole purpose of transparency.

Ah – I agree. (Sorry I missed your comment in between there.) My suspicion is that Lessig would agree, as well. There are lots of good reasons for transparency. Transparency is trumpeted in certain quarters as a cure-all that will solve certain of society's ills; but that's not to say that it's not a real and lasting good in certain ways, and there are very good reasons to support deeper transparency in certain realms. For instance, for those of us who spend time trying to understand how government works from a scholarly perspective (not me, though I know those who do) such transparency is enormously helpful.

I think Lessig kinda shot himself in the foot by labeling his article "Against Transparency" when I think he really isn't necessarily.
posted by koeselitz at 3:25 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have a hard time imagining what evidence could support such a position.

Honestly, it just annoyed me to see that someone bothered to mention one of the few serious studies of the issue, and see that followed with your blithe dismissal on the basis of no evidence but your gut feeling.

I don't recall exactly what evidence they bring to bear -- I haven't looked at it myself in probably 10 years -- but they do a lot of work with aggregate opinion data over time, and on cross-sectional and TSCS analyses of individual-level covariates of Congressional approval.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:26 PM on October 11, 2009


me: Anyhow, since the system really is like this – with more money and such flowing around in all directions than any honest, decent American is likely to expect – the thing to do isn't to waste time explaining to everybody exactly how the cash flows around. It's to stop the flow.

... and to revise this statement, which I think was a bit too broad: the thing for people who want to put an end to government corruption to do isn't to waste time working for transparency. I say this because it's certainly foolish to call transparency a waste of time; it's a fantastic source of information, and information has all kinds of very worthy uses.
posted by koeselitz at 3:30 PM on October 11, 2009


delmoi: It would be impossible untangle the true causality, but if you have a system that is intended to keep CEO pay reasonable then "A desire by CEOs for more money" should not be enough to cause it to break down.

I agree, and his reasoning may have been simplistic as far as the financial case goes, but it's sound in what he's talking about. If you publicize the kickbacks somebody's getting, and your sole intention in doing so is to shame them by trumpeting information that you believe is embarrassing and thereby causing them to take smaller kickbacks, I think you'll discover that most people don't have much shame or many scruples when it comes to money, especially bankers; and I think the result will usually be that people ask for more, not less. The same case is true for politicians; this may not be the sole motivation for those who advocate greater transparency, but if anybody believes that publicizing campaign contributions and such will embarrass politicians into changing the status quo, I think they're in for a nasty surprise: it's pretty goddamned difficult to embarrass a politician.
posted by koeselitz at 3:36 PM on October 11, 2009


Right. And Lessig isn't arguing that it is.

The problem is, if you wright an introductory lede that basically implies that, and then write 11 more pages where you gradually back away, people are going to assume that's what you're trying to say. I mean the title is "Against Transparency"

If you title your piece "Against Transparency", you don't get to complain that people think you're taking a stand against transparency.
posted by delmoi at 3:42 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The title causes confusion, yes, but there's absolutely nothing in Lessig's piece that argues against transparency as such, not even in the lede, so far as I can tell. He just doesn't come out and say what he's arguing, unfortunately; but I think that's a difficulty that's thankfully easily rectified.
posted by koeselitz at 3:45 PM on October 11, 2009


11 pages? Christ, this is just an "I'm sorry for crapping against a Bay area candidate when I was considering running for congress". He crapped on a bay area congressperson in the district he was considering running for on the front-page video for his candidacy website. Something about having an amtrack train named after her or something like that.

This reads like an apology for accusing people in the democratic party for unfounded crap and being a dick in general.
posted by amuseDetachment at 3:47 PM on October 11, 2009


amuseDetachment: He crapped on a bay area congressperson in the district he was considering running for on the front-page video for his candidacy website. Something about having an amtrack train named after her or something like that.

This reads like an apology for accusing people in the democratic party for unfounded crap and being a dick in general.


What? Really, I have no idea what you're talking about. How does "transparency in government will not achieve honesty and a decrease in corruption" equate to "I'm sorry for being a dick?"
posted by koeselitz at 3:57 PM on October 11, 2009


If he wanted people to take a more nuanced view, he could have called it "The pitfalls of transparency", "Transparency as panacea" or "Transparency, the wrong tool" or something like that. That probably wouldn't get the same number of hits, though.

Here we see the old pattern of "Get a lot of important people to read you by saying something surprising and counter intuitive in support of the status-quo and those in power"

11 pages? Christ, this is just an "I'm sorry for crapping against a Bay area candidate when I was considering running for congress". He crapped on a bay area congressperson in the district he was considering running for on the front-page video for his candidacy website. Something about having an amtrack train named after her or something like that.

Well, that's what you do in a political campaign. He was much nicer then most opposition candidates would be.
posted by delmoi at 3:58 PM on October 11, 2009


It's curious that there's so much misunderstanding of Lessig's view. I mean, the article is all right there for the reading.
posted by parudox at 3:59 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


delmoi: Here we see the old pattern of "Get a lot of important people to read you by saying something surprising and counter intuitive in support of the status-quo and those in power"

I think you're right, although I would probably take out the word "important."
posted by koeselitz at 4:03 PM on October 11, 2009


But that's a simplistic view of the motivations of transparency proponents.... the sorts of data which governments are in a unique position to accumulate are a public good which may be useful in ways other than those envisioned by their creators.

Oh, I agree completely; I was being deliberately simplistic. I don't think Lessing was arguing that one of the problems with transparency is the ability to learn new useful things from the data. It's the Sunshine as Disnifectant argument that he was challenging, saying that this view of the virtues of transparency underestimates the considerable costs.
posted by Diablevert at 4:25 PM on October 11, 2009


koeselitz: He accused someone of corruption because they got a train named after them. Read the article, that's the exact kind of behavior that he's talking about in the article.
posted by amuseDetachment at 4:53 PM on October 11, 2009


Hrm, I can't seem to find the video that I remember, so I'm going to take it back. I do remember him accusing congresspeople of corruption (and therefore should be voted out) based on spurious evidence, though.
posted by amuseDetachment at 5:03 PM on October 11, 2009


I think you're right, although I would probably take out the word "important."

Well, you can get a lot of people to read what you say just by being counterintuitive and 'edgy' or whatever but if you want to get a lot of influential people to read you and take you seriously as a thinker you do it by being counterintuitive by defending the status quo and those in power. Why do you think bill Kristol and the neoconservatives are still taken so seriously? It's because they are funded by think tanks that are funded by the defense industry. Keep advocating war in order to keep cash flowing to the defense industry.

It isn't just congress that's been corrupted, it's the entire DC establishment.
posted by delmoi at 5:44 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


It seems Lessig is making the leap from "transparency has some negative effects" to "transparency is a bad thing" without filling in the gap with any logic or arguing that it is worse than non-transparency. Couldn't the same be said of, oh, I don't know, democracy?
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:21 PM on October 11, 2009


Interesting article. Seeing as how Lessig is on the board of campaign finance search site Maplight.org, it's clear he is still on the side of the angels, and is playing with ideas, and not calling for a new world of secrecy or something.

But we should be so lucky to have the problem of an Internet campaign finance mashup craze, with people sending their friends charts of nuclear industry contributions instead of T-Pain MP3s, and leaping to conclusions. It's always been hard for sites like OpenSecrets to interest non-political nerds in the corporate cash / politics beat.

The other "darknet" game changers he mentions -- Craigslist and Napster -- had the built-in appeal of free music and free advertising. But free political transparency? I just don't see the huge demand?
posted by johngoren at 6:26 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why do you think bill Kristol and the neoconservatives are still taken so seriously? It's because they are funded by think tanks that are funded by the defense industry. Keep advocating war in order to keep cash flowing to the defense industry.

Oh, no, it's far worse than that: For the most part they actually believe what they say. The links between the think tanks and the defense industry are a natural alignment of interests, in my view. Which goes a lot to Lessing's point.
posted by Diablevert at 7:22 PM on October 11, 2009


There are many reasons why these differences would have an effect on her support for an "awful bill." But whatever objectivity might teach, we all know something undeniable about this fact of $140,000 being attached to any sentence about switching support in a political context. Everyone learning the fact now "knows" just why she switched, don’t they? Whether true or not, money is the reason for the switch in this case.

This is the issue: for years, Lessig has been saying that money in politics is inherently corrupting. But there are progressive who are receiving campaign contributions, and Lessig realizes that any reader who has subscribed to his worldview would logically conclude that even the progressives are under the sway of corrupting influences. So now Lessig is not so sure that the proles should be permitted to have the information that would lead them to that conclusion.

This is the silly reductio of Lessig's view of campaign finance: money is so corrupting that it might be harmful to allow voters access to information about campaign contributions, because the voters might get the "wrong idea" about politicians who are doing the right thing. Sad.
posted by Slap Factory at 7:24 PM on October 11, 2009


I think the thing is that the more transparent things get, the more people will be able to cherry-pick sentences and facts out of context, so that they can misinterpret them and spread fear.

This was what first came to mind when I was going over what could go wrong with transparency in practice. A policy of transparency would require people with an understanding of the issue at hand going through the data and making inquiries as why this or that was done. And getting meaningful answers. Unfortunately, most public political discourse seems to involve hand picking a few points to deliberately blow out of proportion in order bolster one's agenda and rile up the fans.

Oh well, I'm sure once this issue winds its way through the plinko game that is pop political punditry, it will come out the other end cast as a "Transparency: You're either for it or against it" argument that the public will more readily understand.
posted by Avelwood at 7:27 PM on October 11, 2009


Lessing, I would argue, is saying that much of the time, what we're revealing is not evil but muddle. ... However, if people believe the Evil thesis, then there's a huge opportunity, which will be exploited, for interested parties to present Muddle as Evil.

And of course, which I think is going to be equally common, to present Evil as Muddle. You can hide an awful lot in mountains of transparency.

As for Lessig, I suspect given the few good explanations in this thread, that he's got a strong point. But wowsa, that was a badly written article. Lots of fine, strong, occasionally funny and sometimes crucial sentences that all added up to ... a muddle. Was he being ironic, or trying to show what teasing out meaning from the vapour of transparency will be like?
posted by fightorflight at 7:34 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is the issue: for years, Lessig has been saying that money in politics is inherently corrupting. But there are progressive who are receiving campaign contributions, and Lessig realizes that any reader who has subscribed to his worldview would logically conclude that even the progressives are under the sway of corrupting influences. So now Lessig is not so sure that the proles should be permitted to have the information that would lead them to that conclusion.

It's hard to imagine that Lessig is that stupid. For one thing, he has always said that the problem is not with individual congresspeople but rather the whole corrupting influence. For another thing, the "information that would lead them to that conclusion" would be virtually all campaign contribution data. Removing that information from public view would be impossible and an enormous step backwards. He certainly isn't advocating anything that extreme. He's questioning moves to do things like publish congressional meeting logs so we can find out who our congressional representatives are meeting with.

I also don't think he's ever said he didn't think progressive candidates weren't corrupted. In fact, he's called out different ones in the past.
posted by delmoi at 8:48 PM on October 11, 2009


Secrecy and democracy are inherently at odds with one another.

Because the Cold War lasted so long, and because it was a war fought largely in the shadows, it very quickly became cynically exploited by certain power brokers as a catch-all excuse for the fortification of something like a clandestine complex: one in which "intelligence" became code for keeping all sorts of corrupt, old-boy, back-room shenanigans secret. The culture it spawned found its apogee in the neocon vulcans of the Bush/Cheney administration. They were draft-dodging, war-profiteering Cold Warriors out to vindicate (in the mideast) their asinine notion that Vietnam could have been "won." They were the Frankenstein that the Cold War wrought, the nightmare Ike warned us about: a toxic mix of ideology and cozy deals for the military-industrial contractors. And they were secretive as shit; a hypersecret cabal of reflexively antidemocratic tyrants. Secrecy is the opium of tyrants.

Now, besides the NSA, what is the most secret institution of the government? The Federal Reserve. Before you go all "googleRonPaul LOL" consider that the bill he sponsored to audit the Fed has surprisingly widespread bipartisan support. All that Bill seeks to do, as I understand it, is to hold the Fed accountable for who it give money to. Why is opening the books of the Fed such a bad idea?
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:40 PM on October 11, 2009


HP LaserJet P10006: Secrecy and democracy are inherently at odds with one another... Why is opening the books of the Fed such a bad idea?

That's not even remotely the point of the article, though. Lessig argues on the contrary that the books of the Fed should be open. The point is that he argues that that won't do a damned thing to stop corruption, and I think he's right; and the alternative solution he proposes is publicly-funded campaigns.

In other words, the article has nothing to do with secrecy and democracy. The point of the article is that money and democracy are inherently at odds with each other.
posted by koeselitz at 11:06 PM on October 11, 2009


This reminds me of a series of BBC radio lectures on trust by philosopher Onora O'Neill, who argues that a culture of audit (league tables, performance reviews, publishing expenses) is corrosive of trust, and that this essentially makes public service impossible. I'm not entirely convinced of this, or at least I'm unsure that the word 'trust' can be distinguished in this argument from less cuddly words, like 'deference', but I do think that transparency does not replace trust in the way that its proponents claim. In the private sector, we were told that principles of mutuality and restraint in mortgage banking were archaic and better served by a culture of open audit and liquidity of information. That didn't go over too well, and I see no reason why the public sector should be any different, although I suspect that even or especially those who hold the most contempt for politicians ironically hold them to a higher standard.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:40 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Seems to me this thread is a perfect example of what Lessig is trying to argue. The article is right there in the open, but nobody's gone beyond the title or the first page to read what it is really arguing, but have, instead, taken the time and effort to attack him.

And came in fully prepared to disagree with Lessig, mostly coz the amount of real data that's available lately is staggering.
posted by the cydonian at 4:47 AM on October 12, 2009


Heh. Funny how that worked, isn't it, the cydonian?
posted by limeonaire at 5:55 AM on October 12, 2009



Seems to me this thread is a perfect example of what Lessig is trying to argue. The article is right there in the open, but nobody's gone beyond the title or the first page to read what it is really arguing, but have, instead, taken the time and effort to attack him.

Yes, well, it's all well and good to feel smug about it, but I think reading what Lessig says isn't necessarily that enlightening. For example, he says:
In the context of public health, where doctors are forced to reveal any connection with industry, I cannot begin to imagine what that solution would look like. The citizenry is not remotely willing to fund publicly the research necessary to support drug development today. Close to 70 percent of the money for clinical drug trials in the United States comes from private industry. Private funding here seems inevitable--and with it, the potential for perceived conflicts. That potential will inevitably require more and more transparency about who got what from whom.
To begin with, it is disingenuous (or, worse, ill-informed) to imply that 70 percent of the money for drug research comes from private industry. Yes, I know he says "clinical drug trials", a term of art that the casual reader will interpret as "drug research", but the vast majority of the expense of developing new drugs is funded by the government. The industry takes academic findings, funded primarily by the government and highly hit or miss in terms of usable results (which is why industry ain't funding it) and spends the additional money it takes to develop them into marketable products. Now this is a good and noble undertaking if done well, but then he goes on to say that the funding these companies give to physicians is a "perceived conflict". Say, what? No, if I give you money to tell me whether my drug works and my drugs don't work, then I can't keep giving you money. That's a conflict. And a "problem" with transparency is not that I might perceive this as a conflict, because it is one.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:17 AM on October 12, 2009


> Yes, I know he says "clinical drug trials", a term of art that the casual reader will interpret as "drug research", but the vast majority of the expense of developing new drugs is funded by the government.

...cite? I'm not necessarily challenging that statement; I'm interested in learning more. What are the percentages of public and private funding of drug research? US? worldwide?

(and, indirectly I'm trying, like you, to make the point that data by itself, without support or qualification, is often insufficient or misleading)
posted by Artful Codger at 9:39 AM on October 12, 2009


Cavalier has evaluated Lessig correctly. Remember, this guy lost at the Supremes but was still considered some kind of hero. Having failed in the copyright arena, he has now switched to something else. How’s that going for him?
posted by joeclark at 11:06 AM on October 12, 2009


Yes, well, it's all well and good to feel smug about it...To begin with, it is disingenuous (or, worse, ill-informed) to imply that 70 percent of the money for drug research comes from private industry. Yes, I know he says "clinical drug trials", a term of art that the casual reader will interpret as "drug research", but the vast majority of the expense of developing new drugs is funded by the government. The industry takes academic findings, funded primarily by the government and highly hit or miss in terms of usable results (which is why industry ain't funding it) and spends the additional money it takes to develop them into marketable products.

Your comment stuns me. You critique Lessing for being disingenuous for citing a fact which you admit is corect, based on your claim that readers will understand that stat to mean something else entirely.

Moreover, the distinction between "clinical drug trials" and "all drug research" is not at all a trivial one. The idea that casual readers who aren't well versed in a subject nor inclined to spend a great deal of time becoming well versed might misunderstand or be falsely swayed by the data put forth by transparency projects is the heart and soul of Lessing's critique. It is interesting to see an example of the phenomenon in action.

Lastly, enrolling patients in a clinical study, collecting their medical histories, scheduling appointments, follow up visits, and phone calls, compiling data --- all that costs time and money. A young relative of mine has that for a full time job, and she's not the only research assitant on the study, to say nothing of the group of surgeons and physicians she works for. How are they to be compensated? Universites and the governement don't have infinite funds, and you've got to do quite a lot of testing inbetween promising initial results and a safe drug getting to market --- it seems to me that in such circumstances private money will always have a role to play. But that's Lessing's whole point: I can write "Doc X was paid $400,000 to enroll 600 patients into a clinical study for Therapy Y" and reading that you may well think, "Ah, Doc X is in the pocket of the drug companies." You have to dig a little deeper to find out that, say, $100,000 of the money was for reasearch assitants to do the administrative work, another $150,000 for lab work, $50,000 for the drug and $200,000 for 4 doctors to take on and additional 150 patients per for the next five years....or it could be that Doc X spent $25,000 grand on having people fill out surveys and $350,000 on a new boat. This is a strong real life example of the whole phenomenon Lessing's talking about. We can make the money relationships between doctors and drug companies tranparent, but determining whether the mere fact of the money getting paid is nefarious takes discernment, expertise, knowledge, even when we can state for certain that in the aggregate the money has a corrupting influence.
posted by Diablevert at 11:16 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your comment stuns me. You critique Lessing for being disingenuous for citing a fact which you admit is corect, based on your claim that readers will understand that stat to mean something else entirely.

Oh, I forgot, you can't call it disingenous to intentionally mislead by saying things that are technically true in a context that leads the reader to down a primrose path. All's fair, eh, what? Also, the solution to inadequate information is less information? I don't think so.

First of all, let's assume that private sources fund 100% of biomedical research. If so, they're misspending it. So much for keeping folks in the dark and depending upon "efficient markets." But it doesn't. Big Gov spent $38B in 2007, Big Pharma spent about $30B

But you're missing the points here. He's trying to argue for cloaking the relationship between profit-making entities and the guys you're entrusting you life to.

A) Lessig makes some vague statements about how the taxpayers wouldn't want to pay for drug trials (they do already),

B) He does so to prop up his argument that drug companies paying doctors to do that research is necessary for us to have those good drugs they invariably produce, and

C) Disclosing those agreements creates the (impliedly) false perception of conflict.

I recall somebody saying something about the impossibility getting a man to believe something that his paycheck depends upon him not believing.

It's a lie trapped in a misdirection surrounded by a canard. How can this be taken seriously? Besides that, his whole essay is full of this, "Can I make it sound plausible?" kind of arguments. It gets tedious documenting each one. Thank god the data are there to do so.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:10 PM on October 12, 2009


But you're missing the points here. He's trying to argue for cloaking the relationship between profit-making entities and the guys you're entrusting you life to.

No. He is not. He is arguing that transparency has costs, and that these costs should be acknowledged and attempts made to mitigate them. Here's Lessig:

"But, once the story of JAMA’s effort to silence a critic had been made public, that "gag rule" was of course doomed. After an internal review, the journal reversed its policy. Any effort to protect the accused against unjustified criticism was abandoned. Unfair complaints would have to be tolerated--as they would have to be in any similar context. The age of transparency is upon us. The need to protect the whistleblower is unquestionable--driving off even modest efforts to cushion the blows from a mistaken accusation.

These troubles with transparency point to a pattern that should be familiar to anyone watching the range of horribles--or blessings, depending upon your perspective--that the Internet is visiting upon us. So, too, does the response. The pattern is familiar. The network disables a certain kind of control. The response of those who benefitted from that control is a frantic effort to restore it. Depending upon your perspective, restoration seems justified or not. But regardless of your perspective, restoration fails. Despite the best efforts of the most powerful, the control--so long as there is "an Internet"--is lost.


He's not saying we should go back, he's saying that attempts to do so are doomed and that the recent histories of the music and newspaper industries demonstrate why.

Regarding the article you cite aboout drug research funding...the $38 v. $30 billion number you cite seems to come from this passage:

"Together, government, industry and other sources spent $122 billion on health-related research in 2007; however, this amount was only 5.5% of the $2.25 trillion spent on health in the US in that year, and these numbers do not keep up with the pace of inflation, said Woolley.
Moreover, combined health research budgets of the NIH and other federal agencies, totaling $38 billion in 2007, decreased from 2006 after accounting for biomedical inflation. In 2007, the NIH saw its budget decrease for the fourth year in a row relative to inflation, at $29.1 billion.


Perhaps my math is faulty, but the article seems to state that the feds spent $38B all told, meaning that state governements, industry, and other sources spent $84B, with no breakdown of which portion of that is industry funded. This is reference to "health-related research" in 2007. Whereas the other article, with the $30B figure, referred specifically to pharmeceutical research in 2004. This is not apples to apples, and insamuch as both these figure are fruity it would seem phrameceutucal research would be of necessity a subset of all health related research.

Finally,

taxpayers wouldn't want to pay for drug trials (they do already)

Clinical drug trials and "all health related research" are not the same. It is my understanding that federal and university grants _tend to_ be allocated for basic research, while clinical trials which are necessary to test efficacy and harm in humans _tend to_ be funded by private companies. Namely because if a new treatment shows promise private money is willing to supply funds to push it along in the hope of making profit, whereas the real hard core science, testing entirely new hypothosis and theories of disease and so forth, is a much riskier prospects and so needs the prop of public funding. I'm not an expert in this area, and certainly if you have more info on the topic that clarifies this point, lemme have it. But basically I think you're imputing a lot of motives to Lessing which I'm not seeing in the article, and conflating things which are quite distinct, and which Lessing does not conflate.

None of which is to say that Big Pharma aren't bastards. They are; their incentives are all wrong.
posted by Diablevert at 2:39 PM on October 12, 2009


I know it's just me, my late horse and a bullwhip left in the thread at this point....but Ethan Zuckerman's got a lovely post up about all this.
posted by Diablevert at 2:47 PM on October 12, 2009


Lessig's essay is dialectical, and given some responses here, illustrates our typical short attention span - resulting in specious interpretations...I think the Zuckerman post and the Weinberger piece it refers (http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2009/10/12/lessigs-against-transparency-a-walkthrough) show how a 'targeted reading' of the essay benefits rather than a more 'naked' reading...

The more disturbing aspect is Lessig's solution of publicly funded elections seems impractical (he acknowledges problems with stacking up the odds even more favorably to the incumbents, and the obstacles with the Supreme Court)...Wonder how one can get restore trust in authority and government, while appreciating the transparency revolution...Lessig should've used 'revolution' instead of 'reform'...
posted by benevolous at 3:32 PM on October 13, 2009


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