Change

This week I had the chance to go to a luncheon given by the UJA Federation of NY Young Real Estate Executives.  My firm sponsored a table, the lunch was near my office (at the Waldorf) and the food was kosher.  Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

The keynote speaker at the lunch was Cory Booker, mayor of Newark.  I have to say, I was very, very impressed.  Mr. Booker spoke exceptionally well.  His speech was interesting, but funny at the appropriate times, smartly addressed and tailored for his audience, and had a clear and applicable message.  It was truly an execellent speech.  I don’t know if video of it is available online, but if I find it, I would love to post it.

In the interim, take a few minutes and watch the video of this speech given by Booker at the graduation of the Fieldston School.

 

My favorite line: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability; it must be carried in on the backs of people who are willing to stand up.”

Recently, with the upcoming presidential elections (and primary season) taking such a prominent position in the public consciousness, and especially with Barack Obama’s message of change, I got to thinking about what my feelings about “change” would be, specifically in a political context.

Part of my reading and looking led me to the website for the movement trying to urge Larry Lessig to run for Congress in California’s 12th District (ultimately, he decided against it).  I made my way across Lessig’s own “campaign” page.  At the bottom right of the page, there is a video of a lecture given by Lessig about the idea of copyright and creative commons, where, at the, he introduces and explains the idea of a new movement that has come to be called “Change Congress.”  Watch it.  It’s a very interesting lecture.  Find an hour, and watch it.  If you only have ten minutes, though, watch this now:

This is about finding, supporting and electing candidates who will not take money from special interest groups, who will not be beholden to that money and those groups and will govern in a way that is truly best for the country and their constituency.  It is a group that is aimed at ending the traditional Washington “insider” control of our nation’s government.  And it’s not necessarily about changing people, but changing the system; the influence that money has on the system.  Truly an honorable goal.  If you have a few minutes next Thursday, watch the webcast of the official launch of the Change Congress movement.

I used to deride Barack Obama as “unqualified.”  That he made his name known for one speech given at the Democratic National Convention, got himself elected to the Senate and made himself nationally prominent, positioning himself for his current run for the White House.  I wonder, though, if that’s precisely what makes him an attractive candidate?  Aside from being an exceptionally charismatic speaker, his message resonates, clearly, with many people.  And the idea that he’s not an old-time political insider has particular appeal to me.  Look, I am not saying that I will certainly vote for him this coming November, but that given the opportunity, I would seriously consider it.

I am fully on board with the Change Congress movement.  It will take some time, and it won’t be easy.  But then again, nothing that’s worthwhile ever is.

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability; it must be carried in on the backs of people who are willing to stand up. 

If we want to end the era of corruption, money and cronyism ruining our government, and instead usher in a time of real leadership and governance by ideas, then we must be willing to stand up for it.

Yes, I know, I can be a naive idealist sometimes.  There are certainly tons of reasons why something like this could never work.  But isn’t that the kind of thing people told Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Isn’t that the kind of thing people have been saying to any innovator, to the small beginnings of any movement?  Isn’t that what people said to the brave men and women who revolted against Britain and started this country?

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness….But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Recognize that?  That’s the Declaration of Independence.  Was that idea too idealistic and naive?  Maybe.  But the very idea that a few passionate and dedicated people can stand up and force real change is the very principle this country was founded on!

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9 responses to “Change

  1. I’m busy trying to finish my work early on a Friday, so I couldn’t read this at length. However, I did manage to find the time to write a haiku for you:

    The congressman who
    Shuns earmarks to his district
    Has a short career

  2. The candidate who
    Refuses to take money
    Can’t get elected

    I’m on a roll!

  3. The ones who affect change are the ones who show ways to actually do so. What Obama is trying to do is not similar to MLK – he’s not just trying to change mindsets. Changing policies and practices requires a lot more than just powerful words; it requires coherent plans. More importantly, what are the changes he wants to make? Are those good changes? What MLK was changing were good changes. We can’t say the same about Obama’s ideas.

  4. I’m not saying Obama’s “change” is what I am on board with. Obama uses change, I think, differently (“change” is always the buzzword of the candidate that isn’t from the party in power). What I find refreshing about Obama is that he isn’t a traditional Washington insider candidate, who’s been around forever, and feels (this is, after all about my feeling) like part of a coordinated political machine.

    I used MLK as an example not to conflate with Obama, but to show the difficulty of change, and the negativity that usually faces it.

    Look at Adam’s two comments. That’s exactly the point I was trying to make about naysayers. People will say that change is impossible. But it’s not. People are going to say that a candidate who pledges not to take money from PACs can never win; that a congressman that pledges to abolish earmarks will never get re-elected. But that doesn’t have to be true. That’s exactly the point of the change congress movement. Getting beyond those perceptions and those barriers.

  5. Look at opinion polls. Congress’s approval rating is in the mid-twenties, but any individual congressman actually rates very highly in his/her district. (This is nothing new, you guys all know this.) The high personal approval rate for congressmen despite the overall low ratings of Congress are directly tied to earmarks. If you look at opinion polls, most of the public is against earmarks. But they are very much in favor of federal funding going to their own districts. Unless you had a wholesale roster change in congress, what is more likely to happen is that a handful of “Change Congress” candidates will be elected; this will not be enough to eliminate earmarks; ultimately, earmarks will continue but those districts won’t share in the pie. And then those congressmen will either start fighting for earmarks, or they’ll be defeated for reelection.

  6. The change you’re referring to is not impossible, but it’s not going to happen with this two-bit operation and a handful of congressional seats. The best bet for this sort of change is by electing a like-minded president, who, in one person, is coequal with 535 members of Congress, and who is answerable to the entire American electorate and not a small congressional district. And don’t take my comments as my opposition to budgetary and election reform. I’m in favor of it, I just think that this organization won’t be able to accomplish it.

  7. Adam,

    Change like this has to start with a handful of seats, and grow from there. Perhaps like no other time in American history, the Internet has enabled a “two bit operation” like this to gain national attention.

    Maybe in the coming election, they get two candidates to back, and one gets elected. Then there’s some attention. People go the website, they read, the get involved. Then two years from now, there’re 5 or 6 candidates, and 4 of them get elected. It grows, it gets more attention. That’s how things start. That’s how it could be.

  8. General R. Blie

    Why would we want change like this?
    Are you suggesting taking the power out of the hands of the wealthy few and giving it to the general public?

    That probably sounded sarcastic, but it is partially serious. The presumption is that a government would be better off (however you define better) having being less influenced by wealthy or powerful interests. I would like you to argue that point before we go changing things.

    Government purely by the majority doesn’t work. I would think a public vote on every single issue (assuming such thing were practical) would be very unfair to certain segments of the population. It is tough to assume that everyone will vote for what is best for the group as a whole rather than themselves as individuals. There can be no assurance that this system would be more fair. (For example, it is highly unlikely that Israel would exist.) All you would do is replace pandering to the powerful with pandering to the popular. (I will not make the other argument that the britney-following, WWE-watching general public is not smart enough for the responsibility of deciding issues.)

    On the other hand, having a system where the rich and powerful have more (although not absolute) influence suits this country fine. Those individuals have a strong incentive to preserve the status quo and strengthen america (as a whole) on the national and global scale. I agree with finding ways to limit Saudi Arabian and Chinese influence. However, Halliburton doesn’t bother me. In general, they enrich themselves in ways that make America stronger. In most cases, they do not take actions that (intentionally) harm America.

    We are a capitalist country. Our economic and political interest are very closely aligned. Often, the most powerful people are the most accomplished leaders. The weak are filtered out by the capitalist system. The point is that an average group of the wealthy would be better equipped to decide political policy than an average group of average people. The stupid don’t hold on to their wealth (and power) very long (see – Paris Hilton’s inheritance).

    The point is – I know this system is not perfect. However, don’t advocate change, unless you have already argued that the alternative system is better. “Take the power from special interests” and “give the government back to the people” make for good soundbites. It sounds much more honorable than the alternative. But, that doesn’t mean its best for the country.

  9. Noyam: It can’t happen like that. Even if you got a few candidates elected, and even if you sparked a national movement that gripped the nation for an unusually large duration (such as a few years), no meaningful laws would ever be passed that would change the system. Even if there was some marginal change for a brief period of time, eventually everything returns to the lowest energy state, the baseline. Lawrence Lessig himself acknowledges that merely getting a few candidates elected won’t accomplish anything. Change can only be accomplished if the movement has long-term success: “Over a number of election cycles… as the numbers grow, it makes it possible to make real change in how congress works by making that change real in the political process.” But without a prolonged movement (which I don’t believe the current political environment is ready to support), no real change will be accomplished.

    I believe his ideas are worthwhile. But if Prof. Lessig was truly serious about instituting real change, he would not only endeavor to elect a handful of representatives, he would focus a substantial amount of his resources on electing a president who was inclined to his point of view. But that approach is untenable for Prof. Lessig, I suspect, because right now the presidential candidate who most embodies the “Change Congress” movement is a Republican. John McCain has taken strong positions against earmarks (“Sen. John McCain… was one of five senators to reject earmarks entirely, part of his long-standing view that such measures prompt needless spending.” Washington Post, 2/14/08), and he’s long been a proponent for campaign finance reform. He has also been the most outspoken candidate with respect to public financing of elections (though that third point is weakened by the fact that public financing would seem to benefit him more than his opponent in the upcoming election). Both his record and his campaign platform indicate that he’s the candidate who most fits the “Change Congress” mold. Prof. Lessig, though, is an Obama supporter. No doubt, Prof. Lessig agrees with Sen. Obama on most matters. But on the issue that Prof. Lessig is making “the focus of [his] work… [f]or at least the next 10 years,” McCain is the better choice.

    Though Prof. Lessig initially claims that the “Change Congress” movement should be “bipartisan,” he later urges that his ideas are the type of “change that Progressives should be pushing for.” Prof. Lessig’s words and deeds indicate that his partisanship is very much in spirit of the current climate. Is he trying to change the electoral process, or is he trying to get “Progressives” elected? Does he believe enough in changing the process, and thereby making government accessible to all Americans, that he’s willing to demonstrate bipartisanship and back a candidate he disagrees with on other matters? Or is fighting “corruption” (his quotes, as he has defined it) really just a second-string issue to him? When Prof. Lessig supports McCain for president (or, at a minimum, puts forth some congressional candidates who accept his pledge but he otherwise disagrees with), I’ll be convinced that he’s sincere.

    I agree with the pledge of the Change Congress movement. In fact, I strongly agree with it. I wish it would be widely instituted (notwithstanding my belief that “Change Congress” can’t succeed as it is currently designed). On the other hand, I probably differ with most of Prof. Lessig’s other political viewpoints, with quite possibly the widest disagreements coming on the issues we consider most important. Do you think Prof. Lessig and “Change Congress” would support me? I’m not googling “DraftCohen” just yet.

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