Dear Academy Families,
Yesterday’s ASM was one of the best I’ve heard in my seven years at the Academy, and I hope your student brings excited echoes of it home to you as well. If not, be sure to ask about it. Professor Lawrence Lessig, currently Furman Professor at Harvard Law School as well as Director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, spoke to our community on “Citizens.” But that title belittles his intellectually provocative and highly entertaining presentation on how money corrupts our democratic system, and what we as citizens can and should be doing about it.
Some telling factoids on how and why money can “corrupt” a system: 144,000 Americans account for more than 90% of campaign funding in total, with only 132 people accounting for over 60%. Research by subjective industries (say, on potential health issues surrounding cell phones or plastic bottles) is almost always shown to hold such items “harmless,” while independently funded studies find the same items to be overwhelmingly “harmful.” This naturally causes distrust of any “official” word we might get, especially when government agencies are meant to be protecting us from such health risks.
So how can we “fix” a federal government both paralyzed from taking action without lobbyist funding support, and also a government distrusted by 70% to 80% of those polled (a number which is much higher for the younger generation)? Professor Lessig offered a bipartisan and “simple” fix that even he admits might not be possible: Use the new social media network to apply large-scale voter pressure on Congress to pass legislation requiring only public funding of political campaigns. This would involve giving every voting citizen a $50 voucher, forcing candidates to spend time educating the voters to win their vouchers – as opposed to the current system where 30% to 70% of a Congressman’s time is spent fundraising from a very few high rollers.
Clearly, our Academy students were taken by this talk and highly engaged. You would have been proud of the sophisticated questions asked of this Harvard Law professor, which he juggled with meaningful and vivid answers. Ultimately, he made clear, our students have inherited a broken system, and it is their generation’s challenge and opportunity to find a way to fix it…either through the internet tools they use so well to force the kind of legislation for public funding that Professor Lessig suggests (and which he illustrated has worked with an example of legislation involving unwise censorship of the internet), or coming up with their own ideas to address the problem. But ignoring the problem, he stated, was a sure-fire way to watch our democratic republic deteriorate…an option we all agreed was unacceptable.
And in my own 9th grade English class an hour after ASM, we not only continued the debate on substance (How would a voucher system be funded?), we also analyzed why Professor Lessig’s talk was so entertaining and engaging…which only proves our students know how to take advantage of these exciting exposures to top-notch experts. As I said before, you would have been proud!
James S. Berkman
Head of School