Thoughts on Lessig’s "Against Transparency"

I spent time this morning reading and thinking about Lessig’s article Against Transparency, which was published in the New Republic back in October when I was too busy to read and write about things like this. Here’s my report — I may return to this and write something more formal.

Lessig’s central critique against what he calls “naked transparency” is that it reinforces lazy inferences about money’s effect on politics, thereby undermining trust in government, and does not produce sufficient mitigating benefits. Naked transparency produces correlations (a word Lessig uses sneeringly): this guy voted for the bill and got an unusually large amount of money from the bill’s beneficiaries, or (in more careful studies) the guys who voted for the bill got more more from the bill’s beneficiaries than those who voted against. The problem for Lessig is that correlation is not causation. He would view it as corruption if the money caused the votes, ie if the votes would have been different in a world where the money had not been given. But there are other, more innocent reasons why money and political positions would be correlated: contributors might enjoy giving money to politicians who agree with them, or perhaps the contributors gave money not to change the politician’s mind but to get a friendly politician elected, which some would view as less problematic. In a particular case, one doesn’t know to what extent corruption is to blame, as opposed to these other channels.

To illustrate the point that transparency tends to produce lazy causal inferences, Lessig offers one of the supposedly problematic correlations that transparency makes possible — First Lady Hillary Clinton’s opposition to bankruptcy reform in 2000 compared to Senator Hillary Clinton’s support for bankruptcy reform in 2001 (after having received $140,000 in campaign contributions from the financial services industry). Lessig’s point here is that we generally assume from this story that the money caused Clinton to change positions, but that in fact there was a less objectionable reason for the switch: Senator Clinton represented New York, home to many companies that would benefit from bankruptcy reform, and it was thus in some sense her job to advocate on behalf of those constituents, regardless of money her campaign had received. Despite this alternative explanation, we tend to assume that money was the cause — what he calls “the default explanation.” “This default, this unexamined assumption of causality, will only be reinforced by the naked transparency movement and its correlations. What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.”

Lessig argues that policymakers and reformers should take into account the public’s limited ability to understand the data that transparency can produce. Central to Lessig’s critique is what he calls “the attention-span problem.” Understanding something nontrivial requires more attention than people are typically (and rationally) willing to give. In the area of money and politics, most of the public will lazily and simplistically view the best correlations the naked transparency movement can produce as evidence of corruption. Lessig does not conclude from this that the public needs to be taught or cajoled to be more careful scientists about the world; rather, he says we should design policy under the assumption that the public will not carefully evaluate correlations.

Ultimately, it is a little unclear what exactly Lessig means by this. He goes on a detour at this point in the essay into the worlds of music and online journalism to consider how those fields have struggled with the challenges posed by internet disruptions that he argues are comparable to the effect of transparency on politics in recent years. The Internet has been good for music and journalism in some senses but disastrous in others, and both industries are starting to come up with ways of handling these disasters. Lessig thinks that the realm of government information and transparency more generally should be viewed similarly as an area where the internet (and its transparency) has good and bad effects, and that transparency reformers should not view their product as such an unmitigated improvement. In particular, whatever the disinfectant benefits of sunlight (and he does not seem to think there are many), they come along with an intensification of cynicism toward the government that he believes is ultimately damaging to our democracy.

I basically agree with what I take to be the two basic points he makes about the reception of transparency data. His first point is that much of the transparency we’ve created does not help us answer causal questions. We can’t answer questions about government corruption by looking at a single contribution or even a set of carefully produced regression coefficients because, after all, correlation is not causation; it is a rare correlation that would provide convincing evidence of corruption as it is usually defined. The second basic point is that the public will not carefully consider the complexity of the issue when presented with these correlations; if indeed they encounter these correlations at all, the data will merely serve to reinforce coarse generalizations like “DC is corrupt.”

But the link between these observations and Lessig’s policy prescription is disappointingly weak. His main recommendation is to address concerns about corruption by reducing money’s role in politics. Transparency itself serves mainly to heighten cynicism, he argues, so we need to go the next step by applying regulation that establishes “a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results” — public financing of elections. I have no particular problem with public financing of elections, but his arguments against naked transparency provide very little reason to think that this is the right solution, for two reasons. First, people will of course continue to believe that money is buying results under the public financing system Lessig advocates: leaving aside the issue of bundling of small contributions, much more is spent on lobbying than on campaign contributions — 10 times as much, according to Ansolabehere et al’s 2003 JEP article — and this proposal wouldn’t touch any of that spending. And the proposal essentially ignores the problem of deciding whether campaign contributions are corrupt: having bemoaned the fact that transparency can’t answer that question for us, Lessig essentially assumes that these contributions are indeed corrupt and advocates drastically curtailing that source of financing. If transparency is as uninformative as he claims, on what basis does he make that recommendation?

A more charitable interpretation of Lessig’s article starts with the policy recommendation and goes from there. Lessig believes that public financing of campaigns would reduce the perception and reality of money buying policy, i.e. corruption. He is frustrated with transparency advocates claiming that disclosure is enough to combat corruption in politics. So he points out the limitations in what transparency can accomplish — limitations that arise fundamentally from the difficulty of drawing causal inferences about money and politics — as well as the real harm that is done by stoking cynicism without actually cleaning up politics. Transparency is not enough, argues Lessig, which is why we need to go further by bolstering public financing; but it is also too much in a sense: without reform, transparency merely makes us cynical and less inclined to participate.

Overall, this is a welcome (if somewhat sprawling) critique that left me with some questions. First, as Brandeis’s famous quote indicates, part of the point of transparency is to disinfect, i.e. to deter unjustifiable behavior. Is there good evidence that it indeed has that effect? My own study of municipal councils in France provides some evidence that transparency moderates political outcomes, but generally it is a difficult problem: given how hard it is to show the effect of money on politics, it is a much more difficult problem to show that the effect is smaller when the system is more transparent. Lessig makes passing reference to the fact that increased disclosure of executive compensation led to higher pay (the study of Ontario companies by Park, Nelson, and Huson is the study I know in this area), but that is probably not sufficient to rule out the possibility of valuable deterrent effects of disclosure.

Second, the data on money and politics unleashed by the transparency movement can only provide correlations, just as Lessig says, but this is true of any area, and there are some correlations that are more informative than others about causal relationships. If we do a randomized experiment and then observe the outcomes (perhaps produced by mandated disclosure), for example, we can learn something about the effect of the treatment; there are plenty of natural experiments that could be very informative as well. This is not something that a citizen journalist or even an investigative journalist or the average professional researcher can easily pull off; I agree with him even most of the professional research on these issues provides correlations that tell us little not only about individual instances but also about average effects of money in politics. But I do think that making this data more easily available makes it more likely that academics once in a while will come upon a nice experiment to document the effect of money on politics in a way that could help Lessig and other careful analysts understand what is going on out there.

Third, I wondered whether the benefits of transparency are more considerable if you think of the problem as a policy analyst rather than as a lawyer. Lessig establishes the unrealistic expectation that transparency is supposed to tell us whether individual votes or other actions are corrupt. “Even if we had all the data in the world and a month of Google coders,” he points out, “we could not begin to sort corrupting contributions from innocent contributions.” I agree. But the goal he sets out — identifying corrupting contributions — is what a lawyer attempts to do when undertaking a corruption investigation; a policy analyst would instead try to estimate the average effect of contributions on voting. Why do policy analysts focus on average effects rather than the effects of individual contributions? The technical reason is that we believe we live in a noisy world. Even if you could identify a very close counterfactual for a given case — a politician B who is very similar to politician A but did not receive a campaign contribution, and subsequently voted on a given piece of legislation — there are likely to be unobserved factors that affect the vote, such as some aspect of politician B’s ideology that differs from that of politician A. Now, if those unobserved factors affect contributions, then B actually is not a good counterfactual for A. But otherwise (e.g. if unobserved ideology is conditionally independent of contributions in the population of politicians), then the counterfactual is good but the effect we estimate from any one such comparison is unreliable, in the sense that if we observed it multiple times we might get different answers. We therefore aggregate up a lot of estimated individual-level effects to estimate an average effect that is less influenced by noise. This will not help a lawyer convict a politician for corruption, but it might inform policy.

In short, by making more data more easily available, the transparency movement has made it more likely that researchers will be able to estimate the average effects of money on politics in some circumstances. This is a modest step forward, but it is progress. Lessig’s essay should help to remind open government zealots that answering questions about corruption requires more than a website with tons of data, and perhaps it should encourage them to focus slightly more of their energies on organizing and making public the kind of data that researchers could use to answer causal questions and slightly less on making slick web interfaces to allow users to comment on particular pieces of data and write emails. But it should not lead them to give up hope about the value of opening up the government.

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