cover image America, Compromised

America, Compromised

Lawrence Lessig. Univ. of Chicago, $24 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-226-31653-6

In this provocative analysis, Harvard Law professor Lessig expands upon a series of lectures on “institutional corruption”: the notion that the presence of good people inside an institution is not a guarantee of it serving its intended purpose effectively and fairly. He asks readers to move beyond simplistically viewing ethics as “the project of naming the good and the right so as to rally us against the wrong.” He insists that the “greatest harm in our society” comes from the “moderately rich,” who enable evil by making and tolerating compromises in a variety of professions, including psychiatry and the academy, in pursuit of financial rewards. Lessig also argues that the profit motive has led private credit-rating agencies to shade their conclusions to maintain their clientele, the need to fund campaigns has resulted in undue political influence for donors, and individuals making practical financial decisions participate in these compromised systems. Lessig judiciously uses specifics to buttress his case, as when he reports that bank swipe-fees—the amount retailers pay when customers use debit cards—dominated Congress’s floor and committee time in 2011 “because it was lucrative for congressmen’s campaigns.” This treatise is a conversation-starter, not a guide to solutions; readers interested in those will find a more detailed and action-oriented analysis in Steven Brill’s Tailspin. (Oct.)