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The two centers of unaccountable power in America, and their consequences

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | June 17, 2013

There are two great centers of unaccountable power in the American political-economic system today — places where decisions that significantly affect large numbers of Americans are made in secret, and are unchecked either by effective democratic oversight or by market competition.

One goes by the name of the “intelligence community” and its epicenter is the National Security Agency (NSA) within the Defense Department. If we trusted that it reasonably balanced its snooping on Americans with our nation’s security needs, and that our elected representatives effectively oversaw that balance, there would be little cause for concern. We would not worry that the information so gathered might be misused to harass individuals, thereby chilling free speech or democratic debate, or that some future government might use it to intimidate critics and opponents. We would feel confident, in other words, that despite the scale and secrecy of the operation, our privacy, civil liberties, and democracy were nonetheless adequately protected.

But the NSA has so much power, and oversight of it is so thin, that we have every reason to be concerned. The fact that its technological reach is vast, its resources almost limitless, and its operations are shrouded in secrecy, make it difficult for a handful of elected representatives to effectively monitor even a tiny fraction of what it does. And every new revelation of its clandestine “requests” for companies to hand over information about our personal lives and communications further undermines our trust. To the contrary, the NSA seems to be literally out of control.

The second center of unaccountable power goes by the name of Wall Street and is centered in the largest banks there. If we trusted that market forces kept them in check and that they did not exercise inordinate influence over Congress and the executive branch, we would have no basis for concern. We wouldn’t worry that the Street’s financial power would be misused to fix markets, profit from insider information, or make irresponsible bets that imperiled the rest of us. We could be confident that despite the size and scope of the giant banks, our economy and everyone who depends on it were nonetheless adequately protected.

But those banks are now so large (much larger than they were when they almost melted down five years ago), have such a monopolistic grip on our financial system, and exercise so much power over Washington, that we have cause for concern. The fact that not a single Wall Street executive has been held legally accountable for the excesses that almost brought the economy to its knees five years ago and continues to burden millions of Americans, that even the Attorney General confesses the biggest banks are “too big to jail,” that the big banks continue to make irresponsible bets (such as those resulting in JP Morgan Chase’s $6 billion “London Whale” loss), and that the Street has effectively eviscerated much of the Dodd-Frank legislation intended to rein in its excesses and avoid another meltdown and bailout, all offer evidence that the Street is still dangerously out of control.

It is rare in these harshly partisan times for the political left and right to agree on much of anything. But the reason, I think, both are worried about the encroachments of the NSA on the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, as well as the depredations of “too big to fail or jail” Wall Street banks on our economy, is fundamentally the same: It is this toxic combination of inordinate power and lack of accountability that renders both of them dangerous, threatening our basic values and institutions.

That neither Republicans nor Democrats have done much of anything to effectively rein in these two centers of unaccountable power suggests that, if there is ever to be a viable third party in America, it will may borne of the ill-fated consequences.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “The two centers of unaccountable power in America, and their consequences

  1. “It is this toxic combination of inordinate power and lack of accountability that renders both of them dangerous, threatening our basic values and institutions”

    + “neither Republicans nor Democrats have done much of anything to effectively rein in these two centers of unaccountable power”

    + SCOTUS gutting the Voting Rights Act yesterday as revenge for the 2012 presidential election results

    = An entirely different American Democracy than our Founding Fathers ever imagined, jeopardizing the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of every American today.

    Far too many failed democracies, plus Prof. Reich’s warnings, demonstrate that We The People are in graver jeopardy of losing our Democracy today than we have ever been before.

    The Internet was the only course of survival for our newest generations that allowed them join together to succeed in 2012 with the reelection of President Obama.

    The history of Democracy, beginning in 5th century BCE Athens, proves we cannot afford to lose the momentum of the Internet advantage that educated and motivated millions to overthrow the tyrannical SuperPAC forces against American Democracy in 2012, forces that also have far too much unaccountable power today.

  2. Prof. Reich, thank you for being one professor who disproves:

    ‘Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.… He talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure. And he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”’
    CALIFORNIA Magazine, Summer 2013, “Administering Change” by Sean Elder

  3. It’s not politics or blue versus red. Its about decisions made that affect all of us, by a few who think they know best. Their incredible impudence is insulting to each and every other living breathing American citizen.

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