TThe news of the week was dominated by the Supreme Court, whose mandate began on Monday; the Federal Reserve, and whether it will start responding to inflation by raising interest rates; and Facebook, who, according to a whistleblower, intentionally seeks to enrage and divide Americans in order to generate engagement and ad revenue.
The common thread is the growing influence of these three power centers on our lives, even as they become less responsible to us. As such, they present a fundamental challenge to democracy.
Starting with the Supreme Court. What is the underlying problem?
Do not think for a moment that the Supreme Court is basing its decisions on neutral and objective criteria. I argued before him and saw up close that judges have particular and different ideas about what is good for the country. It is therefore important to know who they are and how they got there.
The majority of the nine judges – all appointed for life – were appointed to it by George W Bush and Donald Trump, presidents who lost the popular vote. Three were installed by Trump, a president who plotted a coup. Yet, they’re about to revolutionize American life in ways most Americans don’t want.
This new court looks set to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision that enshrined reproductive rights in the 14th Amendment; declare unconstitutional a 108-year-old New York law prohibiting the carrying of firearms; and deprive federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate private companies. And much more.
Alone 40% of the public approves the performance of the court, a new low. If the judges rule as expected, that number will drop further. If so, expect renewed efforts to expand the court and limit the tenure of its members.
What about the Fed?
Behind recent stories about whether the Fed should act to bring inflation under control, there is the reality that its power to set short-term interest rates and regulate the financial sector is virtually unchecked. And here too, there are no neutral and objective criteria. Some believe that the Fed’s priority should be to fight inflation. Others think it should be full employment. So, like the Supreme Court, it doesn’t matter who runs it.
Presidents appoint Fed chairmen for four-year terms, but tend to stick with them longer for fear of shaking up Wall Street, which wants stability and big profits. (Alan Greenspan, appointed by Reagan, lasted almost 20 years, surviving two Bushes and Bill Clinton, who did not dare to impeach him).
The term of Jerome Powell, the current Fed chairman, who was appointed by Trump, expires in February. Biden will likely rename it to appease the street, though that’s not a sure thing. Powell has kept interest rates close to zero, which is appropriate for an economy still suffering from the ravages of the pandemic.
But Powell also allowed the street to resume several old risky practices, prompting Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren to tell him in a recent hearing that “renaming yourself means betting that, for the next five years, a Republican majority in the Federal Reserve, with a Republican president who has consistently voted for Wall Street deregulation, won’t lead to this economy again on a financial cliff.
Finally, what is behind the controversy on Facebook?
Facebook and three other high-tech behemoths (Amazon, Google and Apple) are taking on roles that once belonged to governments, from cybersecurity to space exploration, but they too are irresponsible.
Their decisions about which demagogues are allowed to communicate with the public and what lies they are allowed to spit have profound consequences for the predominance of democracy or authoritarianism. In January, Mark Zuckerberg apparently deferred to Nick Clegg, former British Deputy Prime Minister, now vice-president of Facebook, on whether to allow Trump to return to the platform.
Worse yet, they sow hatred. As Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, revealed this week, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to choose content that will make users angry, because anger drives the most engagement – and the user engagement turns into advertising dollars. The same is probably true of the algorithms used by Google, Amazon, and Apple. Such anger ricocheted through our society, generating resentment and division.
Yet these companies have so much power that the government has no idea how to control them. How many times do you think Facebook executives have testified before Congress in the past four years? Answer: 30. How many laws has Congress passed to restrict Facebook during this time? Answer: zero.
They are also not responsible to the market. They now Make the market. They are not even responsible to themselves. Facebook’s supervisory board has become a bad joke.
These three power centers – the Supreme Court, the Fed and the biggest tech companies – have huge and growing effects on our lives, but they are less and less accountable to us.
You must beware. Democracy depends on responsibility. Accountability provides checks on power. If the abuse of power is not contested, those who exercise it will only further consolidate their power. It is a vicious cycle that erodes faith in democracy itself.