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Robert Reich: How Unaccountable Institutions Are Shaping Your Life – OpEd

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Three centers of power increasingly dominate our lives, but are less and less accountable: The Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, and Big Tech. 

The Supreme Court

Start with the high court. These nine unelected individuals – all appointed for life – are about to revolutionize America in ways the majority of Americans don’t want. This court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 reproductive rights ruling; declare a century-old New York law against carrying firearms unconstitutional; and strip federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate private businesses. And much more.

Let me remind you that five of the current justices were put there by presidents who lost the popular vote in their first election. Only 40 percent of the public now approves of the Supreme Court’s performance, a new low. Yet because justices are appointed for life, its members are immune to checks and balances, no matter how unpopular their rulings may be.

The Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve is almost as unaccountable as the high court.

Presidents appoint Fed chairs for 4-year terms, but tend to stick with them longer for fear of rattling Wall Street, which wants stability and fat profits. (Alan Greenspan, a Reagan appointee, lasted almost 20 years, surviving two Bushes and Bill Clinton). President Biden has just reappointed Jerome Powell, the current Fed chair, for example. 

Because it sets interest rates and regulates finance, the Fed can either keep the economy going near full employment or put millions of people out of work. Powell has kept interest rates near zero —appropriate for an economy still suffering the ravages of the pandemic.

But he has also bailed out America’s biggest corporations by taking on their junk debt, which they then used to buy back their own stock to the benefit of their CEOs and major investors. And he’s allowed Wall Street to go back to risky betting—prompting Senator Elizabeth Warren to say this:

Warren: “Your record gives me grave concern. Over and over you have acted to make our banking system less safe, and that makes you a dangerous man to head up the fed.

Big Tech

Lastly, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook all wield enormous power over our lives, and they too are unaccountable to the public good. They’re taking on roles that once belonged to the government, whether it’s blasting into space or running cybersecurity.

And their decisions about which demagogues are allowed to communicate with the public and what lies they’re allowed to spew have profound consequences for whether democracy or authoritarianism prevails.

Worst of all, they’re sowing hate and division. As Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, revealed, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to choose content that will make users angry. Why? Anger generates the most engagement — and user engagement turns into ad dollars. (The same is likely true of the algorithms used by Google, Amazon, and Apple.)

And yet, decisions at these companies are accountable only to their shareholders, not the public.

Beware. Democracy depends on accountability. If abuses of power go unchallenged, those who wield power will continue to consolidate it. It’s a vicious cycle that erodes faith in democracy and breeds cynicism.

So how do we break the cycle and hold these power centers accountable?

  1. Rotate Supreme Court justices with appellate judges and add more justices to the Court.
  2. Demand transparency from the Fed, and have an open debate on who should run it instead of letting Wall Street effectively decide.
  3. And finally, treat Big Tech companies as public utilities and regulate them, or break them up.

I’ll be honest. It will take vast amounts of public pressure and intentional organizing to get these solutions enacted.

Our only option is to turn up the pressure and keep fighting for our democracy.

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Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at robertreich.substack.com. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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