The week’s news has been dominated by the supreme court, whose term began on Monday; the Federal Reserve, and whether it will start responding to inflation by raising interest rates; and Facebook, which a whistleblower claimed 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 over our lives, even as they become less accountable to us. As such, they present a fundamental challenge to democracy.
Don’t for a moment believe the supreme court bases its decisions on neutral, objective criteria. I’ve argued before it and seen up close that justices have particular and differing ideas about what’s good for the country. So it matters who they are and how they got there.
A majority of the nine justices – all appointed for life – were put there by George W Bush and Donald Trump, presidents who lost the popular vote. Three were installed by Trump, a president who instigated a coup. Yet they are about to revolutionize American life in ways most Americans don’t want.
This new court seems ready to overrule Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that anchored reproductive rights in the 14th amendment; declare a 108-year-old New York law against carrying firearms unconstitutional; and strip federal bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate private business. And much more.
Only 40% of the public approves of the court’s performance, a new low. If the justices rule in ways anticipated, that number will drop further. If so, expect renewed efforts to expand the court and limit the terms of its members.
Behind the recent stories about whether the Fed should act to tame inflation 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, objective criteria. Some believe the Fed’s priority should be fighting inflation. Others believe it should be full employment. So like the supreme court, it matters who runs it.
Presidents appoint Fed chairs for four-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, who didn’t dare remove him).
The term of Jerome Powell, the current Fed chair, who was appointed by Trump, is up in February. Biden will probably renominate him to appease the Street, although it’s not a sure thing. Powell has kept interest rates near zero, which is appropriate for an economy still suffering the ravages of the pandemic.
But Powell has also allowed the Street to resume several old risky practices, prompting the Massachusetts Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren to tell him at a recent hearing that “renominating you means gambling that, for the next five years, a Republican majority at the Federal Reserve, with a Republican chair who has regularly voted to deregulate Wall Street, won’t drive this economy over a financial cliff again.”
Facebook and three other hi-tech behemoths (Amazon, Google and Apple) are taking on roles that once belonged to governments, from cybersecurity to exploring outer space, yet they too are unaccountable.
Their decisions about which demagogues are allowed to communicate with the public and what lies they are allowed to spew have profound consequences for whether democracy or authoritarianism prevails. In January, Mark Zuckerberg apparently deferred to Nick Clegg, former British deputy prime minister, now vice-president of Facebook, on whether to allow Trump back on the platform.
Worst of all, they’re sowing hate. 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 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. Such anger has been ricocheting through our society, generating resentment and division.
Yet these firms have so much power that the government has no idea how to control them. How many times do you think Facebook executives testified before Congress in the last four years? Answer: 30. How many laws has Congress enacted to constrain Facebook during that time? Answer: zero.
Nor are they accountable to the market. They now make the market. They’re not even accountable to themselves. Facebook’s oversight board has become a bad joke.
These three power centers – the supreme court, the Fed and the biggest tech firms – have huge and increasing effects on our lives, yet they are less and less answerable to us.
Beware. Democracy depends on accountability. Accountability provides checks on power. If abuses of power go unchallenged, those who wield it will only consolidate their power further. It’s a vicious cycle that erodes faith in democracy itself.