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The Two Centers of Unaccountable Power in America and Their Consequences

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Posted on Jun 16, 2013
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By Robert Reich

This post originally ran on Robert Reich’s Web page.

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 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.

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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.

Robert B. Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including the best-sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.


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