Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion

The two centers of unaccountable power in America

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 Maryland-based 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 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 JPMorgan 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 be born of the ill-fated consequences.

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Baltimore's crane drain
    Baltimore's crane drain

    Hats off to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other top city officials for not blowing their tops when word came down last week that language included in the Senate's version of the state budget package would give a $2 million tax break to Ports America Chesapeake — all of it coming...

  • The people's representatives should be elected
    The people's representatives should be elected

    Members of Congress don't always complete their terms due to factors like death, a new job and scandal. When a House seat becomes vacant, the Constitution requires an election to fill it, and every House member has been elected. The 17th amendment established direct election of Senators as...

  • The conservative case for same-sex marriage
    The conservative case for same-sex marriage

    Before the current Supreme Court session ends this summer, the justices will make a landmark decision on same-sex marriage. But conservatives shouldn't wait to lose in court. They should accept same-sex marriage now.

  • More quality teachers, fewer administrators
    More quality teachers, fewer administrators

    Each year when it is time for executive central office school officials to present their proposed school budget to local government officials for approval, a funny thing happens. The needs of children anchor the plea for more funding. From a political perspective, this is a tough plea to...

  • No weather TLC without TWC
    No weather TLC without TWC

    People love to talk about the weather. And people listen to those who know what they're talking about — like meteorology guru Jim Cantore. But when Verizon FiOS unexpectedly dropped The Weather Channel (TWC) from its line-up on March 10, those voices went silent for the cable company's...

  • Powdered alcohol ban [Poll]
    Powdered alcohol ban [Poll]
Comments
Loading