I was guided by SRW’s tweet to Charlie Stross’ “A Different Cluetrain“. It’s worth a read, and many have been feeling the same things, although expressions of these anxieties are different among the left and right. Here is my response.
First, we’ve been through worse, as a nation, and have somehow survived. The U.S. has had higher levels of inequality, corruption, and wealth concentration for a substantial period of time from the Gilded Age until the Great Depression. We are now returning to the Gilded Age, but with social security, expanding health care, a minimum wage, disability insurance, better worker health and safety protection, easier access to education, more lenient bankruptcy protections, better care for the mentally ill, easier access to credit, substantially less discrimination, substantially more civil rights, and a more humane culture.
Yes, state surveillance is troubling. The militarization of police is troubling. But the real effect of state surveillance and the national security bureaucracy is more Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmares for a small proportion of the population — here specifically people on no-fly lists and those regularly detained at the border — rather than a life of fear, hopelessness and self-censorship as would exist in a real totalitarian state. I think that the state of privacy in the era of Big Data is something that can be brought to the satisfaction of the public with a bit of institutional reform. Moreover the same technology allows us to self-publish, coordinate, and communicate with each other more efficiently and more freely than ever before. Overall I do not believe that we are closer now to being a national security society than we were in the 1950s with the Red Scare, as evidenced by the fact that our government is unable to keep things secret very well and the intelligence community seems to be the regular whipping boy of major news outlets. The public discourse surrounding domestic spying, at least, seems lively and well-informed. Government can no longer control “what is news” by rationing access to a handful of established outlets. In exchange for this loss of power it has gained the ability to monitor the public on a mass scale. The “hand” of government has been replaced with “eyes”. Which would you rather have? Government control over the economy is weaker than it used to be (Remember “What’s good for General Motors is good for America?”), although the middle class is shrinking and financial security is increasing. Reasonable people can differ as to whether the overall freedom and autonomy of the public is higher now than it was in the past, but we are not entering a black night of civil unrest and state domestic repression. I would like a few more protests, though.
One extremely positive thing is that inequality has become firmly rooted in the public discourse. This happened very quickly. Here we can do a lot with some reasonable compromises: lift the cap on FICA taxes and lower the overall FICA rate. Raise the federal minimum wage and index it to CPI. Lower overall corporate tax rates but remove loopholes that allow profits to be hidden overseas and remove the preferential treatment of capital income vis-a-vis earned income. Do not make interest expense tax-deductible (whether for household mortgages or for businesses). Increase estate taxes. Build more public universities to lower the price of an education rather than expanding student loan programs. Increase child tax credits and parental leave. All of the above can be phased in and would do much to help the middle class and reduce financialization of the economy. If that doesn’t work, more radical reforms are possible. I think the next 100 years will be better, on balance, than the last 100 years.