Nonfiction: Two Leading Intellectuals Analyze What Ails America

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Certainly, there are reasons this era is different, but blaming a lack of intellectual heft both overemphasizes the importance of intellectuals and largely dismisses a pretty impressive collection of present-day thinkers, including many of the Never-Trumpers calling for a reassertion of conservative values from the right, and scholars of political thought, race and authoritarianism showing courage and fortitude from the center and left. He also does not give enough emphasis to other conditions: the rise of partisanship extending even to the courts, the importance of tribal media in a new communications age, the obliteration of campaign finance rules that had put some limits on the power of the oligarchic class.

Focused as he is on ideas, Wolfe does not end with a series of reforms to reverse our decline. Instead, he offers advice to his readers: Don’t be petulant, appreciate the nobility of politics, trust experts, avoid conspiracy theorizing, don’t believe candidates who promise only good news, pay attention to political debates, be sensitive to norms and not just laws. All good ideas, but Wolfe has no road map or magic wand to get most Americans to buy into them.

“America, Compromised” is about the country in the Trump era, but not about Trump. Indeed, Lessig would have written much the same book if Hillary Clinton were president and if Democrats had control of both houses of Congress. His focus is not on bad people doing bad things, but on how incentives across a range of institutions have created corruption, with deleterious consequences for the nation.

Anyone who has seen Lessig’s mesmerizing TED Talk about Congress and political money knows the basis for this book, now extended to discuss a wider range of institutions, including finance, the media, the medical profession, the academy and the law. All of them, he says, have become corrupted by norms and misplaced incentives that in turn corrupt the behavior of actors who are themselves operating not out of venality but are caught in institutional webs. The rest of us? We inflict the greatest harm on society because we enable them.

For Congress, Lessig notes that the framers were deeply concerned about corruption, but rarely focused on the evils of individual quid pro quos. They worried about institutions, the danger of politicians becoming dependent on forces beyond the voters who elected them — or, as Madison wrote, “the people alone.” Congress, Lessig believes, is corrupt even though the overwhelming majority of congresspeople are not.

The institutional corruption here comes from political money. It corrupts the agenda, the issues that get the focus and attention, and moves Congress away from the needs and concerns of the voters. While our political institutions were not all or mainly linked to voters, at least not directly, the House of Representatives is and was meant to be a channel for the voices of the people. It has become something else entirely. Similarly, Lessig’s chapter on the media, in which he examines technology meeting market forces, reinforces the sense of dysfunction that flows from distorted incentives. One need only look at Facebook for a current example.

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With regard to finance, Lessig examines in different ways the 2008 collapse, from banks to ratings agencies that gave AAA ratings to entities that were absurdly dangerous. These agencies were created in the 19th century, and have had impeccable reputations because of their perceived independence and objectivity. But, Lessig says, the big three ratings agencies, designated as official by the Securities and Exchange Commission, compete to get the lucrative business of analyzing securities. Good ratings mean more business. Bad ratings, not so much. With financial institutions playing one agency off against the others, the results were predictable. Lessig quotes Roger Lowenstein, the author of a book on Wall Street: “Imagine the big rating agencies as three competitive saloons standing side by side, with each free to set its own drinking age. Before long, 9-year-olds would be downing bourbon.” The ratings failures were key contributors to the financial collapse. Individuals in the agencies did not take bribes — it was the perverse incentives that corrupted the institutions.

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