Big Data and Big Money have subverted our democracy
In American politics today, corporations reign supreme. Powerful corporations control American politics through Big Money and Big Data. Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress represent the ultimate corporate play, with the powers of the executive and legislative branches turned over to the most destructive corporate special interests.
We are reminded daily of unchecked corporate power. The New Yorker this week put a corporate and a family face to the nation’s opioid epidemic. The epidemic is heavily the result of Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin. The company is privately owned by the Sackler family, widely known and admired for its philanthropic largesse but virtually unknown heretofore for its reckless marketing of addictive opioids, using high-powered Madison Avenue persuasion and making aggressive commissions to doctors who have prescribed the addictive drugs.
The other major economic news this week was the continuing profit surge of Big Data, with the combined market cap of Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft topping $3.2 trillion. We are gradually coming to understand how these Big Data companies earn mega-fortunes and mega-power through the processing and sale of the personal data they collect on all of us without our knowledge or real consent. Our private data, suitably processed through machine learning algorithms, are used to micro-target consumers and voters to manipulate both markets and elections. Consumers in this case, as has often been pointed out, are not the customers of Big Data, but the product.
The most powerful people in the United States are the billionaire corporate owners of these companies, who finance political campaigns, deploy lobbyists, and threaten members of Congress who fall out of line. They warn members of Congress that a “wrong” (anti-corporate) vote will lead to negative ads and a primary challenger, thereby making automatons of most members of Congress, especially the Republican Party. Those who buck the tide, such as Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake, survive politically only long enough to resign.
The power of Big Money combined with Big Data is still only dimly understood. Trump’s leading billionaire backer, right-wing hedge fund owner Robert Mercer, together with Steve Bannon, backed the Big Data operation Cambridge Analytica, which claims to have private data on more than 230 million Americans. How did the company amass this vast data trove of personal information? Did it buy it? Did it benefit from hackers? Did it use the data to help Vladimir Putin’s agents to target their fake news via Facebook, Google, and Twitter? Will we ever know?
Some of the most powerful companies are privately owned, and therefore especially secretive. That is true of Purdue Pharma and Cambridge Analytica, and of Koch Industries, the notorious oil and gas firm owned by the right-wing brothers David and Charles Koch, who have used their $100 billion combined net worth to buy up university departments, fund libertarian think tanks, and finance the PACs of politicians like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator majority leader Mitch McConnell.
The ability of companies to hide their tracks was grotesquely abetted by the notorious Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which permits unlimited secret corporate and individual giving to political action committees. We have no comprehensive accounts of the political machinations of billionaires like Mercer, the Koch brothers, and Sheldon Adelson. Yet we do know that total campaign spending now adds up to several billion dollars each political cycle, and we also see the effects clearly in our politics. On every key issue, corporate interests now dominate the public interests.
Why does America suffer from the highest-priced health care in the world? The health care lobby.
Why does America suffer from a fast-food obesity epidemic, literally dying at the hands of a food industry that is killing Americans with obesigenic concoctions that pass for food? The fast-food lobby.
Why does America suffer from an epidemic of mass shootings with assault weapons like those recently used in the Las Vegas massacre, and yet Washington does nothing to bring a modicum of safety to the general public? The gun lobby.
Why does the federal government sell powerful armaments to despotic regimes in the Middle East with the full knowledge that these weapons are likely to stoke the next round of massively destructive wars? The arms lobby.
Why do America’s financial regulators turn a blind eye to the reckless dealings of the hedge fund industry, which thrives on fraud, gambling, and insider information, and which deploys fee structures that obviously stoke all of those hazardous behaviors? The Wall Street lobby.
Why does Congress refuse to act on climate change despite the strong majority of Americans who favor increased investments in renewable energy and cutbacks in fossil fuels? The oil lobby.
Why does Congress allow the Big Data companies life Facebook and Google to invade our privacy, traffic in our most personal information, and hide their business models even as they become the most highly valued and powerful companies in the world? The Silicon Valley lobby.
Why are Americans facing yet another round of corporate tax cuts when the American people are strongly against the current proposals and have repeatedly voiced the preference for higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy? The Republican Party’s billionaire donors.
In every case, public opinion screams out for the public interest, yet in every case Congress delivers the corporate interest. Americans want universal health care coverage; an end to US involvement in overseas wars; a shift to renewable energy; online privacy, and higher taxes on companies and the wealthy. Yet in every case, the opinions of the American people are discarded by Congress and the White House like so much nuisance.
The situation is rapidly deteriorating, not improving. Trump has turned the keys to the kingdom over to the lobbyists. What to do?
We will have to mobilize to save American democracy itself, before corporate taxes are gutted, online privacy is irreversibly routed, and the arms industry leads us into new wars. There is no single way to fight such vast corporate power. Elections are one important opportunity to oppose corporate interests, but there are others. The time has arrived for stepped-up consumer boycotts against corporate malefactors such as large polluters and corporate tax evaders; for more union organizing; for public protests against the endless US wars and the unjust tax system; for shareholder activism to pressure CEOs to end destructive corporate practices; and for class-action lawsuits against major companies contributing to global warming, obesity, consumer fraud, and other social ills.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”