Wednesday 17 June, 2020

Why America’s institutions are failing

(And it’s not just because of Trump, though he hasn’t helped.)

Thoughtful essay by Derek Thompson

The pandemic and the police protests, the twin crises of this horrendous year, might initially seem to have nothing to do with each other. In some ways, they are totally opposite cataclysms.

The COVID-19 outbreak, which demanded a swift and efficient response, revealed a discombobulated country painfully slow to deploy its arsenal of health interventions. The killing of George Floyd—like the attacks on peaceful protesters—demonstrated a rush to violence by American law enforcement, whose military arsenal is too often deployed with tragic efficiency.

Beneath these differences, however, lies a unifying failure. “The government agencies we thought were keeping us safe and secure—the CDC, the FDA, the Police—have either failed or, worse, have been revealed to be active creators of danger and insecurity,” Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, wrote on Twitter.

Why have America’s instruments of hard and soft power failed so spectacularly in 2020? In part because they are choking on the dust of a dead century. In too many quarters of American leadership, our risk sensor is fixed to the anxieties and illusions of the 1900s. We are prepared for wars against states and militant groups, but not against stateless forces such as pandemics and climate change. We’re arming and empowering the police like it’s 1990, when urban crime had reached historic highs. But violent-crime rates have fallen by more than 50 percent in almost every major American city in the past generation, while police still drape themselves in military gear and kill more than 1,000 people annually.

The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.

Always fighting the last war, in other words. In this case, the last century’s wars.

Worth reading in full.

Techlash? America’s growing concern with technology companies

Findings (pdf) of an interesting survey conducted by the Knight Foundation.

Even as technology has brought considerable benefits to people’s lives, there has been increasing dialogue about the possible downsides of online technology, particularly relating to the practices of the largest internet and technology companies, such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon.

Americans’ concerns about these companies appear to be deepening. Gallup’s tracking of public sentiment toward the internet industry shows a decline from a high of 60% of Americans with positive views of such companies in 2015 to 43% of Americans viewing them positively and 30% viewing them negatively in 2019 — up 14 percentage points from 2015.1 When asked specifically about such technology giants as Google, Facebook and Amazon, 46% of Americans view these companies positively, and one-third (33%) view them negatively.

Knight Foundation and Gallup endeavored to better understand how Americans view the roles these companies play in their lives and society as a whole. With the exception of their influence on democratic participation, this report finds widespread concern about the effects of internet and technology companies on society and democracy and their ability to self-regulate. Still, Americans continue to use these platforms despite their unease about misinformation and privacy, perhaps because there are few other options for similar services given the dominance of the major companies in the field.

Alongside the decline in how Americans regard major internet and technology companies, a variety of measures have been introduced and debated, including data privacy legislation and antitrust measures to break up some of these companies and curb some of their legal protections. However, Americans are ambivalent about major governmental involvement in regulating the practices of these companies, either because they are philosophically opposed to government intervention or, as this study suggests, because they do not believe government officials have the necessary knowledge to craft effective legislation.

So… people don’t like or trust the companies. But they continue to use their services. Why? Is it because there’s really no alternative?

Martin Wolf on what lies ahead

Characteristically thoughtful column in today’s FT. Probably behind the paywall. But here are his main conclusions about the post-Coronavirus world.

  1. A first shift away from the globalisation of things, in favour of more (though also contested) virtual globalisation. The integration of supply chains was declining before the pandemic. Now policy is moving more strongly in that direction.
  2. The accelerated adoption of technologies that promise enhanced safety along with opportunities for greater social control. China is taking the lead. But other states are likely to feel entitled, perhaps even expected, to follow suit.
  3. More polarised politics. The already established conflict between a more nationalist and protectionist right and a more socialist and “progressive” left seems likely to be exacerbated, at least in high-income democracies. These sides will fight over what a more assertive state should be doing.
  4. Public debt and deficits will be far greater. There will also be little tolerance for another round of “austerity” or reductions in the level or growth of public spending. A greater likelihood is higher taxes, especially on the more prosperous, and persistent deficits, financed, either explicitly or implicitly, by central banks.
  5. Dreadful international relations. China has had a surprisingly good crisis, given that this is where the virus emerged. But China is also openly autocratic and internationally assertive. Friction with a divided and enfeebled US seems set to become worse, for the indefinite future.

Interestingly, he also wonders about

what will be done about the role and influence of the tech giants. My guess is that Facebook, Google, Amazon and the like will be brought under political control: states do not like such concentrations of private power.”

I hope he’s right.

Quarantine diary — Day 88


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