Two Leading Intellectuals Analyze What Ails America

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

Focused as he can be on ideas, Wolfe does not end having 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 not bad news, pay attention to political debates, be sensitive to norms as well as not just laws. All not bad ideas, although Wolfe has no road map or magic wand to get most Americans to buy into them.

“America, Compromised” can be about the country from the Trump era, although not about Trump. Indeed, Lessig would certainly have written much the same book if Hillary Clinton were president as well as if Democrats had control of both houses of Congress. His focus can be not on bad people doing bad things, although 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 as well as political money knows the basis just for This specific book, at This specific point extended to discuss a wider range of institutions, including finance, the media, the medical profession, the academy as well as the law. All of them, he says, have become corrupted by norms as well as misplaced incentives which in turn corrupt the behavior of actors who are themselves operating not out of venality although are caught in institutional webs. The rest of us? We inflict the greatest harm on society because we enable them.

For Congress, Lessig notes which the framers were deeply concerned about corruption, although 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, can be corrupt even though the overwhelming majority of congresspeople are not.

The institutional corruption here comes through political money. which corrupts the agenda, the issues which get the focus as well as attention, as well as moves Congress away through the needs as well as concerns of the voters. While our political institutions were not all or mainly linked to voters, at least not directly, the House of Representatives can be as well as was meant to be a channel for the voices of the people. which 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 which flows through distorted incentives. One need only look at Facebook for a current example.


With regard to finance, Lessig examines in different ways the 2008 collapse, through banks to ratings agencies which gave AAA ratings to entities which were absurdly dangerous. These agencies were created from the 19th century, as well as have had impeccable reputations because of their perceived independence as well as objectivity. although, Lessig says, the big three ratings agencies, designated as official by the Securities as well as Exchange Commission, compete to get the lucrative business of analyzing securities. not bad 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 certainly be downing bourbon.” The ratings failures were key contributors to the financial collapse. Individuals from the agencies did not take bribes — which was the perverse incentives which corrupted the institutions.