The average American doesn’t realize how much of the laws are written by lobbyists” to protect incumbent interests, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Atlantic editor James Bennet at the Washington Ideas Forum. “It’s shocking how the system actually works.”
In a wide-ranging interview that spanned human nature, the future of machines, and how Google could have helped the stimulus, Schmidt said technology could “completely change the way government works.”
“Washington is an incumbent protection machine,” Schmidt said. “Technology is fundamentally disruptive.” Mobile phones and personal technology, for example, could be used to record the bills that members of Congress actually read and then determine what stimulus funds were successfully spent.
A friend in the U.S. military sent me an e-mail last week with a quote from the historian Lewis Mumford’s book, “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Mumford was describing Rome’s decline: “Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”
Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.
“We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country,” said the Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond. Indeed, our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems. We simply will not be able to do the things we need to do as a country to move forward “with all the vested interests that have accrued around these two parties,” added Diamond. “They cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero-sum calculations,” where each one’s gains are seen as the other’s losses.
We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.
In a typical example just three weeks ago, the influential publication National Journal delivered a breathless report on how the Tea Party functions as a “headless” movement where “no one gives orders.” To prove the point, a head of the headless Tea Party Patriots vouched that “75 percent of the group’s funding comes from small donations, $20 or less.”
From what we do know, it’s clear that some Tea Party groups and candidates like Sharron Angle, Paul and O’Donnell are being financed directly or indirectly not just by the Kochs (who share the No. 5 spot on the new Forbes 400) but by a remarkable coterie of fellow billionaires, led by oil barons like Robert Rowling (Forbes No. 69) and Trevor Rees-Jones (No. 110). Even their largess may be dwarfed by Rupert Murdoch (No. 38) and his News Corporation, whose known cash contributions ($2 million to Republican and Republican-tilting campaign groups) are dwarfed by the avalanche of free promotion they provide Tea Party causes and personalities daily at Fox and The Wall Street Journal.
However much these corporate contributors may share the Tea Party minions’ antipathy toward President Obama, their economic interests hardly overlap. The rank and file Tea Partiers say they oppose government spending and deficits. The billionaires have no problem with federal spending as long as the pork is corporate pork. They, like most Republican leaders in 2008, supported the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout. They also don’t mind deficits as long as they get their outsize cut of the red ink — $3.8 trillion worth if all the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.
But while these billionaires’ selfish interests are in conflict with the Tea Party’s agenda, they are in complete sync with the G.O.P.’s Washington leadership. The Republicans’ new “Pledge to America” promises the $3.8 trillion addition to the deficit and says nothing about serious budget cuts or governmental reforms that might remotely offset it.