DEMAND THAT THE FOR-THE-PEOPLE ACT BE PASSED BY CONGRESS TO END THIS
The 2020 election is shaping up to be the most expensive in American
history. Ten years after Citizens United, our elections are
awash with the money of mega-donors and corporations that drown out
the voices of everyday Americans — with serious consequences for
racial and economic justice.
An antidote is sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk, having passed the
House a year ago and still not been put up for a vote in the Senate.
H.R. 1, the For the People Act, would blunt the distorting influence
of big money in politics. It could transform who runs for office, who
wins, and what issues get prioritized in Congress.
Elections have become extravagantly costly. In 2016, campaign
spending by or in support of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton totaled
billion. The average Senate
winner in 2018 spent $15.7 million, with challengers needing on
average $23.8 million to topple incumbents. Even local election costs
can be forbidding. Spending in the Los Angeles County school board
primary last month topped
Although occasionally a candidate like Bernie Sanders has strong enough
national appeal to raise the money to compete from a broad network of
small donors, that’s the exception. The
vast majority have to rely on a class of large donors to be viable.
Less than 1 percent of the population provides the majority of campaign
funds. Indeed, just
25 people pumped over $600 million into the 2016 federal elections.
That donor class looks nothing like America. The compounding of
historical racial subordination and ongoing discrimination has given us an
economy in which the Forbes
400 billionaires have as much wealth as the entire Black population
and a quarter of the Latino population combined. Today, the top 1 percent
than 90 percent white; the top 10 percent are 85-90 percent white.
These are the groups that dominate political giving in America.
Dēmos’s analysis of campaign finance records bears
this out. Ninety-two percent of federal election donors in 2014 and
91 percent of donors in 2012 were white. The numbers are even more skewed
among large donors. Ninety-four percent of those giving more than $5,000
in 2014 and 93 percent in 2012 were white.
What’s the consequence of a political system dependent on an
overwhelmingly white donor class? The perpetuation of racial inequality.
First, the big money system is a barrier to entry for Black and brown
candidates. Studies show they’re less likely to have networks of rich
friends and business associates, making it difficult for them to survive
primary” where donors filter the candidate pool before a single vote
is cast. When candidates of color do run, they raise on average 47
percent less than their white counterparts. White candidates are
also far more likely to be in a position to self-fund their campaigns.
This is a big reason 90
percent of our elected officials are white, even though 37 percent
of us are people of color.
Second, the policy preferences of the donor class are far out of step
with those of the general public, and particularly of people of color.
On economic policy, for example, polls show that people of color support
role of government in reducing inequality at significantly higher
rates (67 percent) than do people earning over $100,000 a year (53
percent). People of color are also more likely to list job
creation and affordable
college as their economic priorities, whereas the wealthy are more
likely to cite lower taxes and deficit reduction.
The challenge is that the Supreme Court has invalidated commonsense
campaign finance protections time and again. It has struck down reasonable
contribution limits and restrictions on self-financing, allowed the rise
of SuperPACs, and greenlit wealthy individuals pumping millions into the
H.R. 1 contains innovative programs that would stay within the lines
drawn by the Court and still curb the harmful influence of big money.
The most significant is a public financing system for congressional
candidates that would match small-donor contributions — those under $200 —
at a rate of 6:1. In this way, a $20 donation would become $140, a $200
donation $1,400. The cost of the program is reasonable — one estimate is
$3 billion over 10 years, or $1
per citizen per year. The bill also creates a pilot program of $25
“My Choice” vouchers for people to give to congressional candidates they
These programs would amplify the voices of people currently being drowned
out by big money. It would offer a path for congressional and presidential
candidates to rely on donations from everyday people, not wealthy donors.
Similar public financing programs in New
York City and Arizona
and a voucher program in Seattle
have diversified the donor pool and allowed more candidates of color to
run. These programs can help produce more equitable public policy. For
example, the advent of public financing in Connecticut
was crucial to breaking a legislative logjam and becoming the first state
in the nation to guarantee paid sick leave.
Countering the undue influence of big money in our elections is a civil
rights issue. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, would be a giant step
forward. The American people should demand that it become law. It would
end the Solyndra and Tesla dirty payola programs that are destroying
An entire generation is
losing faith in American capitalism. Widening inequality and declining
mobility have led to an erosion of trust in the system. In a 2018 Gallup
survey, only 45 percent of young adults said they supported capitalism.
Fifty-one percent supported socialism.
These numbers are stark, and so are the failures that underlie them, but
history suggests that the failures can be addressed. Inequality has been
high before, and American society found ways to reduce it; opportunity,
too, can be widened by smart public choices. Fixing the system will not be
easy, but we have the tools we need, if we can find the political will to
Capitalism faces another threat, however, and it may prove more
fundamental: Americans’ growing reliance on technologies—smartphones,
social media, gaming consoles, shopping sites—that have become predatory
and are quickly becoming more so. These gadgets and platforms have been
integrated into nearly everything we do. Reaching for your phone to read a
text, peruse your Instagram feed, or play a round of Candy Crush has
become second nature, an involuntary response to even the shortest bout of
boredom. This reliance—addiction is a better word for it—is
undermining basic tenets of the American economic model.
In a well-functioning market, consumers have the freedom to act in
their own self-interest and to maximize their own well-being. Prices
are transparent, and people have a basic level of trust that
exchanges of goods, services, and money benefit all parties.
Consumers, it is assumed, are discerning and rational in the face of
the market’s blandishments—an assumption that is crucial to the
whole system’s ability to produce social good. Of course, markets
have never functioned in the real world exactly as they do in
economics textbooks. But in the U.S., the system has tended to work,
allocating resources efficiently, generating growth, and improving
the living conditions and welfare of most people.
But the new powers in the digital age have built their business
models on strategies—enabled and turbocharged by self-improving
algorithms—that actively undermine the principles that make
capitalism a good deal for most people. Their aim is not merely to
gain and retain customers, but to create a dependency on their
September 2017: Have smartphones destroyed a generation?
Carmakers, appliance manufacturers, and cosmetics conglomerates
have always been happy to prey upon their customers’ desires and
insecurities if doing so might stoke an irrational desire to buy
their products. But their methods—advertising, primarily—are crude
compared with the sophisticated tactics available to today’s tech
giants. The buzzes, badges, and streaks of social media; the
personalized “deals” of commerce sites; the camaraderie and
thrilling competition of gaming; the algorithmic precision of the
recommendations on YouTube—all have been finely tuned to keep us
coming back for more. And we are: The average person taps, types,
swipes, and clicks on his smartphone 2,617 times a day. Ninety-three
percent of people sleep with their devices within arm’s reach.
Seventy-five percent use them in the bathroom.
The sway these technologies have over us is unhealthy, and the ways
in which they can worsen our social relationships and our discourse
are worthy subjects of public concern. But addiction to technology
poses another threat, too. When we are too hooked on our phones and
feeds to make decisions that align with our own self-interest, the
free market ceases to be free.
Where an affinity ends
and addiction begins is not always clear, but when it comes to our
relationships with technology, the signs of addiction are manifest.
We are spending more and more hours online, forgoing time with loved
ones. Deprived of a decent Wi-Fi connection, we grow irritable. We
risk life and limb to send texts from the road. In a 2019 Common
Sense Media survey of 500 parents, 45 percent confessed to feeling
at least somewhat addicted to their phone. Among parents whose
children had their own phone, 47 percent said they believed that
their kids were addicted too.
Tech experts think the internet is ruining democracy
Many technology companies engineer their products to be
habit-forming. A generation of Silicon Valley executives trained at
the Stanford Behavior Design Lab in the Orwellian art of
manipulating the masses. The lab’s founder, the experimental
psychologist B. J. Fogg, has isolated the elements necessary to keep
users of an app, a game, or a social network coming back for more.
One former student, Nir Eyal, distilled the discipline in Hooked:
How to Build Habit-Forming Products, an influential manual for
developers. In it, he describes the benefits of enticements such as
“variable rewards”—think of the rush of anticipation you experience
as you wait for your Twitter feed to refresh, hoping to discover new
likes and replies. Introducing such rewards to an app or a game,
Eyal writes approvingly, “suppresses the areas of the brain
associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts
associated with wanting and desire.” Indeed, that brief lag between
refresh and reveal is not Twitter crunching data—it’s an intentional
delay written into the code, designed to elicit the response Eyal
A growing chorus of critics is warning of the dangers inherent in
such manipulation. Tristan Harris, a former technology designer at
Google—and another former student of Fogg’s—is a co-founder of the
Center for Humane Technology. Harris has likened his iPhone to
having “a slot machine in my pocket,” and indeed many of its
features mimic those of the most addictive games on any casino
November 2016: Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting
us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
Harris has worked to reveal the tactics companies use to keep us
hooked. On YouTube, for example, the auto-play function deprives
viewers of a natural moment at which to disengage. But it’s not just
that the site keeps queuing up new clips for you to watch. YouTube’s
algorithms are designed to hold your interest by serving up content
you can’t resist, and the algorithms have gotten very good. As of
2017, users were watching a collective 1 billion hours of YouTube
videos a day, more than 70 percent of which had been served to us in
the form of algorithmic recommendations. Pause over that number for
a moment: Nearly three-quarters of the YouTube videos we’re watching
have been fed to us.
The advent of addiction as the business model of some of the
country’s largest companies—companies with which many Americans
interact every day—has fundamentally shifted the balance of power
between consumers and producers. This was not always the most likely
outcome of the digital revolution. In many facets of our lives,
technology has improved transparency and given potential buyers
access to a wealth of information they previously lacked. In the
analog age, a car shopper would have little more than the Kelley
Blue Book—and his own time and willingness to kick tires—to guide
him to the best deal. Some of us appreciate that the Instagram
algorithm knows whether we are 16 or 60 and whether we prefer
Timberland or Tory Burch, and markets to us accordingly.
But the more reliant we become on a given app or platform, the more
opportunities its makers have to observe our behavior—and the better
they understand our behavior, the better they become at manipulating
it to their own ends, whether their business model is serving ads or
selling to us directly. It’s a virtuous cycle for the producers, and
a vicious one for the consumers. Often, we barely recognize that
we’re participating in it, because the barriers to participation are
so low. Many of the most addictive platforms lure us in with the
promise of a free service. But Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitch can be
considered free only if we decide that our time, and the personal
information we’re providing, have no value.
Digital life, we must
remember, is still in its infancy, and the powers of the
corporations that govern that life are still growing. Companies are
studying what we search for, what nudges we respond to, and what
times of day we engage in certain online behaviors. Soon, cameras
and sensors will likely be tracking what frightens, amuses, and
arouses us, allowing data collectors to know more about us than we
perhaps even know about ourselves. (The Wall Street Journal
has reported that popular
iPhone apps that track users’ heart rate and menstrual cycle were
passing that information to Facebook, though the social
network denied using the information to its advantage.)
January/February 2020: Inside tech’s fever dream
The suggestion that we need to be protected from such tactics might
seem paternalistic, and if consumers were the rational actors who
populate econ textbooks, it might be: A person could decide for
herself whether to exchange some amount of privacy for the joy of
viewing friends’ photos or the convenience of tracking her heart
rate. But the addiction economy relies on an asymmetrical exchange
of information. Users are expected to blithely surrender their
private information for access to services. The data collectors,
meanwhile, fiercely guard their own privacy, typically refusing to
disclose what information they have, whom they sell it to, and how
they use it to manipulate our behavior.
And they do, in fact, manipulate our behavior. As Harvard Business
School’s Shoshana Zuboff has noted, the ultimate goal of what she
calls “surveillance capitalism” is to turn people into marionettes.
In a recent New York Times essay, Zuboff
pointed to the wild success of Pokémon Go. Ostensibly a
harmless game in which players use smartphones to stalk their
neighborhoods for the eponymous cartoon creatures, the app relies on
a system of rewards and punishments to herd players to McDonald’s,
Starbucks, and other stores that pay its developers for foot
traffic. In the addiction economy, sellers can induce us to show up
at their doorstep, whether they sell their wares from a website or a
brick-and-mortar store. And if we’re not quite in the mood to make a
purchase? Well, they can manipulate that, too. As Zuboff noted in
her essay, Facebook has boasted of its ability to subliminally alter
The company has denied accusations that it uses this power to sell
targeted ads; others, however, will surely take advantage of our
vulnerabilities. Consider “drunk shopping,” a bad habit Americans
have acquired in the age of the Buy It Now button: Various surveys
have suggested that it is already a multibillion-dollar phenomenon.
It’s not difficult to imagine any number of technology platforms
determining when we’re likely to be tipsy—or discerning it from a
slur in our speech or typos in our texts—and using that information
to time their pitch.
2017: How online shopping makes suckers of us all
Companies are also leveraging our reliance on them—and their
knowledge of us—to get us to pay more for their products. By
tracking our purchasing patterns (what we will shell out for an
airline upgrade; how sensitive we are to surge pricing), they can
make offers based on what each individual is willing to pay rather
than what the market will bear. One study found that the price of
headphones displayed in Google search results varied depending on
users’ web history, with prices going up—by a factor of four—when
past searches suggested affluence. Another study, by the Brandeis
economist Benjamin Reed Shiller, found that while a seller with
access to basic demographic information about a specific buyer can
gain 0.3 percent more profit than the market price would produce, a
seller with access to an individual’s browsing history can increase
profit by 14.6 percent.
Here, too, a fundamental benefit of capitalism is threatened.
Traditionally, buyers have benefited from what economists call
consumer surplus—the difference between what we would pay
for a good and what sellers actually charge. With their newfound
information advantage, sellers can retain far more of that surplus
for themselves. Whether or not the average American understands the
concept of consumer surplus, individualized pricing violates a sense
of fairness: We’ve long assumed—but can assume no longer—that the
price you pay is the price I pay.
None of this is an
argument against progress. Technology has helped create a world of
convenience and abundance, and it will continue to do so. Properly
channeled, it can improve the functioning of a market economy. But
for society to harness technology’s potential, we must understand
how it is reshaping our lives.
In the past, we may not have entirely trusted General Motors or
General Electric, but most people didn’t believe they were warping
our desires or robbing us of our time and agency. By contrast, the
biggest, best-known companies in the contemporary American
economy—Facebook, Amazon, Google—are now viewed with growing
suspicion and mixed emotions. A Pew survey found that the percentage
of Americans who think technology companies have a net positive
impact on the country had fallen from 71 percent in 2015 to 50
percent in 2019. In part, such sentiments flow from the dawning
realization that these and other tech behemoths have hooked us on
their services in order to profit from us. But we’re also beginning
to recognize the scale of the time we’ve lost. We’re dismayed with
how we’re spending our days, but feel powerless to abandon our new
bad habits, as anyone who has deleted, then reinstalled, the
Facebook app can attest.
Will these discontents push people toward revolutionary backlash? Perhaps
not. But that’s almost beside the point. The capitalism that is taking
shape in this century—predatory, manipulative, extremely effective at
short-circuiting our rationality—is a different beast from the classical
version taught in university classrooms. It cannot be regarded as
beneficent and should not be given the benefit of the doubt. Profit motive
and the means to create dependency is too dangerous a combination.
American society has long treated habit-forming products differently from
non-habit-forming ones. The government restricts the age at which people
can buy cigarettes and alcohol, and dictates places where they can be
consumed. Until recently, gambling was illegal in most places, and closely
regulated. But Big Tech has largely been left alone to insinuate
addictive, potentially harmful products into the daily lives of millions
of Americans, including children, by giving them away for free and even
posturing as if they are a social good. The most addictive new devices and
apps may need to be put behind the counter, as it were—packaged with a
stern warning about the dangers inherent in their use, and sold only to
customers of age.
Perhaps the most immediate and important change we can make is to
introduce transparency—and thus, trust—to exchanges in the technological
realm. At present, many of the products and services with the greatest
power to manipulate us are “free,” in the sense that we don’t pay to use
them. But we are paying, in the form of giving up private data that we
have not learned to properly value and that will be used in ways we don’t
fully understand. We should start paying for platforms like Facebook with
our dollars, not our data.
So far there is no better system than market-based capitalism to balance
freedom, fairness, efficient allocation of goods, and growth. Given the
fondness for free markets that tends to dominate among Silicon Valley
executives, tech innovators ought to tread carefully if they want that
system to survive.