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Who makes the rules in the new Gilded Age?

谁在新的镀金时代制定规则?

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【来源】: 布鲁金斯学会
【时间】: 2018-12-12
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At a summit of international business leaders recently, I was surprised how often the discussions turned to the impact of the internet on liberal democratic values, including capitalism. Populism, nationalism, protectionism, Brexit, Trump, the rise of the alt-right, the call for socialism, and the seeming success of government-managed markets were all attributed—at least in part—to how the internet has eliminated many of the rules that delivered stability for the last century.

A “liberal democracy” does not apply the word “liberal” as we do in American politics. A liberal democracy is a representative democracy of free and fair elections, and the rule of law applied to equally protect all persons. Until recently, it has been on the rise throughout the world. Democratic capitalism is a free market operating within guardrails established by such a liberal democracy.

What I was hearing from the business leaders was that new technology and the internet create an economic and social instability that plays into the hands of those at the extremes—extremes of both political thought and marketplace dominance.

At the political level, the digital engine that is driving economic and social instability also provides the tools to exploit the resulting dissatisfaction so as to threaten liberal democratic capitalism. Populism from the right can tend toward authoritarianism, while populism from the left can tend toward socialism. In the marketplace, technology has delivered a different type of extremism: a handful of companies with unfettered dominance over key components of economic activity. The internet, a decentralized collection of interconnecting networks, has created new centralized powers that siphon, aggregate, and manipulate personal information to create bottlenecks to the operation of free and open competition.

Populism from the right can tend toward authoritarianism, while populism from the left can tend toward socialism. In the marketplace, technology has delivered a different type of extremism: a handful of companies with unfettered dominance over key components of economic activity.

The internet started out with the hope of being the great democratizer by removing barriers to everything from the flow of news to local taxi service. While the networks of history had centralized economic activity, the distributed architecture of the internet would similarly distribute power away from central institutions. Unfortunately, that has not been the result. Companies utilize the distributed network to recentralize activity. Corporate digital autocrats collect personal information and exploit it to control markets. Political digital autocrats use the internet to spy on their citizens and target attacks on the democratic process.

I. Technology has done this before

That the effects of new technology cause such upheaval should not surprise us. Technological change previously caused similar—if not greater—destabilization; both economic and political. The technology-driven upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries shaped the world from which our new technology is departing. The challenges of that time echo in the reality that confronts us today.

That the effects of new technology cause such upheaval should not surprise us. Technological change previously caused similar—if not greater—destabilization; both economic and political.

A couple of decades after the Civil War, the United States entered an era dubbed “The Gilded Age.” It was Samuel Clemens—Mark Twain—who gave us the term. In an 1873 novel, co-written with his friend Charles Dudley Warner, the duo satirized the economic excesses, personal greed and political corruption of the time. The novel’s title, “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” was an inspired choice of words.

In Twain’s telling, the era wasn’t a “golden” age—something pure and solid like a bar of gold—rather is was a “gilded” age. To “gild” is to cover something of lesser value with a coat of gold to make it look like what it is not. In Twain’s telling, the era was one in which such a superficial covering disguised a more base reality.

The Gilded Age was a time in which technological innovation drove wonderful new industrial products that improved individual lives, while at the same time creating great wealth and accompanying economic inequality. It was a period of market dominating companies and citizen and journalistic revolts against their control. It was also a period marked by claims of “fake news” and by the election of two presidents who failed to win the popular vote. (Hayes in 1876 and Harrison in 1888.)

The similarities between this era and today bring forth another great Twain observation: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Today we live in the new Gilded Age: technology-driven innovations have again improved daily life while creating great wealth, inequality of circumstances, non-competitive markets, and viral deceit.

There is one more similarity between today and the original Gilded Age. Back then, the rules that governed the application of the new technology were made by a handful of industrial barons for their own benefit. The rules in the early internet era—the new Gilded Age—are being made similarly; this time by information barons.

The unbridled nature of the original Gilded Age eventually went too far. The result was a popular uprising and the representatives of the people stepping in to create a set of rules to serve the broad public interest over narrow private interests. We find ourselves at a similar crossroads today. Whether and how we step up to that responsibility is the challenge of our era … and of each of us.

Good policy is grounded in an understanding of history. We forget that liberal democratic capitalism succeeded because acting collectively, Americans caused their democratic institutions to protect consumers, workers, and the competitive marketplace. We forget that liberal democratic capitalism had to do battle against those who saw communism, socialism, or fascism as a better alternative. We forget that liberal democratic capitalism was preserved through the establishment of rules that inhibited its natural excesses.

In the industrial era, we discovered that the rules established for a mercantile-agrarian economy were no longer up to the task. Industrial scope, scale, and speed necessitated the establishment of guardrails to keep industrial capitalism on the right path. As we look at the new realities of the internet age, we need similar guardrails that will allow information capitalism to similarly succeed.

It is “an old pattern in American economic history,” historian John Steele Gordon explained, “Whenever a major new force—whether a product, technology, or organizational form—enters the economic arena, two things happen. First, enormous fortunes are created by entrepreneurs who successfully exploit the new, largely unregulated niches that have opened up. Second, the effects of the new force run up against the public interest and the rights of others.”1

New technology opens new niches for which there are no rules because the niche never before existed. Those who saw the niches and determined how to open them deserve to be rewarded. But when the exploitation of those niches collides with the common good, then the people have the right to insist on rules to protect the broader public interest.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask the question, “Who makes the rules in the new Gilded Age?” Who is it that stands up for the public interest and the rights of others?

At the time of the original Gilded Age, it was the industrial barons who made the rules. That is, until the people’s representatives stepped up to do their jobs. Today, in the new Gilded Age, it is the internet barons who make the rules. Unfortunately, the parallel ends there. Neither the Republican-led Congress, nor the Trump Administration has stepped up to their responsibility to establish new rules for our new time.

II. Listening to TR

So, let’s step back in time for a moment, into that earlier Gilded Age. Specifically, let’s go to the morning of March 4, 1905 in the nation’s capital. As is typical for the early spring in Washi