The first step in treating a problem is admitting you have one, and Steven Brill knows what our problems are. Over the years he has enumerated the flaws of our health care industry, education system, and approach to gun regulation; his legal career has given him an ear for argument and an eye for detail. In his most recent book, Tailspin, he tells the story of “the people and forces behind America’s fifty-year fall.” Brill paints a bleak picture: public disengagement, income inequality, social and economic stagnation. Our health care is unaffordable, the roads we commute on crumble underneath us, we overdose on opioids, our news sources thrive on division. “Only a democracy and an economy that has discarded its basic mission of holding the community together, or failed at it, would produce those results,” Brill writes. How did we get here?
Brill sees our national divide not as between left and right, or even between have and have-not, but between the majority who would benefit from government action, and the powerful few who would be harmed by it. But he offers a uniquely generous caveat: “The story is not about villains, although there are some. It is not about a conspiracy to bring the country down. It is not about one particular event or trend, and it did not spring from one single source.” As others have, Brill traces the origins of our malaise to the late 1960s and early ’70s. Instead of a litany of complaints, Brill offers a portrait of trends and their connections, in which “each element reinforced the others” to lead to national crisis, considering everything from finance and construction permits to cable TV and job-training programs. The book presents a useful and comprehensive diagnosis of our collective ills, but, despite promising to tell us about “those fighting to reverse” our decline, falls short of identifying a cure.
Brill begins the book by blaming himself and others like him: people who benefitted from a meritocracy meant to replace the old-boy networks of previous decades. (He credits it with getting him, a working-class kid from Queens, into Yale.) Well-intentioned as it may have been to admit people to schools and offer them jobs based on talent rather than pedigree, this led to a class of knowledge workers who dug moats to protect their success. Brill writes, “The most talented, driven Americans chased the American dream—and won it for themselves. Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the government that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.” These knowledge workers made themselves indispensable to our legal and financial systems. They engineered a “casino economy” in which “trading pieces of paper” became a massive sector of the American economy, while legal protections such as the First Amendment and due process were deployed on behalf of business to loosen regulations, allow for the domination of lobbyists in Washington, and rewrite campaign-finance practices in a way that favored wealthy donors.
The decline of stable middle-class jobs in areas such as manufacturing coincided with the rise of this knowledge-dominated economy, and the divisions between classes rose sharply as unions were gutted and the middle class lost its bargaining power to lobbyists and lawyers. The loss of economic power led to the disappearance of a unified middle-class culture that encompassed a large percentage of the American population, and into this vacuum stepped cable-news networks that realized, as social-media companies have since, that fomenting outrage and division generates more advertising revenue than fostering solidarity. Sharing no common culture and gorged on partisan talking points, politicians and constituents alike came to define political victory as the refusal “to yield any ground to the other.” And with drastically loosened campaign-finance restrictions, elected officials had less reason to care about concrete results for their supporters and every reason to let donor interests run the show. The result, Brill laments, is that “checks and balances metastasize into paralysis, and the country’s major issues—income inequality, education, job training, the tax code, infrastructure, the deficit, health care—continue to go unaddressed.”