America the Dysfunctional

By Alexander C. KafkaJuly 22, 2018

America the Dysfunctional

Tailspin by Steven Brill

THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT is self-destructing — the overheated, cracked beakers leaking corrosive toxins and belching noxious fumes.

Thinkers on the left and right view the meltdown with alarm. The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner asks bleakly, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg grieves that “tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics” are destroying democracy. In his upcoming book America, Compromised, the scholar, attorney, and activist Lawrence Lessig explores institutional corruption in Congress, finance, the media, academe, and the law. And former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in Fascism: A Warning, writes: “If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab.” Now add to these jeremiads Steven Brill’s Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall — and Those Fighting to Reverse It.

Persuasive, bracing, and depressing, Tailspin is an essential read if you want to understand the pressures that have brought a sclerotic Uncle Sam to his knees, clutching at his chest. Brill’s prose is generally crisp, his examples well chosen, and his policy explanations dotted with colorful character sketches. Still, this is, by necessity, demanding reading because his argument is wide reaching and complex.

A journalist, lawyer, and entrepreneur, Brill takes an unflinching look at the new American exceptionalism as citizens reach ever-greater heights of selfishness, shortsightedness, irresponsibility, and political paralysis. There are real twists to this tale. For one, its villain and its hero are one in the same: meritocracy. And many of the instruments of democracy’s unbalancing — PACs, for instance, and corporate and interest-group campaign financing — are mutations of union-building and free-speech strategies that began decades before as progressive checks against corporate overreach. “In the early 1970s,” Brill writes, “unions contributed more to congressional PACs than businesses did. By the mid-1970s, the business PACs had caught up, and in 1980, business PAC contributions outnumbered those of union PACs by about two to one, a trend that would continue to accelerate.”

Brill also describes clever remedies conceived by dogged visionaries. Even charismatic leaders like Clinton and Obama, however, have proven insufficient gladiators against citizens’ ignorance and apathy, and the corporate-congressional complex that taints both parties. That leaves readers in limbo, by book’s end, between a historically grounded gloom and an uneasy optimism that a series of high-profile crises, a bold, unifying leader, or both might reverse the tide. Uneasy, that is, because those crises will likely be vast and hideous: not just the odd bridge crumbling now and then but a series of them. Blackouts like Puerto Rico’s but across huge regions of the country. The Flint water-lead scandal times a hundred. A pandemic that weakened public-health resources aren’t equipped to combat. Lord knows what it will take to wake up the United States of Self-Delusion to its fundamentally sorry state.

But hold on a minute here. The stock market, if a bit volatile, seems to be on the rise, as are corporate profits, and unemployment is at a historic low. Why so glum, Brill? Because his focus is on those other headlines so frequent that we’ve become numb to them (which is yet another problem). Look beyond the bobbing of the monthly Dow and you’ll see the sputters and sparks of the American Dream shorting out. “A child’s chance of earning more than his or her parents has dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent in the last fifty years,” he writes. Middle-class wages have stagnated and, if health and insurance costs are factored in, discretionary income declined while the notorious one percent has seen its incomes surge by a third following the Great Recession. Workers’ security has been shattered by automation, outsourcing, the withering of union protection, and corporate and investor fixation on near-term profit at the expense of all else.

Household debt grows, as do the number of self-inflected deaths by opioids, alcohol, and suicide. “The world’s richest country continues to have the highest poverty rate among the thirty-five nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), except for Mexico.” Our airports, traffic-control, train and highway, electricity, and water networks are lurching antiques. And “[d]espite spending more on health care and K-12 education per capita than any other developed country […] The U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate and lowest life expectancy among its peer countries, and among the thirty-five OECD countries American children rank thirtieth in math proficiency and nineteenth in science.”

The fat cats are getting fatter while the middle class is being trampled into poverty. Meanwhile, conniving pols set middle-wagers and the poor against each other to distract them from the kleptocratic maneuvers of the ultra-rich.

Perhaps Congress can help?

Don’t hold your breath. Congress hasn’t even been able to pass a comprehensive budget in a quarter-century, Brill writes, let alone “deal with big, long-term challenges, like climate change, the mounting national debt, or job displacement.” That might have something to do with “the more than twenty registered lobbyists for every member of Congress,” most

deployed to block anything that would tax, regulate, or otherwise threaten a deep-pocketed client. Money has come to dominate everything so completely that those we send to Washington to represent us have been reduced to begging on the phone for campaign cash four or five hours a day and spending their evenings taking checks at fund-raisers organized by those swarming lobbyists.

Gerrymandered districts often ensure wins for the incumbents as long as they veer toward the extreme positions of their polarized base during primaries. That rules out moderation and compromise.

The Trump administration is doing its best to undermine if not actually attack regulatory and social-safety-net institutions like the EPA, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act, and consumer-protection authorities. The significant new divide isn’t between Democrats and Republicans, Brill contends, but between what he calls “the protected” and “the unprotected.”

How did we get here? Oddly enough, by trying to be fair.

The meritocratic practices of the 1960s hoisted smart strivers — through educational and workplace scholarships and recruitment — into positions of privilege. After all, that’s the way it was supposed to work. Then, however, those professionals thriving in the new knowledge economy built moats around themselves, their occupations, and their families. The American aristocrats of yore had the egalitarian habit of blowing their family fortunes through profligacy within a few generations. The new meritocrats, however, have worked hard, taught and pressured their kids to do the same, and, enabled by big-money politics, tipped the playing field their way through lax regulations and favorable tax laws.

They have excelled in finance, law, and technology as globalization undercut manufacturing, leaving large swaths of the rest of the population underemployed and undereducated. Job-retraining efforts have been half-assed political theater from the get-go. Inequality has grown and the bitterness of the culture wars has grown right along with it, leading to the populism, jingoism, racism, and incipient fascism that have Brill, Kuttner, Goldberg, Lessig, Albright, and many others feeling so wary about the republic’s future.

Other winds have helped spread these fires. Shareholder activism sparked by the free-market theories of Milton Friedman and his acolytes focused on quick returns over a company’s long-term viability. Pension funds, then 401(k)-fed securities, poured money into the market, with new corporate-takeover artists like Joseph Flom excavating value for shareholders any way they could.

The Gordon Gekko era was turbocharged by new junk-bond leveraged buyouts engineered by Michael Milken, Carl Icahn, Victor Posner, and T. Boone Pickens. Financial innovators — many of them lifted, like Brill himself, from humble circumstances by those meritocratic practices of the ’60s — brought into play stock repurchases and ever more serpentine instruments such as mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, and synthetic credit default swaps. “A synthetic credit default swap was simply a bet that something would happen that the people making the bets had nothing to do with — in this case, that the mortgage-backed securities would pay out or would go bad.” Ask residents evicted from their foreclosed properties over the last decade how that turned out.

So why didn’t our congressional representatives rein in the reckless practices of these Wall Street buccaneers, or at least punish responsible executives once the junk bonds hit the fan? Because Congress has been bought off by the financial industry and the rest of big business — not directly, not criminally (for the most part), but through humongous campaign contributions after the First Amendment was flipped inside out to allow corporations to give as though they were individuals through political action committees. Moreover, as big business cut government regulators off at the knees, it also defended itself against class-action suits by adopting private-arbitration clauses intended to keep cases like Wells Fargo’s recent retail-banking scandal out of court.

The corporations get to have it both ways, contributing and expressing themselves like individual citizens but ducking liabilities like abstract entities. Brill’s prime example, drawing from expertise developed in reporting a previous book, America’s Bitter Pill, is Big Pharma, largely unchecked as it jacks up drug prices (by 2026, Americans will spend more than $1,700 per person on medication) and avoids executive culpability for off-label misuse and overuse. You can blame Trump for his administration’s feeble approach to the pharmaceutical companies, but he isn’t alone. Administrations before his didn’t have the political clout to properly confront the drug makers either. Even Obama’s Affordable Care Act has been largely neutered by lobbyists on that score.

Brill’s contempt, mind you, isn’t solely directed at the right. He’s not your next-door Berner by any means. Heck, he’s a corporate mover and shaker himself. It’s a matter of balance, and the left has its own overreaches to answer for, including the misuse of class-action suits that triggered that corporate private-arbitration blowback. Unions’ overprotection of lousy teachers, another topic Brill has reported on previously, draws his ire again here, as do environmentalists’ wrench throwing into what should be straightforward public works improvements.

He’d like to see civil service salaries, hiring, and promotion reformed to compete with the vigor and rewards of the private sector. The country’s failing infrastructure is a hybrid problem, with government bureaucracy and bidding procedures delaying projects by decades and running up their costs while tax-slashing conservatives undermine basic notions of collective responsibility and accountability. Over at the Pentagon, contracting and bidding nightmares emerge from the “Iron Triangle” of acquisition bureaucrats, Beltway contractors and their lobbyists, and the members of Congress swayed by those lobbyists.

There is some good news. On the inequity front, Baruch College, part of the CUNY system, is a veritable American Dream machine, propelling thousands of students from households with incomes of less than $40,000 into accounting and currency-trading jobs. Concentrating on the basics, its tuition is a 10th that of private liberal arts colleges and it systematically sets students up with both the hard and soft skills for job interviews when they graduate. The Coalition for Queens, in New York, and Year Up, founded in Boston, offer affordable, intensive tech training for students the knowledge economy has left behind.

Evangelizing against corporate short-termism is Judith Samuelson, who runs the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society program. The Partnership for Public Service advocates for efficient government. Philip Howard, in The Death of Common Sense and The Rule of Nobody, has pushed for simplifying government. Peter Edelman, of Georgetown University, has spearheaded an ambitious plan to train poor and middle-class workers to become caregivers for the underserved geriatric boomer generation aging into its frailer years.

Those are just some of Brill’s protagonists. Still, he is a better Cassandra than he is a Pollyanna, and if you don’t finish his book more worried than encouraged, you haven’t read it carefully. Maybe strong doses of unvarnished bad news like Tailspin itself are the medicine we need most right now. Gulp it down, then get out and vote.


Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland.

LARB Contributor

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland. A senior editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he previously worked as a reporter and editor for Newsday and other newspapers, and as senior press officer for the Brookings Institution. He has written about books and the arts for The American Prospect, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, The Chicago Tribune, DC Theatre Scene, Oxford American, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He has also written three screenplays — Specimen Days, Dali, and Contents Under Pressure — and adapted Specimen Days, about the later years of Walt Whitman, for the stage.


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