Last Sunday on “Meet the Press” Chuck Todd interviewed Steven Brill, author of Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's 50-Year Fall -- and Those Fighting To Reverse It. As reported in the transcript, Brill’s book is a critique of “meritocracy” and the “knowledge economy.” Brill argues that in recent decades we’ve had “liberal lawyers who were coming out of liberal law schools going to liberal law firms and doing the legal engineering” that caused many of the problems we face today.
According to Brill, those lawyers persuaded courts to establish legal precedents for how to fight unions and “promote arbitration clauses that are keeping the middle class out of the courts” when they have a job discrimination claim or a a consumer rights claim. One such lawyer was Ralph Nader, who fought for the right of discount drug stores to advertise their discount prices.
Nader now says, “That was the biggest boomerang of all time." Brill summarizes the effect:
The Supreme Court said, "...The First Amendment is for listeners as well as it is for speakers. ...We shouldn't discriminate on the basis of who the speaker is. So if the speaker happens to be a corporation, why should we care?"
That precedent led to the Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates to campaign spending.
In its review, Kirkus Review writes:
For the last 50 years, journalist and political analyst Brill argues, the United States has been deteriorating. Besides a blighted health care system, the author points to other major problems, including underperforming public schools; outdated mass transit systems and power grids; crumbling bridges, highways, and airports; snowballing income inequality; high infant mortality and low life expectancy when compared with other Western countries; political gridlock; voter cynicism and apathy; and lobbyists’ power over elected officials.
He blames “the polarization and paralysis of American democracy” partly on a “new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers.” ...Brill calls these individuals, who want to hold onto their wealth, the “protected,” as opposed to the rest of society, “the unprotected,” who need government to act for the common good. The author offers ample evidence that American democracy is in peril. Less persuasive is his optimism that problems can be solved through the efforts of earnest, sometimes influential individuals.
Brill also has an essay in the May 17 Time, “How Baby Boomers Broke America,” where he writes:
Key measures of the nation’s public engagement, satisfaction and confidence...are far below what they were 50 years ago…. America’s tailspin is not about villains, though there are some. It is not about a conspiracy to bring the country down, nor did it spring from one single source.
But there is a theme…. Many of the most talented, driven Americans…were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy….
America all but abandoned its most ambitious and proudest ideal: the never perfect, always debated and perpetually sought after balance between the energizing inequality of achievement in a competitive economy and the community-binding equality promised by democracy….
That…is the real polarization that has broken America since the 1960s. It’s the protected vs. the unprotected, the common good vs. maximizing and protecting the elite winners’ winnings….
Soon, the gap between pay in the private and public sectors was too large to attract enough talented young lawyers to government or public-interest law…. Regulatory agencies were overwhelmed by battalions of lawyers…. They deployed litigators to fend off private-sector unions [and] began in the 1970s to turn Washington into a colony of lobbyists…. Their money, their power, their lobbyists, their lawyers, their drive overwhelmed the institutions that were supposed to hold them accountable – government agencies, Congress, the courts….
They won not with the brazen corruption of the robber barons of old, but by drawing on the core values that have always defined American greatness…. They simply got really, really good at taking advantage of what the American system gave them…in the name of the values that America treasures….
“American meritocracy has thus become precisely what it was invented to combat,” [Daniel] Markovits concluded, “a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy.”
One takeaway from Brill’s work is that he does not reject “the energizing inequality of achievement.” The drive to achieve more than others need not necessarily be destructive. We can climb higher on a particular ladder without assuming that it is the only ladder that matters, or that our success makes us a better person. As Brill said, we can balance our achievement with “the community-binding equality promised by democracy.”