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An autopsy of the American dream

A conversation with Tailspin author Steven Brill.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Over the past 50 years, lots of things have changed in the United States. Here are a few examples.

1) A child’s chance of earning more than his or her parents has plummeted from 90 to 50 percent.

2) Earnings by the top 1 percent of Americans nearly tripled, while middle-class wages have been basically frozen for four decades, adjusting for inflation.

3.) Self-inflicted deaths — from opioid use and other drug addictions — are at record highs.

4) Nearly one in five children in the US are now at risk of going hungry.

5) Among the 35 richest countries in the world, the US now has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy.

These facts, and many others, are cataloged in a new book by Steven Brill about America’s gradual decline over the last half-century. Brill has been writing about class warfare in the US since 2011, and the picture he paints is as depressing as it is persuasive.

The book argues the people with the most advantages in the American economy have used that privilege to catapult themselves ahead of everyone else, and then rigged the system — to cement their position at the top, and leave the less fortunate behind.

I spoke to Brill about how this came to pass, why the American dream has vanished, and what it will take to undo the damage that’s been done. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

I read this book as an autopsy of the “American dream.” What happened? Who or what broke the country?

Steven Brill

There isn’t one villain or one pivotal moment, but there really were several different things that started happening at the same time, and they fed off each other.

One example is the movement towards corporate free speech — that supplied the money and the power for all the lawyers who are being hired in Washington to be lobbyists, and to fight regulations, to fight labor laws.

That, in turn, gave companies much more power, and it weakened labor unions, which consequently undermined support for a real program for job retraining in the face of automation, and in the face of global trade.

There were several things like this that made sense at the time, but in retrospect, they kickstarted a chain of events that led to disaster.

The real answer to your question is it takes a fairly complicated, ambitious book to tell the whole story. It’s not a matter of pointing the finger at someone.

For example, the guy who invented mortgage-backed securities didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to get rich by really tanking the economy.” What he probably thought was “I’m going to get rich by creating something that’s going to make mortgages available for a lot more people,” and he was right at the time. But we all know how that turned out.

Sean Illing

The key distinction you make in the book is between the protected and the unprotected classes. Why is this so important in American society?

Steven Brill

I think it’s a much more relevant distinction than saying people are Democrats or Republicans, or that they’re conservatives or liberals.

The unprotected are all the people in this country who rely on the government in some way to provide for the common good. They actually need public education to be good because that provides opportunity to their children. They need mass transit. They need a fair tax code. They need someone to answer the phone at the Social Security Administration when they get their Social Security check.

And what’s happened over the last three or four years is that big swaths of the unprotected people in this country have gotten very frustrated and angry that basically nothing is working for them — whether it’s the economy, or the highways, or the power grid, or the tax code, or job training programs, or public education, or health care. They basically have the sense that the government’s responsibility to provide for the common good is gone. It’s evaporated.

This is why they reacted, or at least 46 percent of them reacted, the way they did in the 2016 election, which was really an effect of severe frustration — “Let’s just elect this guy who’s promising all this stuff. He seems really unconventional, but at least he says exactly what’s on his mind. Let’s try this.”

Sean Illing

And the protected class?

Steven Brill

Well, they’re the “winners” in our system who don’t need a good system of public education because their kids go to private school, who don’t care about mass transit because they can afford to drive anywhere, and they don’t need public health care because they can pay for private coverage.

In short, they’re not invested in the common good because they’re protected, and the system is rigged to keep them that way.

Sean Illing

The story of decline you tell really begins about 50 years ago, so is this basically a story of how a subset of the baby boomer generation drove the country off a cliff?

Steven Brill

That may be too much of a generalization, but I wouldn’t knock it because it’s basically right.

The particular baby boomers that I have in mind are the high achievers in the knowledge economy — the corporate lawyers who helped take companies over, the bankers who created derivatives and stock buybacks, and so forth. We became an economy that basically moved assets around instead of creating new assets.

Sean Illing

You seem hesitant to say that the country is broken, and yet when you look at all the relevant measures — public engagement, income inequality, wage levels, satisfaction, knowledge of public policy, faith that the next generation will do better than the current one — we’re at or near historic lows.

Steven Brill

Oh, I haven’t said that we’re not broken, only that I don’t think we’re irretrievably broken. I think we can still fix things.

The core promise of the American dream has always been that you can do better than your parents. “If you work hard and you play by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to say, “you can make it in this country.”

For a large swath of the country, the majority of the country, that’s just not true anymore.

Sean Illing

You make an interesting argument that America hasn’t abandoned its core values but instead has become a victim of those values. Can you explain?

Steven Brill

I say that they’ve been hijacked. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, right? We decided that we needed more democracy in our politics. What better way to do that than to allow people to go to the polls and vote in primary elections, to choose their nominees? That has not worked out so well. What the founding fathers wanted was a representative democracy, not a pure democracy.

We have much more of a pure democracy today, and it has its virtues, but it also has its problems. When you combine that notion of pure democracy with the total monetization of that democracy by having no limits on what people can spend and no limits on what rich people or rich corporations can contribute, you have a democracy that just doesn’t work.

Sean Illing

Has America been victimized by its own meritocracy? Have the people who worked or innovated their way to the top used their advantages to engineer what amounts to an aristocracy?

Steven Brill

It’s been victimized by its own failures. The way it was victimized is that the smartest, most driven, most talented people were able to take those values and use them to their own advantage at the expense of the common good.

For a country to work, you have to have balance between personal ambition and personal achievements and the common good.

The way you do that is to have all kinds of guardrails on the system. In finance, you have regulatory guardrails. You have labor laws that produce something like a level playing field between employer and employee. You have consumer protection laws. You do all kinds of things to create these guardrails so that the winners can’t win in a way that hurts everybody else. That’s what we’ve lost.

Sean Illing

You used the phrase “common good” a couple times there, and I think that gets to the core problem. We don’t have a common good anymore — if we ever did have one. We live in country with almost no social capital, no real civic bonds. A generation of Americans have exploited the rules of our system, hoarded all the gains for themselves, and then rigged the game in their favor. And they did it because they feel no obligation whatsoever to the country that provided the opportunities or to their fellow citizens.

Steven Brill

No question. In many cases, the people doing the most damage aren’t breaking any laws or consciously trying to hurt anyone else. They’re simply doing what they were told to do — go to prestigious law schools, get a job at a prestigious law firm, and make lots of money.

But the end result of what they’ve done is increase the gap between the protected and the unprotected, and to create a country that is more unequal and less fair.

Sean Illing

If the protected class, as you call them, was wise enough to see beyond their own immediate self-interest, they’d be playing the long game here. They’d see that if things get bad enough, there will no one left to exploit, no system to rig, no game to win.

Steven Brill

That’s exactly right. A big theme in the book is short-term thinking. One example is ignoring the decline of infrastructure, because infrastructure is a really slow-moving crisis until a bridge collapses, as it did in Minneapolis.

That bridge was inspected and deemed to have been dangerously defective 15 years before it collapsed, but politicians don’t win headlines for saying, “I’m going to repair that bridge.”

That’s the sort of short-term thinking that is ruining us.

It happens on Wall Street all the time. If you do stock buybacks instead of investing in your company, you get a quick hit to the stock price. Your quarterly bonus goes up, but the long-term interests of not only the country but actually the corporation that you’re supposed to be serving is not served.

Short-term thinking like this drives everything now, in business and in politics, and it’s making it impossible to invest in the country’s long-term health. Can you imagine Congress or the president today coming up with a 20-year plan to build an interstate highway system, as Eisenhower did in 1958? Nobody does that anymore. And that’s our problem.

Sean Illing

Where, then, does that leave us? If the values and institutions that made America great have been corrupted, is there any point in trying to salvage them? Or do we need new values, new institutions, new ways of doing politics?

Steven Brill

I think we need to redirect our old values. The values that were hijacked — the First Amendment, due process, meritocracy, the financial and legal engineering — they need to be redirected to undo some of the damage that’s been done.

We have to demand leaders in Washington and state capitals who unite us, who will tell the frustrated middle class that they have more in common with the poor than with the protected class. If we can’t do these things, we’re in trouble.

I conceived the book as an autopsy of the “American dream” when I started, but I also realized that there was another part of the story.

In the course of trying to collect all the facts for the autopsy, I started talking to the people who were tackling campaign finance or infrastructure or income inequality, and I realized that there were a lot of people out there doing really important work, really good work.

So yes, things are very bad, but the patient isn’t quite dead yet — there are some cures that are still possible.

This article was originally published on June 28, 2018.

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