Steven Brill, the founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer, discussed his new book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall and Those Fighting to Reverse It with SiriusXM hosts Rebecca Mansour and Joel Pollak on Wednesday’s edition of Breitbart News Tonight.
“We basically got too much of a good thing,” said Brill, describing the premise of his new book and his cover essay for TIME magazine’s May 28 issue. “What I mean by that is the kinds of core American values that we cherish were kind of hijacked and have been used and turned against us.”
“For example, meritocracy,” he continued. “Everybody loves meritocracy, right? I’m a beneficiary of meritocracy. I got a scholarship to Yale at a time that was a really new thing, that Ivy League schools gave people like me scholarships. But what that created was a generation of much smarter knowledge workers at the same time that the knowledge economy was replacing the factory economy.”
“The knowledge workers went to work for large law firms or investment banks, and they used the First Amendment — another great American value — to allow money to dominate the political system,” he said.
“One of the offshoots of that is when it came to globalization, which is another sign of progress in the world — or it would seem to be — they basically didn’t pay any attention to all the people who were the victims of globalization. Every other country across the world has job retraining programs so the middle class isn’t left out in the cold when we make a trade deal, whether it’s with China or anybody else,” said Brill.
“We paid lip service to that through something called the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which for 40 years running, through the Kennedy administration and the Nixon administration, Carter, all the way on down, has been a total fiasco. No one paid attention because the people who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of that program were largely in the middle of the country. Over the last 40 years, there have been exactly two articles written in any significant newspaper about how that program was not working,” he said.
Brill believes this explains the elite surprise that a supposedly long-settled issue like the North American Free Trade Agreement could return to the forefront.
“I happen to think that things like NAFTA are good if, and only if, you take care of the victims of NAFTA,” he said.
“NAFTA and all kinds of international trade have a lot of benefits in the United States,” he noted. “We pay a lot less for televisions. We pay a lot less for clothing. But if we’re all enjoying that while this big swath of the country are victims of it, that’s not the way our country is supposed to work. We’re all supposed to be in this together.”
Brill described a “protected” class that is insulated from the decrepit state of the social safety net because it does not rely on government for essential benefits and has minimal contact with enforcement agencies like the Internal Revenue Service.
“They don’t depend on the public education system. They don’t depend on mass transit. They don’t care if civil servants are unresponsive and aren’t doing their jobs because they don’t depend on the government,” he said, citing the example of elite New Yorkers who suddenly became deeply concerned about the poor state of jury facilities after generous exemptions from jury duty were eliminated in the 1990s.
“The Vietnam War really changed when we got rid of deferments for college students because suddenly middle-class and upper-class kids were subject to a draft,” he added. “The people who run things don’t care about the teachers’ unions who are protected because they’re either politicians in cities where the Democrats dominate and the teachers’ unions dominate the primaries on those cities or because they’re sending their kids to private schools anyway.”
Brill said the economic reconfiguration and displacements of the past few decades have broadened the gap between the protected class and the rest of the country.
“The things that the economy values become things that these knowledge workers do,” he said. “The lawyers figure out strategies for corporate takeover fights instead of strategies for corporations to employ more workers and make new things. They figure out strategies for stock buybacks. They figure out derivatives, which as you know ended up completely crashing the economy. The people behind it were not held accountable. The people who lost their homes were the ones who suffered and who lost their jobs.”
“Everything started to change when we became less of a community; and when we put a value on things like legal engineering and financial engineering; and when we did things in the name of democracy such as reforming the primary selection system so that everyone now has a direct primary, so therefore they tend to run to favor the people who are giving them money and to favor the political base. That just pushes people apart,” he said.
“Even progress in media technology totally changed things, he continued. “In the 1940s and 50s and 60s, the invention of radio and television actually brought the country together. The whole country listened to FDR’s fireside chats or listened to Edward R. Murrow reporting about World War 2. We watched the moon landing together. We watched the Kennedy assassination and the funeral together. We did everything together and we saw the same events.”
“Now there were problems with that because half a dozen media companies basically had a monopoly on all the news,” he conceded. “That was a problem, but look at the problem we have today, where all the advances in technology have tended to split us apart.”
Brill lamented the loss of government focus on developing common infrastructure, which enjoyed its heyday in the 60s and 70s.
“We were investing in the future, and then Congress became so polarized that it became impossible for Democrats to want to give a Republican president any kind of victory or progress, and it became impossible for Republicans to want to give the Democrats anything — not even building a bridge or repairing roads, which should be as American as apple pie,” he said.
“The interstate highway system is a good example of something good getting done in Washington,” Brill proposed. “You get a train in the United States versus a train in Europe, and there’s a reason for the difference. The difference is that we haven’t raised the gasoline tax since President Reagan raised it. The gasoline tax has actually gone down because it’s 18 cents a gallon, and it was 18 cents a gallon when cars were getting six or seven miles to the gallon. It’s now 18 cents a gallon when cars are getting three or four times that much.”
Pollak objected that the experience of California’s high gas taxes has demonstrated it is a “regressive” tax that hits working people the hardest.
“It is,” Brill agreed. “There ought to be tax relief for people in income categories or in job categories that have a special need for gasoline.”
He also agreed with Mansour’s point that much of the vast sum appropriated by the government for infrastructure, notably including President Barack Obama’s massive 2009 stimulus bill, simply disappears into the bureaucracy with little tangible benefit for the American people.
“Let me give you another example: the Veterans Administration,” Brill responded. “Remember the scandals in 2013 and 14 about the waiting lists? The GAO, the Government Accountability Office, has been writing reports — if you can believe it — since the 1980s saying that the Veterans Administration was in shambles, the waiting lists were a huge problem, the computer technology didn’t work, and people were covering up how long it was taking for people to get their treatment at VA hospitals. That’s since the 1980s.”
“The woman who was found in Phoenix to have doctored the lists, they tried to fire her, and under civil service rules she was able to appeal,” he recalled. “She hired a lawyer, there are all kinds of law firms that specialize in protecting civil servants. The appeals judge in what’s called the Merit System Protections Board, if you can believe it, ruled that even though she was in charge of the hospital, she wasn’t really directly responsible for this, so she couldn’t be fired. In fact, she got a merit bonus that year.”
Mansour applauded the theory Brill advanced in Tailspin that Hillary Clinton became the avatar of our malfunctioning meritocracy, so voters turned from her to Donald Trump in revolt.
“She’s the epitome of meritocracy. I mean, first-generation wealth, Wellesley, Yale Law School, always prepared, always does her homework, articulate, perfectly spoken — but also perceived as cold and calculating,” Brill said.
“Trump was the opposite. He shoots from the hip. He takes pride in not being prepared. He’s just the total opposite person from Hillary Clinton. 46 percent of the public liked that and voted for him,” he said.
Pollak suggested that Trump’s election can also be seen as a revolt against the lavish idealism of the 60s and the enormous government, attended by an equally large managerial class, that resulted from it.
Brill said he disagreed with that premise because “you can look across government, whether it’s local, state, or federal, and find programs that do work.”
“You can look at what happens in other countries where programs and policies like, for example, different policies on health care — which you and I probably disagree about — do work,” he told Pollak.
“I don’t think it’s uniformly the fault of government. It’s uniformly the fault of the people who are running government, who are not accountable because of gerrymandering and political money and everything else,” he said.
“It’s not the liberals who started these programs, and in fact, a lot of these programs have been cut back,” he asserted. “For example, housing assistance to the poor and lower middle class, that’s about a fourth of our housing assistance budget in the federal government. The other three-fourths is involved with giving interest deductions to the upper middle class and the rich on their mortgages. That’s the biggest housing subsidy we do. That’s just not fair.”
Brill described mortgage derivatives as originally a well-intentioned way for banks to “package the mortgages that these homeowners now owed to them, sell them off to other investors, and then take the money and give out more mortgages.”
“That created a housing boom for the middle class because mortgage interest rates went down and more money was available. That was an unalloyed good thing until it got taken way, way too far and became these crazy financial instruments that farmed out the risks to people all over the world who had no idea what these securities were, or what the risks were. That’s how we got the crash,” he said.
“What started out as a good thing became much too much of a good thing,” he said. “There are a lot of parallels like that. There are a lot of boomerangs. The Citizens United case, whatever you think of it, it was started, the legal road to Citizens United, was started by guess who? Ralph Nader.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Brill remarked. “What Ralph Nader and his lawyers did was, there were some discount pharmacies in Virginia who wanted to advertise their discount prices. To us consumers, that’s a good thing. We’d see that you could buy the drugs at a discount price somewhere.”
“Well, the large pharmacies in Virginia banded together and lobbied and got the state to pass a law saying you can’t advertise the price of drugs,” he related. “Ralph Nader brought a case saying, well, the First Amendment is for listeners as well as speakers. In this case, the listeners were consumers of drugs who would benefit from that speech, so why are you stopping it just because the speaker is a corporation, i.e. a drug store?”
“The Supreme Court said, yeah, you’re right, the First Amendment is for listeners as well as speakers. That then got extended to every form of speech and every restriction on speech. Why would you want to limit political contributions if that just creates more speech about political debates and political candidates?” he said.
“I actually think they’re right about that, but I think we need some kind of constitutional amendment that stops the corruption of money in politics,” Brill added. “We have congresspeople of both parties spending five hours a day, every weekday, dialing for dollars. That cannot be what the Founders had in mind.”
Brill applauded the work of groups such as the Bipartisan Policy Center, which he described as “rabid avid Republicans and rabid avid Democrats who meet and actually try to solve problems.”
“They created some proposed fixes to NAFTA, for example,” he said. “Their premise is that people of good faith on both sides actually can get back to the business of coming up with solutions in this country instead of saying, ‘Well, if it’s a Republican idea, we hate it because we’re Democrats, and if it’s a Democrat idea, we hate it because we’re Republicans.’”
“The best example of that, and I’m sure you may disagree with me with this one, is the reason the Republicans could not come up with an alternative to Obamacare is that Obamacare, as I write in the book, was for years the Republican idea for how to reform health care,” he said.
“Ted Kennedy was talking about single payer in the 1970s, and Nixon proposed a plan that was almost exactly like Obamacare: you subsidize people to get insurance, you require them to get insurance, the whole nine yards — except it was more liberal than Obamacare. That was the Nixon answer to Ted Kennedy,” he recalled.
“No Democrat wants to go to a signing ceremony in the White House where President Trump signs anything, and no Republican wanted to go to a signing ceremony in the White House where President Obama signed anything,” Brill said, returning to his main thesis.
“That is a total reverse of most of the history of this country,” he said.
Breitbart News Tonight broadcasts live on SiriusXM Patriot 125 weekdays from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. Eastern.