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Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It by Steven Brill, Alfred A. Knopf, US $27.95, Pp 444, May 2018, ISBN 978-1524731632

America’s democracy and economy are broken, not in the way they were during the Civil War years or in the early 1930s. They are not broken if you consider the miracles happening every day in America’s laboratories, on the campuses of its world-class colleges and universities, and elsewhere. American democracy is certainly not broken if you compare the opportunities available today to women, non-whites, and other minorities to what they faced a few decades ago. In Tailspin, award-winning journalist Steven Brill explains how and what led to the breakdown of the American system. Brill says that the major American institutions do not serve the American people as they are intended to. This causes a deep rift between the vulnerable and poor majority and the protected and privileged few. At the same time, he explains how some individuals and organizations working to found real and lasting change.

The slide began in the late 1960s with a new definition of the best and brightest. Steven Brill says that, in the 1960s, colleges and universities began to apply a long-treasured but usually ignored value – meritocracy — to challenge the old-boy network in determining who would rise to the top. That made those at the top smarter and better equipped to dominate what was becoming a knowledge economy. It was one of the twentieth century’s great breakthroughs for equality. But it also had an unintended consequence of entrenching a new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers who were much smarter and more driven than the old-boy network of heirs born on third base. This has led to the erosion of responsibility and accountability.

From the 1970s on, they upended corporate America and Wall Street with inventions in law and finance that created an economy built on deals that moved corporate assets around instead of building new assets. Steven Brill says that they created exotic, risky, and financial instruments. They organized hedge funds that turned an investment in stocks into a minute-by-minute bet rather than a long-term investment. They invented proxy fights, leveraged buyouts, and stock buybacks that gave lawyers and bankers a bonanza of new fees and maximized short-term profits for increasingly unsentimental shareholders, but deadened incentives for the long-term development and growth of the rest of economy.

They overwhelmed regulatory agencies with battalions of lawyers, who brilliantly weaponized another core American value – the guarantee, embodied in the concept of “due process” — whose expanded reach had been pushed in the 1960s by legal scholars on the left as a new civil right. The grantee ensured that the rule of law, not the whims of rulers, would always prevail. Steven Brill argues that, in the hands of thousands of Washington lawyers from the new meritocracy, due process came to mean not just that the government couldn’t take away land or freedom at will, but that an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule protecting workers from a deadly chemical used on the job could be challenged and delayed for more than a decade and end up being hundreds of pages long, filled with clause after clause whose meaning the lawyers could contest.

Beginning in the 1970s, the First Amendment right to petition the government was deployed to allow businesses to storm Washington with thousands of lobbyists to press their case with members of Congress and their staffs and at regulatory agencies and executive branch departments. Steven Brill argues that free speech also became a winning battle cry for corporations seeking to avoid regulations governing marketing, the sale of personal data, and product labeling, including the safety label on the same drugs. The poor were left with safety net programs that were not nearly what they could be. Politicians at least now pay lip service to the plight of the middle class, but they rarely talk about the poor, much less do enough, to help them. This can only be explained by their fear that the middle class might see any attention paid to those below them as further evidence that their elected officials have abandoned them.

Tailspin is the story of America’s failure in the last half-century. He successfully shows that the American political and economic system started breaking down around 1967 and has been dysfunctional for many years now. He shows that the present political and economic system serves the tiny elite while the vast majority of the poor go ignored. Steven Brill provides a very deep analysis of what went wrong with America and how it can be fixed. Packed with knowledge, Tailspin gives new perspectives on American politics and economy.

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