To have and have not

Inequality is getting worse, says Steven Brill, because the rich can opt out of society’s problems.

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In May, Knopf will publish a new book by journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill ’72, ’75JD, titled Tailspin: The People and Forces behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It. The subject is “a new, divided America.” Brill sees the nation as suffering from income inequality, the influence of money in politics, and the kind of recklessness that brought on the Great Recession, among other ills. The root cause of all these problems, he argues, is the split between the “protected few”—those who have realized the American dream, achieving success and wealth—and the “unprotected many”: those who need good public schools, good mass transit, good health care, and other services and systems now falling into disrepair. The Yale Alumni Magazine asked journalist Jacob Weisberg ’86, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, to interview Brill about the book and his recommendations.


Weisberg: At the beginning of the book, you write about the meritocracy, which you were a beneficiary of. But you think meritocracy is now producing results that are the opposite of what was intended by people who wanted a fairer system. 

Brill: It produced great results, but it actually presents a dilemma. My son Sam sent me a speech by one of his professors at Yale Law School, Daniel Markovits [’91, ’00JD]. The essence of the speech is that it’s one thing to have an aristocracy—where rich people, just because they were rich, got their kids into colleges and got them jobs at investment banks. It’s another thing if people get into college on their merits. [After graduating,] they’re likely to be doing well. Then they have kids. They can afford the coaching on tests. They can afford to have their kids spend half of a summer building cottages in South America so they can put that on their college résumé.

Weisberg: Put bluntly, the meritocracy is rigged in the same way the aristocracy used to be rigged—in favor of the children of the people who have made it.

Brill: They did well in school—they didn’t just get in because they knew somebody.

Weisberg: But they had every advantage. And the point is the kids who don’t have every advantage find it much harder to break into the system than you did, coming from a lower-middle-class family in Queens. 

Brill: And that’s a dilemma, and it’s also a hard one. It’s hard for me to say, Oh, if only we had a system where it was harder for my kids to get into Yale. 

Weisberg: You also discuss infrastructure problems. Why can’t we do what Eisenhower did with the highway system? Is the change a decline of responsibility on the part of politicians or is it a change in the incentives?

Brill: It’s both. It’s polarization, and polarization, as I argue, is caused by the rise of money as the ultimate factor in politics. The way to raise money in politics is to appeal not to the common interest but to special interest.

And then it’s the fact that the people who can spend the most money are the ones who can block the long-term solutions. Either, as in the case of infrastructure, because they don’t want to spend the taxes or, in the case of climate change, they don’t want to have their businesses disrupted.

It doesn’t take a genius to predict that if you built a bridge in 1969 or ’70, by the year 2000 or 2005, you really better be paying attention to that bridge. The problem is: what politician ever had a press conference saying, “Here I am, I’m replacing these nuts and these rivets and this iron underneath this bridge, aren’t I wonderful?” It’s that kind of short-term thinking, that has really hurt the country.

Weisberg: You talk about the loss of “guardrails” that protect the common good. The decline of all sorts of public accommodations doesn’t affect rich people. There are some systems, like a bridge or an airport, that the rich can’t opt out of. But lots of other things they can opt out of—the public school system, public transportation. 

Brill: That’s my argument in a nutshell, inasmuch as the real split in this country is between the protected and the unprotected. The protected—in terms of public education—can opt out, either by moving into the kind of upper-class community where the public schools are much better and much more accountable, or they can go to private schools. Mass transit, well, that’s not that important to them. If you’re a wealthy person in the United States, what do you depend on the government for? You can get your passport expedited. I think you can renew your driver’s license in most places online. You’re not calling the Social Security hotline to say, “What happened to my disability claim?”

The jury system in New York is an example of a public function that got good when the protected could no longer opt out. When they reformed it, and no one got exemptions [from jury duty], including lawyers, the chief judge got complaints from lawyers. “Gee, that room is so dirty, the clerks are rude, they don’t tell me when to come and when not to come, it’s awful, they take my cellphone away. Can’t you fix this?” Well, it had been that way for a long time.

Weisberg: So the lesson of your New York jury example—isn’t it that you have to force the better-off people into the system?

Brill: Yeah. Look at another example, the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War ended when draft deferments ended. Suddenly, it was not something you watched on Walter Cronkite or you read about. You knew people [who were drafted], and the person you knew might even be you.

Weisberg: I think a lot of more left-minded young people would agree with your explanation of what’s happened—and they’d say, the way you solve that is you essentially ban private medicine, you tax private education. You create a common system, and you force people to use it.

Brill: It is plain and simple that if you passed a constitutional amendment banning all private schools, the public schools would get really good, really fast. But we’re not going to do that and I’m not even sure we should do that. But what we really have to do is make serious reforms that put people together into the foxhole, one way or another.

One of the other things is the tax system. We don’t tax our people in this country anywhere near what any other developed country does. Look at our gasoline tax. You go to Europe, you pay three or four times as much per gallon or liter of gas than you pay here. But then you look at their highways and at their trains, and you see that that makes sense.

And the accountability piece is that, when people violate the common good—when they commit corporate crimes, as in the Great Recession or other kinds of big white-collar crimes—they need to be accountable. [As] when Wells Fargo Bank opens accounts for people who didn’t want them—and their credit ratings go down, and they have to pay higher interest on their mortgages, because they’re not paying their bills on accounts they didn’t know they had. The typical American is highly accountable for what he or she does. But people at the top—if you’re the CEO of the giant bank, your first defense is, “Well, how would I know that was going on?”

Weisberg: The individual salaries CEOs are making are staggering.

Brill: And they’re not being shared. It’s not being spread. On Wall Street, finance has become a product in itself. Finance used to be something you did to enable corporations to make things and sell things. But the art of moving assets around, buying and selling assets, creating securities around assets, mortgage-backed securities—all that stuff is really, as [attorney] Marty Lipton says in the book, just moving paper around. You’re not producing anything. It takes very few workers to do it. It has become the leading industry in the United States.

Weisberg: So, for idealistic soon-to-be Yale alumni who are reading the book, what do you think are the promising careers? Wall Street’s not so appealing.

Brill: I think they’re all promising. But the country, and those people in particular, need to be reoriented into thinking about the common good as well as their own good. The two watchwords in the book are accountability and responsibility. Some piece of everybody ought to be thinking about some modicum of responsibility to the common good.


    JOSEPH T MCCABE, 11:07am May 04 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Have to read this book.Steven Brill is always right on the money.

  • Allysene Watson
    Allysene Watson, 8:33pm May 13 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Wow! Not sure why I took the time to read this, but Mr. Brill’s writing seems to be definitely “on point”. I will have to get the book. Thank you, Steven Brill for telling it like it is.

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