AMERICA’S “TAILSPIN”

Is America in decline? Award-winning journalist Steven Brill discusses his new best-selling book, “Tailspin,” in which he dissects the current state of the nation, focusing on how we came to be where we are now, and how we can turn it around.

Aired on July 25, 2018 and March 5, 20206.

TRANSCRIPT

> IS AMERICA IN DECLINE?

IF SO, IS THERE A WAY BACK?

A NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST AND BEST SELLING AUTHOR STEVEN BRILL, ARGUES THAT NOT ONLY IS AMERICA IN DECLINE, BUT IT HAS BEEN FOR THE LAST HALF CENTURY.

TAIL SPINS OF PEOPLE AND FORCES BEHIND AMERICA'S 50-YEAR FALL AND THOSE FIGHTING TO REVERSE IT MAKES THE BOLD ARGUMENT THAT THE FORCES DRIVING AMERICA DOWN ARE SOME OF THE VERY THINGS THAT MADE THE COUNTRY GREAT.

THE FIRST AMENDMENT, DUE PROCESS, TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION, AND EVEN DEMOCRACY ITSELF.

THE BOOK WHICH BECAME AN INSTANT 'NEW YORK TIMES' BEST SELLER DESCRIBES THE PROCESS IN WHICH AMERICA HAS COME TO BE RULED BY A SMALL BUT POWERFUL ELITE AT THE EXPENSE OF AN INCREASINGLY POWERLESS MAJORITY, AND THE MEANS BY WHICH THAT PROCESS CAN BE REVERSED.

STEVEN BRILL JOINS US NOW.

WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM, STEVE.

THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

THANKS FOR THAT INTRODUCTION, THOUGH I SHOULD ADD THAT IT'S NOT THAT I SAY THAT THE FIRST AMENDMENT AND MARITOCRACY AND INNOVATION AND DUE PROCESS AND ALL THAT GOOD STUFF ARE BAD AND WE SHOULD GET RID OF THEM, IT'S JUST THEY NEED GUARDRAILS.

I'LL GIVE YOU TIME TO ELABORATE ON THAT.

IT'S GREAT STUFF.

BUT, YOU KNOW, THE BASIC ARGUMENT, OR THE FIRST ARGUMENT, IT'S IN THE TITLE, THAT THE COUNTRY HAS BEEN IN A TAIL SPIN FOR 50 YEARS, HAS BEEN IN A FALL FOR 50 YEARS.

BUT, STEVE, THOSE 50 YEARS ARE THE YEARS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS, OF VICTORIES, OF THE WOMEN'S RIGHTS VICTORIES, GAY RIGHTS VICTORIES, OF TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION THAT ALLOWS US TO CARRY COMPUTERS IN OUR POCKETS AND THE END OF THE COLD WAR.

TAIL SPIN?

IT'S A PARADOX AS I SPEND, AS YOU KNOW, A FAIR AMOUNT OF TIME ACKNOWLEDGING AND EXPLAINING.

WHAT I MEAN IS THAT THE CORE OF AMERICA, THE CORE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM, THE NOTION THAT YOU COULD RISE UP, THAT THERE WAS ALWAYS ECONOMIC MOBILITY, THAT THE MIDDLE CLASS WOULD HAVE A GOOD, SECURE LIFE.

THEIR CHILDREN WOULD BE EDUCATED.

THEY'D HAVE MORE OPPORTUNITY THAN THEIR PARENTS HAD.

THAT HAS BEEN LOST, AND IT'S BEEN LOST AT THE SAME TIME THAT THE GOVERNMENT HAS CEASED TO FUNCTION, HAS CEASED TO PROVIDE THE KINDS OF COMMON GOODS THAT OFFER THAT OPPORTUNITY TO PEOPLE, AND THAT PROTECT PEOPLE IN THE WORKPLACE, THAT PROTECT PEOPLE IN TERMS OF THEIR ACCESS TO THE COURTHOUSE.

THOSE PROTECTIONS HAVE BEEN GRADUALLY, OVER 50 YEARS, TAKEN AWAY.

SO LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR COUNTERINTUITIVE ARGUMENT THAT SOME OF THE THINGS MADE US GREAT.

PLAY A ROLE, THEY'RE NOT BAD IN ITSELF, LIKE MERITOCRACY OR THE FIRST AMENDMENT.

LET'S TAKE THE FIRST AMENDMENT, IT'S GREAT, AND ONE THING I LOVE THE MOST ABOUT THIS COUNTRY, AS A JOURNALIST OBVIOUSLY I SHOULD.

BEGINNING WITH AN INNOCENT -- IN EFFECT NOT INNOCENT, A GOOD LAWSUIT BROUGHT BY, OF ALL PEOPLE, RALPH NADDER IN 1976, THE COURTS BEGAN TO RECOGNIZE THAT CORPORATIONS HAD THE SAME FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS AS PEOPLE.

NOW, IN THE SUIT THAT RALPH BROUGHT, HE WAS DOING A GOOD THING.

HE ARGUED THAT A GROUP OF DISCOUNT DRUGSTORES WHO WANTED TO ADVERTISE THAT THEY WERE DISCOUNTING THEIR PRICES HAD A RIGHT TO DO SO, AND THAT A LAW PASSED IN VIRGINIA TO PROTECT THE LARGE DRUGSTORES THAT WEREN'T DISCOUNTING THAT SAID THAT NO ONE COULD ADVERTISE THE PRICE OF PRESCRIPTION DRUGS, THAT THAT LAW WAS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.

HIS REASONING WAS THAT THE FIRST AMENDMENT IS MEANT FOR LISTENERS AS WELL AS THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SPEAKING.

YOUR AUDIENCE HAS A FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHT TO HEAR US TALK JUST AS WE HAVE A FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHT TO TALK.

THAT MAKES SENSE.

IN THIS CASE, THE LISTENERS WERE PEOPLE WHO WANTED TO BUY DRUGS AT LOWER PRICES.

THAT'S ALL GOOD.

HOW DID IT TURN BAD?

ONCE YOU HANG THAT REASONING ON THE NOTION THAT YOU SHOULDN'T DISCRIMINATE ON THE BASIS OF WHO THE SPEAKER IS, IS IT A CORPORATION OR IS IT A PERSON, YOU GET, BY 2010, CITIZENS UNITED WHICH TOOK THE SAME REASONING, WHICH IS JUST BECAUSE THE CORPORATION WANTS TO, YOU KNOW, INJECT ITSELF INTO THE POLITICAL PROCESS BY SPENDING A LOT OF MONEY, YOU SHOULDN'T DISCRIMINATE AGAINST THEM BECAUSE THEY HAVE A FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHT TO DO SO.

SO SO THAT --

SO THAT HAS BASICALLY MONETIZED OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM IN A WAY WHERE THERE'S A SCENE IN MY BOOK WHERE I SPEND AN AFTERNOON WITH A CONGRESSMAN WHO LITERALLY SPENDS FIVE HOURS A DAY EVERY WEEKDAY IN A WINDOWLESS NEAR THE CAPITAL DIALING FOR DOLLARS AND BEGGING PEOPLE FOR MONEY.

HE IS TYPICAL, NOT AN EXCEPTION.

YEAH, I KNOW.

THE BIG ONE THAT PLAYS A BIG ROL ROLE, MERITOCRACY, REALLY COUNTERINTUITIVE, YOU THINK IT LEVELS THE PLAYING FIELD.

IT HAD WHAT EFFECT?

IT DOES LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD UNTIL IT DOESN'T LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD.

WHAT I MEAN BY THAT IS IN THE 1960s, I WAS THE BENEFICIARY, ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE, WITH A MERITOCRACY MOVEMENT -- HIGHER EDUCATION.

I GOT A SCHOLARSHIP TO YALE WHEN YALE WASN'T TAKING A LOT OF PEOPLE LIKE ME.

MY WIFE GOT A SCHOLARSHIP TO YALE WHEN YALE WASN'T EVEN TAKING WOMEN BEFORE THAT.

THAT'S ALL GOOD.

BUT WHAT THAT DID WAS IT CREATED A GROUP OF PEOPLE IN THE EMERGING KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY WHO WERE SMARTER, FRANKLY, THAN THE PEOPLE THAT YALE USED TO TAKE.

BECAUSE THEY USED TO TAKE PEOPLE BASED ON THEIR OLD BOY NETWORK.

SO NOW YOU HAD PEOPLE WHO DID THE BEST IN HIGH SCHOOL --

WHO WERE REALLY SMART, AND REALLY GOOD, AND NOW THEY WERE AT THE TOP.

AND THEY WERE STRIVING.

AND THEY DID THE NATURAL THING.

I DID THE NATURAL THING.

I MADE SURE MY KIDS HAD THE BEST EDUCATION BECAUSE I WAS FORTUNATE, WE WERE ABLE TO AFFORD TO SEND THEM TO PRIVATE SCHOOLS.

IF THEY NEEDED, YOU KNOW, TUTORING FOR COLLEGE BOARDS, THEY COULD GET THAT.

SO WHAT HAS HAPPENED, WHAT THIS HAS MORPHED INTO IS THE PLACES LIKE YALE ARE LESS ECONOMICALLY DIVERSE NOW THAN THEY WERE IN THE 1970s.

AND THE ARISTOCRACY ARE ENTRENCHED.

THE LAW FIRMS, THE PEOPLE WITH THE LEAD EDUCATIONS GET THE OPPORTUNITY TO WORK, THEY ALSO BECAME, YOU KNOW, DETERMINED MERITOCRACIES.

THE LAW FIRMS WANTED TO HIRE THE BEST AND SMARTEST AND TOUGHEST PEOPLE.

THEREFORE, THE BIG LAW FIRMS, OR THE BIG BANKS, BECAME MUCH BETTER ABLE TO DEFEND AND ENHANCE THE INTERESTS OF THE RICHEST CORPORATIONS.

AND YOU MAKE THE ARGUMENT VERY STRONGLY THAT IT'S A VERY POWERFUL ELITE NOW.

SO HOW DO YOU GET THAT ELITE -- HOW DO YOU TURN THINGS AROUND?

WELL, NOT ONLY IS IT A VERY POWERFUL ELITE.

IT ALSO HAS A MUCH MORE DEFENSIBLE NARRATIVE, IF YOU WILL.

RIGHT.

I GOT HERE BECAUSE I AM SMART AND I WORK HARD, WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT?

WHAT'S THE --

BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO REDEFINE WHAT MERITOCRACY IS.

THERE ARE SOME SCHOOLS LIKE AM HURST AND PRINCETON, FOR EXAMPLE, THAT ARE STILL ENGINES OF ECONOMIC MOBILITY.

WHAT AMHURST DOES IS THEY MARKET HEAVILY THE FACT THAT THEY GIVE REALLY GENEROUS LOANS AND SCHOLARSHIPS TO PEOPLE.

AND THEY ARE ABLE TO ATTRACT THE SAME KIND OF ECONOMIC DIVERSITY THAT THE OTHER PLACES STARTED TO ATTRACT IN THE '60s AND '70s.

SO THERE ARE WAYS TO SOLVE THESE PROBLEMS.

THERE ARE WAYS TO SOLVE ONE OF THE PROBLEMS THAT I DEAL WITH EXTENSIVELY, WHICH IS THE PROBLEM OF HOW DO YOU TRAIN WORKERS?

HOW DO YOU RETRAIN WORKERS WHO ARE CAST ASIDE EITHER BY AUTOMATION OR BY THE INCREASE IN GLOBALIZATION?

EVERY OTHER COUNTRY DOES THAT.

NO OTHER COUNTRY MAKES THOSE WORKERS THE VICTIMS OF OUR PROGRESS.

THERE ARE JOB RETRAINING PROGRAMS IN GERMANY, SOMETHING LIKE 60% OF THE YOUNG WORKERS ARE IN APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAMS.

WE DON'T DO THAT.

WE HAVE LEFT THESE PEOPLE.

WE HAVE CAST THEM ASIDE.

AND THEREFORE IT SHOULDN'T BE A REAL SHOCK THAT THEY WERE SO FRUSTRATED THAT, YOU KNOW, ALMOST A MAJORITY OF THEM, 46% OF THEM, TURNED TO THE ULTIMATE ANTITHESIS OF THE MERITOCRACY, DONALD TRUMP.

STEVE, YOU TALK ABOUT BEING IN ADVANCE.

AS FAR AS THAT'S CONCERNED.

WE'VE SEEN THE SAME PHENOMENON WITH BREXIT IN ITALY NOW, WITH FIVE-STAR MOVEMENT, A POPULUS MOVEMENT IN HUNGARY TAKING ON THEIR OWN ELITES.

THAT'S MORE ON THE NATIONALIST, YOU KNOW, KIND OF A POPULISM.

I THINK IT IS HERE.

IT'S BEING EXPRESSED HERE AS NATIONALISM BECAUSE THAT'S THE DEMAGOGUERY OF THE INCUMBENT PRESIDENT.

BUT HERE, WHAT I'M FOCUSING ON IS HERE, BECAUSE WE ARE AN EXCEPTIONAL COUNTRY.

WE ALWAYS PRIDED OURSELVES ON BEING AN EXCEPTIONAL COUNTRY THAT OFFERED OPPORTUNITY TO EVERYBODY.

AND MOST PEOPLE, A MAJORITY OF PEOPLE IN POLLS ACTUALLY DON'T THINK THEIR KIDS ARE GOING TO BE BETTER OFF THAN THEY ARE.

WHICH IS A TOTAL REVERSAL OF EVERYTHING THIS COUNTRY IS.

YEAH.

LET ME CLOSE IN THE FRUSTRATION YOU SAW IN THE 2016 ELECTION.

LET ME CLOSE BECAUSE WE'RE ALMOST RUNNING OUT OF TIME.

YOU GAVE A LOT OF EXAMPLES, GIVE A COUPLE HERE, BUT YOU GIVE MORE IN THE BOOK OF INSTITUTIONS, INDIVIDUALS MAKING A CHANGE.

THAT COULD REVERSE THE TAIL SPIN.

EXACTLY.

WHAT MAKES YOU SO OPTIMISTIC?

AS YOU SO WELL DESCRIBED THIS MERITOCRATIC AS BEING SO POWERFUL --

BECAUSE A WHOLE BUNCH OF THAT ELITE HAVE NOW TURNED THE OTHER WAY AND BECOME SO FRUSTRATED THAT THEY ARE DEVOTING THEMSELVES, OFTEN, YOU KNOW, UNSUNG, TO FIGURING OUT SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEMS WE HAVE.

HOW CAN WE GET BACK TO BIPARTISAN POLICIMAKING?

HOW CAN WE REALLY DO THE JOB OF RETRAINING WORKERS?

WHAT CAN WE REALLY DO ABOUT THE CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE?

AS I WENT AROUND BASICALLY TO GATHER ALL THE STATS ABOUT ALL THE BAD NEWS I WENT TO THE PEOPLE WHO WERE WORKING ON THE PROBLEM, AND SUDDENLY IT DAWNED ON ME THAT THEY'RE THE STORY BECAUSE THEY'RE OUT THERE, THEY'RE WORKING, THEY INSIST THAD COUNTRY CAN BE TURNED AROUND.

AND I THINK, WHEN PEOPLE, YOU KNOW, FINALLY SNAP, AND WHEN THINGS GET SO FRUSTRATING, THEY WILL TURN TO THESE PEOPLE FOR THEIR SOLUTIONS, WHICH IS WHAT I SPEND THE LAST PART OF THE BOOK ON.

THE BOOK IS TAIL SPIN.

THE PEOPLE AND FORCES BEHIND AMERICA'S 50-YEAR FALL AND THOSE FIGHTING TO REVERSE IT.

STEVE IS A 'NEW YORK TIMES' BEST SELLER, FASCINATING READ.

THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

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