Steven Brill made his bones publishing a rag called “The American Lawyer.” It was nicknamed the American Liar within the bar, kind of the National Enquirer for lawyers. It was like the original, pre-SJW, version of Above The Law when David Lat was still in charge and it was viciously witty, except the American Lawyer wasn’t witty.
Brill, a baby boomer, explains in Time magazine why it’s all boomers’ fault (though not his) and why government should chew the Millennials food and gently, lovingly put it in their mouths so they don’t starve. After all, if government does not tie their shoes, wipe their cute little tushies, they will fail. Who is this “they”? The 90% of America who has been frozen out of success by the evil 10%, who has built a “moat” around their success to keep the riff raff out.
The protected overmatched, overran and paralyzed the government. The unprotected were left even further behind. And in many cases, the work was done by a generation of smart, hungry strivers who benefited from one of the most American values of all: meritocracy.
The evil boomers succeeded, per Brill, because they were smarter, swifter, more conniving than others. They created the meritocracy. It’s not that they didn’t earn it, but that once they earned it, they protected it by seizing control of the government to freeze everyone else out.
This is not to say that all is rotten in the United States. There are more opportunities available today for women, nonwhites and other minorities than ever. There are miracles happening daily in the nation’s laboratories, on the campuses of its world-class colleges and universities, in the offices of companies creating software for robots and medical diagnostics, in concert halls and on Broadway stages, and at joyous ceremonies swearing in proud new citizens.
This is an important paragraph, not merely because it reflects the values Brill finds miraculous, but because it reflects his obliviousness to the obvious significance of the values he extols.
Yet key measures of the nation’s public engagement, satisfaction and confidence – voter turnout, knowledge of public-policy issues, faith that the next generation will fare better than the current one, and respect for basic institutions, especially the government – are far below what they were 50 years ago, and in many cases have reached near historic lows.
It is difficult to argue that the cynicism is misplaced. From matters small – there are an average of 657 water-main breaks a day, for example – to large, it is clear that the country has gone into a tailspin over the last half-century, when John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier was about seizing the future, not trying to survive the present.
For some, the irony would be searing. Not for Brill, who is blind to cause and effect, and blind to his own blindness. He fails to grasp how the allocation of scarce resources from infrastructure to social engineering leaves our water mains, bridges, highways at risk. He refuses to connect the dots between an educational system that requires every new student to take gender studies but not English or history, Critical Theory but not math or physics.
Robotics and artificial intelligence are miracles, indeed, but they come at a cost, the jobs that would otherwise be available to those poor, helpless kids for whom Brill cries. The political ignorance that permeates a generation spoon-fed their ideology, who knows every detail about the life of Kim Kardashian, but can’t name the three branches of government, may well be tainted by cynicism. They’ve been taught it’s all evil and they can’t win, so why bother trying?
Beyond that, too few basic services seem to work as they should. America’s airports are an embarrassment, and a modern air-traffic control system is more than 25 years behind its original schedule. The power grid, roads and rails are crumbling, pushing the U.S. far down international rankings for infrastructure quality. Despite spending more on health care and K-12 education per capita than most other developed countries, health care outcomes and student achievement also rank in the middle or worse globally. Among the 35 OECD countries, American children rank 30th in math proficiency and 19th in science.
Brill’s refusal to connect the very dots he sets out is the prelude to the real culprit.
For too many, the present is hard enough. Income inequality has soared: inflation-adjusted middle-class wages have been nearly frozen for the last four decades, while earnings of the top 1% have nearly tripled. The recovery from the crash of 2008 – which saw banks and bankers bailed out while millions lost their homes, savings and jobs – was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthiest. Their incomes in the three years following the crash went up by nearly a third, while the bottom 99% saw an uptick of less than half of 1%. Only a democracy and an economy that has discarded its basic mission of holding the community together, or failed at it, would produce those results.
The reason “millions lost their homes, savings and jobs” in the crash of 2008 wasn’t because the 1% was greedy, but because everyone was greedy. It was a real estate bubble, where people bought properties they couldn’t afford in the belief they could sell them in a couple years, as their teaser mortgage rate was about to convert into a fixed rate they couldn’t pay, and they would pocket the difference. It worked well for a few years until it didn’t.
The impetus for the crash was junk securities based on untenable mortgages. The junk securities represented fraud and greed. So too did the untenable mortgages. People earning $50,000 per year couldn’t pay monthly mortgages of $5,000. This wasn’t a mystery, but a calculated risk. They lost. It was a wild ride while it lasted, but no house of cards can stand forever.
Does this present a huge societal problem of income inequality? Well sure, just as the false but inspirational story about Henry Ford building a car that his factory workers could afford to buy. If there aren’t jobs, isn’t income, isn’t a goal to which young people aspire, then we’re doomed to crash again. Eventually the money will run dry to buy disposable iToys or advertise on Google. Long term economic existence will cut into short term profits, but requires an attention span of more than eight seconds.
Brill has a solution, that a benevolent Big Brother will take care of us.
The unprotected need the government to provide good public schools so that their children have a chance to advance. They need a level competitive playing field for their small businesses, a fair shake in consumer disputes and a realistic shot at justice in the courts. They need the government to provide a safety net to ensure that their families have access to good health care, that no one goes hungry when shifts in the economy or temporary setbacks take away their jobs and that they get help to rebuild after a hurricane or other disaster. They need the government to ensure a safe workplace and a living minimum wage. They need mass-transit systems that work and call centers at Social Security offices that don’t produce busy signals. They need the government to keep the political system fair and protect it from domination by those who can give politicians the most money. They need the government to provide fair labor laws and to promote an economy and a tax code that tempers the extremes of income inequality and makes economic opportunity more than an empty cliché.
What’s preventing this Utopia from happening?
But there is a theme that threads through and ties together all the strands: many of the most talented, driven Americans used what makes America great–the First Amendment, due process, financial and legal ingenuity, free markets and free trade, meritocracy, even democracy itself–to chase the American Dream. And they won it, for themselves.
“War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery” and “Ignorance is strength.” Blame the meritocracy and the government will take care of you. If you can’t trust the American Liar, who can you trust?