Brill’s Blame

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?

25 comments on “Brill’s Blame

  1. Dan

    Despite the repeated cries of the left, “income inequality” is not a problem. Poverty is a problem, but inequality is not–it’s rather a manifestation of the envy-driven politics that have characterized them.

    And as to poverty, we’re, what, about 50 years into LBJ’s War on Poverty. How’s that working?

    1. SHG Post author

      There are aspects of the “American Dream” that aren’t working out the way they were suppose to, such as “study hard, go to college, get a rewarding career and live a comfortable middle class life.” But does that mean the solution is make excuses, wallow in failure to look to governmental paternalism? What drove us was the desire to succeed, not the excuses for failure.

  2. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    You’re right to say all were greedy, but there’s still a camp proclaiming “greed is good” despite the evidence to the contrary. Oh well, we’re doomed anyway since the unwashed masses can’t and don’t combine. There isn’t enough to bind them together except for greed, so they suffer what they must.

    Whether our overlords are bureaucratic or corporate will mean little in the end.

    Love,
    PK

    1. SHG Post author

      As your grandfather told me, rich or poor, it’s good to have money. The “greed is good” mantra was false, but success is good. Go for it.

  3. wilbur

    “Among the 35 OECD countries, American children rank 30th in math proficiency and 19th in science.”

    Someone’s gotta be 30th on every list of 35.

      1. Jy

        We are 30th to make the other 29 feel good about themselves, to help them with the self esteem so that they too can grow and become prosperous. It’s all about building up the world, not just the pettiness of MAGA.

  4. Noxx

    ” And they won it, for themselves.”

    This might be the most naive and infuriating sentiment I’ve heard this week. What petulant, second rate bullshit.

  5. John

    Trillions for the military industrial complex.

    Trillions more for insider looting on wall street.

    Strict scrutiny for helping the disadvantaged.

    1. SHG Post author

      Strict scrutiny for all, except then your attempt to characterize it would look mind-numbingly simplistic and foolish. And ironically, probably wouldn’t end up any different.

  6. Joseph

    There’s a recent article titled “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy” in the most recent issue of Atlantic magazine that covers many of the same themes as the article in Time but with significantly less hand-wringing and a lot more coherence.

    Coming out at nearly the same time does make me wonder if they were coordinated in any way. Maybe it’s only superior in style rather than substance but I found it much more convincing than the one in Time.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a war going on against the Constitution, as it stands in the way of the revolution. I suspect that’s what is generating this sudden interest, but it’s only my speculation.

  7. Skink

    There’s barely a sentence in his piece that isn’t either complete bullshit or illogically unintelligible.*

    *I combine the last two words because.

    1. SHG Post author

      But we’re old so we know that. The young didn’t live through it, so they believe what conforms to their exculpatory narrative.

  8. Skink

    Old, my ass. Brill writes crap that makes no sense. It might as well be: “turtles are wonderful flying creatures, but if one gets the idea to throw snowballs, one should buy a car.”

    “Democracy,” “First Amendment,” “Due Process,” “water mains” and “meritocracy.” He uses words and phrases without tying them to a coherent argument. Time publishes this?

    “The young didn’t live through it, so they believe what conforms to their exculpatory narrative.”

    Brill isn’t using word salad; it’s nonsensical. He says nothing. The young walk out the same way they walked in, and they can walk through Brill’s looking glass to land wherever their preconceived beliefs held them. Maybe they have him as a citation, but he’s a dope.

    I’m glad you waive at this windmill. I have not so much hope.

    1. SHG Post author

      Time publishes this?

      That’s what I said to myself when I read it too. And use the reply button, you old fart.

  9. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Boiling under the surface of Brill’s piece (and Bernie Sanders’ long-term vision) is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). MMT proposes that governments can create a utopia of sorts in their own countries simply by printing more money.

    After all, governments control the printing presses and thus have an unlimited ability to pay for the things they wish to purchase and to fulfill promised future payments. Hyper-inflation can be controlled by bureaucrats closely monitoring the amount of money in circulation and decreasing that amount as needed through taxes, license fees and the like.

    MMT is Keynesianism on steroids. That is, governments should not limit themselves to increasing the money supply only in recession or depression. On the contrary, governments should print all the money they need to satisfy social needs regardless of the state of the economy. If the government wants to cure poverty, it is simple. Print money.

    Since I have ruined America by been born in 1946 I hope MMT is correct and President Trump and his successors adopt it before I die. If so, I will have been exonerated. By the way, I don’t worry about my grandchildren. They don’t live in the America I have ruined and need not suffer the consequences if MMT turns out to be wrong.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      Nor do I worry, as I have a One Trillion Dollar coin in my pocket. Granted, it’s written in crayon, but no one will notice.

  10. Ken Mackenzie

    Every US administration from FDR to Carter adopted policies aimed to improve the living standards of ordinary folk. It was an important front in the Cold War: the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society. “Look at our houses, our cars, our gadgets, our hospitals and schools!” There was no need to sacrifice the Bill of Rights to do it. As the threat of communism receded, so economic policy and rhetoric tended to revert to Hoover’s lasseiz faire world of winners and losers, less concerned about the losers.

  11. JRP

    I think it is as SHG suggested, before you have revolution there is that pesky Constitution to make everyone forget or think is outdated.

    Not all of this generation agree with this drivel. Im a millennial (85) and all of the things he derides (meritocracy, the bill of rights, etc) I hold out as the reason me and my kids have a better chance, chance and nothing more, here than anywhere in the world.

    And if he’s really worried about the baby boomers he should quit his job to make room.

    Barring that ya’ll will die sometime…

  12. Joseph Masters

    The certainty from RGK that MMT schlock or the statement “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” triggered 2008? There couldn’t be circumstances that led to Bank of America foreclosing on people that did not hold a mortgage in the first place…wait, precisely that occurred in 2010-11. At least twice.

    It can’t be that millions of people have been fed into the same meat grinder that defense lawyers’ clients have to contend with every day. What is the likelihood that hitting the ZLB (zero-lower bound) during and for more than a decade after both the 2001 and 2007 recessions profoundly changed the mechanism that the financial industry operates under. There’s no way massive demand for AAA-rated MBS from investors worldwide led to “ratings-shopping” and the the proliferation of CDOs and CDS with the music stopping only when it was uncovered that AIG had become insolvent. There is no connection between Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs converting to bank-holding companies and thus receiving access to the discount window and the fact that ARMs were only available due to the willingness to throw all underwriting standards out the window?

    It is understandable that people that entered the workforce before 1980 do not want (nor should they) shoulder blame for the small number of people who instituted the four watershed changes in 1981 and remade the American economy, but in the aftermath of those four decisions along with the effects of 1982, 1990, 2001 and 2007 the inexperienced young face the fact that the meat grinder churns tens of millions unfortunate enough to fall in. But the experience is wildly different inside the sausage than without.

    1. SHG Post author

      The difference between a rational perspective and absurdity is that these things can, more or less, be true and yet not dispositive to the rational. To the batshit crazy, it’s a simplistic grand conspiracy of evil forces where you bear no responsibility for bad choices and your own greed. Arguments that begin with “It can’t be…” are vapid and only play well with the willfully ignorant and 12-year-olds. It can be. So what?

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