In Tailspin (Knopf, May), journalist Brill argues that people at the top are bringing America down.
You write that “moats” are hamstringing America. What are they?
Elites are building moats to protect their power. It could be a corporate CEO, or a politician who doesn’t have to worry about re-election because of gerrymandering, or a VA hospital official who doctors records to hide how long waiting lists are and can’t be fired because of civil service rules. With moats like that, we lose accountability.
You explore the 1946 Administrative Procedures Act, which inserted “due process” into federal regulations. What’s wrong with that?
Yeah, who’s against due process? Much of the book is about too much of a good thing. The APA made sense: you had unelected agencies with tremendous power doing whatever they wanted. Congress said, let’s inject due process to make government agencies accountable. Well, that morphed into thousands of lawyers for, say, the chemical industry gumming up the works with hearings and lawsuits.
You also blame college-based “meritocracy” for creating moats. Isn’t that a good thing?
Modern universities replaced one aristocracy, of wealthy families who used connections to get into college, with a new aristocracy of smart, high-achieving people. That certainly made sense when I went to Yale. But we now have better knowledge workers building better moats.
You discuss the “divide between the protected and the unprotected.” How does that affect ordinary Americans?
We have two classes: the protected beneficiaries of the knowledge economy, and everyone else. Global trade soared just when technology was automating jobs, which should have made job retraining a government priority. But government just walked away from that, starting in the mid-1960s. So middle-class incomes have frozen and disposable incomes have fallen because of healthcare costs. Meanwhile, the incomes of Wall Street lawyers and hedge fund managers, the 1% who are the beneficiaries, skyrocketed.
Yeah, I write about people working to turn things around: campaign-finance activists; the guy with a former zipper factory in Queens who shows you really can do job training, turning a cab driver or a waitress into an $85,000-a-year coder. People like that could reverse the tailspin.