Magazine | September 10, 2018, Issue

Two Guys from Queens

Steven Brill (Image via Twitter)
Tailspin: The People and Forces behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall — and Those Fighting to Reverse It, by Steven Brill (Knopf, 464 pp., $28.95)

Steven Brill, the Yale grad, lawyer, journalist, and entrepreneur, seems to have begun writing his latest book at about the same time that Donald Trump began running his presidential campaign on roughly similar themes. Both are concerned with the growth of inequality over the past half century. There are three axial themes associated with this trend: globalization, immigration, and the new technology of Silicon Valley and Seattle. 

Brill and Trump, both roughly 70-year-old natives of Queens, N.Y., have a good deal to say about globalization. And both are horrified by the condition of Gotham’s infrastructure. According to the New York Times, “Brill says the idea for his book came when he landed at a ‘grimy terminal’ at Kennedy Air­port in New York City and got stuck in traffic on the ‘dirty, pothole-filled’ Van Wyck Expressway.” I understand his anger: As I write, friends have called to tell me that they won’t be coming to visit me today because, after being stuck in gridlock on the Van Wyck — named after the first mayor of a consolidated New York — they have decided to turn around. But oddly Brill says nothing about the current governor of New York, Queens native Andrew Cuomo, who is running for his third term but is unable to pave the roads despite having a budget of more than $160 billion.

And while Trump is expansive on the impact of immigration on economic inequality, Brill has virtually nothing to say about the subject. On the third issue, Brill is geographically challenged. In­defensibly, neither has much to say about the rise of Silicon Valley’s monopolies. But Trump is president precisely because he paid a great deal of attention to the deindustrialization of the Midwest, while Brill, like his candidate, Hillary Clinton, has little to say to and about the old heartland.

Brill is deeply divided against himself on globalization. When the Trade Adjustment Assistance program was created under President Kennedy in 1962, its plan to provide job training for workers displaced by the revival of European competition was hailed as forward-looking. But over time, writes Brill, it became “a metaphor for how politicians . . . neglected what was happening for five decades to working-class Americans until the years immediately leading up to the 2016 election,” when frustration boiled over. He cites Beth Macy’s book Factory Man on the failure of Trade Adjustment Assistance to aid the furniture workers of Henry County, Va., who were undermined by Chinese competition. Once strongly Democratic, the county went for Trump by 30 points. But, unwilling to dip his toe into protectionist waters, Brill still can’t resist arguing for more job-training money.

A devout technocratic centrist, Brill is fully aware of the way the terms “left” and “right” have lost their meaning. Instead, with considerable justice, he talks about the protected and unprotected populations. The protected, such as the tenured professors of academia, live and work within what Brill aptly describes as “moats.” The meritocrats, secure behind their moats, seemed like an improvement over the old ethnic aristocracy, but the now-displaced WASP elite had a sense of duty to the larger society that’s absent in their successors. The meritocrats, Brill writes, “were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the government that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.”

In academia, identity politics, which goes entirely unmentioned by Brill, allowed the academic aristocracy to proclaim its nobility by pointing to the black, gay, and bisexual students they had admitted. The upshot of identity-based affirmative-action policies has been a decline in middle-class students; they are unable to afford the extraordinary tuition required to subvent the deans hired to enforce “diversity” of enrollment and uniformity of opinion. The administrators now outnumber the academics.

Brill’s book zigzags through the past 50 years with recycled snippets from the magazine he founded, The American Lawyer, serving as the pivots to conjoin his version of cut-and-paste history. But problematic though the text is, it’s not till he finally turns to Trump in the Krugmanesque closing pages that the book becomes blatantly bizarre.   

There is no anticipation of the possibility that, after Obama, Trump’s economy might be viewed as at least a passable success. Brill writes, in his knowing manner, “In the spectacular collapse of the Trump flimflam act, there is hope.” Trump voters, faced with the newly elected president’s “lack of integrity and intelligence,” may be prepared by his abject failure to “settle in the middle,” “choosing leaders who are prepared and intelligent.” That’ll teach those dolts. He then rattles off a list of purportedly nonpartisan but mostly center-left organizations, such as the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Partner­ship for Public Service, as venues voters should turn to for advice. He even goes on to suggest that “coal miners who realize they will never get their jobs back could march on Washington and demand help in transitioning to an energy industry of the future.”

Stuck in the past but unable to deal with it, Brill closes without having considered the failures of the Great Society. Instead, he announces, “Americans are going to answer the call of a new New Frontier.” Not everyone from the neighborhoods of Queens graduated with street sense.

Fred Siegel — Mr. Siegel is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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