Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall--and Those Fighting to Reverse It

Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall--and Those Fighting to Reverse It

by Steven Brill


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In this revelatory narrative covering the years 1967 to 2017, Steven Brill gives us a stunningly cogent picture of the broken system at the heart of our society. He shows us how, over the last half century, America’s core values—meritocracy, innovation, due process, free speech, and even democracy itself—have somehow managed to power its decline into dysfunction. They have isolated our best and brightest, whose positions at the top have never been more secure or more remote.

The result has been an erosion of responsibility and accountability, an epidemic of shortsightedness, an increasingly hollow economic and political center, and millions of Americans gripped by apathy and hopelessness. By examining the people and forces behind the rise of big-money lobbying, legal and financial engineering, the demise of private-sector unions, and a hamstrung bureaucracy, Brill answers the question on everyone’s mind: How did we end up this way? Finally, he introduces us to those working quietly and effectively to repair the damages. At once a diagnosis of our national ills, a history of their development, and a prescription for a brighter future, Tailspin is a work of riveting journalism—and a welcome antidote to political despair.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Daniel W. Drezner

Tailspin distinguishes itself within the America Gone Wrong genre in three important ways. First, it comes to life when Brill focuses on the legal shifts and stalemates that ushered in the country's current predicament, examining how these changes rippled across the rest of society…Second, as the subtitle suggests, Brill leavens the gloom…with vignettes of individuals and organizations working to counteract the overarching negative trendlines…[And] third…is the number of times the phrase "unintended consequences" appears in the book. Many of the legal and regulatory changes that Brill excoriates have counterintuitive beginnings…Brill is a keen observer of well-intentioned ideas, like trade adjustment assistance, executed badly…Still, the interviews with those trying to fight the powers that be make the book a worthy contribution…In a downbeat era, Tailspin offers some modest ammunition for hope.

Publishers Weekly

★ 03/26/2018
A dysfunctional system serving an unaccountable ruling class is wrecking America, according to this searing sociopolitical jeremiad. Journalist and Court TV founder Brill (America’s Bitter Pill) traces a downward spiral of inequality, stagnating wages, expensive and substandard health care and schools, crumbling infrastructure, a “hollow economy” that jettisoned manufacturing in favor of low-paid services and high-paid finance, polarized politics, and a gridlocked Congress that panders to plutocrats and leaves everyone else unprotected. His intelligent, intricate analysis traces these problems to well-intentioned reforms that were turned into institutional “moats” that safeguard elite privilege: universities intending to level inequality ended up entrenching it; “due process” provisions to make federal rule-making fairer were gamed by special interests, from bankers to community groups, to block needed and reasonable government action; First Amendment absolutism regarding campaign finance gave pharmaceutical companies license to defy FDA regulations restricting the marketing of drugs for off-label uses; civil service reform ended corrupt patronage, but made incompetent bureaucrats untouchable; primary elections liberated candidates from party bosses, but enslaved them to zealots and rich donors. Despite his stinging indictment of lawyers, money men, and politicians, Brill still finds worthwhile possibilities everywhere, from innovative job training programs to campaign finance crusades. He brings both detailed reporting and wide-ranging perspective to this insightful account of how America reached its current state. Photos. Agent: David Kuhn, Aevitas Creative Management. (May)

From the Publisher

*A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2018*

“Persuasive, bracing . . . an essential read if you want to understand the pressures that have brought a sclerotic Uncle Sam to his knees." —Alexander C. Kafka, Los Angeles Review of Books

Tailspin distinguishes itself within the America Gone Wrong genre . . . All of the book’s chapters on the law crackle with energy . . . In a downbeat era, Tailspin offers some modest ammunition for hope.” —Daniel W. Drezner, The New York Times Book Review

"Steven Brill's Tailspin does precisely what the daily torrent of news does not: make sense. The book is nothing less than a unified (and persuasive) theory of everything—including politics, business, culture—and it even includes several glimmers of hope amid the pervasive darkness." —Jeffrey Toobin, author of American Heiress

“A penetrating and personal examination of why the United States is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. But with his fantastically reported story, Brill also shows how—and who—might restore some common sense and equilibrium.” —Bob Woodward  

“An astonishingly shrewd and detailed account of our modern American reality . . . Tailspin offers something unique: a meticulous cross-disciplinary history.” —Mattea Kramer, The New York Journal of Books

“A compelling story . . . The fact that America’s best values and ideas, in Brill’s estimation, contributed to its tailspin should give us more than just momentary pause." —Paul Rosenberg, Salon

“An absolute must-read: a brilliant chronicle of the failures of America’s elite.” —Steve Hilton, host of Fox News’ The Next Revolution

“This is a book that pulses with dry intelligence and righteous anger.” —Philip Delves Broughton, The Weekly Standard
“An eye-opening and engrossing treatise representative of all that is wrong with today’s political processes.” Library Journal (starred review)
“A dysfunctional system serving an unaccountable ruling class is wrecking America, according to this searing sociopolitical jeremiad. . . . [Brill] brings both detailed reporting and wide-ranging perspective to this insightful account of how America reached its current state.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Penetrating . . . in large part because of Brill’s skill in presenting abstruse legal and financial developments in an accessible manner. . . . [A] clarifying and invaluable overview.” Booklist (starred review)

“Steven Brill is a remarkable journalist who has always ventured away from the herd. In Tailspin, he has identified and analyzed brilliantly the surprising pressure points where our democracy has fractured and failed over the past half-century, leading to today’s overwhelming dysfunction and cultural polarization. In uncovering what happened, Brill shows us that there may be a way back from America’s dire predicament.” —Carl Bernstein

“[Brill] offers ample evidence that American democracy is in peril. . . . Hard-hitting.” Kirkus

“Steve Brill has written a book that every American should read. It faces the problems of our immediate past unflinchingly. At the same time it sees the seedlings of hope all across America. Ultimately, it reminds us that America is in the choices we make as citizens. The future is up to us.” —Bill Bradley, former U.S. senator

“Lucid and engaging.” —The National Book Review

Tailspin is a must read for all citizens troubled by the inequities, malfunctions and bizarre shape of our public and private sectors.” —Tom Brokaw

“Complaining about American politics has become a national pastime. But in his expertly researched new book, Steven Brill does far more than identify what’s wrong: he explains why American democracy isn’t working. And he gives us the powerful stories and surprising personalities who are feeding—and fighting—our democratic dysfunction.” —Jacob S. Hacker, Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale, and Co-Author, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper

“Brill's perceptive analysis about how the cult of meritocracy has tragically created an entrenched elite who are determined to defend their moats—and make themselves, rather than America, "great"—should challenge us all. The analysis is meticulously detailed and sourced, building on Brill's long career in investigative journalism. However, Brill shows how groups in America are trying to fight back, in all manner of grassroots ways, making the book also a manifesto for practical change and a rallying cry for everyone who wants to rebuild America.” —Gillian Tett, author of Fool’s Gold and U.S. Managing Editor of The Financial Times

“Steve Brill has built on years of investigative journalism to produce a brilliant and powerful book on the most critical issue of our time: How did America’s core values get hijacked by a privileged class? During the past fifty years, we have undermined our basic national creed that we are a level playing field where any kid has the opportunity to build a better life. This book is not a political or ideological screed. Instead, it’s a model of deep reporting and fact-driven analysis. Everyone, left and right and center, should read it. It will open your eyes and challenge your assumptions.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci

“A compelling, surprising narrative about the unlikely people and forces responsible for the dashing of the American dreamand an uplifting look at those working to restore it.” —Jill Abramson, former executive editor, The New York Times 

Kirkus Reviews

A broken nation requires crucial changes.For the last 50 years, journalist and political analyst Brill (Journalism/Yale Univ.; America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix the Broken Health Care System, 2015, etc.) argues, the United States has been deteriorating. Besides a blighted health care system, the author points to other major problems, including underperforming public schools; outdated mass transit systems and power grids; crumbling bridges, highways, and airports; snowballing income inequality; high infant mortality and low life expectancy when compared with other Western countries; political gridlock; voter cynicism and apathy; and lobbyists' power over elected officials. He blames "the polarization and paralysis of American democracy" partly on a "new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers," high-achieving, well-educated individuals who have gravitated to law and finance, inventing financial instruments and corporate legal defenses that fed greed but "deadened incentives for the long-term development and growth of the rest of the economy." Brill calls these individuals, who want to hold onto their wealth, the "protected," as opposed to the rest of society, "the unprotected," who need government to act for the common good. The author offers ample evidence that American democracy is in peril. Less persuasive is his optimism that problems can be solved through the efforts of earnest, sometimes influential individuals. Dennis Kelleher, for example, is president of a nonprofit organization called Better Markets, whose goal is to monitor and influence the financial industry. Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, lobbies for implementation of policy: "the unglamorous challenges of making government work," which involves training managers, senior civil servants, and deputy secretaries in all cabinet departments. Lawyer Philip Howard is a writer and speaker whose book The Death of Common Sense (1995) became a bestseller. Such individuals' efforts, however inspiring they are, seem hardly enough to lead to massive overhauls of infrastructure (Brill proposes a gas tax for that) or systemic changes in education and health care.A hard-hitting, mostly convincing analysis of endemic problems that will require further intensive study.

Library Journal

★ 06/15/2018
With this work, Brill (English & journalism, Yale Univ.; America's Bitter Pill) thoroughly peals back the layers of the current ineffective political logjam that snares DC and leaves many Americans frustrated or apathetic. This book does not solely take aim at one political party over the other; it rightly casts blame on both sides. Brill roots his argument in the basis that the knowledge economy churned forces against the common good. The new capital was not iron or steel but ingenuity. Fear of replacement with someone whom was smarter drove people to work harder to gain the system. Get yours now was the new maxim. With that, corporations began to seize the political currents by pouring money into campaigns and lobbyists. Campaigns became louder and swung away from the center in order to appeal to voters. Brill effectively demonstrates how this process has corrupted the government's ability to function. VERDICT An eye-opening and engrossing treatise representative of all that is wrong with today's political processes.—Jacob Sherman, John Peace Lib., Univ. of Texas at San Antonio

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524731632
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/29/2018
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

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Chapter 1: The Protected and the Unprotected

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