America's "Tailspin" and the rise of oligarchy: History says it's happened before

Steven Brill's new book on the rise of modern inequality is important, but to fix it we need a bigger picture

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 27, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill has just published an important new book, “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall — and Those Fighting to Reverse It,” with an excerpt published by Time magazine last week. His thesis is quite simple at its core, as expressed by Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, at the graduation ceremony for the class of 2015. Over the past 50 years, American meritocracy has become, in a way, its opposite, “a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy.”

Meritocracy is not the only ingredient, however — or rather, it can’t be separated from a matrix of related ideas, in Brill’s account: “The story of America’s tailspin is not about villains, though there are some. It is not about a conspiracy to bring the country down, nor did it spring from one single source.” There is a unifying theme, he continues:

[M]any 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. Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy. ...

As a result of their savvy, their drive and their resources (and a certain degree of privilege, as these strivers may have come from humble circumstances but are mostly white men), America all but abandoned its most ambitious and proudest ideal: the never perfect, always debated and perpetually sought after balance between the energizing inequality of achievement in a competitive economy and the community-binding equality promised by democracy. In a battle that began a half-century ago, the achievers won.

The result they produced is “a new, divided America,” with “the protected few – the winners – who don’t need government for much” on one side, and the unprotected many on the other.  What’s worse, the protected few “even have a stake in sabotaging the government’s responsibility to all of its citizens.”

It’s a compelling story, and in many ways it’s true, especially in two broad senses: First, Brill cites a wide range of examples of physical, civic, social and institutional decay. Taking stock of these examples is a necessary prerequisite to fixing them. Second, as seen above, he argues that America’s current problems derive from its particular virtues, which have been misapplied in various ways, but can still serve as a potential source of  national salvation — as some people are already showing. Appreciating our strengths is a necessary prerequisite to applying them. In both these key respects, Brill has done yeoman’s work.

Brill also reveals himself was an admitted part of that process, first because he came of age as part of its first wave, a scholarship student first at a prep school and then at Yale, and second by playing an active role in creating this new aristocracy. “By the mid-1980s, in terms of dollars generated, the legal industry was bigger than steel or textiles, and about the same size as the auto industry,” he writes, and Brill had a significant impact on it.  

In 1975, he founded American Lawyer magazine, “which focused on the business of law firms and the intriguing questions lurking behind their elegant reception areas.” One of those questions was, “Which provided the highest profits for partners?” Starting in 1985, a special summer issue was devoted to a survey ranking the revenues and average profits taken home by partners at the largest firms. On the one hand, it made the firms “more accountable to their partners, their employees and their clients,” but it also shifted focus “in ways that had significant drawbacks. The emphasis was now fully on serving those clients who could pay the most,” and that only widened the divide between the protected few and the unprotected many.

It’s vital that someone like Brill tell this story, and important that he acknowledges his own role in it. Yet his story remains incomplete, and there’s even harder work that remains to be done. First,  exactly the same kind of underlying dynamic has been documented, in hard historical data, afflicting dozens of other civilizations from the pre-Christian-era Roman Kingdom and Han Dynasties down to the present day — first by historian Jack Goldstone, then by cultural anthropologist Peter Turchin and his colleagues.

The nature of the meritocracy may differ more or less in each instance, but the underlying story has been strikingly similar across the ages, and across continents. It’s the story of swelling elite numbers — more doctors, lawyers, millionaires — aka “elite overproduction,” much more than anything specific that they do. That tells us something very important about what’s needed to get us out of our current fix.

Second, the dynamic of elite overproduction is only one part of a larger cycle of social integration and disintegration, most often resulting in revolution or civil war — an eventuality connected to but even worse than the catalog of troubles Brill deals with. In short, Brill’s big-picture story is itself just part of on an even bigger picture, involving further factors that need to be confronted as well.

Meritocracies in some form have always played a role in the disintegrative phase of these cycles, helping fuel the process of elite overproduction, generating more elites than a society can ultimately handle — whether political or economic. This invariably involves a significant influx of previously non-elite individuals, whether through wealth accumulation, military service or specialized education, each a way of proving “merit.” The rest of Brill’s list — “the First Amendment, due process, financial and legal ingenuity, free markets and free trade … even democracy itself” — is to some extent historically and culturally specific, as is what qualifies as “merit-based.” But some form of accelerated growth in elite numbers is always a part of the picture.

At first, when total elite wealth temporarily grows faster than elite numbers—before elite overproduction proper occurs, the rise of new elites appears as a sign of social vigor, strengthening the old aristocracy with infusions of new blood, new ideas, new boldness in outlook. But as the full force of elite overproduction sets in, as Peter Turchin explains, “It reduces average elite incomes and increases intraelite competition/conflict because of large numbers of elite aspirants and counter‐elites. Additionally, intraelite competition drives up conspicuous consumption, which has an effect of inflating the level of income that is deemed to be necessary to maintain elite status. Competition also plays a role in the unraveling of social cooperation norms.

What’s more, there’s a broader explanation for why this repeatedly happens, first laid out by Goldstone in his 1992 book, “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World,” and refined by Turchin and his colleagues, in studies and books like “Historical Dynamics,” “Secular Cycles,” and, most recently, specifically examining America, “Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History” (Salon review here.)

Goldstone identified three factors contributing to political instability in agriculturally based civilizations: one from the masses, one from elites and one from the state. One factor alone was not enough, but when their product peaked sharply, chances of revolution skyrocketed. Turchin generalized the model to include industrial civilizations, and fleshed out a more robust framework of proxy measures (some of which Brill refers to as indicators of decline) and interconnecting feedbacks. But the essential story remains fairly simple, with each of three factors playing its part.

Civilizations grow more successful and well-integrated over time, as their populations grow, with success breeding success, until they cross a population threshold, with too many workers chasing too few jobs (tied to too little fertile land in agricultural societies), resulting in the first destabilizing factor, centered on mass immiseration: falling living standards, declining physical wellbeing and increased social unrest. (Urbanization and youth bulges, producing waves of new workers, formally play equal roles in the model, but unless population has neared a threshold, such unrest is usually muted.)

Declining mass wages means a larger share for elites, whose already rising general welfare only accelerates as a result. Both established elites and new aspirants enjoy a gilded age, as the masses continue to suffer — until things go too far, because elite numbers grow faster than the slice of the pie they all have to share. This is the second destabilizing factor, elite overproduction, with too many claimants on too few fruits of power and privilege. The third destabilizing factor is state fiscal distress: As elites grow increasingly fragmented politically, and more broadly competitive, they’re increasingly unwilling to be taxed for the common good—even for the military that sustains their shared wealth.

While all three factors are important for the model generally, elite overproduction (largely fueled by the growth of the meritocracy) plays a leading role. Mass immiseration can go on for decades without producing significant political instability. Without elite leadership, rebellious movements are quickly put down, even if they initially succeed. And in some cases — such as 19th-century America — the state apparatus is so small that it can safely excluded from the model. So Brill’s focus on the meritocracy makes sense in this larger framework, as well: That factor matters most in driving political instability, which can tear apart nations and empires.

But considering this larger picture from the standpoint of structural demographic theory (SDT), suggests some differences in how Brill’s story might be told. First, Brill focuses on “core values” and “distinctly American ideas” which “became the often unintended instruments for splitting the country into two classes: the protected and the unprotected.” SDT tells us that any such nexus of cultural core values and distinctive ideas will suffer a similar fate, over time, as elites simply become too plentiful.

Second, Brill’s focus is intensely generational, focused on the agency of a specific age cohort. As already noted, Time’s excerpt is titled, “How Baby Boomers Broke America.” But SDT has a lot to tell us in response to that. First, human generations, per se, do not exist, though youth bulges like the post-World War II baby boom certainly do. As already mentioned, SDT’s formula for calculating the mass contribution to political instability includes youth booms and urbanization as co-factors with declining incomes. But youth bulges do not create themselves, and do not have unified group agency, nor are there sharp dividing lines separating human generations, the way there are for migratory birds, for example. Multiple different tendencies play out in any age cohort, partly driven by the actions they take but also shaped by the larger social system around them.

Long-term trends interact in complex ways, and spikes like youth booms further complicate things. They do not produce either good or ill effects on their own, but only in concert and in tension with other social collectives and processes. This is not to downplay the baby boom’s significance. It was the major demographic phenomena that shaped Goldstone’s early scholarship, eventually resulting in SDT. But it was the interaction between demographic growth and structural or institutional constraints that formed the core of his thinking, which makes for a more complex story than the relatively unified one that Brill tells.

Most broadly, boomers had at least two distinct types of impact. On the mass level, they contributed to a labor oversupply, helping to drive down average wages, increasing mass immiseration — something none of them consciously intended to do. At the same, a significant number of them did rise through the meritocracy, precisely as Brill describes. But in “Ages of Discord,” Turchin tracks the trends of more than a dozen variables, all but one of which reversed directions in the decade around 1970. The fact that average heights, for example, stopped growing around 1970, at the same time as real wages -- and that both followed very similar trajectories from at least 1930 through 2000 -- strongly indicates that the larger complex of forces at work cannot simply be reduced to choices made by boomers.

The fact that so many different trends that Turchin documents — trust in government, marriage age, top tax rates, filibusters, lawyers per capita, top tax rates, etc. — switched directions within a few years of each other tells us that something bigger was going on. We don’t have as much data for earlier civilizations, but what we do have tells a strikingly similar story. Large-scale trend reversals are the key to understanding shifts from the integrative to the disintegrative phase of historical cycles.

America’s post-World War II baby boom partly coincided with and contributed to that reversal, but it would have happened sooner or later, regardless. Boomers are neither guiltless nor totally responsible for this transition. They played a role but did not write the script. Or, perhaps more accurately, they wrote their lines, but did not author their identities, although they somewhat reinvented them. The tale Brill tells is an important one, about how that reinvention happened, how it turned out and how some are working to turn it around again. But it fails to grasp the larger framework, or the patterns of history that tell us we are not unique.

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. That others like him, in other times, could have said the same things about their own civilizations should be the starting point for a whole other conversation — the kind of conversation we’ll really need if we hope to avoid the worst of what history tells us may lie ahead. Brill’s book serves the invaluable purpose of opening the door to such conversations, and such hopes.

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By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Economic Inequality Economics Inequality Oligarchy Steven Brill Tailspin