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a blighted health care system, the author points to other major problems, including underperforming public schools; outdated mass transit systems and power grids; crumbling bridges, highways, and airports; snowballing income inequality; high infant mortality and low life expectancy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.