The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, by Daniel Brook
This book is quite likely to make you angry. Angry, if you’re a conservative, at a white, yale-educated author whining about how in order to make ends meet, living in a big city, he has to either suffer or ‘sell out’. If you’re a liberal, it’ll make you angry at how bleak the picture he paints is, how completely the right has won certain rhetorical battles. I, personally, am in the latter camp, as disclaimer. Also, I’m more or less a part of the class that he’s talking about, as I went to a good school and have a good job and still can’t afford a house in the place where I want to live.
The book is essentially a paean to the era of progressive taxation and new deal social policies that the right in America has been dismantling for the last forty years or so. I don’t know the history as well as I’d like, so there’s a lot here that I have to take on faith. But the primary argument, that a tax structure that shrinks the middle class is bad for the country. This is not something that we should be aiming for (disclaimer, the EPI is a lefty think tank, take with salt, but I imagine those numbers are kinda hard to fudge). I’ll admit that I was sold on the argument before I picked up the book, since housing prices in San Francisco, where I live, seem to average around 5 – 700,000 USD for studios, lofts, and one bedroom apartments. I might be able to afford one, because I’ve been very, very lucky, but I’m fairly sure that no one I consider part of my peer group, other than the people I work with, will be able to.
The book is light, and in a lot of places would be bolstered by having better direct access to the statistics involved. It’s written like it’s intended to be made into a documentary. Its primary weakness, however, is linked to its main point, which is that if the children of the upper middle class can’t make it trying to do good, then almost no one can. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to get hung up on the fact that it is about the children of the upper middle class, Ivy Leaguers and graduate students. This is not actually a weakness of the argument, which still holds water, but a weakness to attack. These people (we people?) are not, by definition, a deprived minority. Any complaints that we make are easily attackable by our ideological enemies as the whining of people who want it even easier than we’ve had it. That we deserve to be able to remain middle class because that is where we were born.
This isn’t, of course, the argument that Brook is making, but it’s the easy perception and the standard line of attack. As of the moment, the book has 14 Amazon reviews, six with five stars, one with four, none with three, one with two, and six with one. I am willing to bet, however, that these ratings track the reviewer’s political affiliation more than they track age or socioeconomic class. Most of the negative ones essentially run, “Shut the fuck up and get a real job, you whiner.” Few of them dispute and of the arguments put forth, and when they do, they don’t attack the argument, they attack Mr. Brook, with standard aphorisms of the right; “You’ll understand when you get older.”, “Stop looking for a free ride and work for a living.”, etc.
Let me spell this out for anyone else who reviews this book. This is not a book about Mr. Brook’s or his classmate’s entitlement to a middle class lifestyle. It’s a book about how Reagan– and Goldwater-ite conservative policies on taxation have made the rich richer and have done nothing for the middle class. How if the rich continue to get richer, no one but the rich will be able to live in our most vibrant cities. How an unregulated market for housing and education squeezes out opportunities for the rest of us.
The book is only about the children of the upper middle class because it’s something that’s finally reaching us. It’s already gotten everyone else. We’re not the canaries, not even the miners, we’re the first shift bosses to succumb. If it’s made it this far, what’s next?
So, read the book. Think about it some. Take a trip to some of the other advanced democracies in the world, assuming that you can afford it, and that you can get the time off to go. Talk to some people there, tell them that you’re from Canada, if telling them you’re from the USA is coloring the discussion too much. Take a step out from behind the American exceptionalism that has been so carefully inculcated in you and me and realize that while it’s nice here, if you’re lucky, you most often don’t have to be lucky for it to be nice in one of the other advanced nations, where you wouldn’t be saddled by college debt, you wouldn’t have to constantly worry about what neighborhood you live in to make sure that your kids don’t go to a shitty school, you don’t have to work sixty or more hours a week to own a house.
Mr. Brook isn’t saying that he and his generation don’t want to work, or that they just want something to be given. He just wants to see them, us, be able to work to enrich our own lives, rather than the lives of the people who employ us. To be able to work hard for the things that matter, rather than having to make a choice between our lives and our ethics.
To raise the tone to an incendiary level and to clearly step outside of the argument made by this book. I’d like to put forth the thesis that conservative, regressive tax policies are are aimed at creating a semi-hereditary upper class, an ever less permeable nobility. This is something that, as Americans, as people true to the spirit of the Constitution, we should be fighting tooth and nail. Now stop whining, suck it up, and go out there and vote for someone who’ll raise your damned taxes and spend them on equality and the health and welfare of the people of this country.