The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook
In his polemic The Trap, journalist Daniel Brook asks us to think about the compromises we make in the name of modern “success.” He begins with a cautionary tale: Brendan (Harvard Law) marries Johanna (Danish working-class) and they move to Washington, D.C., where Brendan works at the Center for Study of Responsive Law and Johanna works at an environmental nonprofit. They can only afford to buy a house if Brendan goes to work for a law firm. Ready to start a family, Johanna realizes that if she works after having children, paying a nanny will cost more than she makes. “All of a sudden, a progressive couple like Johanna and Brendan is forced back into 1950s gender roles, with the husband an unfulfilled breadwinner and the wife an unfulfilled stay-at-home mom.”
Brook argues that widening economic disparities are dismantling the American dream and producing a frustrated, conflicted workforce: the corporate advertising executive whose schoolteacher spouse serves as a “prosthetic conscience”; the McKinsey & Company consultant who slaves 12 hours a day, six days a week, then wears funky, plastic-rimmed glasses to prove he’s not a drone; the “IKEA Class,” which Brook defines as those overworked and underfulfilled consumers seeking “enlightened domesticity” at Target and Trader Joe’s. Instead of emulating their activist parents, a new generation of adults is gravitating away from public service to the corporate sector—convinced that the only way to have a financially secure life is to sell out their passions and ethics.
Some might argue that Brook is raising a false alarm and that the concept of selling out is new only to those too young to remember the past. However, he emphasizes an intensification of historical precedent, using the example of gentrification: “The [Greenwich] Village bohemia lasted for decades, SoHo for ten years, the East Village for five, Williamsburg for two. . . . The unofficial death knell came in 2005 when The New York Times re-dubbed the South Bronx, trendy ‘SoBro.’” Brook also has a knack for showing how the seeds of corporate compromise grow into corruption. In the wake of Enron, it was widely acknowledged that the company escaped detection for so long because its highly paid accountants constructed tax shelters that were too sophisticated for the federal IRS agents to untangle. Brook looks back and finds this haunting quote from a Reagan-era official in the Office of Personnel Management: “Does the federal government need laboratories full of Nobel laureates, legal offices full of the top graduates . . . policy shops full of the best and brightest whatevers? I think not. . . . The private sector [is] . . . where we ought to encourage our best and brightest to migrate.”
The book gives a streamlined account of the American domestic economy since World War II. Brook blames Republicans for fostering the notion that “freedom is a value of the right and equality a value of the left, and that one must choose between them in a zero-sum game.” Brook is most venomous toward the Reagan administration’s tax repeals and laissez faire policies, and his critiques often sound like personal grudges: “Renowned for his complete lack of a traditional American work ethic . . . it seemed to Reagan that people could only be made to work through compulsion or greed.”
One of Ronald Reagan’s most damaging legacies was his notion of academia as a business, with students as customers and teachers as employees. Today, Brook says, the “vision of education as a personal capital investment is firmly entrenched.” He makes a compelling argument that the protection of intellectual integrity provided by tenure has been lost in a marketplace of adjuncts. Supporting the book’s principal concern—the death of public service as a viable career path—Brook observes that programs like Teach for America emphasize their one- or two-year commitment periods, implying that high-achieving college graduates will still have time for their “real,” more lucrative jobs, where they can make a return on their “capital investment.” “Somewhere,” Brook says, “Ronald Reagan is surely smiling.”
Brook also damns with faint praise our most recent Democratic president, noting that “despite a few timid policy proposals, Clinton essentially retreated into diversity-in-lieu-of-equality liberalism.” Brook’s real hero is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with his goal “to bring up the bottom and hold down the top” using progressive taxation. Progressive often meant outright exorbitant: in wartime, Roosevelt negotiated with Congress to impose a 94 percent tax on income over $200,000 (equal to a few million dollars today), a rate that only dropped to 91 percent after the war. Brook champions the “middle-class society of broadly shared prosperity” that followed, pointing out that “teachers and factory workers and lawyers often lived in the same neighborhoods. . . . The GI Bill meant that a bright young veteran from a modest background could attend any college in the country debt-free—each veteran got an annual grant of $500 in an era when Harvard tuition ran $400 a year.” But the era’s prevalent discrimination gets glossed over: “Eventually, long-overdue efforts to make American institutions meritocratic and open to women and minorities began to build a truly egalitarian nation.”
Brook is particularly concerned with “the Bush model of low taxes and low government benefits grudgingly distributed only to those who merit his ‘compassion,’ never to the college-educated middle-class.” He fears that an entire generation of entrepreneurs and independent artists is falling by the wayside, and he provides vignettes of several creative and driven intellectuals hobbled by a lack of insurance. Brook offers positive examples as well: for instance, an engaging profile of Sara Horowitz, a lifelong Brooklynite and founder of the New York Freelancer’s Union, which has gained over 38,000 members since its inception in 2001.
A principal platform of the Freelancers Union is guaranteed health care, and the need for a universal system is one of Brook’s major recommendations for repairing America. His other prescriptions include restoring progressive taxation and closing the “yawning gap” between salaries in the public and private sectors. He implores the Democratic Party to resist big-money lobbying, to reconnect with the middle and lower classes, to advocate for a higher minimum wage, and to fight President Bush’s attempts to repeal the estate tax, which he describes as “a sure route to creating a hereditary aristocracy.”
It is easy to float suggestions when others will have to do the heavy lifting. Still, the book’s primary audience is not policymakers or academics—who may bristle against such glib solutions—but the choir of affected young Americans wondering “Do I have to sell my soul just to buy a house?” Brook makes a timely contribution by offering them a rallying cry, a community identity, and an unapologetically liberal agenda. Rather than merely mourning the New Deal, he suggests that perhaps it is time to forge a newer one.