By Bill Kohlhaase
Over the last ten years we in the U.S. have seen an endless series of political books, at first mostly from the Right, and finally–now that publishing houses have awoke to the fact that the Dems, liberals and progressives are at least somewhat literate–from the Left. A select few, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, have been outstanding. Some are hilarious, like those penned by the Al Franken’s and Michael Moore’s of the world, but are the types of politcal jeremiads that are essentially telling us what we already know–while transgender author Ann Coulter’s screeds read like transcripts of an especially crappy Lou Dobbs episode. Daniel Brook’s The Trap: Selling out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, on the other hand, resfreshingly belongs to another type of category: the kind that nourishes while altering popular perception.
Brook does for income inequality in this country what Fast Food Nation did for shedding light on the global influence of American fast food–namely, change the way we look at a problem in this country. In this case, it’s an increasingly un-progressive tax system and the massive income inequality it engenders. Some of the statistics Brook includes in The Trap can’t help but boggle the mind. Startling items such as: in 1970, starting teachers in New York City made $2000 dollars less than starting Wall Street Lawyers, while in 2007 they make $100,000 less. Or that income disparities in Manhattan rank right alongside Namibia in Southern Africa, a country ominously tabbed by the UN Human Development Report as being the most unequal country in the world. Brook points out that social mobility is now greater in Scandinavia than it is in America, in large part due to Reagan’s tax-slashing on millionaires and furthered by our current–what, leaders?–cuts in taxes and capital gains.
Brook uses facts and stats such as these to illustrate the plight of a group we normally don’t feel sorry for–that of the upper-middle class. And the author does a praiseworthy job here of showing that when graduates of elite schools are forced to “sell out,” and take jobs they have no interest in, it’s all of us who lose. It’s the classic domino effect–the artist who may have opened up an art studio goes to work for A.G. Edwards, or the lit major from Yale takes a more lucrative offer on Wall Street. Those who refuse to compromise live with fixed horizons, no children, little financial security, and the psychological impact that living on such a ledge incurs. Using specific anecdotes, Brook illustrates how the only winners in this game are the ultra-rich who employ the educated elites to come in and work for them. The rest of us? We lose–and it’s hardly a fair fight.
Reading a book like Brook’s can cause two very disparate emotions in the reader–the first being a rapid descent into misery and apathy. But when your awareness is sharpened it can yield a second feeling, which is something like resolve. I came away from reading The Trap with not only a sense of hope but a better understanding of how so many issues today are related to the rising inequality in this country. If it costs millions to live in Manhattan, teachers and social workers will become corporate lawyers to taste the Big Apple. Meaning that education and social services then worsen because the best people for the job can’t afford to work them. Cities like San Francisco have become increasingly childless, because only the truly successful can live above the poverty line. Etcetera. The Trap argues persuasively that we as Americans don’t have to settle for a either/or America–where a person can do good or do well, but never both–and that our only real bond with our fellow citizens is our collective financial apprehension.
The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by David Brook. Times Books Henry Holt and Company, $ 23.00.