The Kids Aren’t Alright

Daniel Brook’s The Trap reminds us that inequality is bad for everyone, rich and poor

BY Brian Cook

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Toward the end of his must-read article about race and the U.S. incarceration epidemic in the July/August 2007 Boston Review, Brown University economics professor Glenn C. Loury argues that, when it comes to understanding criminals, we must “recognize a kind of social responsibility for the wrongful acts freely chosen by individual persons.” While not entailing a denial of personal responsibility, Loury writes:

Society at large is implicated in an individual person’s choices because we have acquiesced in–perhaps actively supported, through our taxes and votes, words and deeds–social arrangements that work to our benefit and his detriment, and which shape his consciousness and sense of self in such a way that the choices he makes, which we may condemn, are nevertheless compelling to him.

Unless one strictly adheres to the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s maxim that “property is theft,” the subjects of first-time author Daniel Brook’s new book, The Trap: Selling Out To Stay Afloat In Winner-Take-All America, could hardly be considered criminals. Indeed, they are the cream of this country’s crop–idealistic, upper-middle class twentysomething Ivy League graduates, who upon entering the world of employment hoping to do good, often find themselves sacrificing their ideals in order to do well. Brook’s focus on their “plight” has caused some critics, on both the left and the right, to rub their fingers and play a mournful solo on the World’s Smallest Violin for the poor, little rich kids. But The Trap makes a powerful argument that, in an era of profound inequality, even the choices of the immensely privileged have become–in a similar if obviously less brutalizing way–as narrowed and socially circumscribed as those of their fellow citizens locked behind bars.

Brook begins with a spirited and appropriately venomous recounting of the past 30 years of conservative and neoliberal economic policies (mindless deregulation, massive tax cuts for the rich, gutting of public subsidies, denaturing unions, etc.), the end result of which has been an Incredibly Shrinking Middle Class and an exploding cost of living in America’s urban meccas. One of the lesser examined consequences has been the increasing infeasiblility for those who aspire to the security of a middle-class income to work at a socially redeeming job. Artists who can’t afford to buy houses might be one thing–societies have in general seemed pretty okay with letting them wallow in Bohemia (and many artists have been content to do so). Brook, however, deftly combines statistics, anecdotal news stories and personal interviews to demonstrate that it’s not just the no-goodnik artists who are forced to get by without a house these days. In Boston, 90 percent of the city’s teachers have been priced out of the housing market. In Half Moon Bay, Calif., a city councilman had to resign because he could no longer afford to live in the town. And then there’s Claire, a 27-year-old employee at a New York City nonprofit that combats the global trafficking of sex slaves. Though she makes $35,000 a year, Claire has to work two weekend shifts waiting tables just to make the rent on her apartment in Long Island City–that she shares with a roommate.

Part of Claire’s problem is that, despite being accomplished enough to attain a Fulbright grant and a full ride to grad school, she, like so many in her age group, is still paying off her undergraduate loans. Some might wonder just how much longer Claire can keep up this frantic workload before she burns out and settles for one of the better-paying (but socially worthless) gigs that await in corporate America. Others might question whether, if that day comes, Claire should be castigated as a “sell out” for doing so. But Brook, much more profitably, asks, why, in a society as wealthy as ours, are gifted and intelligent young people impelled to make a choice between the socially valuable work that many of them want to do and the soul-deadening work that so many must do to obtain the modest trappings (a house, health care, a decent education for their children) of a middle-class family?

The question points toward Brook’s most central argument: For far too long progressives have accepted the “fundamentally antidemocratic belief” that “freedom and equality are competing values.” Citing the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, Brook writes, “Only equality [can] ensure freedom; only by guaranteeing a base level of equality [can] each individual be given the freedom to blossom–to pursue happiness.”

Too many of the “best minds” of our generation have been forced to forgo the pursuit of their own happiness just to keep up (in some cases, barely) with the Joneses. That many have been granted access to the middle class for that sacrifice is a thin bandage to place over that initial injury. The Trap serves as an eloquent reminder that an injury to one (even one relatively rich) is an injury to all.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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