It’s not uncommon for a person to enter NYU Law school with the hopes of one day working at the ACLU. By the time they graduate, though, it’s also not uncommon for this same person to work at a major corporate firm instead, where they’ll enjoy a starting salary of upwards of $150,000 a year. Perks include a hefty life insurance policy, subsidized health insurance, a 401K package, flexible vacation time, door-to-door transportation service and free meals after 8 p.m. I usually interpret this as the de rigueur assimilation practice of a self-perpetuating elite with a highly developed super-ego, or something like that. A harsher critic might call it selling out, something I wouldn’t necessarily have disagreed with until I read Daniel Brook’s smart and sophisticated rebuttal in The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.
Such dismissals are beside the point, as Brook convincingly argues. Despite the liberal politics of most students at elite law schools, the majority end up working in service to the powerful, not the poor. This is due in part to the average debt load of law school graduates — staggering at $84,000 — and in part to the exorbitant housing costs in major cities. There was once a time, in 1968, when fewer than half of Harvard Law graduates went into private practice. It was also around this time that starting salaries “began to reflect the emergence of the seller’s market,” Brook writes. “The salary gap has increased because only enormous salaries can win over bright young lawyers who went to law school to take on the powers that be, not serve them.”
I know, I know. In an age of compassion fatigue, to sympathize with a handful of well-to-do but morally ambivalent lawyers as opposed to, say, the plight of the Wal-Mart cashier, seems dubious. Such young persons can do whatever they want, we think. And yet, as Brook makes clear, that’s simply not true. Just to live a modest life — with health insurance, homeownership, the ability to send your kids to college — is outrageously expensive. And this problem is not specific to would-be public interest lawyers. Many would-be academics, teachers and journalists more and more eschew a life of scraping by not to live in the lap of luxury but merely to lead an average middle-class life.
How did this happen exactly? Well, as Brook shows, our ever-flagging economic situation is the result of a series of conservative policies that “have begun rolling back freedom for everyone but the independently wealthy — even for the talented and fortunate few who have attained a top-notch education. The America conceived by Goldwater and Buckley and built by Reagan and Bush has constrained a generation of talented individuals, enforcing conformity, not unleashing creativity.” We would be better off in a more egalitarian society, Brook goes on to say, where we could do the work that mattered to us without the specter of poverty, and speak our minds without the fear of losing our jobs.
To get more to the crux of his argument, I spoke to Daniel Brook at The Half King Pub in New York before his reading on Monday night.
Jeanine Plant: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Daniel Brook: There are several answers to this question. One is from looking at friends growing up: friends from growing up and friends from college. Out of most of my friends, I am one of the few people actually pursuing what they’re interested in, and that struck me as surprising. So that is one way I got into this. Another way is through a program called the Century Institute, which was run by the Century Foundation, which is a think tank here in New York. They had a summer program for progressive college students, kind of like wonk camp. And I took a course on economic inequality, which gave me a lot of material, and got me thinking about the topic. But the attitude of the program was very much: “You guys are fine. You all went to fancy colleges; you don’t have to worry about this. But this is a problem for the country. This is a problem for everyone at the bottom, and because you are progressives, you’re going to do something about it.” And now, today, almost everyone from that program is a corporate lawyer. But then, I was like, this is our problem. We just don’t see it, and again, it’s sort of how people fall into that trap.
Another reason I wrote the book is family observations. I joke that my parents are part of a class that doesn’t exist anymore, sort of like public-interest professionals. My mom was a nursing-home doctor and my dad was a prosecutor. Looking at the generations of my family, since we’ve been in this country for a hundred years, you see what it was like. My mom’s parents were both schoolteachers. They bought a house in Brooklyn. They sent my mom to the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia for medical school. Medical school, they took a loan out against their house, they did. Penn, they paid for with no debt. And the house they grew up in, in not a fancy part of Brooklyn, is now worth over a million dollars. So it’s not a house two teachers could afford.
And my own parents, I went to one of the best school districts in the region, and whoever buys that house from my parents is going to do something totally different. The house, again, is worth over a million dollars. That kind of existence is no longer available to anyone but the corporate elite. Certainly I was comfortable there, but you know, it’s a ranch house on Long Island. This is not Park Avenue. So that’s part of where the idea comes from: It comes from my life.
Plant: Who is your intended audience?
Brook: There are a number of different audiences. One is people my age. And then the parents of people my age who are wondering what is going on right now, why their kids seem to not be making it the way they did or, if they are making it, why they’re at work at 10 p.m on a Tuesday night. But sometimes it gets pigeonholed as a book for young people, which I really don’t think it is. This is a book about politics and economics. It uses young people because they are the perfect experiment because they weren’t grandfathered into middle-class America. I say they’re the coal mine canaries of Reaganomics. So if you want to see the cultural, political and personal applications of Reaganomics, and the shift to the right, you have to look at this generation.
Plant: Could you talk a little bit about why you focused solely on young elites?
Brook: I’ve gotten chewed out a little bit by conservatives for focusing on these people. But if a working-class kid from LA is amazing enough to get into Harvard Law School and can’t even do what he wants with his life, no one can do what they want with their life except the already wealthy. That is why I picked out people with Fulbrights and who went to Harvard Law, and had these sort of unimpeachable resumes, so no one is going to be like: “Oh, well that person is not doing what they want because they’re not that bright, they’re just not that good. If you’re not really that good, you can’t really help it if you don’t get the job you’re interested in, because someone else is better than you.” Well, yes, that’s life. But essentially the argument is that we’re going backwards. So by picking these people who would seem to have it made — oh you went to Harvard Law, you can do whatever you want, it’s like no, I can’t. That’s the argument.
Plant: What do you have to say about our generation’s sense of entitlement or narcissism?
Brook: I mean there are plenty of consumerist people in our generation. But I try to focus on people who all they want is the life that used to be what was considered middle class, where you wouldn’t freak out about: “Oh my god, how am I going to educate my children?” Or “Oh my god, can I afford to go see a doctor if I get sick?” One of the meta things of the book is — and it says a lot about where I am politically — is that markets offer things you want but don’t need. For things you need, like healthcare, the producers have you by the dot dot dot [he gesticulated here for emphasis]. You kind of don’t have the leverage you need. So you can go to Ikea, spend $60, come home, and feel rich.
But it’s not about consumer goods, it’s about the basics, like housing and education and healthcare. Those are the things that have gotten expensive. So actually living a very nice consumerist lifestyle, that is not the problem. That is a problem for people making $5 an hour, no doubt. But the flip side of that, is like, healthcare is so much harder to have than it was a generation ago, or paying the rent in a major city is so out of control now. I mean going to Ikea and feeling rich is a poor substitute for building a society where you don’t have to be rich just to go to the doctor or send your kids to college.
Plant: Don’t you think that there are some realistic ways to avoid “the trap,” such as the way in which you, yourself, live rather inexpensively in Philadelphia as a writer?
Brook: Well, I can’t afford to buy a house or have children. But part of the argument of the book is not just that it is about the individual problems of people selling out, but society-wide problems. And the idea that you can leave an expensive place in America and go somewhere cheaper — to some extent you can insulate yourself by doing that. But I don’t get a bargain on health insurance or sending my kids to college by living in Philadelphia. But certainly the cost of living does shift.
In the bigger picture, though, it’s like, if you can’t live in DC without selling out that is terrible for America. That is why they get the revolving door in government. That’s why you get the kind of government we’ve been having, where all the regulators used to work in the industries they’re regulating. And it does happen, and on some level you don’t know if you should blame the revolving-door people or feel bad for them. Like the guy in the book who is a healthcare consultant, who worked on universal healthcare in the Clinton administration, and he believes in universal healthcare. These people really are cowed by the economic circumstances. And because they are, it’s not just bad for them, it’s bad for everyone.
Plant: Do you think that the media often misuses the term “middle class” to refer to everyone – from bus drivers to Yale graduates temping at Google?
Brook: I think part of what I want to do in the book is try to rethink — not explicitly — privilege and class in a way that basically goes to a model where I think the main division within our society is the people who have to work and the people who don’t. That is the most meaningful distinction, I think. And to the extent that we label a degree from a prestigious college privileged, I think we cover that up. At Yale there were the students who went to Yale and when they finished had to get a job, and there were those who didn’t have to get a job. And that is the meaningful distinction over who has control over their life.
And the book does not ignore the plight of the working poor. The book is not about that, but certainly it makes a very strong argument for raising the minimum wage, and for benefits, things that would benefit everyone. Like if we had a national childcare system, that would help a woman who works in a Laundromat and help a woman who is a college professor, and not to mention their husbands. So trying to bring these divisions down is part of it.
Plant: What kind of effect do you think all of these leftist i-bankers will have on the system?
Brook: Lately we have Warren Buffet criticizing the tax system. His secretary pays almost twice as much a tax rate as he does, and he thinks that’s ludicrous, which, of course, it is. So like part of what the book is about is, it is not just about winning the battle for hearts and minds because we are actually doing that. Warren Buffet is on our side, and this guy on Wall Street is on our side, and Hillary Clinton is on our side, except after she takes all of the corporate contributions. So it is not really about convincing people, it is about changing the system where we go from plutocracy to democracy. So where the will of the people is enacted rather than the will of the people is thwarted because of the way, say, the campaign finance system is working. So we are just about moving over with enough people so we have a much better society, where like half of young people want to fix the entire healthcare system, and two-thirds of people want some form of universal healthcare coverage, and 90 percent want to raise the minimum wage. When 90 percent of people want something and it doesn’t happen, I don’t know that you can categorize this as a democratic society.
Plant: To what extent is this about people in our generation being a self-perpetuating elite and conformist?
Brook: People’s decisions may well be about status maintenance, but I don’t think that this discredits the book’s argument, which is we need a society that is dynamic. I mean going back to Locke and Hobbes, when people were like: “What are people really like?” And at this point, we don’t really think of people like that. I mean, conservatives do. I mean, on the left, we think of people as highly malleable by their society. If you put people in a society with a very clear ossification of class hierarchies, people are going to be that much more scared if they are at the top end to make sure that they stay there. I mean, there are saints in the book who totally disregard that. And I think it is a miracle that we have people like this guy in San Francisco, at the Living Wage Coalition, who lives in a boarding house. But to the extent that we need people to make that much sacrifice just to try to address a social ill, society wide, we’re pretty hopeless. The morally best people in the book are not concerned about perpetuating their place in the hierarchy. I think the average person in the system, once you realize that the middle is shrinking and the choices for your children are up here or down there, I don’t think that any reasonably nice person should have to apologize for wanting their kid up here. And socially we have to create a society where we bring up the bottom and pull down the top and create more dynamism between them.
Jeanine Plant is a New York-based freelance writer. © 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved. View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/57474/ —