Monday, July 2, 2007
The term “sellout” is a loaded one. It implies not a character flaw or annoying tendency, but rather a conscious decision to reorder all of one’s priorities for the sake of money. It’s a pejorative that can be tossed at anyone who compromises one of their ambitions or principles to achieve privilege, status, or comfort.
But what makes people sell out? When it comes to the selling out that defines many twenty-somethings–the decision to become a banker or a corporate lawyer, or to otherwise shill for powerful people–there’s an implicit assumption that the world is divided into two classes: those with the passion and conviction to make morally sound decisions, and those who will trade in their ideals and sincerity the first time they sniff a hefty paycheck.
A new book by Daniel Brook begs to differ. The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America wastes little time admonishing young idealists turned investment bankers. Rather, Brook takes a broad look at how wealth works in America, and he makes a convincing argument that we’ve built a system in which it’s almost impossible to live comfortably in a major city without selling out. “America,” he writes, “is the only developed country where an individual has to choose between the career she desires and the health care and education her family needs.”
The Trap quickly lays out a thesis about why this is occurring. “[A]s America has been transformed into a nation with literally millions of millionaires, a concentration of wealth not seen since the Gatsby era, the prices of the finite goods desired by the now-numerous wealthy have been bid up wildly, far exceeding inflation.” This, Brook is convinced, is the reason some colleges cost $40,000 a year, and the reason why even solidly middle-class folks are priced out of most of Manhattan.
And it is a recent problem:
Today’s inegalitarian America was intentionally built–or more accurately, another America was intentionally destroyed. In the decades after World War II, America became a middle-class society of broadly shared prosperity. Teachers and factory workers and lawyers often lived in the same neighborhoods as progressive taxation pushed incomes closer together… Widespread unionization ensured that a rising tide lifted most boats. Jobs with pensions and health care were common and attainable. Eventually, long-overdue efforts to make American institutions meritocratic and open to women and minorities began to build a truly egalitarian nation.
This prospect fueled a conservative backlash. Despite his slight tendency to caricature the motives of mid-century conservatives, Brook does compellingly review the movement started by William F. Buckley’s 1955 founding of National Review, a publication with the stated goal of standing “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'” Five years later Young Americans for Freedom, a group that promoted laissez-faire capitalism and “militant anticommunism,” held its first meeting at his Connecticut estate. Formed at a time when “conservative” was a dirty word in American politics, YAF chafed at the widely-held view, inspired by Franklin Roosevelt, that governmental power should “be used to level the playing field, to make the promise of freedom real for all Americans.” YAF’s view of freedom was different; freedom was simply “the power to spend your money free from interference from the government.”