Jesse Singal

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.”

Buckley and his ilk quickly realized that this sort of language could be adapted to the middle class, despite the fact that it was the rich who were most affected by the tax code of the 1950s and 1960s. This was a monumental moment for the conservative movement. Even today, conservatives remain successful at exploiting the specter of excessive taxation against middle-class people whose most pressing economic concerns–the spiraling costs of education, health care, and housing–are in fact exacerbated by tax cuts at the top. Taxes, in short, are rarely the reason a middle-class family struggles. But conservatives were able to craft a new rhetorical conception of “freedom”–a conception in which the issue of taxation trumped all concerns of building a fairer society.

Buckley and YAF weren’t able to shape America in their image overnight, but on the whole they have been hugely successful. They steadily made progress throughout the 1970s (when big business mobilized to advocate for deregulation and against taxation, and when the Heritage and Cato foundations were founded), 1980s (when YAF, after the failure of the Barry Goldwater campaign and the less extreme Richard Nixon, finally got its man in Ronald Reagan), 1990s (Brook writes that on “Clinton’s watch, the rising inequality and deregulation of the Reagan years continued”), and, of course, with our current president.

The result of all of this has been a system that creates many millionaires, turning commodities that used to be available to anyone in the middle class–education, health care, and housing in the biggest cities–into luxury goods. And it’s a system that cruelly reinforces itself. For a college graduate looking to launch a career in art or the nonprofit sector, only the largest, most culturally and economically influential cities offer sufficient employment opportunities–New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and a few others. And it is in these “centers of business, culture, and government” where the problem of cost is so extreme. Brook interviews many progressive twenty-somethings who graduated from college with the full intention of moving to a large city and doing what they loved.

These idealists quickly turn into sellouts-by-necessity. Brook provides many examples, such as the “leftist with a liberal arts degree… [who went] to Wall Street after years stuck in unpaid internship limbo convinced him to give up on his dream of a career as a muckraking journalist.” None of these kids fits the stereotype of the sellout. Most devoted years of their lives to worthy causes and did everything they could to make ends meet. All, however, eventually ran up against the realization that having a job they were passionate about wasn’t compatible with being financially solvent. It’s worth emphasizing that they weren’t looking to live like Jay Z. All they wanted was a decent place to live, health care, and the chance to start a family should they so desire. And they were forced to sell out to obtain these things.

The Trap‘s two primary prescriptions for fixing this are “flattening the top” by once again instituting high taxes on rich people and rich corporations, and setting up universal health care. But Brook realizes how hard a sell this is. He highlights an important, frustrating fact about American voters: they have radical, right-wing views on taxes. Only 1 percent of Americans think that taxes are too low (compared to 62 percent of Britons). While Brook does sketch out the origins of these sentiments, a more thorough discussion of America’s peculiar response to taxation would have made for a fuller account of the problem. It’s hard to talk about inequality without at least attempting to understand why so many non-rich people get so riled up over taxing the ultra-rich to pay for government programs that would benefit them (Thomas Frank is excellent at this).

But overall, The Trap is an excellent introduction for anyone looking to understand America’s top-heavy system of wealth and its consequences for young people’s career choices.