Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Trap. A Book Review

Why are all the new books on politics equipped with those Victorian style subtitles: End of World. Being the First-Person Memoir From the End of the Earth by The Last Survivor With Access to A Keyboard?. That kind of thing.

Anyway. Daniel Brook's (fairly) new book The Trap actually has a meaningful subtitle, because it tells us who it is that is falling into the trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America. A more precise subtitle would have added something like: Advice to the Young and Smart Progressive Crowd, because that is the problem Brook addresses: How to stay faithful to your progressive dream while also achieving the American dream of family, house and health insurance. Or rather, how to work for a progressive cause without being on food stamps.

The problem is a real one. It may not be the most devastatingly important question right now, but it's a sign of something else, and that something else is the "winner-take-all" economy Brook discusses. Or the slow death of the middle class in a country with an income distribution which is beginning to look like those we usually associate with Banana Republics. Here the reason has to do with Banana Republicanism, or the unleashing of all market forces in a headway plunge into bad capitalism, the successful throttling of the Trade Unions and the successful export of many previously middle-income jobs out of the country. Add to that all the "tax relief" we have recently given to the super-rich and the removal of much of the regulation that used to weigh corporations down by demanding that they actually pay living wages to their workers, and we are in a society where lots of young and smart progressives decide that they'd rather sell out their principles in exchange for a seat in that private box for the winners who take all.

One might argue that public service has never paid very much and that "selling out" is what you do when you have a family to feed. But Brook points out that something has changed in how much one needs to sacrifice from income to do work of ones heart. Take the example of law. Brook tells us what happened in the late 1960s when many new lawyers preferred public service to corporate law:

In 1967, the Wall Street megafirm Cravath, Swaine and Moore pushed its starting salary up to then unheard of sum of $15,000 a year. Many top firms matched it. Soon the large firms had opened up a modest salary gap with the public and nonprofit sectors: by 1972, starting salaries at Manhattan firms were up to $16,000 while the federal government offered its newly minted lawyers $13,300 and Legal Aid of New York paid $12,500. Since then, the salary gap has widened, accelerating more rapidly in the 1980s and '90s. Today, it is not uncommon for top law firms to pay recent grads $100,000 more than public interest employers pay theirs.

What happened to make the salary gap so wide? The Reagan years happened, together with a change in the values Americans accepted as mainstream. The "markets" were supposed to fix everything, and Reagan explicitly wanted the best minds to work for profit-making enterprises and not the government. Globalization became a codeword for ignoring the plight of the poor or the blue collar industries in this country, "trickle down economics" ruled much of the thinking, even though what trickled down the societal ladders was mostly pretty unpleasant.

The part of Brook's book where all that is discussed was the most interesting one for me. That, and some of the hints he gives about the impact of all this on women. For instance, the majority of teachers have been women for a very long time, but the number of men in the teaching profession is dropping even further. Why? Because one can't support a family on a teacher's salary in many regions of this country. And what are the women to do who make their living from teaching? Answer: Better look for a wealthy husband. Hence the slide towards 1950s values.

No one book is going to be the Secret Truth about the American politics and society in the last three decades. But Brook makes a fairly good case for understanding one aspect of the changes that have taken place. What to do about those changes? Brook's answer is to provide a basic middle-class security net in this country: good education, affordable to all and universal health care. Hmm.