Thursday, January 17, 2008

What I'm Reading: The Trap

I've been having a great time following the discussion at Scott's Theatre Ideas blog, and I happened to see his listing of books of note and The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook caught my eye. They happened to have it at my local library, so I was in luck.

It's a fun read, especially if you're an American artist trying to figure out how the hell to stay afloat, when life seems to cost more all the time. The basic point he makes is that the growing income disparity in America is wreaking all sort of havoc on the middle class. Part of it comes from the growing class of rich folks bidding up the price on housing and college education and childcare. Middle class neighborhoods are quickly disappearing from our major cities, leaving only the rich and poor.

This growing income disparity affects our entire society, because professions in which one once used to able to support a family in a modest middle-class lifestyle (like being a teacher or social worker or even a public interest lawyer) have not seen their wages rise with the cost of living.
"In 1980, it was inconceivable that a University of Chicago student's first job--even as a social worker or editorial assistant--would pay less than her annual tuition. Today, it is entirely conceivable, indeed probable that students who take jobs as social workers or editorial assistants will earn less than their tuition fill. An idealistic University of Chicago graduate from the class of 1980 who opted to stay on the South Side and teach in an inner-city public school would have earned $13,770, more than two and a half times her $5,100 senior year tuition. Today, such a student would earn $38,851, only 23 percent more than her senior year tuition of $31,500."
The truth is, it doesn't just feel like it's harder (financially) than ever to be an artist or intellectual, it actually is harder than it was in our parent's generation.

He points out that there's a deep cost to our society when the financial burden of undertaking society-benefiting jobs is so high. The best and brightest are drawn away from public service, not just because there's riches to be had working for consulting and corporate law firms, but also because it takes more and more money to support a family these days.

On the other hand, there is a bit of elitist whining underway, and sometimes it's annoying. Still, if you can get past that, you will hear a passionate voice calling for strong reform to make ours a more supportive society for people who want to create and serve. He even talks about how our screwed up healthcare system suppresses our entrepreneurial undertakings. Having a stronger social safety net (healthcare, education, childcare) would provide more freedom for all Americans to pursue their dreams.

As with many books that take the time to point out our system's various failings, the time spent on laying out actual solutions is small. I'd like to see a book that starts out assuming that the readers agree on our problems (10% of the book for this) and then helps provide a plan of action solution (revolution, anyone?). This book is 95% about the problems, which is fine--he certainly got me all worked up (it's a quick read). But I'm more interesting in how we take action to make things better (campaign finance reform, universal healthcare, state financed education from Kindergarten through college).

1 comment:

Scott Walters said...

I'm just catching up on your blog, Patrick. Glad you are enjoying "The Trap" -- if enjoying is the right word. I agree: there is a quantity of upper middle class whining to the book. The focus on Ivy League school kids is pretty strong, and there was part of me that wanted to yell: go to a state school! I do have a fairly wide anti-elitist strain... But that said, that book really lays out the issues we are struggling with, and usually blaming on ourselves. And if the Ivy Leaguers are having trouble, then conditions have gotten REALLY bad!