Daniel Brook, The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America (Times/Henry Holt, 2007)
First-time author Daniel Brook doesn’t waste any time in introducing his case study in privileged post-college compromise. On page two of The Trap we meet Pam Perd. She is chatting with the author in her local café in New York’s East Village, half explaining and half bemoaning her lot in life. Pam has liberal politics, you see, and would like to work in the nonprofit sector. But the rising costs of East Village rents and cappuccinos have forced her to join a Fortune 500 P.R. firm. The reader is forgiven for not requesting a Kleenex as Pam explains, “The nonprofit world is not going to pay me what I need to make me feel comfortable.”
Pam is just one of the book’s examples of people who have “sold out to stay afloat” in post-Reagan America. The Trap practically bursts with sympathetic portraits of such “sell-outs”—from an aspiring civil rights lawyer who joins a union-busting corporate law firm, to an aspiring queer documentary filmmaker (Yale ‘03) who takes a job at Google before running back into the relative security of a doctoral program.
And, yes, we’re supposed to feel for these people. While not exactly heroes, they aren’t the book’s villains, either. Brook, who is in his mid-20s, paints a picture of his generation in which the defining dichotomy is the sad choice between toil in saintly penury and pulling six-figures at some corporate monster. At times Brook waffles on whether today’s young graduates even have a choice at all. Citing rising home and education costs, he remarkably asserts that for educated young Americans, “the nation is fast becoming the land of compulsory yuppie-dom.” These unfortunate middle-class kids never wanted to work for Goldman Sachs—society made them do it! Practically turned them into a bunch of Patrick Batemans!
How did once-aspiring labor lawyers and social workers become reluctant (but willing) whores for Corporate America? Brook’s explanation starts with the conservative onslaught against the redistributive economic policies of the New Deal. As income tax rates were slashed and the rich became exponentially richer in the 1980s, the cost of housing and education skyrocketed, placing huge debt burdens on middle class students and pricing young parents with public service salaries out of good school districts. Meanwhile, the growth of the finance sector created thousands of “high-pay no-experience jobs” [P68] that flooded formerly bohemian neighborhoods with yuppies, squeezing out writers, painters, public defenders—basically everyone making a modest income doing something interesting that they loved.
This analysis is hard to argue with, as far as it goes. But Brook’s conclusion—that educated young liberals have practically no choice left but to don a suit and become everything they loathe—is almost as obscene as the system that makes people fear the alternative. It is simply not true that anyone has ever been forced—or ever will be forced—to become a yuppie. While the size of the material sacrifice needed to stay true to one’s ideals is indisputably larger than ever, educated Americans still have life choices beyond living on food stamps or writing copy for Burson-Marsteller. Anyone who says otherwise either has no imagination or values material comforts and prestige zip codes more than they are willing to admit.
It’s a shame that The Trap is littered with so many loathsome characters, because if you can get past the Pam Perds squirting out their two Ivy League tears into an East Village bucket, there are some really good chunks of social and economic history here. Brook manages to breathe some life into the oft-repeated story of America’s three-decade swing to the right. With a jeweler’s eye for the juicy anecdote and the donkey-kick statistic, he offers a fine recap of how the ongoing concentration of wealth at the top came to be and has made life more difficult for everyone but the super rich. Brook highlights—and is right to get indignant about—the plight of public school teachers priced out of their own districts and unable to cut annual tuition checks for their children. Those among us on the losing end of the last 30 years can only join Brook in bemoaning the passing of America’s brief golden age of the middle class.
We should also join him in his call for a pushback. Brook’s laundry list of solutions is hardly radical, adding up to the welfare state known to millions of Europeans. Its main elements are universal health care, progressive taxation, and heavily subsidized higher education.
In the meantime, Pam Perd in the East Village should know that it is still possible to live in New York without selling out. It’s called “Bushwick;” they’re called “roommates.” But I suppose we all have our priorities.