The Freedom to I-Bank

The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook (Times Books, 288 pages)

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Straight-laced business students aren't the only ones lining up at corporate career fairs on college campuses these days. Lately, lured by the enormous salaries and lucrative health benefits companies are offering, more and more left-leaning liberal arts students are flocking to the same stuffy events. What gives? Have all the millenials given up on working for social change to sell out?

According to a convincing analysis by journalist Daniel Brook, the "selling-out" cliché doesn't tell the whole story. Although once-idealistic college graduates have taken private sector gigs for decades, Brook shows in his new book, The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, that it has now become a financial necessity. And criticizing progressive graduates for their personal decisions misses the mark; conservative economic policies implemented over the last quarter-century have forced young people, who trend overwhelmingly to the left, to balance their principles with their bank accounts. In the end, many waste their talent and energy filling the coffers of the super-rich, an often-overlooked and troubling result of America's surging economic inequality.

Brook's polemic takes dead aim at the conservative economic consensus that has dominated U.S. politics since 1980, starting with the appropriation of a value central to American life. "[Barry] Goldwater and his intellectual offspring redefined individual freedom as the power to spend more of the money you earn free from government taxation and regulation," he writes. "These policies, they insisted, would unleash the gifted and ambitious."

The laissez-faire philosophy grounded in the rhetoric of freedom, embraced by President Ronald Reagan and employed in different degrees since, has caused irreparable problems for the young and educated. By shifting the tax load away from the wealthy, openly busting unions, and eviscerating social programs aimed at the poor and middle class, the social safety net was ripped from underneath a generation coming of age after the struggles for equality 40 years prior.

Perhaps the most critical economic transformation was a drastic rise in the cost of higher education. To finance their superfluous tax cuts, Reagan and George W. Bush reduced funding to universities and shifted federal aid from need-based grants to loans. College was once a free public good, but students now graduate with an average $19,000 in debt -- almost three and a half times that of graduates just 10 years ago, according to the Center for American Progress.

Health care inhibits graduates as well. As conservative lawmakers have beaten back attempts at universal coverage, 14 million people in their twenties remain uninsured, a number that's grown by 2.5 million since 2000. Awaiting the unlucky ones are high payments and the all-too-real concern of medical debt. Rent in the cosmopolitan cities that draw lefty graduates has also skyrocketed as the rich have bid up the price of fixed housing stock.

The modern -- and heavy -- financial burdens that saddle today's graduates necessitate sustainable and profitable employment, and the private sector has stepped in to fill that need. Corporate profits have spiked in an era of deregulation, and companies have used this new flexibility to recruit economically insecure graduates with highly lucrative jobs. Defunded by the right, the public sector -- law, academia, government -- cannot counter. Neither can progressive organizations, most of which are struggling financially themselves. As Brook points out, starting teachers in New York City made just $2,000 less than Wall Street lawyers in 1970. Today, it's $100,000 less. One year's tuition often outpaces the entry-level salary for public defenders, congressional aides, or non-profit staff.

Democrats, dependent on corporate campaign contributions, have mounted little opposition to the withering safety net, meaning that a middle-class life is a fleeting wish for young progressives who choose to take jobs consistent with their values. "In our nation of self-financed higher education, tenuous health-care coverage and out-of-control housing costs, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' has hardened into an invisible fist," writes Brook, "and it's giving you an invisible beat down."

The irony is that the right's vision of small government unleashing the ambition and diversity of young workers has worked in reverse; less-regulated markets have limited the freedom of everyone but the independently wealthy to set their own individual course. People cannot afford to live in locations with amenities they value or participate in modestly paid work that excites them and benefits society at large. As Brook explains, "America is thwarting the very ambition that has long defined its people" by making them abandon entrepreneurial work, especially with humanitarian aims or limited financial rewards for investors.

More broadly, Brook believes the conservative reign has changed the character of America from a socially mobile, middle-class state to an ironclad plutocracy. "America was intended to be a middle-class democracy -- a consciously crafted alternative to the class-bound aristocracies of Europe," he writes. "But with the dramatic rise in inequality over the last generation, and with it, a newly entrenched economic elite hostile to creating policies to ensure equality and freedom for all, America's social mobility is now on par with class-rigid Great Britain." For young progressives who inherited the mess, a life of critical inquiry or self-fulfillment their parents may have lived is a dream deferred.

How does Brook think we can right the ship? "Liberals have won the fight for equality in the past, and they could win it again," he writes. "But to do so, they need to revive the freedom debate." The ideological status quo, redefined within the context of the Cold War, assumes equality and freedom are mutually exclusive, the left embracing the former and the right the latter. But as Brook demonstrates, deregulated markets have proved highly restrictive, limiting the career options and life choices of college grads. Strong social insurance, like that which exists in Scandinavia, actually fosters creativity and ensures the social mobility that proponents of American exceptionalism hold so dear.

Reconstructing that safety net will require some work. "To extricate ourselves, our resistance must be political," writes Brook. "We must build a society that does not force those wrenching choices onto us all -- a society in which supporting yourself and your family does not require selling your soul."

A progressive taxation plan is central to Brook's vision. For a generation, the middle and working classes have shouldered our tax burden, especially considering how lightly investments are taxed and how many resources are wasted on defense and corporate subsidies. And Grover Norquist-inspired anti-tax rhetoric has gone unchallenged, meaning any talk of increased taxes is a political non-starter. This has led to a broken system that does not provide basic necessities to a majority of Americans. But rebuilding the middle class through taxation has worked before, and if Democrats embrace social democratic economic policies like funding higher education and universal health care, it will likely strike a chord with economically anxious voters.

Brook's book is valuable namely for his astonishingly thorough takedown of the right's assault on the middle class. Well researched and organized, The Trap succinctly shows how deregulation has negatively impacted diverse industries such as law, academia, housing, and the non-profit model. He also provides needed context for young people who came of age as these callous policies reached their apex. Raised to think that hard work will lead to a rewarding life, the young and educated too often blame themselves for problems that they were never meant to overcome. Brook explains why they are wracked with so many personal financial impediments, and how their frustration can be redirected toward a more productive political solution.

While comprehensive, The Trap is devoid of any racial analysis, except in Brook's assertion that Democrats, by fighting for affirmative action, adopted "diversity-in-lieu-of equality liberalism." Yet Brook falls into his own trap; just as freedom and equality aren't competing terms, neither are equality and diversity. Demonizing Democrats for ignoring economic concerns is entirely justified. But faulting them for taking steps to ensure that educational and job opportunities are provided for those who have experienced discrimination in an institutionally racist (and sexist) society is misguided. This point should be made explicit if we're serious about building a truly egalitarian America. However, this is a small gripe about an otherwise biting and necessary critique.

One jingoistic bumper sticker slapped on the cars of many conservatives reads "Freedom Isn't Free." Ask a young person raised in the era of Reaganomics, and they will surely agree.

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