Low-Paid, Liberal, Nonprofit Yuppies Unite

When Daniel Brook and I first spoke about his book, the conversation morphed quickly into what I imagine a therapy session to be. He even compared me to my parents. We were sitting in a bar in Philadelphia, and Brook was delivering what by then must have been a very practiced spiel. His book, he said, was about young, educated people who want to go into either public service, advocacy, or creative work, but increasingly find that they can’t stay in those fields and maintain a basic, middle-class lifestyle.

It just so happened that I had asked to see Brook, and bought him a beer, precisely because I was a young, educated person beginning to find that I couldn’t stay in my field and maintain a basic, middle-class lifestyle. Brook used to write for the same alt-weekly paper I write for now, and though our tenures didn’t overlap and I hardly knew him, I knew he was making a go of it as a journalist in Philadelphia, without selling stories on, say, perfect abs to Cosmo. This was no small accomplishment, and I’d been hoping to learn his secret. Instead, I began talking about myself.

Brook nodded knowingly, and asked about my background. I told him that my parents both work for the governmentmy father’s an attorney for the City of New York, my mother’s a public school teacher. They raised me in Queens Village, Queens.

Of course, he already knew the answer. He was asking to make a point: I had been looking at things through the narrow lens of my ambition. Brook has been trying to get people like me to see a bigger picture.

If talking to Brook was like visiting a therapist, reading his book was like finding an entry in the DSM that sounds suspiciously familiar. The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America opens with two case studies. One is the irony-soaked story of Pam Perd, a member of the tongue-in-cheek protest group Billionaires for Bush. “Pam” puts in long, unpaid hours coordinating public relations for her organization; to support the work, she holds a job handling PR for Fortune 500 companiesas Brook puts it, “mere millionaires for Bush.” She’d prefer to work for a nonprofit, of course. But that kind of gig wouldn’t pay for her current, relatively modest lifestyle of a fifth-floor walkup in the East Village and the hope of someday raising a family.

The other case is a twenty-seven-year-old activist named Claire, a former Fulbright scholar who makes $35,000 a year for her work at a nonprofit combating the global traffic of sex workers. Technically, this is a middle-class salary, but in New York (where Claire needs to be in order to lobby the United Nations), it’s hardly enough. Factor in school debt, and Claire has to wait tables on weekends just to afford a shared apartment in Queens. Should she wish to have a family, the math would no longer work.

Pam and Claire may seem like people on widely divergent paths, but Brook sees them as two victims of the same pernicious circumstance. In today’s hyper-capitalist America, he argues, the basic touchstones of a middle-class lifehealth insurance, a quality education for one’s children, and home ownership, particularly within reasonable commuting distance of a metropolitan centerhave become exorbitantly expensive. At the same time, the compensation gap between people dedicating their lives to the public good and those dedicating their lives to corporate enrichment has grown immensely. And so a generation of young, educated people who want to do good in the world is forced to choose between material sacrifice (Claire) and spiritual sacrifice, or “selling out” (Pam).

That people generally considered to be fortunate are actually screwed is an ambitious thesis, and a tempting one: Do I really get to blame my financial anxieties on socioeconomic trends, rather than life choices? To establish his premise, Brook corrals a herd of anecdotes about young people making unsavory decisions. There’s the teacher who lives in a “low-income” housing development outside San Francisco. The D.C. couple that, because of the cost of living, is gradually transforming from two public service professionals into a 1950s-style household, he taking a corporate gig and she staying home to care for the children (Brook dubs this the “mutual martyrdom marriage”). The tech entrepreneur with a potentially fatal cardiac condition, and no health insurance. The terrifyingterrifyingworld of law school graduates, where we meet a young prosecutor in his last day on a job he loves before defecting to a private law firm in order to pay off loans and raise a family. His advice for current law students: “Have no debt: marry money or be independently wealthy.”

In perhaps my favorite section, “At the Wake,” we watch as a gathering of graduate students at Yale (Brook’s alma mater) sits through a recruiting session for McKinsey & Company. McKinsey is the management-consulting firm that advised Wal-Mart to cut health care costs by requiring all cashiers to gather shopping carts as part of their job (thus discouraging unhealthy people from applying). The students are finishing degrees in science or literature, and seem like a bad match for such an outfit. But it turns out that the McKinsey recruiters have academic credentials much like the students’. They just found, when they got out of school, that corporate America was their most financially tenable option. Michael Yoo, an MIT PhD, tells the Yalies that McKinsey’s hours don’t bother him, because he used to work long days in the lab. “That a graduate school project was something a person purposefully selected to devote a number of years to while McKinsey assignments were dictated by the random needs of the market was never addressed,” Brook notes.

Interspersed with these stories is, naturally, a bevy of statistics. Most of these are meant to illustrate the financial squeeze Brook’s subjects are feeling: for example, that 90 percent of the homes in Boston are too expensive for a teacher-headed household; or that the starting salary of a Chicago teacher is just slightly higher than a single year of tuition at the University of Chicago; or that half of all American bankruptcies are the product of health care bills; or that the gap between a starting salary at a public interest law firm and a top corporate firm is currently as much as $100,000 (Brook calls the disparity “hazard pay for the soul”). Fewer of the stats actually substantiate the claim that educated young people are being driven into private- sector careers (perhaps because, and this a complicating factor Brook doesn’t deal with, people don’t necessarily spend whole careers in a single industry anymore). But after the first couple of chapters, I no longer thought it a coincidence that when Class Notes come, updating me on the career progress of my fellow alumni, the recent grads seem to be teachers and organizers, while the folks a few years out are in corporate jobs.

Then again, the people in my Class Notes live in the most desirable, expensive cities in the country. And indeed, Brook’s anecdotage is centered primarily in just three places: New York, Washington, and San Francisco. Couldn’t Pam move to Cleveland? Brook is fairly up front about the fact that the phenomenon he’s bemoaning is a metropolitan one, and offers up some good defenses for why it still matters: for one thing, major cities are industry centers, and afford people an opportunity to make an impact that other places don’tClaire can’t move to Cleveland because she needs to be in New York to lobby the UN. For another, if only lobbyists can afford to live in D.C.well, that’s a problem. But as Brook goes along, he sometimes seems to slip into treating “the Trap” as a nationwide phenomenon, and America as a place where no one can afford to be a teacher and the middle class doesn’t exist. This just doesn’t reflect the reality of American life, and it doesn’t help the left’s cause to pretend it does.

Still, Brook’s central insight is a good one, and he lays it out in savvy fashion. None of the book’s subjects comes in for a close-up, or even returns much after his initial appearance; Brook doesn’t watch people agonize over their decisions, or analyze the effect on their psyches. He’s interested in a simple calculation: Pam or Claire? A bit of narrative drive may be lost here, but the benefit is that, in the reader’s mind, the array of snapshots begins to look less like a handful of individuals not hacking it, and more like a large crowd, unified by its collective screwed-ness. This is important, because it shows people like me that, yes; our circumstances are subject to more than our own ambitions. We’ve been raised on meritocracy, we young, educated types, and it’s tempting to think that the right mix of career and compensation is out there if we just keep at it. Brook is telling us that this isn’t so. There are big, socioeconomic factors at play here. We need to look at those.

What Brook was getting at when he asked whether I could buy my parents’ house was that things haven’t always been this way. There was a time when an American could hold a public-sector job, afford a home in a major city, and stay more or less in the middle class. In fact, he says, during the 1960s “any white man willing to work forty hours a week for forty years could raise a family in a home he owned, in a safe neighborhood with good schools, and receive a lifetime of health care and retirement benefits.” That ability was beginning to be extended to women and minorities.

I think Brook probably overstates the extent to which the dilemma he writes about is new, charming us with nostalgic tales like that of the writer who in the ’60s “could support herself in the East Village for months on the fee from one mainstream magazine feature.” People in my parents’ generation also had to weigh career against finance, and vice versa: I can’t afford my parents’ house, but they couldn’t have gotten a place on Park Avenuein fact, when they bought, their neighborhood was considered quite a hike from Manhattan. Comparisons to previous decades are also complicated by the fact that the number of Americans employed by nonprofits doubled between 1977 and 2001, a much faster growth rate than both the government and for-profit sectors, according to the research group Independent Sector. Some of these do-gooder jobs can’t pay less than they used to, because they didn’t use to exista fact that Brook doesn’t note. But Brook is right that the compromises people are making for fulfilling careers are starker, especially in metro areas. There are things middle-class people once took for granted on the bargaining table.

What changed? Brook blames linguistics. Well, not exactly, but he spruces up his inevitable recounting of the rise of the conservative movement, from Buckley to Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush, by focusing on the right’s appropriation of the word “freedom.” Through rote repetition, Brook says, conservatives redefined freedom as the absence of government interventions such as progressive taxation and business regulation. This enabled the right, under Reagan, to slash top tax rates from 70 percent down to 28 percent, and unleash Brook’s real bogeyman: inequality.

Too often, Brook argues, inequality is understood as a question of moral fairness, with no practical implications. He quotes writer Mickey Kaus, whom he calls inequality’s “apologist-in-chief”: “a fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight,” Kaus says, but “a fat man eating quails while children are eating Bob’s Big Boy hamburgers” is less of a problem.

“What Kaus fails to see,” Brook writes, “is how a rise in the concentration of wealth reshapes markets, inflating the prices of goods whose supply is fixed, like homes within a reasonable commuting distance of a major city or degrees from top colleges.”

As for health care, Brook contends that a high concentration of wealth has led to a high concentration of power, which, in turn, has enabled corporate donors to block the adoption of a universal health planexactly the sort of policy that would allow young people to strike out on their own in, say, freelance photography, without worrying about acquiring a budget-busting emergency room bill.

I called a few economists and other experts to see if Brook was on solid ground with these assertions. Most said he was right on the basics; urban expert Joel Kotkin offered the important caveat that cities are becoming less tenable living places because of inequality, yes, but also because there are more people and not enough new cities to put them in. The sharpest disagreement I heard was from Jason Furman of the Brookings Institution, who argued that, while the cost of certain important goods (heath care, housing, education) has indeed gone up over the last thirty years, the cost of other necessities (food, clothing) has dropped, resulting in a near wash for the middle class. I’m not sure, however, that if Brook’s argument is taken at its most specific (and in Furman’s defense, he hadn’t read the book), those facts rebut it. Furman is arguing against the idea of an overall middle-class squeeze; Brook is saying that, in certain important places, the cost of a few basic goods has become prohibitively expensive, eliminating an entire segment of middle-class America.

In the 1980s, hordes of talented young people flocked to Wall Street, hoping to get rich quick, but those who wanted to teach could still do so. Today, many young people are interested in public serviceboth opinion polls and the popularity of programs like the Peace Corps and Teach for America suggest as much. But when it comes time to pay the bills, we go into the corporate world, enduring long, meaningless hours, and often cognitive dissonance, because it’s the only sector of the economy that can afford to pay enough for what was formerly considered a middle-class life. “[Y]oung Americans want more money because they need more money,” Brook writes. “Even if they don’t covet mansions and luxury cars, they need big bucks for housing, health care, and education. In the 1980s, young people sold out to enjoy a life of luxury; now they sell out to stay afloat.”

You probably already know Brook’s proposed solution to this problem. He wants America to move in the general direction of a social democracy, with a publicly funded health care system, more money for public schools, and heavily subsidized higher education, all of it paid for by progressive taxation (this would have the added benefit of holding the top tax brackets down and flattening income distribution). You know this, and Brook knows you know it. Thus, his chapter on “Releasing the Trap” is basically a throw-in. The section on fixing the public schools is literally three paragraphs long.

This is fine. Brook isn’t providing a blueprint for social reconstruction here; he’s diagnosing an emergent condition in American life. And, anyway, the most interesting questions raised by his findings aren’t about how to cure the disorder. They’re about whether the problem he’s focusing on is big enough to warrant drastic intervention, and whether even the people caught in the Trap will see fit to try to release it.

Brook steers clear of slapping any definitive labels on the demographic he’s discussing, and thus far I have, too, but look: we’re talking for the most part about young liberals from middle-class backgrounds, people who have graduated from fancy schools. I have a bachelor’s in sociology from Wesleyan Universitybasically a four-year degree in “Hey, I’ve had it pretty good.” And I have! If I really wanted a pricier place to live, I could probably land a corporate PR job. Is my situation so untenable?

Brook concedes in his introduction that there are plenty of Americans who are worse off than the subjects of his book. But he arguesconvincingly, I thinkthat the situation is more serious than just “the whining of a pampered generation.” For one thing, he says, it’s bad for society for creative and public service work to be relegated to a cadre of “moral giants, mental midgets, and trust fund babies.” If capable accountants are lured away from government jobs into the private sector, there will be no one to catch the Enrons. If no competent lawyer can afford to work as an assistant district attorney, there will be no one to prosecute murders.

More broadly, Brook says, it’s not enough that young, educated people have a choice. No healthy society should make people choose between a career in advocacy and quality health care (indeed, America is the only developed country that does). In fact, he writes in the book’s angriest moments, what is really being compromised when we make these choices is the very freedom conservatives claimed when they cast “freedom” and “equality” as competing valuesthe freedom to choose a fulfilling career.

Will all this be enough to rally young liberals in their own defense? Remember that young liberals, like old liberals, have liberal guilt. By this I don’t mean that the subjects of Brook’s book are so selfless as to be incapable of acting on their own behalfyou should have seen the protests at my school when they banned “chalking” on the sidewalks. I just mean we’re not accustomed to the idea that large economic forces are working against us. It’s not part of our conditioned understanding of the world.

In this sense, Brook’s greatest contribution is not his argument about Big Ideas like freedom and promise, but his simple, central observation: that young, educated people are adversely affected by the new inequality. I know I’ve been thinking about politics differently since reading The Trapthe issues are more personal to me now. And you know what’s great? The things I want from my government for myself turn out to be the same things middle- and working-class people all over America yearn for: quality health care and quality education. Maybe the interests of the “liberal elite” aren’t so different from those of the average American after all.

Is this convergence of interests an opportunity for change? Brook is optimistic that American freedom can be revivedthat the right can’t assault the middle class and get away with it. That’s what he says in the book, anyway. In person, I have to tell you, he seems less hopeful. As I was nearing the end of The Trap, I ran into the author on the street. He asked me how things were going. “Bad,” I told him. My car and my computer had both broken down, and I couldn’t afford to fix them.

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