THE TRAP: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America. By Daniel Brook, Henry Holt, $23
In his polemic The Trap, journalist Daniel Brook asks us to think about the compromises we make in the name of modern "success." He begins with a cautionary tale: Brendan (Harvard Law) marries Johanna (Danish working-class) and they move to Washington, D.C., where Brendan works at the Center for Study of Responsive Law and Johanna works at an environmental nonprofit. They can only afford to buy a house if Brendan goes to work for a law firm. Ready to start a family, Johanna realizes that if she works after having children, paying a nanny will cost more than she makes. "All of a sudden, a progressive couple like Johanna and Brendan is forced back into 1950s gender roles, with the husband an unfulfilled breadwinner and the wife an unfulfilled stay-at-home mom."
Brook argues that widening economic disparities are dismantling the American dream and producing a frustrated, conflicted workforce: the corporate advertising executive whose schoolteacher spouse serves as a "prosthetic conscience"; the McKinsey & Company consultant who slaves 12 hours a day, six days a week, then wears funky, plastic-rimmed glasses to prove he's not a drone; the "IKEA Class," which Brook defines as those overworked and underfulfilled consumers seeking "enlightened domesticity" at Target and Trader Joe's. Instead of emulating their activist parents, a new generation of adults is gravitating away from public service to the corporate sector--convinced that the only way to have a financially secure life is to sell out their passions and ethics.
Some might argue that Brook is raising a false alarm and that the concept of selling out is new only to those too young to remember the past. However, he emphasizes an intensification of historical precedent, using the example of gentrification: "The [Greenwich] Village bohemia lasted for decades, SoHo for ten years, the East Village for five, Williamsburg for two.... The unofficial death knell came in 2005 when The New York Times redubbed the South Bronx, trendy 'SoBro.'" Brook also has a knack for showing how the seeds of corporate compromise grow into corruption. In the wake of Enron, it was widely acknowledged that the company escaped detection for so long because its highly paid accountants constructed tax shelters that were too sophisticated for the federal IRS agents to untangle. Brook looks back and finds this haunting quote...