Book Review: The Trap by Daniel Brook

It’s one of the sound bites that seems to have continuing resonance: Democrats, particularly liberals, love to “tax and spend.” Yet as reflected in Daniel Brook’s The Trap, the kernel of truth that lies in the epithet is that what liberals really advocate is fair taxation with spending tailored to needs that benefit the nation and its citizens.

Subtitled Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, the book seeks to provide a somewhat unique take on the impact of the increasing economic gap in America. While Brook recites plenty of statistics indicating how the country’s tax policies over the last decades have benefited the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, that is not his focus. Rather, using vignettes involving specific individuals, The Trap examines how such policies have not only impacted middle class America, but also education and public service.

As Brook points out, despite America’s wealth and its ever increasing number of millionaires and billionaires, there seems to be more and more so-called “working poor.” Yet The Trap goes beyond that. It looks at how costs for education have skyrocketed while which federal financial aid was cut and shifted from grants to loans. As a result, many top notch students have difficulty affording post-secondary education and even those who can often come out with debt that far exceeds what they can reasonably expect to earn. When you take into consideration housing costs in the six figures and the skyrocketing cost of health care, insurance and the like, chances are that many young adults face an almost futile effort to achieve the same comparative economic status as their parents.

The European stereotype is that Americans are greedy; older Americans stereotype younger ones as a mercenary generation out to get rich quick. What neither the Europeans nor the senior citizens understand is that young Americans want more money because they need more money. 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.

It is the “selling out” that concerns Brook the most. He makes a cogent and harrowing argument that this transformation of America precludes most college graduates from considering comparatively low-paying public service and public interest jobs. A prime example may be teachers, who not only have difficulty earning enough to pay school loans, they frequently may not be able to afford to live in the school districts in which they teach. As Brook notes, “In 1970, when starting teachers in New York City made just $2,000 less than starting Wall Street lawyers, people who wanted to teach taught. Today, when starting teachers make $100,000 less than starting corporate lawyers and have been priced out of the region’s homeownership market, the considerations are very different.”

For Brook, a journalist and Yale graduate, this also means a threat to activism and public interest work. Even though some college graduates may have deeply held social, political or economic views at odds with certain policies or approaches of corporate America, they have no choice but to go to work there in order to make a “living wage.” Thus, more and more of the best and brightest forgo spending part or all of their career working in areas addressing basic social issues and the benefits such work can bring to American culture and society. Likewise, the risks of self-employment in the pursuit of an idea or innovation are increasingly great, serving as a disincentive to young entrepreneurship.

Brook fully lays the blame for this at the door of Reaganomics. At the same time, he is adamant that the Democrats are equally complicit. He says the success of the right in reordering economic and social policy to elevate the interests of the wealthy and corporations has resulted in large part from “the acquiescence of the Left.” The Left, according to Brook, “took its eyes off the prize of building a more egalitarian society and instead worked, often quite successfully, to integrate the elite.”

The Trap postulates that the way to rebuild middle class democracy in America is through public funding of higher education, equalizing primary and secondary school funding to provide equal high quality education to all, eliminating the salary gap that has grown between the public and private sector, and instituting a public funded universal single payer health care system. All this, of course, takes money. Brook contends the United States needs to adopt a true progressive tax system, one in which those with more pay more and those with less pay less. That, he asserts, would help fund these goals, particularly higher education and health care. Brook apparently believes simply restructuring the federal income tax is sufficient as he does not discuss such items as a national sales or value added tax as an alternative or partial replacement.

Brook certainly is not alone in bemoaning the growing inequality in American society. His approach is somewhat different in that he focuses on what used to be considered the upper middle class and exploring the more intangible effects on public service and public interest work. Unfortunately, the strength of the right in making “tax and spend” an unqualified and damning shibboleth and the fear, refusal or inability of Democrats to more strongly champion the egalitarian concerns Brook raises, means his may be another voice lost in the wind.

[E]nsuring that every public school district has the funds it needs to offer high-quality education should be beyond debate in any rich nation that calls itself a democracy.

Daniel Brook, The Trap

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