Saturday, March 8, 2008

Book 37 of 52: The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook

I went out with a few friends for drinks the night before Thanksgiving. Our group included me (freelance writer and soon-to-be-author), two corporate lawyers, one recent PhD grad, and a corporate consultant. The conversation turned to jobs, and the two corporate lawyers talked about how much they hated their work but loved the money.

I probably should have said something -- at least offered my perspective. I am, after all, an educated professional with a graduate degree doing what most consider great work. But, at the time, I was in the middle of a career crisis, and ashamed that following my dream had left me in such a financial hole. I had also just gotten the rate increase for my health insurance, which would make the premium over $5,000 a year. I'd just about burned through all my savings and was worried where my next mortgage payment would come from, let alone money for Christmas presents. And there I was listening to people who graduated with six figure jobs complaining about their work, but how could I blame them? They had grad school bills to pay. And I want to say right now that I'm not judging or condemning anyone who has taken this path. We all made choices -- just different choices with different consequences (love the work but don't have money; hate the work by have money).

These kinds of choices, and why we are forced to make them, are at the heart of Daniel Brook's The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.

This is, by all accounts, an angry book. I was tense just reading it, but that's because I'm one of those people on the brink of giving up my dreams and joining corporate life to make sure I can make that mortgage payment. Brook writes with outrage about what tax cuts for the rich has done to our society, and how Reaganomics has helped the richer get richer and poorer get poorer, therefore squeezing out the middle class by pushing them down or forcing them up into jobs where their duty is to make more money for those wealthiest Americans. The book also explains how those tax cuts have made things worse for just about everyone, especially by pricing the middle class out of housing and education.

Consider New York City -- and I do because I was there on Thursday and Friday for the National Book Critics Circle awards. The awards were held in Greenwich Village, and even though I enjoyed my time in town (especially browsing through 18 miles of books at the Strand), there's no way I could ever afford to live in what was once a Bohemian neighborhood, not when there are so many people willing to plunk down $1.4 million for an apartment (the average cost of an apartment in Manhattan). Price of housing is one of the big reasons I live where I live. I couldn't do what I do and own property in New York because so many people are taking jobs for the money and buying those spaces instead.

Tangent: Now, the fact that I own a house might seem like a disconnect when you think about my struggle with money. But I was already paying $1,000 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment where one of those bedrooms dedicated to my office. My mortgage payment isn't much more, so it made sense to make that investment, especially when I qualifed for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at a good rate. Even though in November I thought I'd made a grave mistake, I've since changed my mind and decided that buying this house was a good move. It's a two-story row home (or two-story townhouse, for all of you not familiar with Philadelphia-area speak) two blocks from the center of downtown Collingswood and one block from the PATCO train that takes me into Philadelphia. I bought it because it was small, cheap and didn't necessarily require a car. To afford the mortgage, I don't have cable, I rarely buy new clothes (and when I do, they are always on sale), and I don't travel. My washer just broke, so I do my laundry at my mother's house because I can't afford a new one. So even though I haven't joined corporate life (yet), I'm still hemmed in by my life choices. End tangent.

As Brook points out, it's going to be tough for me to have kids unless I get a corporate job or marry up. America is one of the few civilized nations that seems to work against mothers and children -- we have no government supported childcare and our maternity policy is ludicrous. And then there's getting health insurance for that child. It's expensive enough for me -- but for two?

By cutting taxes for the wealthy, Brooks argues, there is less government support for those essentials, and because the wealthy are so much wealthier, they're pushing middle class out. You can't live on a middle class wage anymore without making grave sacrifices -- I know a lot of people who just don't have health insurance, but that's not a risk I'm willing to take. Plus, he argues, paying the best and the brightest so much money to turn corporate is pulling people away from government jobs and public service. Why scrounge on $50,000 in Washington, DC as a congressional aid when being a lobbyist would pay $100,000 more? Especially when you've got crushing law school debt to pay back?

Brook's passages about lawyers hit closest to me. Since I was a college student, people have told me to become a lawyer. My advisor said I had the sharp mind lawyers need, and I do love to argue. But I didn't want to become a corporate drone, putting in 60+ hour work weeks for a job I hated. I've flirted with going back to law school since I've learned that corporate law is not the only outlet for that degree, and since I've become more politically aware, but I already have enough student loans to pay back. Could I shoulder another $100,000 in debt if I'm going to get a job that's not enough to pay back the money? I just don't know.

I'm sorry if this post seems a bit jumbled, but Brook's book brought up a lot of issues, especially given the timing of me reading it. I'm still looking for a job, but I'm trying to get something where I could still write and edit, but those are few and far between, especially where I live. Or maybe I'll my luck will turn and I'll sign another book deal or get a rash of work from well paying magazines. But with prices continuing to rise on everything, from gas to food to property taxes, will it make that much of a difference?

I'll leave you with a few links to further this conversation. The first is to Kermit Roosevelt's novel In the Shadow of the Law. It's a brilliant look inside the hearts and minds of first year law assocations at a big corporate firm. I loved the book, and even though it's been almost three years now since it came out, I still recommend it to people (to read the article I wrote about Roosevelt, click here).

I also stumbled across a blog this morning called The Escape Artist. It's about one woman's goal to shed the 9-to-5 and live a more flexible lifestyle. I like the "Double Duty" feature about people who work full time jobs but puruse their artistic side part time. I'm wondering if that'll be the path for me.

I'm also writing this post on a day when the Philadelphia Inquirer informed me that "Job Loss Rate is Worst in Five Years." And I listened to a report this morning on NPR about why people think those tax rebates that are supposed to help out the average American. If we took those rebates and put them into a fund to pay for single payer health insurance or guaranteed child care, you could have my check back.

And, finally: every time I tell someone what I do, they say "wow, that's so great that you can make it work." I just smile and nod and tell them that, yes, it is great and skip over the financial burdeon that following your dream bears. Even writing about this here is difficult. Some follow that up with "I always wanted to be a writer/musician/artist/circus performer/coffee shop owner, but I never could go without the health insurance."

And what does that say about our broken system?

Speaking of coffee shops -- Daniel Brook is from Philadelphia and says in the acknowledgements that he wrote the book at the Last Drop Coffeehouse. Brook, if you're reading this, drop me a line. I tried to find your email address, but my google skills have failed me. I'd love to share a last drop with you.

P.S. I'm thinking about adding a 'tip jar' to this blog. Would that offend anyone?

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3 comments:

Matt Katz said...

Jen, I'll assist you with that email address. Dan and I went to high school -- and middle school -- together. His book should be read by all, particularly anyone with a soul ages 18 to 35. If you email him and it doesn't work, I know where he lives.

Matt Sinclair said...

A nice post, Jen. I suspect that other writers and artists who find this blog can relate to what you're describing. I know I can. Ultimately, these choices are a matter of personal priorities, and these can change over time. These are the things that cause gray hair and high blood pressure.

Rachel C. Weingarten said...

Hey Jen,

It looks like only people named Matt should be commenting on this one, but I'll jump in nonetheless.

As you know, I agree with you about the severely broken health care and corporate system in this country. I also know that my most financially successful year was my most depressing one, and the one in which I achieved the most career success was the brokest one. It doesn't always add up, but what I have realized is that trying to live by anyone else's definition of happiness, successs or fulfillment will only serve to make you miserable.

On a professional front, I don't think that you'll earn enough with a tip jar to warrant diminishing your professional status. This blog serves as entertainment for you and/or those who read it and while it might lead to something bigger down the line, the tip jar will likely push you down to a more collegiate level. Just a thought.

Rachel