The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat, by Daniel Brook
Review by Thom Hartmann

The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook is one of the most brilliant and important books to come along in many years.

Synthesizing stories from people in real life with a strong and healthy dose of history (particularly the history of the 60s through today, both politically and economically), Brook's book paints a stark picture of the death of the American middle class as a direct result of the Reagan Revolution, and implicitly suggests that the clear and simple solution is to revert to the economic policies of the New Deal. This book is probably the most powerful and compelling attack on Reaganomics and the "conservative revolution" that I've read in a decade.

Brook opens the book with stories of people torn between the desire to do good (in the world) and the need to do well (financially). Several conservative reviewers have trashed the book on this basis, suggesting one shouldn't empathize with people who are experiencing existential angst over making $150,000 a year in a corporate law firm instead of working for Public Citizen, but apparently none of those reviewers bothered to read beyond the first two pages. With devastating precision, Brook shows how the basic necessaries of health care, housing, and providing for a safe retirement require a startlingly high income (particularly for people who live in our big cities).

As Brook points out, "Starting in the 1980s, the media began to note that more and more of the best and the brightest were going to work for corporate America." He adds, "Their analysis focused on the proverbial carrot, never considering the stick." He lays out how the middle class has been wiped out in America, quoting, for example, a Brookings Institution report from 2006 that found "the proportion of middle-class central-city neighborhoods was cut in half between 1970 and 2000; the number of rich and poor neighborhoods grew. Most metropolitan neighborhoods were middle class in 1970; only 41 percent were by 2000." In LA it's down to 28 percent of households, and New York is the worst in the country. And it wasn't this way at all before Reagan.

Brook documents how William F. Buckley Jr. and other conservatives back in the 1960s and 1970s put into place an infrastructure to completely deconstruct the New Deal. Their reason was based on the flawed belief that "equality" and "freedom" are at opposite ends of an economic spectrum. Brook shows how even liberals have bought into this since Reagan -- the conservative meme has been almost totally absorbed by even the Democratic Party, and certainly by the Republicans, the media, and academe.

In reality, as FDR pointed out in his acceptance speech in 1936 for his second term, "A necessitous man is not a free man." This was a radical -- and true -- notion when FDR said it, and it's an almost unspeakable truth today, so forgotten is the core idea.

Reality is not reflected in conservative notions of freedom -- mostly economic freedom (to buy your own health insurance, plan for your own retirement, and pay for your own education, in particular). Nor is reality served in saying that people who have greater economic equality (because of progressive taxation with top tax rates as high as 91 percent, national health care, and free public education reaching all the way to the PhD level -- all common in many European countries) are not "free."

In fact, Brook asserts (as did FDR), the engine that produces "freedom" is "equality." The highest point of economic equality in the history of the United States was the two-decade period of the 1960s and 1970s, and it was also the time of greatest personal freedom by dozens of indices. As economic equality crashes, the result of tax cuts and "small government," freedom is increasingly constrained for all but CEOs and those with inherited wealth. Everybody else has been turned into a serf.

While social mobility -- probably the best indicator of "freedom" -- has steadily increased over the past 50 years in most of Europe and particularly in the Scandinavian countries, social mobility has crashed in the US since Reaganomics. We're now the lowest -- the most rigidly socially stratified and "unfree" -- of all developed nations in the world, and this is happening at the same time that the rise of economic inequality in the US has hit a high not seen in this nation since the 1920s, just before the Republican Great Depression.

I read this book from cover to cover in a comfortable round-trip train ride from Portland to Seattle and back -- couldn't put it down, in fact -- and probably 5 percent of the pages in my copy are now dog-eared and marked up (the sign of a book that's really valuable to me!).

The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America is a book you can't miss out on. If you read nothing else this year, choose this book.

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This review by Thom Hartmann first appeared on Buzzflash.

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