Jeanine Plant

Why Progressives Are Selling Out To Corporate America

It's not uncommon for a person to enter NYU Law school with the hopes of one day working at the ACLU. By the time they graduate, though, it's also not uncommon for this same person to work at a major corporate firm instead, where they'll enjoy a starting salary of upwards of $150,000 a year. Perks include a hefty life insurance policy, subsidized health insurance, a 401K package, flexible vacation time, door-to-door transportation service and free meals after 8 p.m. I usually interpret this as the de rigueur assimilation practice of a self-perpetuating elite with a highly developed super-ego, or something like that. A harsher critic might call it selling out, something I wouldn't necessarily have disagreed with until I read Daniel Brook's smart and sophisticated rebuttal in The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.

Such dismissals are beside the point, as Brook convincingly argues. Despite the liberal politics of most students at elite law schools, the majority end up working in service to the powerful, not the poor. This is due in part to the average debt load of law school graduates -- staggering at $84,000 -- and in part to the exorbitant housing costs in major cities. There was once a time, in 1968, when fewer than half of Harvard Law graduates went into private practice. It was also around this time that starting salaries "began to reflect the emergence of the seller's market," Brook writes. "The salary gap has increased because only enormous salaries can win over bright young lawyers who went to law school to take on the powers that be, not serve them."

I know, I know. In an age of compassion fatigue, to sympathize with a handful of well-to-do but morally ambivalent lawyers as opposed to, say, the plight of the Wal-Mart cashier, seems dubious. Such young persons can do whatever they want, we think. And yet, as Brook makes clear, that's simply not true. Just to live a modest life -- with health insurance, homeownership, the ability to send your kids to college -- is outrageously expensive. And this problem is not specific to would-be public interest lawyers. Many would-be academics, teachers and journalists more and more eschew a life of scraping by not to live in the lap of luxury but merely to lead an average middle-class life.

How did this happen exactly? Well, as Brook shows, our ever-flagging economic situation is the result of a series of conservative policies that "have begun rolling back freedom for everyone but the independently wealthy -- even for the talented and fortunate few who have attained a top-notch education. The America conceived by Goldwater and Buckley and built by Reagan and Bush has constrained a generation of talented individuals, enforcing conformity, not unleashing creativity." We would be better off in a more egalitarian society, Brook goes on to say, where we could do the work that mattered to us without the specter of poverty, and speak our minds without the fear of losing our jobs.

To get more to the crux of his argument, I spoke to Daniel Brook at The Half King Pub in New York before his reading on Monday night.

Jeanine Plant: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Daniel Brook: There are several answers to this question. One is from looking at friends growing up: friends from growing up and friends from college. Out of most of my friends, I am one of the few people actually pursuing what they're interested in, and that struck me as surprising. So that is one way I got into this. Another way is through a program called the Century Institute, which was run by the Century Foundation, which is a think tank here in New York. They had a summer program for progressive college students, kind of like wonk camp. And I took a course on economic inequality, which gave me a lot of material, and got me thinking about the topic. But the attitude of the program was very much: "You guys are fine. You all went to fancy colleges; you don't have to worry about this. But this is a problem for the country. This is a problem for everyone at the bottom, and because you are progressives, you're going to do something about it." And now, today, almost everyone from that program is a corporate lawyer. But then, I was like, this is our problem. We just don't see it, and again, it's sort of how people fall into that trap.

Another reason I wrote the book is family observations. I joke that my parents are part of a class that doesn't exist anymore, sort of like public-interest professionals. My mom was a nursing-home doctor and my dad was a prosecutor. Looking at the generations of my family, since we've been in this country for a hundred years, you see what it was like. My mom's parents were both schoolteachers. They bought a house in Brooklyn. They sent my mom to the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia for medical school. Medical school, they took a loan out against their house, they did. Penn, they paid for with no debt. And the house they grew up in, in not a fancy part of Brooklyn, is now worth over a million dollars. So it's not a house two teachers could afford.

And my own parents, I went to one of the best school districts in the region, and whoever buys that house from my parents is going to do something totally different. The house, again, is worth over a million dollars. That kind of existence is no longer available to anyone but the corporate elite. Certainly I was comfortable there, but you know, it's a ranch house on Long Island. This is not Park Avenue. So that's part of where the idea comes from: It comes from my life.

Plant: Who is your intended audience?

Brook: There are a number of different audiences. One is people my age. And then the parents of people my age who are wondering what is going on right now, why their kids seem to not be making it the way they did or, if they are making it, why they're at work at 10 p.m on a Tuesday night. But sometimes it gets pigeonholed as a book for young people, which I really don't think it is. This is a book about politics and economics. It uses young people because they are the perfect experiment because they weren't grandfathered into middle-class America. I say they're the coal mine canaries of Reaganomics. So if you want to see the cultural, political and personal applications of Reaganomics, and the shift to the right, you have to look at this generation.

Plant: Could you talk a little bit about why you focused solely on young elites?

Brook: I've gotten chewed out a little bit by conservatives for focusing on these people. But if a working-class kid from LA is amazing enough to get into Harvard Law School and can't even do what he wants with his life, no one can do what they want with their life except the already wealthy. That is why I picked out people with Fulbrights and who went to Harvard Law, and had these sort of unimpeachable resumes, so no one is going to be like: "Oh, well that person is not doing what they want because they're not that bright, they're just not that good. If you're not really that good, you can't really help it if you don't get the job you're interested in, because someone else is better than you." Well, yes, that's life. But essentially the argument is that we're going backwards. So by picking these people who would seem to have it made -- oh you went to Harvard Law, you can do whatever you want, it's like no, I can't. That's the argument.

Plant: What do you have to say about our generation's sense of entitlement or narcissism?

Brook: I mean there are plenty of consumerist people in our generation. But I try to focus on people who all they want is the life that used to be what was considered middle class, where you wouldn't freak out about: "Oh my god, how am I going to educate my children?" Or "Oh my god, can I afford to go see a doctor if I get sick?" One of the meta things of the book is -- and it says a lot about where I am politically -- is that markets offer things you want but don't need. For things you need, like healthcare, the producers have you by the dot dot dot [he gesticulated here for emphasis]. You kind of don't have the leverage you need. So you can go to Ikea, spend $60, come home, and feel rich.

But it's not about consumer goods, it's about the basics, like housing and education and healthcare. Those are the things that have gotten expensive. So actually living a very nice consumerist lifestyle, that is not the problem. That is a problem for people making $5 an hour, no doubt. But the flip side of that, is like, healthcare is so much harder to have than it was a generation ago, or paying the rent in a major city is so out of control now. I mean going to Ikea and feeling rich is a poor substitute for building a society where you don't have to be rich just to go to the doctor or send your kids to college.

Plant: Don't you think that there are some realistic ways to avoid "the trap," such as the way in which you, yourself, live rather inexpensively in Philadelphia as a writer?

Brook: Well, I can't afford to buy a house or have children. But part of the argument of the book is not just that it is about the individual problems of people selling out, but society-wide problems. And the idea that you can leave an expensive place in America and go somewhere cheaper -- to some extent you can insulate yourself by doing that. But I don't get a bargain on health insurance or sending my kids to college by living in Philadelphia. But certainly the cost of living does shift.

In the bigger picture, though, it's like, if you can't live in DC without selling out that is terrible for America. That is why they get the revolving door in government. That's why you get the kind of government we've been having, where all the regulators used to work in the industries they're regulating. And it does happen, and on some level you don't know if you should blame the revolving-door people or feel bad for them. Like the guy in the book who is a healthcare consultant, who worked on universal healthcare in the Clinton administration, and he believes in universal healthcare. These people really are cowed by the economic circumstances. And because they are, it's not just bad for them, it's bad for everyone.

Plant: Do you think that the media often misuses the term "middle class" to refer to everyone - from bus drivers to Yale graduates temping at Google?

Brook: I think part of what I want to do in the book is try to rethink -- not explicitly -- privilege and class in a way that basically goes to a model where I think the main division within our society is the people who have to work and the people who don't. That is the most meaningful distinction, I think. And to the extent that we label a degree from a prestigious college privileged, I think we cover that up. At Yale there were the students who went to Yale and when they finished had to get a job, and there were those who didn't have to get a job. And that is the meaningful distinction over who has control over their life.

And the book does not ignore the plight of the working poor. The book is not about that, but certainly it makes a very strong argument for raising the minimum wage, and for benefits, things that would benefit everyone. Like if we had a national childcare system, that would help a woman who works in a Laundromat and help a woman who is a college professor, and not to mention their husbands. So trying to bring these divisions down is part of it.

Plant: What kind of effect do you think all of these leftist i-bankers will have on the system?

Brook: Lately we have Warren Buffet criticizing the tax system. His secretary pays almost twice as much a tax rate as he does, and he thinks that's ludicrous, which, of course, it is. So like part of what the book is about is, it is not just about winning the battle for hearts and minds because we are actually doing that. Warren Buffet is on our side, and this guy on Wall Street is on our side, and Hillary Clinton is on our side, except after she takes all of the corporate contributions. So it is not really about convincing people, it is about changing the system where we go from plutocracy to democracy. So where the will of the people is enacted rather than the will of the people is thwarted because of the way, say, the campaign finance system is working. So we are just about moving over with enough people so we have a much better society, where like half of young people want to fix the entire healthcare system, and two-thirds of people want some form of universal healthcare coverage, and 90 percent want to raise the minimum wage. When 90 percent of people want something and it doesn't happen, I don't know that you can categorize this as a democratic society.

Plant: To what extent is this about people in our generation being a self-perpetuating elite and conformist?

Brook: People's decisions may well be about status maintenance, but I don't think that this discredits the book's argument, which is we need a society that is dynamic. I mean going back to Locke and Hobbes, when people were like: "What are people really like?" And at this point, we don't really think of people like that. I mean, conservatives do. I mean, on the left, we think of people as highly malleable by their society. If you put people in a society with a very clear ossification of class hierarchies, people are going to be that much more scared if they are at the top end to make sure that they stay there. I mean, there are saints in the book who totally disregard that. And I think it is a miracle that we have people like this guy in San Francisco, at the Living Wage Coalition, who lives in a boarding house. But to the extent that we need people to make that much sacrifice just to try to address a social ill, society wide, we're pretty hopeless. The morally best people in the book are not concerned about perpetuating their place in the hierarchy. I think the average person in the system, once you realize that the middle is shrinking and the choices for your children are up here or down there, I don't think that any reasonably nice person should have to apologize for wanting their kid up here. And socially we have to create a society where we bring up the bottom and pull down the top and create more dynamism between them.

Fed Up Soldiers Finding New Ways to Protest the War

There is a strict protocol for military dissent. A service member can exercise free speech, for example, but she should be off-duty. She can protest the war, but not in uniform.

In an unprecedented move, 1,171 service members signed the Appeal for Redress -- a three-sentence statement that beseeches Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of troops from Iraq -- amid a flurry of anti-war activity happening around the country and a vigorous public debate about escalation in Iraq.

According to its creators and their lawyer, J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Conscience and War, the appeal is perfectly legal and stays within the bounds of respectful discourse.

The appeal's message is not groundbreaking; anti-war sentiment in the military is well-known. The oft-cited February 2006 Le Moyne College/Zogby poll showed that 72 percent of active-duty troops wanted out of Iraq by the end of last year. And the GI Rights Hotline, affiliated with the Center on Conscience and War, gets roughly 4,000 calls a month, 40 percent of which, McNeil estimates, are questions about going AWOL.

And dissent in the ranks is not exceptional either. But the way in which these service members expressed their objection to U.S. policy in Iraq is. Their employment of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which shields military members from reprisals for communicating with Congress, is relatively novel.

Last week, the creators, Navy Seaman Jonathan Hutto and Marine Corps Sgt. Liam Madden, announced the appeal to Congress at a press conference held on the steps of the Cannon House Office Building in Capitol Hill. Supporters from the anti-war groups Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, and Military Families Speak Out attended and spoke. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who introduced the End the War in Iraq Act in the last session to curb spending on the war, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also came out in support. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., issued letters of support.

Hutto and Madden, joined by others from the military, like Army National Guard Sgt. Jabbar Macgruder, wore civilian clothing, and were careful not to disparage the president or speak on behalf of the military. These reflect the rules under the Department of Defense's Directive "1325.6" or "Guidelines for Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces." The guideline forbids petitioning Congress, which is why Hutto and Madden made it explicitly clear that their statement is a "redress." Service members have the right to "complain and request redress," it reads.

"Those directives are what constrain what they can and can't do," said McNeil. "I encourage them to be very careful."

"Generally [when you join the military], you don't give up your right to be a citizen," she explained. "You have a right to vote or talk to members of Congress, but not in your official capacity. And you could talk to reporters, but not say anything that would tend to subvert the mission of the military."

While there have been no complaints of overt retaliation yet, these service members can be reprimanded in insidious, indirect ways such as being passed up for a promotion or feeling alienated from their unit.

Kucinich promised to rebuke any such overt threats or actions.

"These are amazing men and women who say that this war is abhorrent to them, and still follow orders," said McNeil. "I hope that Congress understands that they are making a double sacrifice: They are risking their careers," she says, "and their lives."

In fact, according to Hutto, 60 percent of the signatories already served in Iraq.

Macgruder, who served in Iraq in 2004 and joined the military in 2000, says he has heard rumors about his unit's redeployment at his base. And though few of his unit's soldiers lost their lives, he felt the personal impact of the war.

"I was engaged to get married," Macgruder said. "And that whole thing fell apart because of the deployment."

The people most angered by the war, he says, are "the people who get called up after they got out of the military." The service members listed I.R.R., or Independent Ready Reserves, "these are the people most against the war; those guys are more willing to speak their mind."

The Pentagon has statistics about how many service members were deployed to Iraq more than once, but such statistics are not readily available to the public.

The Army Times did publish such numbers in its December 2006 article "Deployment data underscore the strain of combat operations." But a senior editor at Army Times told AlterNet that obtaining the information is atypical; the Pentagon is usually cagey about releasing it for public relations reasons, and their journalist got an anomalous tip.

According to the data obtained by Army Times, out of the 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly one-third of them, roughly 420,800 service members, deployed more than once.

And since September 2001, 683,380 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, 163,949 of them at least twice, according to Army Times.

Recruitment statistics are also hard to come by, but the National Priorities Project, a Northampton, Mass.-based advocacy organization, was able to obtain it through the Freedom of Information Act.

"We do get the data through FOIA, but it does require some followup," said Anita Dancs, research director of the National Priorities Project.

"If you are dealing with the Pentagon, you are dealing with FOIA," Dancs said. She also mentioned that the reason National Priorities received so much media attention is that it is too time consuming for independent journalists to access information through FOIA.

"Who is bearing the burden of war? It certainly is not the wealthy; it is the low-and-middle-income families, the people who are most likely to be attracted to the economic incentives," Dancs said, confirming the stereotypes.

Macgruder was one such recruit who joined for the financial benefits.

"I really wanted to earn my spot to go to school," Macgruder said.

Macgruder, like the others who signed the appeal, is not a pacifist, but says he became disenchanted with the war when it no longer seemed to make sense. "This is what changed my mind," Macgruder said, citing a lack of justification for the war. "To me it wasn't deployment, it was the reason behind the deployment."

The Appeal for Redress started out as a kind of book club. Hutto read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, which chronicles GI resistance during Vietnam. Hutto was so taken with the book that he invited Cortright to speak near his base in Norfolk, Va. Cortright, a key figure in military resistance during Vietnam and now a research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, inspired Hutto, along with Liam Madden, to start their own movement.

In his first-person essay, "Reminiscences of Resistance," Cortright describes feeling utterly satisfied by his anti-war activities that started to consume him in 1968.

"The commitment to speak out, once I had finally made it, was incredibly fulfilling. Suddenly my life had meaning and purpose -- I was a committed anti-war activist, spending every waking moment agitating and organizing against the war."

Cortright's anti-war activities as a service member include a full-page ad of a petition signed by 35 members in his unit in the New York Times and his role in Cortright v. Resor, a class-action lawsuit against the army.

"My experience as a GI protestor was a small part of the large-scale resistance movement that shook the foundations of the U.S. military during Vietnam," Cortright writes.

"The rebellion in the ranks spread to all the services and reached every base where U.S. troops were stationed, including and most especially in Vietnam, where fraggings [which means an assassination of an officer by his own troops by grenade] and combat refusals sapped the military of its fighting capacity."

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