Thursday, September 06, 2007

Equality == Freedom

The Trap is a brilliant book on the challenges facing young Americans. First time author, Daniel Brook, has the right combination of personal stories, history, and statistics, resulting in a book I found hard to put down. Like the film Sicko, which used the stories of Americans with health insurance, The Trap tells the stories of elite school graduates who aspire to work in jobs that reflect their values and ideals.

Take the case of Yale Law school students. Yale Law has a reputation of attracting a fair amount of idealistic students, most of whom plan to work in public interest law, non-profits, or the public sector. Because of their sensibilities, these students also plan to live in some of America's most expensive urban centers: New York City, San Francisco, DC, LA, etc. Between their 1st and 2nd (and their 2nd and 3rd) years, recruiters visit campus in droves, and they soon find out that the "idealistic" jobs pay about $40-$50K/year, while corporate and other private sector jobs pay more than twice that amount ($120-$200k). Some of the students may hold out, and take the lower-paying job of their dreams, but the combined weight of student loans, high rent, and marriage/kids, leave them little choice but to eventually take a higher-paying private sector gig. As the author points out, the Yale Law School Dean frequently tells students of the many alumni who call to tell him their high-paying jobs are depressing! While, corporate firms do some pro bono work, we know who butters their bread:

The author also talked to a few "Ivy Leaguers" who chose jobs in non-profits or as public school teachers, precisely because those were the jobs they wanted. Again the combination of expensive but desirable locations, students loans, and family pressure, leads them to question whether their "dream" jobs are sustainable.

What makes the book great is the way the author takes the stories of his fellow recent "elite school" graduates, and uses it to make the case that fundamental reform of the American economy will liberate people to pursue their true vocations. A citizenry free to pursue their desired professions, would unleash a wave of creativity and service that would benefit society. The lack of progressive taxation, universal healthcare, affordable childcare, housing and (higher) education, all but guarantees that most people will work within the corporate setting. The system is actually brilliantly rigged to favor corporations. Sell people the idea that capitalism gives them the freedom to do whatever they want, but rig the system so that all but a few can actually afford to do so.

In Daniel Brook's assessment, Freedom and Equality go hand in hand. The classic liberal playbook is to cede the freedom argument to conservatives, while emphasizing the need for more equality. A society that provides affordable childcare, education and housing, universal healthcare, and progressive taxation, values equality. But imagine living in a society with exactly those elements in place. Wouldn't you have more freedom to pursue the line of work you want?
We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.
The late US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis

Rather than focusing on the exceptional individuals who resist the temptation to abandon their low-paying but highly fulfilling careers, the author argues we should work towards the types of reforms where the exceptions truly become the norm. A society that allows its citizens to pursue their true vocations promotes meaningful freedom. Our system gives us the freedom to purchase and consume as we please, but few of our fellow citizens can afford to pursue the jobs they really prefer.

I plan to purchase several copies of this book and give it to my college age friends and family. Please read The Trap, I recommend it highly.

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