Book Review: The Trap
The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook.
For more than two years now writing at Wise Bread, my whole thesis has been that frugality leads to freedom — if you can live cheaply enough, you can choose whatever work calls you, instead of whatever work pays the most. This book thoughtfully presents the case that my view is not just shortsighted but actually harmful.
I've always recognized that the lifestyle I advocate has its limits. All sorts of perfectly ordinary aspects of a normal life — whether positive, such as having kids, or negative, such as becoming seriously ill — make it a lot harder to live a very frugal life.
Brook talks a good bit about the limits of frugality as a way to do whatever work calls you. Many of the examples Brook uses are people whose work requires that they live in a big city:
- Activists who need to live where there's a critical mass of others with the same vision.
- Social workers or community organizers who need to live in the community that they serve.
- Creative types of the sort who can't just do their work by themselves the way a writer can — filmmakers, dancers, actors.
It's possible to live frugally even in a big city, but living very frugally requires not only luck and flexibility but also a level of constant attention that makes it hard to focus on the work that was the whole point.
Sure, Brook says, it's possible to live frugally enough that you can do whatever you want — as long as what you want doesn't include expensive things like sending your kids to college or paying for your healthcare if you get sick or living in a big city.
But that's really Brook's secondary point. His central point is that the way we've organized society is harmful.
Low tax rates were supposed to be good and fair. Letting everybody keep what they earn seems only right, and in a growing economy it wasn't supposed to be harmful for some people to become extremely rich. After all, as long as the poor and middle-class are also making progress, does it matter if some people are super-rich? Brook's answer is that it does matter.
Perhaps it wouldn't matter if the super-rich were spending all their vast wealth on Old Master paintings and private islands — but they aren't. They're spending significant amounts on stuff like college for their kids and healthcare and apartments in the city. Stuff, in other words, that the rest of us need to buy too. And, since they have so much money, they end up bidding up the price of the ordinary necessities of middle-class life.
The result of that is that people are pressured into selling out. Even people who are strongly inclined toward service in government or a non-profit find that they just can't do it — not and pay off their student loans, get married, buy a house, and support a family.
The big reason I advocate frugality as the path to freedom is that it's entirely within your own grasp — it doesn't depend on the government nor on changes to the way society or the economy are structured. But that doesn't mean that society and the economy are structured perfectly. Whether you're with me on the advantages of frugality or disagree, The Trap provides a fascinating look at the issues.