Mission Impossible: Having a Substantive Debate with Conservatives

I wrote my book, The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America in the hope of starting a serious debate with conservatives. But since it came out, I've learned some hard lessons in how the right-wing noise machine operates.

My book lays out how Reaganomics transformed America into a nation of rising economic inequality and declining social mobility. Not merely an issue for CEOs at the top and Wal-Mart workers at the bottom, I argue, rising inequality affects us all--and it is destroying the promise of America.

A generation ago, most professional jobs paid similar salaries. The starting salary for big city corporate lawyers was just $2,000 more than for big city teachers. But now those gaps are enormous -- $100,000 in the lawyer-teacher case. And because of the explosion of wealth at the top, anyone who's not keeping up -- teachers and social workers and public defenders -- can't live the kind of comfortable life with homeownership, good healthcare, and affordable higher education for the kids that was once widely availably. As a result, more and more idealistic young professionals sell out -- not to enjoy a life of luxury but simply to stay afloat.

The statistics in the book make people's jaws drop. But they're all fully documented in the endnotes. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, you're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. So I was hoping we could have a debate about those jaw-dropping facts.

I expected conservatives would rise up to defend the new inequality. I imagined they would say that the market can do no wrong. The libertarians, I figured, would suggest that maybe teaching and social work just aren't as important to society as advertising and management consulting. And I thought the social conservatives would argue for a return to old-fashioned social norms where husbands take high-paying breadwinner careers and wives do more meaningful, less remunerative work.

But instead, I got personal attacks against me and my sources. Libertarian blogger Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com pulled a section of the book out of context and mocked me and my interviewees. "The tragedy, apparently," he wrote, "is that jobs in corporate America pay more than social activism." Well, yes. The whole point of the book is to expose how new this phenomenon is -- a generation ago, for example, young activist public defenders were paid as much as young white-collar defense attorneys -- explain why it happened, and show what we can do about it. So if you want to defend the inequalities of the new system, go for it, but don't pretend it was always thus. It wasn't.

I was expecting more of the libertarians. Sure, they're Republicans--but they're not morons. They believe in evolution. They have fancy degrees from the University of Chicago. They even call their magazine Reason. Instead, I got a bunch of e-graffiti on my book's Amazon page. Right-wing ditto-heads who clearly hadn't read my book made the webpage look like a men's room stall wall complete with personal attacks riddled with misspellings. One "reviewer" mocked my book's "premiss" [sic]; another accused me of gazing at my "naval" [sic]. So much for conservatives as defenders of back-to-basics, "three R's" education.

Luckily some progressives in the blogosphere have rallied to my side. Actual readers of the book have put up defenses on Amazon and I've gotten some big endorsements from major figures in the progressive movement like historian Rick Perlstein and Air America host Thom Hartmann.

But in hindsight, I guess it was naïve to expect I could have had a serious, ideas-based debate with the right. They'd rather name-call.

Apparently, this is how the empire strikes back.