There are a few different ways to go about reviewing a book as ignorant and illiterate as Alissa Quart’s Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. The first and easiest would be simply to catalogue its errors, which are not incidental but fundamental to its argument: namely, that Americans are in thrall to a national myth of extreme individualism, which distorts our culture and produces bad public policy.
That myth, Quart writes, “has fed into the extreme rhetoric and actions of everyone from robber barons of yore”—of yore, of course, because the author will forgo no cliché—“to Reagan Republicans.” Extreme rhetoric and actions? Quart quotes Ronald Reagan in the next sentence and offers an example of the cruelty she is talking about: “‘The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience,’ Ronald Reagan said, as he used his metaphorical buzzsaw to take apart welfare, coming up with a whole language to demean those who were dependent on state monies, including ‘welfare queens.’” I suppose that there is some difference of opinion possible in the question of whether the cited rhetoric is really extreme, though “the size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience” seems to me pretty mild stuff.
But there isn’t really any room for difference of opinion when it comes to whether Reagan should be credited with “coming up with” the term “welfare queen.” It seems to have first appeared in Jet, a black-oriented magazine that used the term in a story about a white woman, the infamous Linda Taylor of Chicago. She was investigated for welfare fraud in the early 1970s after reporting the theft of $14,000 in cash and furs to police detectives, who were “intrigued,” as Jet put it, “by the fact that she owned three apartment buildings, two luxury cars, and a station wagon.” Taylor was a practically cinematic character, and her story did very much suggest that oversight of welfare programs in the 1970s was, precisely as Reagan charged, something less than robust.
We also may consult the historical record to answer the related question of whether Reagan did, in fact, “take apart welfare.” Never mind that presidents have very little control over federal spending or that it was, in fact, Democrats who controlled the House and its appropriations powers for the entirety of the Reagan administration, as they did for all but two of the Congresses between the end of the Hoover years and the middle of Clinton’s first term. The thing is, there weren’t any cuts in welfare spending: The price tag on means-tested social programs (what’s usually meant by “welfare”) increased by about 10 percent during the first Reagan term and then by about 14 percent in the second term, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Spending on entitlements such as Social Security grew a little less slowly; Social Security spending grew by about 15 percent across both administrations. Which is to say, programs for the poor saw more robust spending increases than did middle-class programs such as Social Security—as the NBER puts it, the Reagan administration’s welfare-reform efforts “sought to reduce payments to those with relatively high incomes.”
The foregoing paragraph illustrates the problem with the catalogue-of-errors method of reviewing such a book. While the author’s distortion consists of only nine words (“he used his metaphorical buzzsaw to take apart welfare”), correcting it took, in this case, 364 words. The problem with online disinformation is that you cannot counteract it as quickly as troll farms can manufacture it, and the problem with many modern nonfiction books and much contemporary political journalism is more or less the same. I’d hate to think of our friends over at HarperCollins (which was kind enough to publish one of my books some years ago) as a kind of low-tech troll farm, but they sure as hell don’t seem to have a lot of fact-checkers over there. Almost the first checkable major claim made in support of the author’s thesis is demonstrably false, obviously false, and, to anybody with even a little bit of knowledge about the era in question, ridiculously false.
There’s a lot of that kind of sloppiness, like identifying Alan Greenspan as the Fed chairman tasked with “overseeing a great recession” (that was Ben Bernanke). Quart describes Ayn Rand as someone who “had been an amateur scriptwriter” at a time when Rand had in fact had three scripts made into Hollywood films, which is three more than an amateur. She describes a man with skin “flushed with the sun and good health, the color of shrimp caught on the little fishing boats he watches on the horizon of the Atlantic,” which, given the fact that freshly caught shrimp are ghastly grey rather than rosy pink, I hope is just another example of the author’s apparently boundless ignorance.
She misuses the word contradictorily (a word she probably would be better off not using at all) and writes of “East Street” when she means “Easy Street,” that sort of thing. Maybe those are typos that will be fixed, but her claim that “families living in extreme poverty increased by 50 percent” following the 1996 welfare-reform bill is at odds with the Census data, which show just the opposite: that the share of families in extreme poverty declined in the following years, from 5.4 percent in 1996 to 4.5 percent in 2000. It is one thing to write badly—there’s a lot of that in long-form journalism—but another thing to treat the evidence so carelessly that the support for the case put forward borders on fabrication.
It does not get better as the book progresses. Quart makes rookie errors, such as conflating top statutory tax rates with taxes paid. She claims that “during one of our nation’s greatest areas of growth, the 1950s and 1960s, it was not bootstrapping but rather high taxes that made our country great.” In the mid-1950s, federal tax revenue amounted to less than 16 percent of GDP, whereas today it is about 20 percent of GDP, or roughly one-third more. The high statutory rates do not matter very much for tax collections if they are applied to few taxpayers and then to only a small share of the incomes of those taxpayers. Very little of that revenue was spent on social-welfare programs in the Eisenhower era: Social-welfare spending writ large was about 3.9 percent of GDP in 1957, but it grew to more than 15 percent of GDP by 2015 and has grown even more with Covid-era spending. Social-welfare spending was, in fact, the only category of spending that grew in meaningful terms (meaning GDP terms) from the end of the Eisenhower years to the end of the Obama years. In terms of budget share, it has been defense spending rather than social support that has been deeply cut. And maybe that is as it should be, but that is not exactly what one would expect from a nation in thrall to some kind of Ayn Rand–ish cult of vulgar individualism.
Quart gives some attention to Rand, of course, most of it ad hominem: Rand is dinged for falling into destitution in her old age and benefiting from programs meant to benefit destitute old people, a rehashed line of argument that was tired 30 years ago when Rand critics first started to make it. (Rand gets off easy here. We are invited to dismiss Horatio Alger’s stories because he apparently had sex with teenaged boys; I suppose we’ll have to burn Gore Vidal’s novels and the whole of Catullus.) Rand was a distinctly unsympathetic figure, but it was her ideas rather than her personal financial planning that she was famous for, and it is these that deserve our attention if anything about her does. Quart, who seems to be afraid of ideas, never makes any serious inquiry into the mystery (which is no mystery) of why Rand-ism has never really caught on, even on the right, and has instead remained a minor cult, with Atlas Shrugged being endlessly cited as the favorite book of people who don’t favor books. The answer, of course, is that from the Pilgrims’ first hard winters in New England through the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the financial and political convulsions at the beginning of the 21st century, and much more, the people of the United States have never held the views Quart ascribes to them. Even the gentler kind of atomistic and anti-communitarian thinking associated in the popular mind with Horatio Alger novels has never appealed to very many Americans—and certainly not to Horatio Alger himself or his readers, who were treated to stories of characters who are helped along at critical junctures by friends and kindhearted benefactors who direct them to gainful employment, education, church, and other inherently social situations.
Quart argues that the cult of individualism leaves Americans insufficiently appreciative of the support provided by three great contributors to human flourishing: government, family, and community. And the malefactors here, the cultural hate-totems that command Quart’s attention, are such figures as Ronald Reagan—who spent his political life insisting that he was a New Deal Democrat and FDR apostle pushed out of his party by the radicalism of the 1960s—Alger, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, I kid you not, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.
In a chapter bearing the title “Little House of Propaganda,” Quart connects the Little House on the Prairie television show she watched as a child to the politics of Reagan, who was president at the time. “Episodes of the show echo the punitive morality of Reagan’s harshest speeches,” she writes. Which speeches? Don’t ask, Quart isn’t saying. Probably not Reagan’s proclamation of the first National Philanthropy Day in 1986 (“We help each other, and we reach out to help people all over the world. Our tradition of voluntarism embodies a great deal of caring, initiative, and ingenuity in solving problems and improving our communities; it is one of our greatest strengths as a people”) or his remarks when creating the Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, an important effort at coordinating government programs with charitable endeavors. Ah, but words are cheap—while “in the Reagan years, charitable giving rose by more than 25 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, twice the rate of the previous decade,” as the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports.
Some of you may remember the Little House books (and the television program) a little differently. Far from being the kind of caricature Quart would pen, Little House is a paean—treacly and sentimental, but earnest—to family and community. When the Ingalls family is about to be wiped out by malaria, they do not recover one at a time, each by dint of his own heroically individualistic Randian pluck, but as members of a family and a community, with the help of a generous neighbor and the services of a black doctor whose usual practice is serving the local Indian population. Speaking of those Indians: Quart is very, very hung up on the fact that the Ingalls family and other settlers built farms and businesses on lands claimed by Indian tribes; she herself grew up in Manhattan, which, as everybody knows, was towed down to the mouth of the Hudson from the Old World by a Dutch sailboat.
As for Emerson, Quart’s strangely vengeful mistreatment of the Transcendentalists is illustrative of her fundamental deficiency. Because she is afraid of ideas, she relies on the strategy of trying to discredit her intellectual targets by accusing them of hypocrisy. So we learn what everybody who has read Emerson or Thoreau, or who has some basic familiarity with their work, already knows. Which is to say, Thoreau was not a hermit at Walden, but often entertained visitors and went into town regularly. Not only that: Thoreau benefited mightily from his relationship with Emerson, and Emerson benefited mightily from family money and the uxorial ministrations of his two wives. Quart expects us to judge Thoreau a hypocrite because he borrowed books from Emerson and accepted other kinds of support. But think through the kind of mind that is at work in this book. Quart did not dig up some unknown secrets about Emerson’s suing his widow’s family or Thoreau’s having a social life—these facts were well-known to those writers’ contemporaries and to their later admirers, to historians and biographers. Nobody tried to hide these facts, and nobody apparently thought this made hypocrites of them. So what happened? Was the world simply waiting all these years for the especially refined sensibilities of Alissa Quart, or was it the case that none of this seemed hypocritical to the writers and their friends because none of it was particularly at odds with what they actually believed, said, wrote, and held dear? Emerson and Thoreau believed a lot of batty things, but they were not superficial, and they certainly were not adherents of any kind of adolescent version of “individualism” that would have obliged them to become a couple of Massachusetts sadhus, even if Emerson did fancy himself a friend of Brahma.
Quart describes herself in her high-school years as “a young woman of modest means,” but those were the kind of modest means you have growing up in Greenwich Village with two parents who both are college professors—i.e., she’s the Rachel Dolezal of just-gettin’-by. Her assumptions about who should earn what are very New York: Considering a piece of research on Trump voters, she is scandalized that many unionized steelworkers “earned at least $80,000 a year, despite often having partial college educations at best.” (At best? What should be the economic penalty for being a steelworker rather than studying creative writing at Brown, as Quart did?) At the same time, being a true New York progressive, she sniffs that Michael Bloomberg was born “quite middle class.” Bloomberg was born—quite!—middle-class, and I think it is kind of neat that the grandson of penniless Jewish immigrants could end up being a neurotic billionaire political dilettante: Only in America!
But not only in America, of course. I wonder how much Quart has thought about the rest of the world. The United States has a very capitalistic economy and a very individualistic culture, albeit one that is not individualistic in the cartoonish way that Quart imagines. But what is the relationship between those two facets of our national character? Maybe Quart thinks it is too obvious to go into, but it is not too obvious for me. Some of my favorite hyper-capitalist economies grew up among peoples with notably anti-individualistic cultures: Singapore, to take the most obvious example, but also Hong Kong in its glory days, Dubai, and Switzerland, among others. Most of the Nordic welfare states beloved by American progressives have highly collectivistic cultures while also maintaining capitalist economic practices that are, in many ways, well to the libertarian side of typical U.S. practice. The Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index consistently ranks Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland well above the United States.
Quart is a kind of bush-league version of her former boss, the late Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, another Champagne socialist who learned to hate capitalism watching her father work his way up from a post at a copper mine to a rarefied career as director of research at Gillette. The real flaw in these books is that they are going about the story backwards. It is much better to be a poor American in 2022 than it was in 1982, 1922, or 1822, in that poor Americans today are better-fed, better-housed, and better-doctored than were poor people only a few decades ago, and, by most physical metrics, they are better provided-for than were middle-class people a generation ago. But the bottom is still the bottom, and the view from the bottom never changes. It also is better to be a middle-class American today than it was a generation or two ago. There are all sorts of ordinary American workaday yokels whose everyday lives in 2022 would have been reserved for movie stars and millionaires not long ago—honeymoons in Cancun, that kind of thing. Where life has really radically changed is for the very rich, the billionaires whose lives are much further removed from those of median-income households than the Morgans’ and Rockefellers’ were in the glory days of those families. But that is a difficult story to tell, and it isn’t very useful to anybody politically.
So what do we get instead? Adolescent axe-grinding and grievance-nursing—bad economics, bad reporting, bad writing, bad arguments, bad thinking, bad books.
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