2013-09-23

Book Review: Nickel And Dimed

Once I stand and watch helplessly as some rug rat pulls everything he can reach off the racks, and the thought that abortion is wasted on the unborn must show on my face, because his mother finally tells him to stop.
As I read the book, I thought about the kinds of things I might say as I wrote the review. I wanted to highlight the author's elitism, her all-encompassing hate for anyone who doesn't share her politics, her sneering judgementalism, and her inability to relate to anyone or anything that isn't already a perfect mirror of her own preconceived thoughts. Then, near the end, she finally cooked up a phrase so hideous that it makes anything I might say superfluous.

"Abortion is wasted on the unborn." In six shockingly ugly words on page 165 of her sensational book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, Barbara Ehrenreich manages to succinctly encapsulate all the hate for humanity she displays throughout the rest of it.

The story behind my reading of this book was an economic policy debate I had been having with an old friend of mine, faithful Stationary Waves reader CH. As we know, I favor free market solutions to most of life's economic problems. CH, on the other hand, tends to favor the more mixed-market-leaning-toward-greater-government-paternalism at the heart of modern leftism. And while CH doesn't consider himself a leftist, the one book he chose to recommend to me in hopes that it might change my mind about welfare policy was Barbara Ehrenreich's - a book filled to the brim with actual quotes (cited approvingly) from Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and so on. Thus, even if CH considers himself a centrist, Nickel and Dimed is unequivocally a leftist book.

The premise runs as follows: Moved by her own insistence that the working poor can't make it in America without an expansive social welfare safety net, Ehrenreich hatches the idea of attempting to live as a member of the working poor. She would show up in an average American town - which, for the book's purposes, turns out to be Key West, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis - cook up a fake story and a fake resume, take a low-paying job, rent an apartment, and prove to the world that she couldn't do it. Instead, she manages to prove a different thesis altogether: Barbara Ehrenreich hates humanity.

I would like to critique Ehrenreich's approach to this problem, but what stands out more than anything else in the book is Ehrenreich's all-consuming hatred. It is shocking. It is so pervasive that it makes an objective analysis of her work nearly impossible.

For example, while working for a maid service in Portland, Ehrenreich tells the story of a bizarre murder fantasy she has while cleaning the home of a person whose crime appears to be that he/she is politically conservative:
The exalted mood [of trying to see her position as a maid as a noble calling - ed.] lasts for about a day, and there is back-sliding even within that - for example, when, in a huge, gorgeous country house with hand-painted walls, I encounter a shelf full of arrogant and, under the circumstances, personally insulting neoconservative encomiums to the status quo and consider using germ welfare against the owners, the weapons for which are within my apron pockets. All I would have to do is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to "clean" the kitchen counters - a plan that entertains me for an hour or more. (p. 109)
A page or two later, Ehrenreich's maid experience reaches its stunning climax when one of the other maids slips and sprains her ankle. Ehrenreich implores her to go to the hospital, but the maid is adamant that she does not want to go. For reasons still mysterious, Ehrenreich decides to incite a labor strike among the rest of her 4-person maid team in an attempt to pressure the injured maid to go to the hospital and to pressure the franchise manager to give her a paid day off.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the book because the maids refuse to go along with Ehrenreich's strike. In fact, they resent her for trying to make them strike. They never look at her the same way again. Yet even this experience is insufficient to get Ehrenreich to question her own thesis. She reasons that they suffer from some kind of Stockholm syndrome. She cooks up a strange rationalization theory about how their manager emotionally manipulates them. All because they refused to go along with a strike aimed at getting a single maid a paid day off.

To top it all off, the allegedly emotionally manipulative manager ends up giving the injured maid a paid day off anyway, and gives Ehrenreich a raise because she stood up for her teammate. But, as a manager, he plays the role of villain in her story, and Ehrenreich misses all of this, so committed she is to her own priors.

Earlier in the book, while in Key West, Ehrenreich describes her experience outing herself. She tells a fellow colleague that she's not really a waittress - she's a writer! His response to her is classic: "Oh yeah? Who isn't?" The message is clear. The working poor don't care about Ehrenreich's messianic complex, they don't care about her noble calling to low-wage work experience, nor about her noble calling to journalism. The reason they don't care is because they're too busy living their own lives to play into Ehrenreich's misguided fantasy about what their world is like.

Above all, Ehrenreich's hatred and elitism shine through as the only consistent message throughout the book. A friend-of-a-friend offers her a place to stay for free in Minneapolis in exchange for house-sitting. Rather than enjoy the experience and be grateful, Ehrenreich launches into a paragraph-long criticism of the decorum of her hosts and what she imagines their personalities to be. (She never actually meets them!) She disqualifies herself from jobs requiring a drug test by smoking marijuana (apparently it never occurs to her that she might have more food/rent money if she stops buying drugs). She takes sleeping pills for non-medical reasons and wakes up hung-over for her first day at a high-paying job, and so decides to give up the job entirely. She condescendingly refers to Wal-Mart employees as "Wal-Martians" (hurr hurr hurr, geddit? martian? hurr hurr...). She picks fights with her managers, describing them all in entirely one-sided, negative terms, speculates about their character. She freely admits to her problems with authority. She refuses to

In short, Nickel and Dimed is full of page after page of anger, disgust, elitism, indignation, and criticism. So much so that nothing in the book can actually be taken seriously.

That doesn't mean Ehrenreich's thesis statement isn't true. It might very well be. But we'll never know from this book because the only thing she manages to prove is her own all-consuming misanthropy. Reading this book made me sad and uncomfortable - not because the poor in the book were suffering, but because nearly every sentence of the book was hateful and ugly.

I wanted to evaluate the merits of Ehrenreich's experiment. I wanted the book to be about something tangible, that I could discuss with my friend, CH. I wanted it to challenge my assumptions about life as a member of the American working poor. But, I know no more about the plight of the working poor after reading this book than I did before I read it. Unfortunately, however, I now know a lot more about Barbara Ehrenreich's personal character. And what I learned does not bode well for her.

Considering that, the one remaining question I have is why on Earth anyone else felt the book was so powerful? How can people read a phrase like "abortion is wasted on the unborn" and feel anything but a pang of disgust. (And look, I'm no pro-life Bible-thumper here. That phrase is disgusting on a human level, regardless of how a person might feel about the issue of abortion.) Why did this book sell?

If there are any silver linings to be found here, it's that the working poor Ehrenreich meets do seem to be "making it." One of the maids she meets aspires to live in a mansion like those she cleans. The young runaways she meets in Key West manage to better their situation from living in a truck to living in a dingy apartment. Many of her fellow employees manage to get a raise while she's working there. While Ehrenreich manages to lose most of her money and own up to effective homelessness, her coworkers never do reach that point. They don't have a good life, but they live it a lot more effectively than Ehrenreich does. If she had been more honest about her experiment, she would have seen that.

Hopefully, someone out there will repeat this experiment and provide the debate with something more useful than hate.