Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 5
Bootstrapping the American Dream
Featuring Alissa Quart
Has the American Dream changed? Is a side hustle the answer to income inequality? And is self-reliance the all-important north star we have been led to believe it is? Today, author, journalist, and Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Alissa Quart, asserts that at the heart of our distress is a misplaced belief in our independence and the conviction that we must rely on ourselves alone. Plus, a look at women’s rights worldwide and a rise in guaranteed paid paternity leave.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network for the fourth season of What Could Go Right?, our podcast, looking at the world through what we hope is a different lens than the one that most of us look through most of the time. The idea of What Could Go Right? is simply to posit what could go right. We’re always looking at what could go wrong. We collectively, we individually, it’s a trope, it’s a thing. It’s a dominant narrative in the news, the relentless focus on all the things that are pointing downward, as opposed to the consideration that things might indeed be on the verge of something better and not something worse, that the world that we fear is about to descend upon us isn’t the world that’s gonna descend upon us. In fact, that the world that we’re about to enter is more a product of the work that we’re all collectively doing to create a better future and that we should at least highlight individuals and voices whose sensibility and whose work is animated by creating that world. I keep saying this over and over and over again in every one of our introductions, and I promise you I will continue to say this over and over and over again in all of our introductions because it is so somewhat unfamiliar in the culture that we are living in, the idea that indeed things might go right, that there could be something resembling progress, that we might solve our problems. And there are an awful lot of people all the time who really are engaged in doing so from a perspective of hope, even as they’re often deeply realistic and deeply disturbed by the problems that are all around us. And we certainly are not indifferent to or dismissive of the problems. We are simply saying that in order for those problems to actually be solved, we have to focus on the people and the ideas that are going to solve them and not just on all the ways that we can see the dominoes are about to fall, all the ways that things are going to be heading downhill, that that is not an inevitable narrative unless we all believe it and make it so. So today we’re gonna talk to somebody who has been looking at some of the crucial issues animating American society, particularly the rising, not just inequality, and there are certainly debates about how much inequality versus lack of opportunity, but that there is a sense in the United States today that the promise of the American dream, the idea that you can better yourself, create a better world than that of your parents or the world of your economic and material and all the hopes that you have, that the ability to do that is far less than the promise of being able to do that, and that we need to investigate the state of the American dream and the state of how most people are faring within a society where there’s a huge disjuncture between the promise that we hold out and the reality that most end up living. So we’re gonna talk to someone who’s part of The Progress Network and who’s been looking at these questions assiduously over the past years. And to you, Emma, for the introduction.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re gonna talk to Alissa Quart, who’s the author of five books, most recently Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from The American Dream, which as Zachary mentioned, we’re gonna talk to her about today. She’s also the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which, full disclosure, Zachary is on the Board of Advisors, and she’s written for many publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and TIME. Her honors as a journalist include an Emmy, an SPJ Award, and an Nieman fellowship. So let’s go talk to Alissa.
ZK: Cool. So Alissa Quart, it’s such a great opportunity to speak to you today, particularly at the eve or dawn or exactly what moment in the day after the publication of your new book this is being listened to. This is your fourth book, right?
Alissa Quart (AQ): It’s my fifth non-fiction book, and it’s my seventh book overall because I wrote two books of poetry.
ZK: Oh, right. I neglected the poetry books in my–
AQ: They don’t count.
ZK: In my non-fiction snobbery moment, I’ve completely discounted the books of poems, which is good though ’cause if you do like a Poets in America podcast, they will completely discount the five non-fiction books.
AQ: They completely. They’ll be like, who care– you know? And I mean, it often happens that way too. There’s this whole kind of community I’m part of with poets are like, really? Like you writing a– [laughs].
EV: You read full sentences as well? [laughs].
AQ: Yeah, why would you do that? Like how literal, you know, or how bogus honestly, [laughs]. Yeah.
ZK: All right. So we’re gonna focus entirely on the non-fiction part of your life.
ZK: Try at least in the next 35 to 40 minutes to not be poetic-
ZK: -if that’s possible. You’ve written a book kind of, I think, building on some of the work you’ve been doing and obviously building on the Economic Hardship Project and sort of looking at the nature of inequality in America, but as a lived experience for individuals, not just as a sort of a broad social science phenomenon, right? I mean, you’re much more–
ZK: You’re interested in the stories, you’re interested in what it is to live that. And I assume, and I’d like to hear you talk about this, some of this is also a refraction of your own experience and trying to navigate your own way through your own dreams. Anyway, so tell us a little bit about Bootstrap.
AQ: I tend to focus a lot on people. However, some of these people are people like Emerson and Horatio Alger and Laura Ingalls Wilder. So it’s not just, you know, the people who are either kind of the oppressors here, the bootstrap enthusiasts, the self-made man enthusiasts, and also the people who are the most vulnerable who are under the boot in a way, under the boot of the bootstrap folks– it’s like kind of roundelay of what it means to think about yourself as a total individual in this society and the perils and the complexities and how to get out of it too. And then I always call what I do radical self-help because I think if you understand the structural forces arrayed against you, it’s true self-help.
EV: It’s institutional self-help, I guess, which is an oxymoron-
EV: -but– [laughs].
AQ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, exactly. It’s saying it’s not the self and it’s the first person plural. It’s the we. And so the third is devoted to these solutions. And some of them may sound like bespoke lefty solutions to people, but some of them are like really, I think, fresh. I mean, some of them are political, you know, in terms of how politicians should be approaching voters, and some of them are rhetorical. Some of them are things we should tell ourselves. Some of them are ways of doing work, labor, ways of organizing, ways of, you know, doing things like workers cooperatives. And some of them are things like peer-to-peer therapy. Let’s stop thinking about the kind of ego psychology and individual psychology that’s incredibly expensive. We have a country that’s anxious and depressed. We need to have a more collective approach to making ourselves better psychologically as well.
EV: So also, I love that you went right into the solution since that’s what we’re all about here. We love looking at solutions.
AQ: You’re all about– I know, I love that. Yeah.
EV: [Laughs] so we don’t skip the problem. Maybe you can talk a little bit about, you know, you had this nice phrase that you just used, which was the array of institutional forces against people. That view is different for different people.
AQ: Yeah. And some of it is this kind of master narrative, right? That we grew up with in this country. You know, it’s good that you’re in Greece. You know, that you have to exceed your parents. I mean, I had that too, right? You have to go to the best possible college. You have to make all your own money. You have to, you know, own your home, that success is an economic– it’s about power, money and renown, and that somehow you’re supposed to be achieving this on your own without your community. And that it’s sort of like a set of goals that we’re forced– forced upon us. And I always say it’s an impossibility, like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is impossible. Just think about how to do it. Is it like a ski that you’re putting on when you’re lying down? Like you cannot pull yourself up. It was started as a joke. I mean, it started as a kind of absurdist idiom. It was even used by a philosopher to indicate, in like a kind of theory of mine, impossibility. And then over time in this country, it became like, this is something we need to do. We need to somehow pull on our boots and pull ourselves up at the same time. And nobody can really do that. I mean, it’s been estimated that 60% of wealth comes from inheritance. We can look at the epic levels of income inequality about how the bosses are paid and how the workers are paid. You were not doing this on your own.
ZK: Let’s bore in to some of those solutions. So when you say-
ZK: -typical left, what’s an example of that in the book?
AQ: Okay, like participatory budgeting. And that’s not actually typical. I haven’t read very much about it, they call it–
ZK: Yeah, I was gonna say, I don’t think that one falls into the typical camp. So explain what that one is.
AQ: Yeah. So that’s typical in my little world because it’s filled with, you know, people who think about these kind of things. But it’s this broadening movement, it’s also called budget justice, that’s happening in cities around the country where kind of groups of people go to meetings to decide– groups of ordinary citizens go to meetings to decide how cities spend their cash. And there’s a certain allowance in which the public, the participatory budgeting crew is allowed to spend on their own and they can also put pressure on local governments, and often successfully, to change how they’re spending their budgets. So obviously, the big thing that people have been working on has been around police budgets, and that’s happened in Seattle and some other cities, but it’s also other stuff. It’s like getting ramps in parks and, you know, cutaways on sidewalks and, you know, making a public school less dangerous by, you know, creating a library where people can see each other. Or like getting a little bunny statue. This has happened in New York in a public library. That’s a very sweet one. But, you know, this is nice. This is people engaging, people who wouldn’t ordinarily be part of this process. You know, like a lot of people from Sunset Park in New York who spoke Spanish, you know, Mandarin, et cetera, who are coming to these meetings and communicating and learning how their local government worked. So to me, that’s like a perfect ideal of how we could be more organized and, you know, have some control and join together to alter what’s around us. It’s small though, right? But it could be bigger. Another solution is, you know, the worker cooperatives I mentioned, and that’s something I’ve written a lot about, where it’s like groups of people who become owners of the companies that they work for. So it’s like both a laborer and an owner at once. And I talked to people who were formerly incarcerated who now ran a small catering company in Chicago. That’s an example of a good one. Or, you know, an autobody shop in New Hampshire where this was all happening too. The level of excitement and conviction. They were making more money, they were working together in a different kind of way, and they talked about their workplace with such affection. I mean, it wasn’t fake either. And I found that, I was like, this is a solution for people who feel alienated and mistreated. And the thing that I also really loved at one of the worker co-op site, the people I spent time with, they were learning QuickBooks, they were learning accounting. So they were actually learning managerial and white-collar elements of the job. And if they had just been, you know, chopping salad all day and they hadn’t been an owner, they wouldn’t have had that opportunity. So I was like, wow, that’s a great example. Mutual aids, which rose up during the pandemic, but there’s a long history to them. And I sort of wanted to get into that history a little as well. So like, some of this book is kind of a literary and cultural history. So I was actually interested in Darwin, who was thought to be, you know, survival of the fittest guy, is actually pretty into mutualism. And a lot of the early mutual aid kind of intellectual thinking around mutual aid descended from Darwin. And so I found that was really interesting too.
EV: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about why the myth of, you know, the self-made man and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is so powerful. It’s funny, you know, when I first saw the book title, we used this phrase a lot in my family, like my mother loves saying, you gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So–
AQ: She does? She said that?
EV: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. She’s from Ohio, you know, she– [laughs]. She’s very–
AQ: What if you said to her, that’s impossible. What would she say?
EV: I hadn’t thought about it before you just brought it up, you know, about what that really means. Like, I didn’t really stop to visualize what that would really look like, but the attitude of like self-reliance and making lemonade out of lemons and just kind of pulling yourself out of a hard situation is very– like in our own family mythology, I think it’s strong enough. And I think she’s pulling from the American tradition of that. So it was a fun little exercise for me to be like, why is that so powerful? And I have my own theory about it, but of course I’m curious to hear yours.
AQ: Oh, well, I’m sort of a reporter first. I’m like, I wanna hear her theory [laughs].
EV: Okay, so–
AQ: So what’s your theory?
EV: My theory is that in part, because it really does happen, you know, before you mentioned like, it’s nice that I’m in Greece and it’s interesting for me, contrasting my life in Greece with my life in the US ’cause I was born and raised in the US. In Greece, like class crossing is really difficult to do. It’s really hard if you’re born into poverty or the lower class or lower middle class in Greece to like really get beyond that. The opportunity just isn’t there. And I’m not saying that it happens all the time in the US, but it is possible in the US the way that it’s not possible in other countries. And I know people in the US that have actually done it. To me, there’s an element of truth to it, that it’s a volatile system, but it’s a system that does have these openings in it for people in the way that other societies don’t.
AQ: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s almost the chance, the luck– they called it luck and pluck in the early 20th century when they were trying to describe this. And so the luck and pluck element, it’s like, I could have been a contender, right? That’s the sentence, right?
EV: It’s kind of this thing. It’s like if you’re tough enough and smart enough and have, yeah, just a little bit of luck, then yeah, then you’ll do it, you’ll make it, you’ll pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
AQ: That’s interesting. Yeah. I mean, you know, so you asked about my experience a little bit. I mean, I’m a granddaughter of immigrants, who actually– my joke is– they were shoe people. They’re kind of cobblers and shoe salesmen. So the boot is actually– [laughs]. They have a rich analytic relationship for me. I mean, seriously, I like would play with boots in their house with like a brush to the leather and like, you know, shoehorns and stuff like that. Another interesting element for me with that though, was that, yeah, they worked and they worked and they worked, you know, worked six days a week. My grandfather didn’t go to college. His English was spotty. You know, my grandmother was very cultured and, you know, self-taught entirely. And then, you know, my mom got into Barnard, worked at, like, I think Gimbels or Loehmann’s or something. And, you know, she really did all this, and she became like a community college professor, and then she became a college professor. But I know the numbers and I know, you know, like the Raj Chetty study that says that 50% of people born in the ’80s are going to kind of exceed their parents economically, whereas 92% of people born in the ’40s, you know, they’re closer to my mom’s age. And so it has changed. I think this luck and pluck story is dwindling in some ways for us, if it did exist. I mean, yeah, so my mom becomes a professor, but it’s still not like an easy– you know, we’re still sort of up against it as somebody who’s like a middle-class person, you know? And when I attempted to reproduce my mom’s route and be a professor, I was going to be an adjunct, in contingency all the time, which was the beginning of the kind of shattering of that whole line. So I think that’s one thing that interests me too, like where the gig economy has made a lot of these dreams harder. You know, I think it’s like 75% of academic jobs now are adjunct.
ZK: We could have a whole, you know, arduous meaningful conversation about the absurdity of the academic labor system. Particularly given that it is, you know, largely– I mean this is an absurdity of the left, right? In terms of culture. And that most professors would probably define themselves on the left just culturally, intellectually, and yet live in a labor system that is just intensely, unbelievably exploitative in a way that is not any individual’s fault. Right? Nobody’s sort of sat down and created this. But it is a system largely predicated in the contemporary higher education world on the labor of adjuncts. You know, you really couldn’t have the kind of tenured professor system without what is essentially, you know, a gig economy-
ZK: -where a lot of people teaching those courses are getting paid less than the people cleaning the classrooms ’cause they at least have a custodial union. It’s a larger question. And so first, one of my pushbacks to you is it is definitely true that there’s been an American dream of I will do better than my parents, but doing better than one’s parents in a highly affluent society is not necessary per se to maintain affluence, right? I mean, a lot of Danes don’t need to do better than their parents. They perfectly culturally content to do as well as their parents, right?
AQ: Right, right.
ZK: They have a very high standard of living. And, you know, there are lots of cultures in the world where people don’t aspire to that and either fail miserably in creating meaningful material prosperity and/or security or not. So that’s kind of an odd American quirk based, I think, more on history, like that was-
ZK: -true for a long time. Doesn’t need to be true for us to be affluent, right? And then the other question is, are we focusing too much on income and not enough on quality of life? And I’m not saying you’re doing that. I’m saying part of the inequality debate looks entirely as it were like on the numerator, right? The amount of money. But you know, if there were more free goods, if there was more community support, if–
AQ: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s an argument I make too. I mean, I just find a lot of that to be unlikely [laughs]. So then, you know, the first stop is to try to do organizing for ourselves. And it’s actually a problem that I write about in the book as well. I call it the dystopian social safety net, to describe resources and supports that shouldn’t have to exist because we should be getting them from our social, our commonweal. But instead we’re creating nonprofits and all kinds of other groups to crowdfunding, you know, our medical bills, right? There’s a huge amount of that. Or crowdfunding student lunches for middle school students, right? GoFundMe is just littered with this kind of stuff. And to me, that’s the dystopian social net. Like this should not be the realm of mutual aids and crowdfunding, but it is because we don’t have the, you know, quality of life that we need in this country.
ZK: So was it dystopian in the 19th century when a lot of these voluntarist organizations emerged where there’s no government safety net anywhere in the world, so they kind of emerged out of a need or a vacuum?
AQ: Well, yeah, I write a little bit about that. Like Clara Barton’s, you know, what is it? A hand up, not a handout. Like, so I mean, it starts pretty early, that framing in this country too, which was probably connected in some ways to our interest in bootstraps. And the self-made man was coined here, that term. I read about that. It was coined in 1832 by a Kentucky Senator, a slave state [laughs], to describe the manufacturers, who obviously were not self-made because there are a lot of people working for them, who are unpaid or poorly paid, right? So yeah, back to what we’re saying, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, we shouldn’t be trying to think in terms of the numerator. And I think about this too. I mean, I go through it because I think for myself, I’m less interested in earning and more interested in becoming, but that there’s something – there can be a kind of bootstrapping attitude towards self-actualization, like I feel like that’s the liberal version of – that can be the sort of intelligentsia liberal version of it, is self-becoming. So it’s like, I’m gonna become this person and then you put a lot of pressure on yourself for that. And you can put that through the matrix of bootstrapping. You know, I felt during the pandemic, I was like, had to read a book every two days, you know, I had to bake bread really well. I had to run six – you know, it’s like suddenly this like whole striver mentality had been mapped onto these like quietest pursuits. I was like, oh, this is [inaudible] really look at this, but yeah.
EV: It reminds me a lot – my friends, I’m a millennial, they tend to be obsessed with these like creators on Instagram and TikTok and stuff who then get articles written about them by Business Insider. And I saw you tweeted one out, and then just after I saw that, a friend sent me one on Instagram where it’s like this 29-year-old, or like this 33-year-old makes-
AQ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
EV: -$2 million a year selling Excel courses or investment courses or like this, that, or the other thing. And they built this really interesting social media narrative where like, I was able to turn myself into a millionaire, so can you, you know, here’s the course. But there’s a real lack of transparency around how that happens, you know?
EV: If you really dig into it, because I’m a journalist, I’m like, well, they don’t disclose that they work for Wall Street. They had an education about how the financial markets were, you know, like this, that, and the other thing. And I’m curious how does like this theme of transparency links into your work and the book. Like how transparent are we really about how people find success or don’t find success in the US?
AQ: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think there’s this whole rise and grind phenomena, and I do write about that too. I call it the con of the side hustle because I feel like we’re enticed not just by the promise of these things, but the language around them, like the phrase hustle and side hustle, which is like so offensive [laughs]. It doesn’t give the sort of like lovely luster to working like four jobs. And yeah, these promises of like millions of dollars, and you’re like, it’s really someone selling CBD out of their car for, you know, $400, right? I mean, and it’s all the accounts of, like, you know, pastors with side – I mean, this is a crisis actually of asking people to, or expecting people to have multiple jobs to, you know, not – as you said, Zach, it’s not just to exceed your, you know, family of origin, but it’s to just make even, right? Break even. So I think that is a lot of the side hustle culture is around that. And yeah, every time I see it, it’s sort of like my new thing [laughs].
ZK: I think cnbc.com runs if not a daily, certainly several times a week exactly this article, right? You know, he’s 29 years old and makes $22,000 a month on blah, blah, blah, whatever blah, blah, blah happens to be.
AQ: What I love is they filmed two segments with me decrying it, that they also run [laughs].
ZK: Well, I mean, that’s actually good.
AQ: Well, it’s kind of interesting. You should [inaudible] gonna find them for you. It’s so funny because I was like, you sure you want this? Are you into this? [laughs]
Audio Clip: But there may be limits on what can actually be accomplished. You may be paying money for additional college or graduate school or a certificate in order to pursue your side hustle and you make it further into debt. You know, you may wind up at the end of it having learned something and having worked really hard but not necessarily being in a better place economically than you were when you started. I do think some side hustles are creative. You do have to enjoy it. You have to get something out of it and have a personal self-improvement involved in it. I think if you’re just depending on it for fantasy of becoming an entrepreneur, that might be quite depressing.
ZK: I mean, like another pushback, which I certainly feel is I get the dysfunction of the social safety net in the United States. I used to have this quip of we managed to spend more money on our social safety nets than most countries in the world while simultaneously decrying them and making people feel insecure.
ZK: Meaning we kind of have the worst of all worlds. We overspend and underdeliver in a radical fashion at both a local, state, and federal level. But there’s where part of the problem is, right? In that it’s not clear given our current sort of bureaucratic and institutional setups that spending more money ends up leading to better social safety net outcomes ’cause we do it really badly. And there are other countries that also do it quite badly. I mean the story of the NHS, the National Health Service, in Britain right now is kind of a case study in everybody buying into a notion of collective good and then delivering it really, really badly as opposed to Singapore, right? Or Denmark or Canada. And I think that’s something that kind of gets lost in the fray of we should cut Medicare and Medicaid or we should spend a lot more, which tends to be the political debate. And there are certainly people out there, and I think I’m one of those, who say I would happily endorse spending way more money on all these things if I had some level of confidence that that money was gonna be translated into actual aid for people in a way that made them feel secure as opposed to like 18 bureaucratic hurdles of means testing and, you know, I might lose my benefits ’cause I didn’t fill out the form right, or it’s a really incompetent bureaucracy that’s only open from, you know, 10:00 to 2:00, and in the pandemic, you know, good luck getting someone on the phone. I mean, there are all these things that mitigate against endorsing more social spending, which is a progressive cause, that have nothing to do with being against social spending and everything to do with our inability to translate that into outcomes.
AQ: I love that insight that it’s both more spending and less efficient spending or less effective spending. And I wonder how much of that is by design sometimes. I mean, if we think about the administrative burden, which is the complexity of people’s lack of access to welfare, you know, snap, which was, I mean when I talked to some of these experts like, you know, Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan, they’re like, yeah, it’s inscribed in the creation, some of these apparati that you cannot get this money unless you work really hard to get it. And then you have the time tax. And then you have layers of like liberal leviathan institutional people preventing the kind of people I work with at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project from getting to resources they need, right? And that during the pandemic, and I kind of wanna write something about this, like what we can learn from the pandemic ’cause I feel like we can learn something. There are lessons about eviction moratoria, about streamlined social services, not having to re-certify, which is, again, really expensive to have millions of people re-certify for different kinds of aid, right?
ZK: Right. And direct payments.
AQ: Right. And direct payments.
ZK: Non-means tested direct payments.
AQ: Right, exactly. So I felt like this is a example of what you’re talking about. Also, one thing I’ve noticed internationally is that feels like, oh, well, we wouldn’t volunteer as much if – you know, people wouldn’t be as inspired to volunteer if it was easier for people to get state-supported resources. But like Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, they have strong government-supported safety nets and the highest volunteerism rates in the world. So it’s not like some kind of hydraulic like, okay, people are gonna stop being a thousand point of light [laughs]. They’re like, oh, you know, I’m not gonna help anybody anymore if we have more of a safety net. That’s like a riddle to tell, to force people to not ask for more and to frighten people.
EV: Alissa, I’m wondering if you could – ’cause I’m just reflecting on this about this love of hustle culture that we were talking about earlier.
AQ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. This is my favorite part [laughs].
EV: Yeah. So I’m still on it I think because I am a hustle culture addict. I think that’s why I’m still on that part of that conversation. I had lots of side hustles when I lived in New York and I was exhausted, but it also made me live a life in New York that I wanted to live. And I’m wondering just how would you take someone out of that cult [laughs]? Let’s say you’re talking to a cult member, me, who’s an addict to hustle culture. How would you, you know, try to try to pull them out of that? You’re just doing this because you’re not being paid enough in your full-time job, let’s say.
AQ: Yeah. So I mean, I think part of it is looking at, you know, the amount of energy that people put into this and also, I mean, what, the gap between a lot of these gig– some of these are gig work, right? They’re like Instacart and things like that where you have, you know, people struggling to make, you know, $13 an hour and the company being valued at $39 billion, and just like reminding the people who taking on the side hustle the level of discrepancy between those people at the top and the people that they’re part of. Also, the experience of a lot of people who are doing these jobs, which is that they are part of dystopian social net too. Like it’s not just like– It’s interesting, one of my subjects who’s like graduate student who was driving Lyft and working for Instacart and that, in some ways, served her right even though she was very upset that during the pandemic, they didn’t provide masks, they didn’t provide any hazard pay. But it did fit into the schedule that she had, right? She was able to go to classes and for some of the other people I spoke to who were part of these gig economy, side hustle kind of enterprises, it didn’t work as well because they were making too little and they were kind of like bringing people’s groceries to people who were disabled up icy steps. You know what I mean? There’s like actual risks as well. They liked their jobs. It was interesting. But it was just, you know, they wound up making like $28,000. I think the thing is to see it for what it is. It’s like hustle porn, you know?
ZK: Love that.
EV: So like, I’m finding this amazing thing like a NFL coach who admiringly remarked that doing your job right meant waking up at 3:00 AM with a knot in your stomach, a rash in your skin, losing sleep, losing touch with your wife [laughs]. Like this was what it was like to be a good hustler. Or like the SoulCycle CEO, who I think got deposed, hustle opens the doors of opportunities. Please rise and grind, you know. Or there’s the T-shirts 9 to 5 are for the weak, you know. They call it the grindset rather than a mindset. I think anything that is this aggressive– or the thing I could not stand, it was that Dolly Parton revision, you know, working 9 to 5, it was like working 9 to 5, a whole new way to make a living, gonna change your life, be your own boss and climb your own ladder [laughs]. And that was for Squarespace. And just anything that has this many memes that are chanting this thing that seems to not really fully work for most people, I think needs to be under question.
ZK: Too many memes.
AQ: Too many memes.
ZK: Too many memes. So, big-picture question, which I don’t have an answer to, but I think about when we have these conversations about where American society both falls short of its own proclamations and its own capacities, is that– so let’s use like one analogy, which is probably flawed, that if a lot of artists weren’t tortured, they wouldn’t create art. Tortured emotionally. I’m not saying like that they– [laughs] Yeah. The tortured artist meme, right? That that without the interior roiling struggle, you don’t have great art, right? And I’m not saying that’s true. I’m saying that’s a trope. It is clearly true that if you look at the arc of the past 200 years, at an aggregate level, right? The United States has been able to create more aggregate material prosperity and security than most societies have ever been able to do. Now, I do think you can look at Denmark and you can look at Scandinavian countries and you can look at New Zealand. I mean there are small homogenous often islands, but definitely communitarian based on a long history of internal conflict that has led to a degree of social and community buy-in about everybody’s rights and responsibilities. You know, it’s hard to find that with a 300 plus million democracy. I mean, our comp set should be India and Brazil and Mexico and Indonesia. And I mean, we’ve done very well at an aggregate level with these failings, many of which were predicated on a kind of ruthless individualism and blithe disregard for the immense amount of human suffering that “progress” has created. And I guess the question is maybe we’re at a more of a plateau, you know, population is leveling off, the world is changing, but there is that question of can you uncouple that culture from those results and still have the same kind of productive outcomes? Or maybe we should let go of some of those outcomes and start tending more to how it looks internally. But, you know, so the question is, has that kind of ruthless individualism been an inherent ingredient in outcomes?
ZK: That if you then take away, you know, you’re left with a more static society that may be more equal or more equitable.
AQ: Yeah. You mean it’s sort of anxiety pushes you to work harder? [Laughs]
ZK: Anxiety, insecurity,-
ZK: -the knowledge that there’s nobody there for you except yourself.
AQ: I see. And that it’s been [inaudible] creativity. It is part of like American literary tradition comes from that level of–
ZK: And that our material prosperity. Like why has the United States been able to generate a level of prosperity that is somewhat unrivaled in the past 150 years? It’s also unusually ruthless in its approach to individuals. And if you kind of get rid of that, you know, if you take Emma out of the hustle cult, you know, you’re left with a much more equitable, calmer society, but a much less dynamic one. I’m not saying that’s true. I’m asking the question.
AQ: Oh, yeah. I mean, I can see what you’re saying, but I think the price is too high. I guess that would be what I would have to say. I mean, I love this idea and I wonder if anyone’s– I’m sure people have written about this, about American literature’s– ’cause you started with culture, that its creativity is in relation to capital. I mean, I just saw the Edward Hopper show and he worked as a commercial artist for like, I don’t know, I don’t wanna get this wrong, but like a long time and his commercial art–
ZK: [inaudible] New York for 40 or 50 years.
AQ: But his commercial art, he did drawings for business magazines’ covers, and I feel like he created the Hopper aesthetic. So, like, this is somebody’s hustle [laughs] and their engagement with kind of like low-level like capitalist illustrating, right? It was seriously like [inaudible] [laughs], like whatever the publication he works– it was like dock and dry, you know, like it was stunning, right? He created this whole visual language for this commercial world and yeah, that was– or Warhol was you know, fashion kind of a– I think he worked at Bonwit Teller or something, that he did ads for shoes. And that that demand, you don’t have art funding, did lead to this kind of creativity and this pop intersection where you’re thinking, where the artist is creating work that’s half commercial and half fine art, right? And change the course of art history. So that’s just like, I’m just thinking in a more narrow way what you can see. But then you can also– probably there’s, you know, tens of thousands of people who never were allowed to contribute, were excluded from, you know, even painting in the evenings ’cause they’re working such long hours. It’s as imaginative and creative as you’re talking about or like all the entrepreneurs that have come out of our country. It’s really undemocratic in the sense that most people don’t have the quality of life to do the basics to start their own company or to paint, right? Can I say it’s like both/and.
EV: I’m reflecting. You know, as I’m reflecting on this conversation as a whole, I’m thinking a little bit about something that Ray Suarez said on the Ec Hardship Reporting Project podcast about this playing of seeing me and not me when you’re reading the news, right? You come closer to the things where you see yourself and you move further away from where you don’t see yourself. And I feel like this conversation is reflective of that as a whole, right? That like, I feel like if you take what you’re saying and what Zachary was saying, is like it’s this attempt to see all of the United States, right? The both/and that you were just talking about. And yeah, I’m just curious like how much of this conversation when it comes to really reckoning with the United States as a whole is, you know, seeing when others people’s situation is not your situation. Right? And like recognizing that like what’s going on as far as the larger narrative. I don’t know if I have a question in there, but it’s a reflection and I wonder if you have any–
AQ: I love that you– so Ray– so people should listen to this show. It’s called Going For Broke and we’ve done two seasons and Ray is the host and yeah, what I love that he says also is he says, you know, the news is produced about the working class for the middle class by the wealthy [laughs].
AQ: That we need to invert that, obviously, rearrange that. And the me and not me affected, I guess it’s sort of what Du Bois calls, you know, double consciousness of being included and not included in the culture of power in this country. And, yeah, obviously it affects people of color more, but I think it also affects people who are not fully middle class or working class and that when you read the news, you’re not necessarily seeing yourself or you’re not seeing an account that you recognize. Yeah, I mean, I see my, my job with it to be correcting the narrative of the deserving rich and the undeserving poor, which clouds a lot of judgment in media, which seeps into a lot of accounts. I met an editor once at a major publication who said anyone who wants a job can have a job. Like that is a common wisdom, you know. Or that independent reporters are, you know, not as good or something, which again, with contingency. So there’s like, in my job at EHRP, I see a lot of prejudice against people who are not only poor, working poor, but also unstably middle class, you know, like the freelance culture. And I see my book as a corrective for that. Like, this is something you’ve been said, this is a story that has a history and we need to start thinking differently about ourselves and other people.
EV: That was an excellent ending reflection out of my– I was trying to pull you in that direction and I’m so glad you picked up the ball and really checked it. That was great. Thank you.
ZK: And thank you for your work and for the book. And everyone should buy Bootstrapped, buy the other four non-fiction books, the two poetry books, go on to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, listen to Ray Suarez’s podcast. And I think then, you’ll have a full set of quart.
AQ: [laughs] You’ll be a quartet and more, plus, quartet plus.
ZK: Oh my God, that is such a perfect pun to end the conversation with. And thank you for being part of The Progress Network. And I’m sure we will keep having these conversations.
AQ: Thank you very much, everybody.
ZK: Emma, I knew we would enjoy that conversation. And Alissa is endlessly provocative. She’s also a great writer, so the stories are always illuminating. And as I reflected, I don’t always agree with her perspective, but I find her quite engaging in this and she does her work. You know, she doesn’t just regurgitate a set of homilies or talking points that are favorable to the progressive left. She really looks at it, does her study, and yeah, she has her point of view and everybody should, and I think that’s how we kind of engage our questions about how do we solve problems. I mean, I think, or at least I hope from The Progress Network, that there is a degree of legit pushback on established assumptions, whether those are on the left or on the right, in that we should all constantly be in the mode of self-inquiry, challenging ourselves, challenging the things that we think are true, asking ourselves is it true? And trying to understand whether or not what we think is a solution is a viable solution. Just because we believe it or think it doesn’t make it practical or pragmatic, right? Again, as we do these conversations with people with very strong views and often very clear political affiliations, there’s also the interest in how do we just make a just and equitable society? Full stop.
EV: Yeah. And I do think that unintentionally or intentionally, you also did just describe very well the animating spirit of her book, right? Because it is about taking a look at things clearly and trying to deconstruct a myth in her view, right? But she does look at history and say, you know, these things that we grew up thinking to be true, like Aunt Jemima is an example that she uses, not that we necessarily grew up with a particular view by Aunt Jemima, but there is one circulating out there, you know, that she was America’s first black self-made billionaire, and in the book, Alissa talks like uh-uh, mm-mm, not true. She definitely brings that spirit of inquiry. And I think that we’re all trying to do that, right? Like as we just kind of reckon with the absolute multitude and multitude of different experiences that is the United States as such a large country.
ZK: Onward and upward. So let’s talk about the news. All right. So this week, the news is coming from Verbier, Switzerland, as it usually does, and hence the oddity of the background. So we’re gonna just jump into it from our multicultural multinational perspective. We recorded part of this podcast in New York, part of it in Greece. Where was our guest this week?
EV: Oh, in New York.
ZK: In New York, okay. Not as dramatic as some of the other ones, that we’re continuing our multinational traipse through the world. And here we are.
EV: Here we are. And unfortunately, I don’t have anything about Switzerland in particular.
ZK: I mean, the Swiss don’t look for news. It’s like a thing.
EV: They’re trying to stay out of it. Ba-dum-bum [laughs]. I do have something multicultural though, and maybe you’ll know just from your visit there, Zachary, what Switzerland does for this. But the news just came out that 63% of countries around the world now provide guaranteed paid parental leave for fathers. So that’s a little over 120 countries. And that’s according to something called the World Policy Analysis Center. And for comparison, back in the 1990s says Axios, only 46 countries had a paid leave policy for fathers. So obviously, improvement there.
ZK: Switzerland is definitely one of those.
EV: Yeah, yeah. I would assume, right? We would assume that about Switzerland, but you know, sometimes there are things that you would not necessarily assume about some of those European countries.
ZK: I think there’s paid parental leave for livestock in Switzerland.
EV: Well, I’d like to give a shoutout to the latest countries from 2022 to mandate paid parental leave, which is China, Malta, and the Netherlands. See, the Netherlands is one that I would’ve thought would’ve been previous to 2022. And Costa Rica, Malawi, and Mongolia introduced paid paternity leave. And last shoutout to Singapore who just doubled their paternity leave in January of 2023. So that went from two weeks to four weeks.
ZK: That is an eclectic mix. And you know, there is this whole continued debate where many countries, particularly in Europe, Southeast Asia, increasingly the United States, Latin America are concerned about plummeting birth rates. We’ve talked about this before. Now, whether or not they should be, whether or not a shrinking planet demographically is a good or a bad thing is something we’ve covered, and I think it’s probably not as alarming as some people think. But if you do think that this is a trend that should be reversed, one of the best ways to do so is to provide significant paid parental leave, both to mothers and to fathers because it removes some of the economic burden that if you listen to surveys, particularly amongst millennials and younger, one of the main reasons that women are having fewer children, at least in many of these higher-cost countries is ’cause it’s so expensive and there’s very little support system for it. So the more leave you provide, the more people are at least economically willing to have children, whether or not they’re socially and lifestyle, that’s a whole other issue. But this has been particularly true in France, which I think is one of the only European countries that’s showing not replacement level births, but certainly not the same level of plummeting births. You know, again, this is a complicated topic. Scandinavian countries certainly have provided incredible safety nets and you know, it’s not as if there’s a baby boom happening in those countries, although Sweden I think is a little bit ahead of the pack.
EV: I have two interesting add-ons to that. The first is that the first research on the effects of remote work on marriage and fertility rates are starting to come out, and it’s very early, but a new analysis was just released last week and they saw a very strong positive relationship between intentions to get married in the next year and remote workers. Remote workers were much more likely to say they intended to get married than people who work on-site or at an office, probably because with remote work, if you have a partner that lives in LA and you’ve been living in Chicago, well, guess what? You can go to LA no problem.
ZK: I was gonna say it’s ’cause they’re so lonely, but maybe it’s that too.
EV: [Laughs] or that. There could be two remote workers linking up together because they don’t have any colleagues anymore. I didn’t think about that. But they’re thinking that it might’ve finally solved the two-body problem as they call it.
EV: Yeah. And they’re gonna, you know, continue looking into whether remote work is gonna make it easier to have children. Right now, they’re not seeing a strong link between starting a family or having a second child after the first, but they are seeing a link between wanting to have more children from older women who already have two or more children, so 35 plus that already have children, they’re seeing that remote workers have stronger intentions to continue having children.
EV: So speaking of, you know, pro-family, even pronatalist policies, remote work might be one of them.
ZK: Interesting. You know, there was this whole question going around, which I guess we will now start to get some evidence of, I don’t know if you remember, but there was– you know, one of the betting pools in COVID lockdown time was, would you, one to two plus years hence, see more marriages, more divorces, more babies, or fewer. And, you know, you could kinda make the argument all sorts of ways, but I guess now we’ll begin to figure out which of those play out.
EV: Yeah, and I think actually there are numbers, early numbers from COVID babies and there was a small baby boom. It was kind of like, I don’t know if you remember this, but we had a polar vortex in New York like five years ago and there was like a porn watching boom because people were stuck inside alone. I think it’s the same, the same outcome working here [laughs].
ZK: Or maybe they were just mistyping polar and spell check automatically corrected it to porn.
EV: That’s very wholesome. Perhaps. We’re gonna leave that as as a perhaps. So speaking of, I’m gonna call this, I don’t know if it’s pro-family, it’s certainly pro-women, we’re a little bit late for International Women’s Day, which was earlier in the month. But around International Women’s Day, there’s a new report that came out called Women, Business, and the Law. And there’s tons of stuff in there.
Audio Clip: Economies that limit women’s contributions cannot reach their full potential. When laws restrict women’s voice and agency, fail to protect them from violence, discriminate against them in the workplace and in retirement, women are less likely to fully participate in the workforce and contribute with their talent, knowledge, and skills. While as a global community, we have made significant progress in the past few decades, we are facing a critical moment in the fight for gender equality. The pace of reforms towards gender equality around the world has fallen to its lowest pace in over two decades, while economic growth has slowed. This means that we need to urgently take action to accelerate progress on both.
EV: We know just from looking at the world around us that it’s much better to be a woman in most places in the world now than it was in 1970. But I guess they hadn’t actually really measured that. So this is the first time that the report has actually measured improvements from 1970 until now. One thing that they had in the report that I thought was just absolutely wild is that in 2010, there were no women anywhere in the world that had the same legal rights as men in all of the areas that the report measured. So that’s mobility, workplace pay, marriage parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets, and pension. Now in 2022, 93 million women have the same legal rights as men in all of these areas. I don’t know how many countries that is. You know, there’s a handful that had perfect scores and a lot of the high-income countries had very high scores, but it was really striking, you know, as late as 2010 [laughs], there were literally no women by this measure that had absolutely equal rights, but we are making progress.
ZK: Yeah. I found that report pretty extraordinary, and I think it was a branch of the World Bank that issues it, this study. And, you know, there’s a reason we don’t necessarily notice these studies because places like the World Bank churn out reams and reams, if they’re actually printed pages, and sometimes they are, let alone bytes and bytes of data and studies, all of which is quite interesting information, but tends to get totally lost in the fray and buried. And I did think this was a fascinating study. I mean, 93 million is either a lot of people or a very few number of people, given that there are 4 plus billion women in the world. So it’s only a few countries where you have this sort of full spectrum, but it’s extraordinary, I found too, that this is from 2010, right? And particularly given that most of the dynamic and the dialogue about rights and progress, both for, you know, for women’s rights, for ethnic, it doesn’t matter what, almost all of the conversation is always framed by all the things that are wrong and all the things that have yet to change, which is legit if you’re going to be a passionate advocate of a movement. But it’s good to recognize that there actually has been statistically demonstrable movement in a really short amount of time.
EV: Yeah. The report says that since the 1970s, over 2,000 laws have been passed enhancing legal gender parity. And so the average score across all the countries that they measured improved by two-thirds between the 1970s and now, which is nothing to sneeze at. And most recently, they’ve been seeing a lot of progress in Sub-Saharan Africa, you know, parts of the world where the scores are starting really low. There’s a lot of rapid progress going on now, which, again, is very invisible in a lot of the mainstream media. Most of the stories that we get out of Africa are about war and famine and this and that. And they miss these kinds of sort of– they’re not– yeah, basic improvements in people’s lives. You know, the laws are being passed around women’s careers and, you know, it not being legal to get fired if you get pregnant, which is still the case in some places in Sub-Saharan Africa. So that’s what we’re here for, to shine a light on what’s going right.
ZK: And we’ll provide the links, of course, to the study, certainly on theprogressnetwork.org page.
EV: Yes, if you’re ever interested in all the stuff that we talk about on the podcast, we share it all in our newsletters as well. All right. So next time, we don’t know where in the world you’ll be, Zachary, but we’ll be ready to discuss that country at that time.
ZK: That will be quite amusing for all of us. Thanks, Emma.
EV: Thanks, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
Meet the Hosts