Much of what is now a core part of the American psyche is a series of get-rich-quick schemes passed off as meritocratic necessities within a capitalist society. Key words and phrases like “the American Dream,” “hustle and grind,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” all serve to fuel the legitimacy of the image of the self-made rugged individual American. In her new book, with its title borrowing from these infamous phrases, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, author, journalist and poet Alissa Quart attempts to dispel the mythology that has affected Americans for almost a century. The Horatio Alger story, which maintains the ability of the individual making it alone, was always a sham, but now in the age of billionaire capitalism, it is a cruel hoax of unattainable opportunities.
Quart joins host Robert Scheer in this week’s Scheer Intelligence to share some of the inspirations she had for this book. Both Quart and Scheer, despite being born in different eras, can relate to the capitalist phenomena that plagued the US during their lives. Despite the days of the Great Depression and New Deal advocating for exactly the opposite of the individual against the world, the prevailing wisdom has maintained this for decades. “The original dream that James Truslow Adams came up with… in 1931 was much more open-ended and collective and meritocratic, and it understood that people needed a helping hand and that they needed others in the construction of themselves and in creating a common wheel. And somehow over time, it became this distorted, make it on your own, 9 to 5 is for weaklings, grind set, as it is today. You’ve got to do everything on your own. You have to get the house, you have to get the cars and the good job and excel,” Quart said.
Quart does more by diving into the psychological implications of such philosophies dictating the way people view others struggling or prospering. She references Stanley Milgram’s experiments and how they reminded her why “Republican and Republican-leaning voters thought that people who were economically struggling, [had] done something wrong or they weren’t working hard, and also vice versa. They thought somebody like Trump was excellent, genetically superior, like a worthy politician, because they assumed that if somebody seems successful, powerful, wealthy, they must have done something right.”
These asterisks in the stories of successful people, such as tax exemptions or coming from wealth, are often ignored and feed the illusion of hard work and sacrifice fueling economic success in the U.S., Quart points out.
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from, my guest, and this case Alissa Quart and she is someone who, well she’s now involved with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, she’s written a number of important books, including a couple on poetry. She started this organization with the late Barbara Ehrenreich, who did a lot to remind us of poverty and working conditions in America, as you have done. This book is called Bootstrapped and has an elaborate, oh, yes, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. So I want to start, first of all, I want to say right off the bat, I am a big fan of this book. And among other things, by the way, I wish you had been my writing teacher in high school. Really, I happened to be married to a very good editor, Narda Zacchino, but this is a book in which I appreciate the writing very much. The clarity and the force. Anyway, just throw that out there. It’s also not one of these thousand page books that I hate to recommend. This merciful, one day you spend with this book, you will get a lot out of it. But I think it’s an incredibly important book because it reminds us what we have lost in this country. And this is going to go against your title a little bit. The title, as I say, is Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream and it begins with a very powerful dissection of what I would guess can be considered the libertarian fantasy of the free market. And it goes unmasks the Horatio Alger myth, which, by the way, is a denial of libertarianism, because as you point out, and this the best discussion I’ve ever read of the Horatio Alger thing, you’ve gone back and in addition to showing that he I suppose, well, I’m not going to get into his sex life, but he probably you know, he was a pederast and, you know, taking advantage of young children. But really what is revealing in that is that the celebration of this by this writer of the self-made person really depended upon their backing. And maybe this is the homoerotic fantasy of a powerful, wealthy person who stepped in and saved the urchin, showing them a better way to get out of the poverty of the streets and then become very successful. And these things sold a lot and so forth. And then you went to the Little House on the Prairie, and you talk about that mythology, basically land that had been distributed basically to white people to start farming, but nonetheless, so there was a lot of government intervention, nonetheless spun as a narrative of individual effort and doing it alone and so forth. And then, of course, you take good swipes at Ronald Reagan and others to show the hypocrisy. But I do want to begin by getting you to defend “liberating ourselves from the American dream,” because ironically, I’m much older than you and I was born, and I just had my birthday, in 1936 and my father lost his job—by the way, very similar to Ronald Reagan’s father—and we entered extreme poverty. And then I came out of the war, postwar period, Roosevelt and so forth. And it was a different American dream. And I kept thinking that, reading your book, we were raised with the dream of strong labor unions, of an enlightened New Deal president. When President Roosevelt died, in my section of the Bronx, people poured into the streets from these projects and tenements, crying, crying. I’ve never seen a public before crying and maybe a little bit over Kennedy at a certain moment. But, you know, and I was raised at a time where labor unions, strong labor unions, were the norm. All of my relatives had union jobs, you know, and the whole, you know, and things you do describe in the book, the GI Bill, the guys coming back from the war, being able to buy a house for $99 down. So I guess one thing that intrigued me right away is what I feel you’re describing is the loss of another American dream.
Alissa Quart: Yeah. No, absolutely, Robert, because the original dream that James Truslow Adams came up with, actually five years before you were born, in 1931 was much more open ended and collective and meritocratic and it understood that people needed a helping hand and that they needed others in the construction of themselves and in creating a common wheel. And somehow over time, it became this distorted, you know, make it on your own. You know, 9 to 5 is for weaklings, grind set as it is today. You know, you got to do everything on your own. You have to get the house, you have to get the cars and the good job and excel, right? And so that that American dream, though, it’s been pretty relentless. And I really liked the way you just described the Horatio Alger story because. Yeah, I think even these stories, the Horatio Alger story, that’s supposedly the story of the boy alone making it from from the gutter or the American Dream, which is supposedly the story of, you know, the immigrant casting themselves onto into America and succeeding by their own will and hard work, that those were not their initial meanings. You know, the Horatio Alger story’s initial meaning was this young man being swept up by this older, wealthy gentleman or the original meaning of the American dream was like, again, a dream that was more community minded. So how do we re-enchant these terms and expose what they really meant so we can move forward into better language and better kind of self-conception. So I guess that’s my project with this book.
Scheer: Well, you have a larger project, which is to care about the people suffering in America. I mean, you do God’s work here. I guess I mean, you know, as the pope has described it, this relatively progressive pope. But seriously, you know, America’s not working. People are hurting. And what you describe brilliantly in your book is that we all feel our failure, personal failure. You know, we failed, not our government, not our system, you know, and we have to work harder. And now you have this crazy gig economy, which you describe brilliantly in which people have taken this self-responsibility to the ultimate. If you don’t hustle three, four jobs, I mean, you know, I teach at a university and in your book, I’m constantly being introduced to people who are called adjunct professors, another exploited class. They run around to four or five different colleges trying to scratch a living and you have students going into debt. You know when I went to City College in New York, it was free. And the big complaint, you know, Colin Powell was in my class, we were studying engineering here, and our big complaint is, hey, a couple of years ago, the textbooks used to be free, you know? But there’s no idea that we were going to pay any kind of tuition. You know, and now, of course, people, you know, go to even public land grant colleges, and they go broke and get deeply into debt and so forth. And so I think you’re selling yourself short. I think the power of your book is really an indictment of American culture as currently flawed, selfish puts the blame on the wrong people. And it goes back to a central, that’s why I began was in the rare moment when I was born, labor unions were in vogue all across the country, you know, and now you have to make an argument of why maybe Amazon workers or, you know, people should be organizing in unions, it sounds like something almost bizarre. That was deliberate and you’re right to pick up the whole culture thing. The denial of class in America, let alone class conflict, was a plot. It was calculated, it’s how a ruling class keeps itself in power. And by the way, you know, in your book, yes, you take a lot of shots of Ronald Reagan and Bush, but, you know, the Democratic Party has been complicit in that. The first attacks on the labor unions came with Harry Truman, you know, after Roosevelt’s death, boom, they all we’ll get Taft-Hartley will do all this stuff. And in your book, I must say, I have only one criticism of your book. You’re too easy on the Democrats in my view. But you do have a say, I think it’s I can’t remember the page, but it’s 45% into your book. I made a note because I was going to go back and quote it, where you point out that, you know, the whole destruction of our welfare system and, you know, aid to families with dependent children came under Bill Clinton. And you do have a sentence there where you say, well, that kind of disillusioned me from thinking the Democrats were the answer. I don’t know if you remember that.
Quart: Yeah, no, I do. I mean, I will never forget I was in my twenties when I read that, you know, the end of welfare as we know it. And my heart just sunk, you know. And I think up until then, you know, besides Carter, right? I was born in the Carter era. I hadn’t really known, I’d known all these years of Reagan. And so my generation had hope for the Clintons, right? We hadn’t quite seen what the third wave Democrats could, the concessions they could make, the aggressive privatization and dismantling of the welfare system as we knew it. So, yeah, that was a flashpoint moment for sure, of pressure being put back on individuals and families and away from the state. But, you know, the truth of the matter is the burden, the administrative burden it’s called, has long been, I mean, since the beginning of welfare, written into the actual SNAP, Medicaid. They’re really hard to access and they’re hard to access on purpose. I mean, if you talk to scholars who study this, they explain why it’s so difficult and not just for poor people who don’t have time, but basically for anyone to access a lot of these services. So, I mean, it preceded the Democrats in that way, there was always a refusal of giving people who were struggling what they needed in this country, except for Social Security, except for things that would help people who are, you know, whiter and Maler and have more privilege, right? Which it’s I mean, it’s really shocking how easy it is to get Social Security versus Medicaid.
Scheer: Well, I just want to push this a little bit. First of all, tell me about yourself. You didn’t grow up in the Bronx. So how did you get here?
Quart: My parents did. My grandparents owned a shoe store in the Bronx and St Mary’s.
Scheer: What neighborhood do you remember?
Quart: It’s called St Mary’s. It was an Irish-Jewish neighborhood. My father was born in the South Bronx. My grandparents were immigrants. Not terribly well educated, you know, self-educated. My grandma listened to opera in the evenings, this kind of stuff. But I sort of write about this a little like they were really into shoes, they ran a shoe store. So my joke is about bootstrap. It’s not an accident that I mean, I used to play with boots and, you know, laces and shoe horns and brushes.
Scheer: It’s also an impossibility to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Quart: They had, it’s an impossibility…
Scheer: You should remember when you go buy it or people listening to this are not going to tear down the title, but it makes a point. It’s actually a contradiction as a slogan. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You can’t do it. It’s stupid. But let me push this a little further because it’s interesting. You are kind of a child of neoliberalism. When I think of Carter and Clinton and so forth, these were the new realistic Democrats. They were going to… They’re a response actually to Reagan and, you know, I guess to some extent Nixon, although Nixon seems like almost a socialist compared to, you know, he had Moynihan here, they were going to have a guaranteed annual income and so forth. But nonetheless, our expectations for the Democrats are so low that in your book, while we cheer because AOC says something about, you know, we need to help poor people or Bernie Sanders says something about unions being progressive, I just want to remind people the idea that unions are somehow subversive and un-American and against the vitality of an economy is treated as very strange in most of the capitalist world. If you said something like that in Germany or France or England or something, people think you’re nuts. And because your book deals so much with where we get our big ideas from and our culture, you’re absolutely right. There has, of course, been a persistent cultural reference to the independent male, white male who will conquer on their own. But it was always a lie because after all, you know, these people benefit from a great deal of government intervention all along. But what we lost and I must say in your book, you have all these brave efforts to bring back some sense of collective responsibility, some sense of obligation, because even among other things, it makes life more meaningful and it can work. But the idea that somehow the government doesn’t have a, as Roosevelt said, a responsibility to helping us to be sheltered and fed and safe and secure and all that, well, then what is government for? I mean, every election, our school, they say, oh, I voted. Why should you vote if the government can’t help provide you with the necessities of life? What is this democracy all about? And it’s interesting reading your book because you are basically arguing for common sense and for capitalism to save itself. This is not some kind of wild idea. I mean, even in China now, for example, one thing your book doesn’t go into enough, I think, is how we’re living off the exploitation of labor around the world.
Quart: Well, that’s a good point. And also, I thought you were going to say when you said China, that, you know, because a lot of my book is pretty optimistic and fun for anybody listening out there, it’s like looking at solutions, but not in a “Yeah. Okay. Here’s your, you know, rosy glasses,” you know. For the last chapter, to me, a lot of the book is really about these lived, utopian solutions that we can adopt now that are being adopted now. So where was I going with this?
Scheer: Well, let me take you back to China, because even though…
Quart: China, right. And the thing about China is they actually have their own resistance movement to a culture of excessive ambition and overproduction called the Lying Flat movement. Where, I think it’s mostly young people like Generation Z, where they lie in bed and they refuse to do their school work or they don’t get jobs. And they sort of basically they’re idlers. But it’s a form of activism and it’s a form of community, it’s a kind of community identity, too, that they have where they’re not going to be part of this relentless machine with its rigidities and humiliations, etc. So there’s a connection there too, I’m saying, there’s a connection between the mutual aids and the people who are wanting to think differently about ambition and probably millions of people who are now part of this lying flat movement in China.
Scheer: Yeah, but the real issue in India, China, anywhere in the world is you can only take exploited, horribly exploited, cheap labor so far. And so even in China now, their official slogan is common prosperity. This goes back to Confucius, you know, how do you be a good emperor? You’re going to be overthrown if you don’t provide some common, Aristotle, some common concern for your, at least fellow, Greeks, if not the poor Persians you’re going to rip off. But I mean, it’s just simply, you know, to be a good emperor is hardly a radical notion. It’s a notion of survival. How does the system maintain itself? And, you know, the big lesson I think of and your book goes into a very interesting analysis of Trump. And by the way, I’m not going to do the book justice in this conversation, the book speaks for itself. It’s, you know, a very, very important book. And so let me get the selling of the book out of the way. It’s just that I’ve spent the last 15 hours with it, so it’s in my mind. I’m now a reader mulling it over rather than, okay, everyone should read the book that’s done. I’m not combative about this, but it seems to me we’ve lost sight of the most obvious need for any society, for any government, which is the common well-being. And matter of fact, it’s now an efficiency argument. Because why should we resist robots? Why should we resist mechanization? I grew up with a lot of those lousy jobs, you know? I helped build Levittown in Pennsylvania.
Quart: As an engineer?
Scheer: Not as an engineer, as a high school kid trying to get a job until they found out I didn’t have working papers. And then I worked in the Fairless Steel plant. I came from this working class background, and I believed in this American dream because at least then they paid you enough you could get a little bit ahead and as I say, college was free and so forth. But my point is, we shouldn’t be against automation. We shouldn’t even be against artificial intelligence as long as it’s not used to manipulate and control us. And, you know, Daniel Moynihan, who I mentioned earlier, when he convinced Nixon of all people to go for the guaranteed annual income, that should happen in every society that can afford it, and certainly every modern economy can afford it and we should not be at war with robotics. Yes, let’s get rid of it all, if you can assemble cars, you know, without having people back breaking and climbing in and out of cars and you can have robotics do it, be my guest. But then we got to share the wealth. And the real message of your book is about the resistance to share the wealth. And that’s where you’re absolutely correct that they have invoked a phony, let me say, phony libertarian ideology, because if you’re really serious about being a libertarian of the free market, you’re not with Erin Rand or you know any of the people you attack in your book, you should really believe in the invisible hand. No monopolies, no cartels. You know, we actually have a free… We don’t have that. And so the real, the thrust of your book is an examination of the insane selfishness that dominates our life now. And that’s why we, I’m in Los Angeles here, you can’t walk five blocks in any area of this city without seeing huddled masses yearning to breathe, to breathe, forget about, be free, huddled under cardboard, you know, condos or something, within a block to two blocks here. Okay, I don’t care how much you paid for your own residence, your own condo, you’re not going to be out in that street without confronting human misery on a scale… When I was growing up, I would have associated that with Calcutta. And what your book is really, you’re really examining, and I think with considerable literary skill, the arrogance, the conceit of the American ruling structure, beginning with the billionaire class.
Quart: And part of the person, you asked me about my personal relationship to this. I mean, I’ve been running this organization that Barbara and I have kind of built up for the last nine years. And so it’s like an endless, it’s an organization that supports economically struggling reporters and photographers, but also people covering these issues. And so I’m endlessly confronted with these stories. I mean, these lived stories of people who can’t afford their homes who are being evicted. You know, I work with writers who report their own eviction, and it’s hard to be living that life. And, you know, I am living in New York and I am, you know, an upper middle class person. And I have to then sort of be confronted constantly with a kind of obliviousness that I mean, it does bring out the shrill side of me sometimes. But I think some of the things I call rich fictions, which is what I dubbed this illusion, are people who are very wealthy in this country and have, you know, taxes that are very helpful to them and often come from wealth. 60% of the Fortune 400, the people in the Fortune 400 list were well-off to begin with as of 2012 or so. And, you know, all this privilege is that having kind of dwelling so much in the opposite world, in the world of people just trying to get a foothold, it just seems outrageous for the lack of self-consciousness and the almost hilarious boasting… Now I’m thinking of somebody who was the founder of Kinko’s copy shops, now FedEx, who said, well, one day I’d like to go to the moon and look at Planet Earth and say, wow, there’s part of my portfolio. So like, I kind of, every time I see quotes like this, you know, or during the pandemic when we had CEOs who are, you know, making whatever, now it’s probably higher, I think it’s 354 to 1. And then it went up to like 399 to 1 or to the workers or somebody like a CEO who made, Christopher Nassetta, who made $55.9 million, which was like almost 2,000 times as much as his company’s median worker pay. I just feel like I want to expose, but I also want to parody because it’s just it’s sort of, it’s startling just the distinction, the disparity, the cluelessness. Yeah.
Scheer: Let me, I was going there before with that. We had, it’s interesting because you really show very effectively you have the personalities in there, the human beings, the deception of the gig economy, the deception of, you know, somehow we are, you know, what we used to be the vicious, racist slogan “free, white and 21, the world’s your oyster.” Well it isn’t anymore, even for people who are white and 21. And I contrast that with my own life. You know, the fact is I didn’t get into debt going through college, you know, and the jobs that I was out to get, I could get ahead of the game. You know, I remember like even the post office was a really good job, you know, if you got it. And I try to work in the Fairless Steel Plant down there in Pennsylvania, and if you got in there, you know, you could have a good life. You know, your kids would go to a safe, good school. And so there was an American dream that was consistent with how capitalism was working. Now, admittedly, we came out of the war more strongly than everybody else. We benefited from a lot of, you know, acquisition of raw materials and reduced prices and so forth. But the American dream, and this is really my takeaway in terms of your book, what is missing in this society are organizations used to be called labor unions that will give people back their rights, you know, rights to living wages. We just passed a living wage thing here in L.A. and L.A. County. I’m very proud that that happened, but, you know, it’s $15 an hour. But there’s also, we passed something, the mansion tax, you know, one of my sons worked on that. I’m very proud of that. But I noticed people are now selling their mansions to get under the tax so they won’t support all this. It’s bizarre even the Pacifica radio station here. I just read a story about putting their building up for sale for just under $5 million because then somebody can buy it without paying I don’t know the mansion tax. I haven’t looked into it that carefully. And what is this simple logical thing? If you sell a property for more than I guess it was 5 million or something, a small part of that, very small part, will pay to help solve this homeless problem. Now, who wants to live in L.A.? Quite apart from any sense of decency, morality, if you can’t walk on the streets without, you know, seeing this depressing poverty and being hit up and maybe even being concerned, I teach at a school right here. We have daily crime reports, people snatching cell phones and everything else. And the shortsightedness, this is what I thought is, let me use the word brilliant about your book, you unmask the fiction. Yes. The fiction of American capitalism, that we cared, that it worked, that sanity prevailed. And no, it didn’t. Not because of some notion of individualism. It prevailed because people acted together. You mentioned raising a barn, they worked together. You mentioned the land distribution. We had land distribution in the prairie. So we had the GI Bill. Yes. It was a very good example of, okay, you got these GI’s back where they are going to get jobs? How are they going to get an education? You funded it very generously. Ronald Reagan in his own autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me? You know, talking about the New Deal saved his family. He specifically says that they wouldn’t have been able to survive without the New Deal. Then he had this crappy line. I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democrat Party left us. That’s garbage. He sold out to General Electric and doing all those commercials. So I really, you know, I talked too much. I’ve always promised myself I’m going to talk less. But…
Quart: I mean I think what you’re saying is also to tell this counter history what better we need to be celebrating those moments of a different American dream. So, I mean, I wanted to say liberating because I wanted it to be a bracing title that would make people sort of come, you know, awaken. But I also I mean, probably what I really mean on some level is returning to the real one, which would be things like the New Deal, the GI Bill, you know, the Homestead Act, you know, without the the preferential treatment to white men and stealing the land, you know, and would also recognize, you know, people like Frederick Douglass, he wrote a book about self-made men, and he was very critical of that concept. The return to the real American Dream would recognize, since, you know, that Frederick Douglass has now been kind of claimed by people on the right, I don’t know if you know this, for pro-gun purposes, but so I was sort of fascinated when I was reading contemporary writings about his book, Self-Made Men. He thought that the self-made man was an impossibility, even though he himself as a formerly enslaved person who had escaped and built himself into one of the great speakers of his time and authors, didn’t think there is such a thing as so. He was one of the few people who could actually say I am self-made, but he thought that that was actually incorrect. So I think like…
Scheer: In your book you point out he had a lot of assistance. Yeah, I mean, people helped him. I want to ask you, because we’re going to run out of time. But one of the things I learned from your book was this notion of the just world and this idea, and it sort of blends into the libertarian ideal that somehow good people are rewarded and bad people are punished and the market somehow works that out. That’s how we justify having such a large prison population and so much suffering on the streets and everything else somehow, as you say and your book is, you know, you’re a poet, and the book is really a poetic cry against this kind of arrogance that, you know, the shiftless and people who, you know, are worthless or who suffer. I mean, there’s a moral plea in this book that, you know, is inconsistent with what Martin Luther King said in his last speech, you know, about the workers of Memphis. And civil rights begins with economic rights and economic freedom. That’s what I really take from your book. But I learned a lot of things in your book. But one thing I learned is this examination of the just world, and I forget his name Melvin…
Quart: Melvin Lerner.
Scheer: Yeah. And you point out that actually he wasn’t defending that notion.
Quart: No, he hated it. I mean, he did this incredible experiment in the sixties. And, you know, was that time with Stanley Milgram, you know, he did the famous experiments on the West Coast, the Stanford experiment, where people would be given shocks. It was often actors pretending to be given shocks. And then, you know, focus groups would have to respond to the person getting shocks and in various ways. And that was an experiment like, how cruel are you? You know, when do you start to conform to the actions around you? And do you think and in the case of this experiment, do you think the person getting shocks deserves it? And the person, of course, getting shocks was an actor writhing in pain, a young woman. And then the people who are deciding this were also young people. And they assumed that the actor writhing in pain had done something. And if they increased the shocks or pretended to increase the shocks, that they had done something even worse. And Lerner reproduced these results in later experiments and he was trying to understand this idea that… His reading of why the people, the young people thought this woman writhing deserved it, was that we desperately try to see the world as fair and that if we don’t, if somebody is being hurt or harmed or ill or poor, we go to extreme lengths to try to create a moral order or a logic to why they’re suffering and we’re not or what they have done wrong. And, you know, sort of like without a just God, we have a just world. So, yeah, and that experiment and that thesis really rang through my mind whenever I would be looking at studies that looked at why Republican and Republican leaning voters thought that people who were economically struggling, they’d done something wrong or they weren’t working hard, and also vice versa. Why they thought somebody like Trump was excellent, genetically superior, you know, like a worthy politician, because they assumed that if somebody seems successful, powerful, wealthy, they must have done something right. So it cuts both ways in that sense.
Scheer: You know, but in your book, you talk about the meritocracy. I’m taking more of your time than you probably have, but let me just push this a little further and you discuss this notion of what is a meritocracy. And I think this is really the most dangerous weapon that the society has for denying class, class conflict, class interests, because they have a notion that people who work hard and this is, you know, a refinement of the Horatio Alger, you don’t need the rich uncle or the guy who finds you on the street, but you work hard, you keep your nose clean, the opportunities are there and you will be rewarded. And we have what I call the courtier class. Most of our friends, I assume your friends are not that different from my friends, are people who’ve managed to fit into the system. You know, they…
Quart: This is partially also what Barbara called the professional managerial class, right? Yeah.
Scheer: That’s a better way of putting it. But I think of, they’re at the court and I think of, you know, this is, I noticed watching you on Democracy Now! and I think the last opportunity I had there was when I dared to suggest that maybe Hillary Clinton was not necessarily the best thing for the country, because, after all, we had to support her. And it really raised a question for me, because what I thought the Clintons represented and I interviewed Bill Clinton when he was still governor and then before he became president, I talked to him after and all that, was taking the new Horatio Alger. It really was, yes, the system works, you just have to do your homework and we have to help you, we’ll do something, not too much. We’re going to destroy any possibility of a woman on welfare raising children properly because they have to go get a job, you know, and we’re going to do these terrible things to the Republicans after all. The whole banking meltdown was right, Phil Gramm, the Republican in Texas, in the Senate, and Bill Clinton coming up with the way of destroying the New Deal, the Financial Services Modernization Act. You know, and you know what that allowed the whole banking meltdown and the fleecing of people, primarily Brown and Black people got the worst hit. But it was all done in the name of this meritocracy. And I think what your book is, is a reminder that these are not the worthy people and that this is not the solution, that this is a weapon used to divide people. And I think it’s a very powerful message. And you and Barbara are two people who have reminded us that these are not throwaway people, these are not bad people, they do not deserve this fate. You know, that’s the power of your book, I think.
Quart: Thank you, I mean, Barbara always said, you know, the poor are the philanthropists of society. And I thought that was very provocative and useful and sort of watchwords for me, you know, how are we benefiting from other people, from the sacrifices of the people at the bottom of the gradient, the people who are, you know washing the vegetables and cleaning in hospitals and cleaning the streets. And I mean, I think part of what I was inspired by writing this was during the pandemic, thinking of all these people and talking to them and, you know, assigning them articles. You know, a lot of our writers at [indistinguishable] one worked at a grocery store, you know, etc., during the height of COVID. And so it was, I think my editorial work is really important to me to keep this kind of work and this kind of sacrifice, because it is a sacrifice to do that kind of work, to keep it very close to me. It’s not detached. I may be a courtier, but half my life is spent in a different space, you know, working with writers and photographers who are not courtiers. And I don’t want to give that up. I find that part of what maybe the truth value you find in the book comes from that in part, you know.
Scheer: Well, and as your book shows… Look, well we have very little integrity out there now because if we did, my God, we’d all be, you know, we’d be the progressive alternative to the Trumpians. You know, it’s not working and we’re being betrayed. And that’s not a conspiracy theory. And I mean, how do we just shut up and go along and personally benefit? Personally, I’m not going to be a hypocrite here. You know, I pay my bills, I’ve got a good job. But, look, every day at our school, we get the state crime reports. Someone stole a phone or something. You know, the second or third time they’re convicted on that, their life is over. They’re gone. I asked my students, what in the world would cause someone to… What can they get for that? 50 bucks? 30 bucks? What is the desperation behind that? What is our relation to it? We became a gated community. Our university is a gated community. We don’t want to know about it, you know, and the reason I use this courtier class, you know, even people like us who talk about it or write about it, we can get our piece of security, you know, and that is, let me end with one last tribute to your book, because I do want to get people to read it. It’s called Bootstrapped. And I’d say I’m not thrilled with the subtitle, Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. But what I find so powerful is that you humanize the billionaires, too. There are a few of them that you actually get to talk to. There are some that know this is a sick game and you give them their say. There are people who, you know, yes, you talk about funding. You know, there are a lot of alternatives out there. They’re often just feel-good alternatives, they don’t do much. But, you know, crowdsourcing for this project, you know, there’s a lot of examples of that and it’s rewarding. But the fact of the matter is, it’s pathetic. It’s pathetic to think that Google is going to save us or Elon Musk is going to save us if you’re on the other side or Bill Gates with his charity. Because what has happened is that we have destroyed any hope of a functioning representative democracy, representative governance, because all this stuff you’re describing in your book is really about a fundamental human right, fundamental human right to not live under cardboard in a rain in Los Angeles, you know.
Quart: Yeah and what I call the crowdsourcing, this is a phrase that people have seemed to chime with, the dystopian social safety net. And what I mean by that is things that shouldn’t exist but do because we have to have them. Nonprofits like the one I run or, you know, people living in parking lots in California. I mean, you’ve probably encountered this in Wal-Mart parking lots. And there’s programs where people live in parking lots or crowd funding, health care or volunteerism. And I follow people who’ve done all these things in the book. And these are real people, real stories. But it’s also a tragedy. And I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. I want to say both are true. It’s both a beautiful testament to the human spirit that people are pooling their sick days to create maternity leave for their colleagues, this is a real story people I actually knew did this, but it’s also a social tragedy. And it’s funny that you mention the Clintons, too, in light of Alger, because I do think that they probably appealed to the self-made voter in some of the same ways that Trump has. Even Trump is like a fake self-made person, obviously came from multi millions and was given money from his father and has cheated on taxes. We all know he’s you know, now he’s indicted, etc., but he’s not self-made. There’s no, under no auspices. But that idea was very appealing to the people who voted for him. And I spoke to a number of them. So that was also part of the book. Like, I didn’t want to just give this one sided story, but I think the Clintons probably also were appealing and they actually were self-made. But there was something still about the siren song of coming out of nothing and, you know, working your way up that has been sort of used and misused in political life. So I’m very interested in trying to get rid of it, because I think until we get rid of it, we’re going to have more con men like Trump, you know, using the story.
Scheer: Well why isn’t Clinton a con man, for God’s sake? This guy knew, first of all, he was white in the segregated South. Let’s not forget that about Jimmy Carter, too. I mean, privilege, as your book points out, was quite widespread for white people in the South. But think about it, this guy knew something about poverty, right? He knew something about you know, I had this discussion, actually, with Ronald Reagan, who I got along with and I couldn’t believe it. After I said, how in the world did you abandon the New Deal? You know, how? How could you do that when it saved your family? And I know I interviewed Bill Clinton. And when I said, what is this project success? What is this? You’re going to end welfare as you know it. You know you can’t end welfare unless you spend more money. It’s not a budget buster. You’re lying to me. It was in our interview. He said, you’re right, you have to spend more money. First thing they did was cut it. You know, it was a budget balancer. And then I said, the second thing, I said, You can’t leave this up to the tender mercy of the states. They’re going to have a meanness competition. They’re going to force people. I said, you’re absolutely right. It has to be federal. Second, what he did comes in and leaves it up to the states. You know, why is your book clear on Trump? Why are we not clear on the Clintons? You know, they betrayed any…
Quart: I’m not a Clinton fan.
Scheer: No, I’m not…
Quart: I’m not one either. I’m not, it’s not, it wasn’t what I was focused on because I was more interested in what was going on when I was reporting this. But anyway, yeah, so.
Scheer: I know I told you we wouldn’t go this long. I think it’s worth it. I appreciate you taking the time.
Quart: Yeah. Thank you so much. And so we should remind listeners, if you are in the L.A. area, I’ll be having a conversation with Annabelle Gurwitch, the hilarious progressive comedian and writer Annabelle Gurwitch at Chevalier’s on the 17th in the evening.
Scheer: I brought, my son bought six, my son the producer here, bought six tickets to something you’re doing at a bookstore, I think.
Quart: Yeah, that’s Chevalier’s Yeah.
Scheer: Oh that’s it? Oh, so we’ll see you there because he’s already committed us.
Quart: But we should get, I mean, it’s gotten, I think there’s a nice sized audience. Maybe they’re all related to your son and the person in the bookstore was like wow a lot of people are buying tickets.
Scheer: Okay. I always close this by thanking. So let me begin by thanking our executive producer, Joshua Scheer, who even at 4:00 this morning confronted me had I finished reading the book and he set this up and he had already bought tickets to your appearance. So we’ve done a little bit of verbal jousting here, but I want to say Bootstrapped, it is the book to read now about these people you are passing on the street who are being destroyed very visibly by the society. And the book also, amazingly enough, brings us in human contact with those people who are suffering so much and with the billionaires, some of whom know that this is a disaster, most of them who don’t, but you bring us in contact with them and with their conceits as well. So I think that’s a major achievement. I want to thank the folks at KCRW, the very strong F.M. station in Santa Monica, the NPR station. And let me get all the information here, Christopher Ho and Laura Kondourajian. I want to thank Diego Ramos and Max Jones, Diego for writing the intro, Max for doing TV when we do it. And I want to thank the JKW Foundation in the memory of somebody you may have remembered, Jean Stein, who I think is a terrific writer, and they give us some help with the funding of this. So on that note, buy the book, I didn’t do it justice this time, but I didn’t shut up enough but I’ll learn. This is only our sixth year, give me another six years I’ll get it right. Anyway, it’s a great book, buy it. Thanks for doing this.