Thursday, February 1, 2018

What's the Matter with "Kids These Days?" A Review of the Book by Malcolm Harris (B. 1988)

          “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
                                                                     ---Attributed to Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

          I read a favorable review of Kids These Days, by Malcolm Harris (B. 1988) and thought I’d see what the millennial generation was thinking.
          On the one hand, Mr. Harris is a good writer and the book is mercifully short (228 pages of text). On the other hand, Mr. Harris really likes to complain. If this were the only book that pointed out that millennials are currently on the short end of the stick, the book would be useful. But it’s not the only book. That job has been done better by many authors including Andy Stern in his Raising the Floor, which offered the Universal Basic Income as a way to combat offshoring, automation, and the 1099 economy. Mr. Harris offers little in the way of solutions. After saying, “After all, books like this are supposed to end with a solution, right?” he suggests (halfheartedly) buying with a social conscience, voting, giving to causes you believe in, protesting, and “put it down,” which appears to be an argument that none of the above will work.
          It seems many book reviewers are willing to give Mr. Harris his millennial gold stars simply for showing up and mentioning “solutions.”
          I’ll be the first to admit millennials have challenges. But they are not alone. If Mr. Harris enters the labor market, he will no doubt in just a couple of decades find out what it’s like to be a fifty-something cast out into a labor market rife with age discrimination.
          Mr. Harris makes some allegations that are difficult to believe. shows different prices to different customers, for example. He also repeats the old saw (made popular by Dorcas Hardy in her 1991 book Social Insecurity) that people who collect Social Security will get more out of the system than they paid in. (This in spite of the fact that millions who die before they collect their first check will get nothing from the system.) News flash for Mr. Harris: I will get more out of my IRA than I paid in. That’s how retirement savings programs are supposed to work. Additionally, Mr. Harris says (on page 108), “The average dual-earner couple will pay over a million dollars in taxes into a system that half of Millennials (sic) think will leave them high and dry.”
          First, in order to pay over a million dollars into the system, the dual-earner couple would have to be pulling in almost $376,000 a year over a 40-year working life (and that includes the Medicare tax). And that would only be possible if all $376,000 per year were subject to Social Security taxes. The current maximum earnings taxed per worker for Social Security is $127,200 (for 2017). It would not be possible to pay a million dollars into Social Security. One wonders where Mr. Harris’ editor was when this statement needed factchecking. And keep in mind Mr. Harris is evidently assuming $376,000 per couple will be a typical income after spending much of the book arguing that millennials will have difficulty surviving the new economy.
          After wasting a couple of days I’ll never get back reading this book I wondered who Malcom Harris (B. 1988) is. The book offers little other than to say he is a communist and an editor at The New Inquiry who has written for the New Republic, Bookforum, the Village Voice, and the New York Times Magazine.

          It turns out there’s more to Mr. Harris than he lets on in this book. He had a privileged upbringing. He took part in the Occupy movement in 2011 and wound up in some legal trouble over that, which may be why he’s dismissive of “protest,” one of his suggestions. You can look this stuff as well as I can.
          Mr. Harris appears to be more a Maynard G. Krebs-style communist than a serious social activist.

          All in all, Mr. Harris’ book brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s description of the Oakland of her day: There’s no “there” there.

© 2018 Larry Roth

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