The Book Club

Why I Liked Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich’s Previous Experiment

Dear Tyler:

No, actually, I cannot muster much, if any, enthusiasm for Bait and Switch. If anything, you may be too kind to Ehrenreich. The least of her problems is her cluelessness about what it takes to find work. I found even more disturbing her tendency to lecture those who lack her presumably superior understanding of how the world works.

First, though, let me confess to being an Ehrenreich admirer. Unlike you, I found myself sympathetic to what she tried to do in Nickel and Dimed. Remember that this book came out at a time when leftists in America were preoccupied with identity politics. From universities there spewed forth little but pretentious theorizing about disciplinarity and other topics too dreary to mention. Ehrenreich, although lacking the moral depth of George Orwell, nonetheless wrote a book that evoked the spirit of Down and Out in Paris and London. For all the wealth that capitalism generates, its ways of distributing income are frequently unjust. Her book served as a reminder of the immorality rampant in a society whose president, his moral and religious language notwithstanding, is determined to deepen the already considerable injustices of the society over which he presides.

Bait and Switch, by contrast, is morally flaccid. Ehrenreich musters little indignation herself and cannot arouse in her readers a sense that really serious injustices have been perpetuated on the jobless people she comes to know. Part of the reason has to do with the book’s structure. And part has to do with Ehrenreich’s political certainties.

Structurally, Bait and Switch never makes up its mind what kind of book it wants to be. If it had explored the lives of the people Ehrenreich meets in the course of her job search, she might have written a book in the spirit of Nickel and Dimed. (She does a bit of this toward the end, but not nearly enough.) But because the book instead focuses on Barbara Alexander—her maiden name and the moniker she uses to disguise her identity—it substitutes narcissism for empathy. Barbara is the book’s subject, not Cynthia, the failed real-estate broker she meets along the way or John Piering, once an IT specialist. And Barbara Alexander, as you realize, is simply not an interesting person. Barbara Ehrenreich is, but this book is not about the former biologist who became a leftwing activist and successful writer. The construct of the book borders on the unethical; social scientists would never permit an experiment with this much faking. But it also renders the book uninteresting. Who cares what happens to a person who does not exist? You don’t, Tyler, and, frankly, neither do I.

I have to confess, though, that Barbara Ehrenreich does kick off the disguise of Barbara Alexander at least twice in the book, and they represent the book’s lowest moments. One time she finds herself in the presence of evangelical Christians. To her surprise, she discovers how secular even conservative Christians can be; the church she visits in the Virginia suburbs of Washington has “no crosses, no Jesus, no angels, nothing.” Still, at yet another church, this time in Atlanta, she finds herself repelled by the idea of Christian networking and stages a walkout as visible as it was rude. Ehrenreich, not Alexander, can barely control her disdain for the rubes who believe all that superstitious nonsense. Surely, Tyler, you will want to add that to the list of reasons she fails to find a job.

But the meetings with Christians are nothing compared to her behavior at a mock PR exercise designed to see how these job seekers would deal with a hypothetical crisis. A company finds itself faced with a barrage of lawsuits charging sexual harassment and is targeted by a national feminist organization. What should the PR department do? Someone proposes providing medical care for the victims. Barbara, describing herself as “annoyed” and “irritated,” explodes. The responsibility falls upon her to describe to these dunderheads “the difference between sexual harassment and rape, and how an offer of psychiatric counseling to a victim of sexual harassment might easily be construed as an insult.” When she describes herself “pounding the table and insisting on a thorough investigation,” I could readily understand why those around the table would be as tempted to walk out on her as she was on the Christians.

Tyler, I know we disagree on a lot of things; you are adherent to forms of laissez-faire capitalism that in my view cause needless suffering to far too many innocent people. We agree, though, that Bait and Switch fails. Let’s see if there is a market for it. If people buy this book the way they did Nickel and Dimed, I’ll ask you to tell me what the market is trying to tell us.