Bootstrapped book cover and headshot of author Alissa Quart

Bootstrapped: the mythology of the American Dream

American mythology on the self-made man is more harmful than helpful.

So argues Alissa Quart in her new book Bootstrapped, which published back in March. I appreciate any thoughtful criticism of American capitalism, a system I’ve spent my career reporting on. This book seemed reflexively partisan to me at times — Republicans bad, Democrats good — which weakened the punch. But there’s lots to like in here. I recommend it

I’ve shared my notes below for future reference.

My notes:

  • “Anyone who believes they’re truly self made should call their mother”
  • “Pulling yourself up from your bootstraps” started as a tease (because it’s impossible) in 1834 but grew into an idiom because it really was hard to put your boots on
  • Henry Clay in 1832 helped define the “self made man”
  • Dr King spoke of “bootless Negroes”
  • My note: This books comes across to me as unnecessarily and ineffectively partisan: as in, all the republicans are bad and the democrats are good
  • Of the 1950s and 1960s, “ it was not bootstrapping, but high taxes that made our country great”
  • Thoreau and Emerson gave us the highly idealized concept of “self reliance” even though they had ample support
  • “like many who insist that they are self reliant, Emerson could live as he did because of his relative wealth”
  • Little House in the Prairie formed the mass market version of reliance that Emerson /Thoreau did for poetic and intellectual circles
  • 1928: Hoover “rugged individualism”
  • But Thoreau had a rich wife whose family he sued for her estate and author Wilders family used the federal Homestead Act
  • An academic paper entitled “rugged, individualism and collective inaction during the COVID-19 pandemic” from 2020 found that counties “with greater total frontier experience (TFE) during the era of westward expansion “had a weak collective response to public health risks “
  • Horatio Alger wrote books about poor boys saved by rich older men and he turned ought to be a pedophile
  • Americans think the USA is fairer than it is (likely to move up income level)
  • 2014 study: how much more should CEOs make? Average answer is 7 times not 354 times
  • My note: the English have the royal family and the USA has the fiction of the deserving rich and self made billionaires
  • United for a Fair Economy: 60% of fortune 400 were already rich
  • Thomas piketty 60% of American wealth is inherited
  • Kylie Jenner called herself self made
  • Rich fictions and “just world hypothesis”
  • Status construction theory
  • Paul piff monopoly experiment
  • Corporate mindfulness: a healthy employee costs less but does the mindfulness industry mask greater problems (Amazon); Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced to the west and then positive psychology by Martin Seligman gave rigor
  • Ron Purser: McMindfulness book
  • As Ron Purser wrote with David Lloyd attacking corporate mindfulness, or Zen Inc. saying it “has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals”
  • 2021 HBR story argued mindfulness was bad for workers like waiters whose jobs require inauthenticity
  • The response has been “socially conscious mindfulness”
  • Purser and others also critical Angela duckworth’s “Grit industry” that turned a survival tactic into a compliment
  • Author calls GoFundMe the “dystopian safety net” (My note: but isn’t it just a modern mutual aid?)
  • Mothers often forgotten in self made narrative; more domestic work
  • Mierle Laderman Ukeles women and mothers do maintenance work “the sourball of every revolution”
  • In 1971 Nixon vetoed a national daycare bill
  • Human infrastructure and the Covid era bills
  • Gig work , contrasted with instacart bootstrapping founder Apoorva
  • John Patrick Leahy Keywords book on capitalism: hustle and flexibility of gig and ride and grind
  • Something author champions: Patriotic Millionaires (including Oscar meyer heir giving away his inheritance)
  • Something else: the Resource Generation “ coming out as rich” to disclose your asssts
  • Peter kropotkin mutual aid, inspired by Darwin even if others took from Darwin only competition. (For me the point is that what makes humans thrive is cooperation)
  • Stephen Jay Gould writes “If [Russian geographer Peter] Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly”
  • Social darwinists: Darwin knew about symbiotic species
  • Science paper: “ a symbiotic view of life: we have never been individuals”
  • Author’s Solutions: mutual aid, employee co-ops
  • Shoutout to my former coworker Mo Manklang on page 180: 436 worker collectives she knew of as the book’s writing (I texted her in July 2023, and she says 800 verified and 1,500 overall)
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
  • “Inequality therapy” is growing: Self Evaluation and Psychotherapy in the Market System by Glantz and coauthor
  • Twenge and Cooper 2020 study showed correlation between income and happiness over a 44-year period. Research found that relationship intensified over time; a previous 2010 Kahneman and Deaton famous study showed happiness up to $75k grew before tapering off (I’ve written about that)
  • “Income and inequality and Depression” by Vikram Patel
  • Zadie Smith on the pandemic: “ we had ‘unequal health outcomes “ where a public health emergency was considered a private emergency and a personal problem.
  • A lot of the author’s Covid-related argument is sorta that every nonprofit is a policy failure
  • Nina Eliasoph’s “Making Volunteers” book has similar theme
  • Clara Barton divided between charity and mutual aid: “offering a hand up, not a handout”
  • Participatory budgets: Johanna Lerner largely who brought PB to the United States
  • “The pandemic also revealed, yet again how the self made myth underpinned the fable of the American dream.”
  • Shoutout to ecologist Suzanne Simard work on how trees don’t compete for sunlight but are interdependent and share the sunlight
  • We are living through a “media extinction event”
  • Alice Neely’s 1933 painting depicted a day at a poverty foundation, where the artist wrote “the woman is seated in a chair in the middle of the picture was living with her seven children under an over turned automobile – that was their house “the foundation “never gave a penny to the poor “but simply “investigated the poor. Out of that came Social Security and welfare, but before that you just starved to death.”
  • Who assisted in your success?

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