CSA, I’m not so sure I’d call lame on your positive estimation of the “teachable moments” of Nickel and Dimed — which I might simply recast as “good points.”

I’m of two minds on this book (jeez, when am I not?) — on the one hand, I understand the frustration expressed with the stunt at the heart of Ehrenreich’s effort — to the extent that she “performs” the role of a working-class woman without the burden of having to live that role, she allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking that the performance itself is laudable, and in fact threatens to obscure the complicated reality of many peoples’ working lives by stapling her own limited experience of these jobs on them. I remember that she got a number of letters in Harpers to this effect, from people who felt that their working lives were belittled by Ehrenreich’s portrait of them as meaningless and/or humiliating. The idea of a staged performance of the book certainly sounds like…well, like an obnoxious spectacle of the heroic smartmouth in the groanworthy Michael Moore vein.

However….OK, I read only the sections of Nickel and Dimed that have been reproduced in magazines; so perhaps my view is overly constrained. But my impression was that, despite the validity of the above criticisms, I still found Ehrenreich’s argument salutary. To wit, her primary stated purpose was to challenge the assumptions about the physical and economic outlines of working-class life drawn by conservative “reformers” who have been preaching the doctrine of self-reliance and the reduction of government economic aid to lower-income individuals. This doctrine rests on the assumption that a well-behaved person, without addictions or crippling medical problems, who “works hard” will be able to earn enough to support self & dependants and, indeed, become upwardly mobile through savings etcetera; and that government assistance and regulation of the workplace is fundamentally damaging to the self-esteem and to the broadest opportunity for employment that these individuals have.

And I think that, on the whole, the stuff of hers that I read was a well-timed rebuke — aimed not at the die-hard conservatives who make these arguments most loudly, but at fence-sitting middle-of-the-roaders who would prefer to believe in the truths offered by the Republican party (and increasingly by Clintonian biz-friendly Democrats), but who sometimes vote differently if a particularly pungent truth (like the difficulty of actually finding a permanent home on waitress wages) is rubbed in their faces.

Along the way, she also had some good points for the effects on the family caused by hiring someone to come into your house and clean up after you. I took that as immensely valuable, considering that more and more of the people (me included) hire someone to come in and clean. We’re moving yearly toward a more thoroughly stratified society of owners, knowledge-workers, and service workers. This happens, Ehrenreich’s work reminds us, not just economically but socially and psychologically — my employment of a woman to clean my bathroom is my own personal contribution to the creation of a reality in which there is a real and lasting difference between the lives of her children and of mine.

It’s true that her work is rife with distracting pronouncements, and doesn’t offer anything tangible in the way of solutions. But I found it, as a critique of increasingly popular political views to be valuable.

OK, now someone explain why I’m the lame one…