For me, an enduring frustration of traditional journalism is that what training you do get centers on the imperative to discount and dismiss your own experiences in pursuit of some objective ideal, even as journalism simultaneously exposes you to an unusually large variety of experiences. The idea that it might be a good thing to attempt to apply insights gleaned from those experiences to future stories—let alone synthesize it all into any sort of coherent narrative—rarely comes up, unless you’re a columnist. This can be an especially torturous dilemma during the inevitable low point at which the journalist—this one, anyway—comes to believe that the only feasible course of action (given the state of journalism) is to secure a six-figure book deal, and commences filling her off-hours in a feeble attempt to “write what you know.” I know a lot of things, taunts the endless negative feedback loop, but none of them is how to make six figures.
With my journalistic redemption under way, and finding that redemption alone doesn’t necessarily pay the rent, I started a book proposal about something I termed “The Nothing-Based Economy.” The argument was pretty simple: the American economy had become so enthralled with the endless cultivation and expansion of demand that it had become totally divorced from the reality of need. This was not an inevitability that Marx and Mao and the movie Idiocracyhadn’t grappled with already, but I was just a journalist and those were just the facts. Drug companies founded to cure diseases had a duty to shareholders to never cure anything so long as tens of millions of Americans reliably spent hundreds of dollars a month on the nebulous array of chronic maladies pharmaceutical companies had invented to treat. Bankers who still (incredibly) claimed to facilitate “efficient allocation of capital” were in actuality beholden to the trading-desk arbitrageurs who couldn’t make money unless their corporate finance departments concocted a steady stream of “innovations” by which to render markets more inefficient. Every last function of government was being outsourced to some contractor with the fiduciary obligation to ensure that taxpayers wasted as much money as possible.
Abercrombie and LeBron James and AOL informed this observation, as had some stories I’d written for Philadelphia magazine: the year I spent shadowing a Wharton MBA class, for instance, on its punishing schedule of leadership classes and campfire retreats and networking events that seemed deliberately designed to impart no ideas, hone no skills, and prepare the students for nothing beyond spending an inordinate amount of time in the company of people very similar to themselves; or the investigation into Donald Trump’s resurgence as a “virtual developer” who licensed his name to the sort of luxury-condo projects where the deeds would change hands five times before the thing was even built.
This was all well and good, at least as underlying theories went, but of the fourteen distinct genera of profitable nonfiction books my agent had identified in his many years of sales analysis, he said my idea sounded most like an “I’m Right And You’re Totally Wrong” book. The appeal of such a book rests on the author having achieved a degree of personal-brand credibility, and since neither of us could remember a blurb along the lines of “regional magazine staffer calls bullshit on the American economy” following an entry on The New York Times best-seller list, I complied when my agent suggested I pursue instead an “exposé,” in which the author “draws on inside knowledge”—possibly acquired “as a reporter willing to live through a terrible experience”—to “regale us with stories about how much more awful things are than they appear on the surface.”
So in 2006, I took a job at American Apparel. You are probably aware that American Apparel had (and has) two primary reasons for notoriety: that it actually manufactures (in downtown Los Angeles, no less) the clothes it sells, and that its controversial founder and CEO, Dov Charney, decided to open hundreds of conspicuously located urban stores at the peak of the real-estate bubble, and staff them mostly with a revolving cast of underage-looking girls who were willing to work management-consultant hours for $9 an hour and a shot at being invited to pose for one of the trademark semipornographic employee photo shoots the company uses to advertise, if not its clothes, its “brand.”
American Apparel seemed to me a tweaked-out metaphor for the country itself, the way it had strategically shifted the hero of its exceptionalism narrative from its factory to its cast of disposable young people who are endowed with little besides their looks and the desire to broadcast their youthful insouciance to a wider audience.