April 7, 2021

Princeton High School Graduate Discusses His Book About Super-Rich

By Anne Levin

Michael Mechanic

Who hasn’t entertained a fantasy of winning the lottery? Among those who fall significantly below the one percent, the prospect of sudden, immense wealth can seem like entry into a perfect world — no worries about rent, mortgages, college tuition, and just putting food on the table, not to mention sports cars in the garage and trips to exotic locales.

Not so fast, says Michael Mechanic, author of the book Jackpot, due for release by Simon & Schuster on April 13. The lively non-fiction account of American wealth and its consequences will be discussed by the author, a 1983 graduate of Princeton High School, at a Zoom event sponsored by Labyrinth Books on April 20 at 6 p.m.

“I first had the idea for this probably 25 years ago,” Mechanic said in a telephone interview last week. “I was going to write about the fascination with people like lottery winners, who come into wealth suddenly. We’ve all heard the stories about them imploding.”

But Mechanic soon realized that the idea wouldn’t work. “They won’t talk to you,” he said. “They have been so barraged, by everyone from friends they haven’t seen in 20 years to sleazy money managers. These are often simple people who work for a living and have a family. It really messes up families and work life, so what do you do?”

Mechanic communicated with a few lottery winners, but they declined to talk to him. He then broadened his original idea for the book. With such  chapters as “Retail Therapy,” “Entourage,” “The Marriage Premium” and “Losing Touch,” among others, Jackpot reveals the way the nation’s political system unfairly enriches those at the top at the expense of those at the bottom.

“There are a lot of books about income inequality,” he said. “But I kind of thought of this as a Trojan horse. It will draw you in by showing you the fantasy side of wealth. Then it examines it more closely, and looks at it as how we perpetuate privilege at the expense of people who are not privileged. We talk about free enterprise. Why shouldn’t this guy be a billionaire, when he worked hard? Well, so does your cleaning lady.”

Mechanic, who lives with his family in Oakland, California, is a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine. He worked with a biotechnology company after graduating from UC Berkeley, where he studied biochemistry. After graduate school, he thought he would pursue a career as a science writer. “But my interests were more general,” he said.

Work for magazines and newspapers landed Mechanic at Mother Jones 13 years ago.  While he enjoys the work, he felt the need to do something more.

“Nobody writes an obit about somebody who just edited a bunch of stories for magazines,” he said. “I wanted to do something that felt bigger. My father has written a million books, and it’s sort of been on my bucket list, in a way.”

Dad is David Mechanic, a retired Rutgers University sociology professor who has lived locally since 1982. The family moved to Princeton from Madison, Wisconsin when Michael Mechanic was about to enter high school. They lived on Prospect Avenue, down the street from Princeton University’s eating clubs where Michael often played piano in a band.

He has fond memories of his high school years. His first high school party was at the childhood home of former Princetonian Tom Malinowski, who now represents New Jersey’s 7th District in Congress.

“It was my AP biology teacher Cheri Sprague who inspired me to pursue science,” Mechanic wrote in an email. “And I’ll always remember my freshman English teacher, Mr. Buckley, who loved to strike fear into his new students. The first thing he did on the first day of class was scowl at us and proclaim, ‘Freshmen are vegetating blobs of protoplasm!’”

At the Labyrinth event, Mechanic will be interviewed by author and political reporter David Corn, who is Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief.  Visit Labyrinthbooks.com for more information.

“I think the book gets better as it goes along,” Mechanic said. “We know there are people who are that rich because we hear about it all the time. When you get into the details of what their lives are like, and how much money they have, it can be really surprising.”