Horatio Alger is Dead, America Has a New Class Structure, and it’s Not Your Fault

horatio alger

January 23, 2020

The member of the month at the gym where I work out is a guy who looks like he’s in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asks “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything” — yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids, and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it, that’s your problem, not America’s.

Except it’s not true, and we know that, too. We know that you can work really, really hard and dedicate lots and lots of time and effort (and money), and still not get what you want.

Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Why don’t we admit that things don’t actually work that way? Because that would be un-American. So instead we elevate the boast: America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity — like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed.
I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that landed gentry/inherited wealth class system here.

Except that’s not true either, and we know that, too.

But we love the equal opportunity myth. We love the feeling of personal power – agency, self-efficacy – it gives us. It’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[1]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

Equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is.

Never mind that the Sacred doesn’t seem to mind being doubted – it’s the people who believe something is sacred you have to watch out for. And never mind that history and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths – exposing them as belief systems, not absolute truths. But it’s too late by the time history has its say: the fraud is perpetrated in the meantime, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. If we don’t get “anything you want,” then we confess that we didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort,” or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth.

You may have seen the Indeed commercial. (Go ahead, click it – it’s only 30 seconds.)

Indeed advert

It brilliantly taps the emotional power of the equal opportunity myth.

“With no choice but to move back home after college, they thought he’d be a little more motivated to find a job.”

The kid is glued to his phone, and it’s driving his parents crazy. He’s obviously a slacker, a freeloader. Household tensions mount. The phone dings at the dinner table. Dad snatches it up.

“Turns out, they were right.”

He’s using it to find a job! Faith and family harmony restored! That’s our hard-working boy!

Heartwarming, but still untrue.

But What About the Strong Job Numbers?

Yes, unemployment is low. But consider this analysis of those numbers[2], just out this month:

“Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Employment Situation report (better known as the ‘jobs report’) to outline the latest state of the nation’s economy. And with it, of late, have been plenty of positive headlines—with unemployment hovering around 3.5%, a decade of job growth, and recent upticks in wages, the report’s numbers have mostly been good news.

“But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Are these jobs any good? How much do they pay? Do workers make enough to live on?

“Here, the story is less rosy.

“In a recent analysis, we found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64—or 44% of all workers—earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour, and about $18,000 per year. These low-wage workers are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, including retail sales, cooks, food and beverage servers, janitors and housekeepers, personal care and service workers (such as child care workers and patient care assistants), and various administrative positions.

“Just how concerning are these figures? Some will say that not all low-wage workers are in dire economic straits or reliant on their earnings to support themselves, and that’s true. But as the following data points show, it would be a mistake to assume that most low-wage workers are young people just getting started, or students, or secondary earners, or otherwise financially secure:

      • Two-thirds (64%) of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25 to 54.
      • More than half (57%) work full-time year-round, the customary schedule for employment intended to provide financial security.
      • About half (51%) are primary earners or contribute substantially to family living expenses.
      • Thirty-seven percent have children. Of this group, 23% live below the federal poverty line.
      • Less than half (45%) of low-wage workers ages 18 to 24 are in school or already have a college degree.

“These statistics tell an important story: Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages.”

When the kid got a text at the dinner table, it was about one of these jobs. Mom and Dad better get used to the idea that he’ll be around for awhile. Even if he gets that job, it won’t offer benefits, could end at any moment, and won’t pay him enough to be self-sustaining. That’s not how Mom and Dad were raised or how things went for them, but that’s how the economy works nowadays.

Economics Begets Social Structure

The even bigger issue is that the equal opportunity myth has become a social norm: uber-competitive free market economics controls the collective American mindset about how adult life works, to the point that it’s become a nationalist doctrine.

The Chicago School of Economics – the Vatican of free marketism — believed so ardently in its on doctrines that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of fundamentalist indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”[3]

Free market ideology preaches that capitalism promotes both economic and social opportunity. It has had the past four decades to prove that claim, and has failed as spectacularly as Soviet-style communism failed to benefit the workers it was supposed to redeem. Instead, free market ideology has given America what it wasn’t ever supposed to have: a stratified socio-economic class system that skews rewards to the top 10% and leaves the rest in the grip of the dismal statistics listed above.

But we don’t see that – or if we do, we don’t say anything about it, we just keep reciting the “trickle down” mantra. Member of the month and his Dad and the parents in the Indeed commercial and most Americans still believe the myth. Ironically the ones who see through it are the top 10% members who got in before they closed the gates. Meanwhile, the lower 90% — the decimated middle class, the new poor, the hard-working wage-earners – keep blaming themselves.

Even though it’s not their fault. If the kid in the commercial can’t find a job to support himself, it’s not his fault.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

But unlike “anything you want,” “it’s not your fault” is true: current economic policy and its companion social norms do not deliver equal opportunity. Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth lives on life support as we teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data.

Horatio Alger is Dead

There’s no more enduring version of the upward mobility ideal than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message. Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons – opportunists aided by collusion and chronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[4]

But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin. Thanks to our devotion to that philosophy, a fair start has become is a thing of the past — so says Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders.

Reeves begins by confessing that his disenchantment over the demise of the Horatio Alger ideal will no doubt seem disingenuous because he didn’t grow up American and is now a member of the economic elite himself:

“As a Brookings senior fellow and a resident of an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of DC, I am, after all, writing about my own class.

“I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. (Also, I was born on the Fourth of July.) There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

“My new country was founded on anti-hereditary principles. But while the inheritance of titles or positions remains forbidden, the persistence of class status across generations in the United States is very strong. Too strong, in fact, for a society that prides itself on social mobility.”

Reeves also wrote a Brookings Institute monograph called Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream, in which he said the following:

“Vivid stories of those who overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve success are all the more impressive because they are so much the exceptions to the rule. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in America now — forces related not just to income and wealth but also to family structure and education – that put the country at risk of creating an ossified, self-perpetuating class structure, with disastrous implications for opportunity and, by extension, for the very idea of America.

“The moral claim that each individual has the right to succeed is implicit in our ‘creed,’ the Declaration of Independence, when it proclaims ‘All men are created equal.’

“There is a simple formula here — equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility — which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed.

“Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty — the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself” — with societal equality. It is a philosophy of egalitarian individualism. The measure of American equality is not the income gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

“The problem is not that the United States is failing to live up to European egalitarian principles, which use income as a measure of equality. It is that America is failing to live up to American egalitarian principles, measured by the promise of equal opportunity for all, the idea that every child born into poverty can rise to the top.”

There’s a lot of data to back up what Reeves is saying. See, e.g., this study from Stanford, which included these findings:

“Parents often expect that their kids will have a good shot at making more money than they ever did…. But young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.”

The New American Meritocracy

Along with Richard Reeves, philosopher Matthew Stewart and entrepreneur Steven Brill cite the same economic and related social data to support their conclusion that the new meritocrat socio-economic class has barred the way for the rest of us. I’ll let Matthew Stewart speak for the others[5]:

“I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.

“By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below.

“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

“So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re ‘middle class.’

“One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

Two Stories, One Man

In a remarkable display of self-awareness and historical-cultural insight, Stanford professor David Labaree admits that his own upward mobility story can be told two ways — one that illustrates the myth and one that doesn’t, depending on your point of view.[6]

“Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

“But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed. As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University.

“Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game.

“In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale.

“The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children.”

Pause for a moment and wonder, as I did, why would the new meritocrats write books and articles like these? Is it a case of Thriver (Survivor) Guilt? Maybe, but I think it’s because they’re dismayed that their success signals the end of the American equal opportunity ideology. You don’t trample on something sacred. They didn’t mean to. They’re sorry. But now that they have, maybe it wasn’t so sacred after all.

The new socio-economic class system was never supposed to happen in America. We weren’t supposed to be like the Old World our founders left behind. But now we are, although most of us don’t seem to know it, and only a few brave souls will admit it. Meanwhile the Horatio Alger mansions are all sold out, and the gate to the community is locked and guarded. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in America.

Until it did.

[1] The Declaration of Independence.

[2] Low Employment Isn’t Worth Much if the Jobs Barely Pay, The Brookings Institute, Jan. 8, 2020.

[3] The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017).

[4] The best source I’ve found for the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).

[5] Matthew Stewart is the author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. Steven Brill is the founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, and is the author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America. The quoted text is from Stewart’s Atlantic article.

[6] Pluck Versus Luck, Aeon Magazine (Dec. 4. 2019) –“Meritocracy emphasises the power of the individual to overcome obstacles, but the real story is quite a different one.”

School’s Out, What’s Next?

Mini bua

In November 2016, one of my daughters and I shared an espresso and a big life conversation at the Minibus Café in Gangnam, Seoul. (Yes, as in Gangnam Style.) At one point, I told her someone in her generation ought to go to grad school (probably in London, I guessed) and develop an economic model to make sense of the new economy and its new paradigm job market.

“Maybe you should,” she replied.

So I did, but minus grad school, London. and the economic model. Instead, “maybe you should” became the ultimate autodidactic independent study, touching nearly all academic disciplines. By now, three years later, I’ve gotten the college education I was too clueless to get when I was there. (I was definitely a case for “college is wasted on the young.”) The learning got personal, too – it explained my own economic and work history in surprising ways that put to rest several career ghosts,

All that, from studying economics and jobs! Who would have thought?!

I started reading and researching in January 2017, and started blogging half a year later. Each post was a 750-1,000 word paper due every week, quoting experts and citing sources. I had no intention of becoming an economist, and did my best to dodge political polarizing. I just wanted to understand the world my kids were growing up in (the same world I was growing old in). Jobs and careers and surviving in the “real world” weren’t the same — I knew that much; I wanted to know more.

Today’s post is #128. Even that many hasn’t emptied my research files. Plus, I’d seen over and over how much economic conversation relies on long-held ideas that don’t work anymore. To move on, we need to challenge our cherished but outdated beliefs and institutions. So I started another blog whose goal is to do that in areas other than economics.

I decided early on to keep studying economics and jobs only until I stopped uncovering new topics – kind of like when Bono said U2 would stop making albums when they became irrelevant. Last summer, I thought I was close to that point, but things kept coming up … until the past two “Reckoning” posts, when I thought surely this is it, surely school’s finally out.

But now I’m not so sure.

All told, I’ve been blogging for nearly nine years on a series of topics that usually last 1-3 years. A couple were collected into books (free to download here, or available from Amazon for a price here and here). But another cut and paste job from this blog didn’t feel right. Blog posts are about the topic du jour, which is great for learning and keeping up, but lacks continuity. Meanwhile, as I’ve been researching this series, I’ve developed a fondness for “long reads” – articles 3-4 times longer than the ones I’ve been writing. They invite both writer and reader to slow down, be more thorough.

I’ve therefore decided to keep my promise and stop blogging – both here and in my other blog – and instead write longer, less frequent, more developed articles. In this forum, I’ll go back, organize past material thematically, update the research, find out what the authors I quoted have to say now, find new people with new things to say, and generally follow new rabbit trails as I’ve done before.

School’s out, but I’m not done learning.

That’s what’s next for 2020. Thanks for reading, following, and sharing.

Click the image below, have a listen, and remember what it’s like to be a kid on June 1st.

Alice Cooper

Out for summer, out ‘til fall,
We might not go back at all

School’s Out, Alice Cooper

Progressive Capitalism

torn dollar bill

Torn dollar bill image source and license.

We’ve been looking at economic winners and losers in the zero-sum economy — particularly in the context of higher education, where cultural belief in the importance of college and post-graduate degrees on upward mobility and success in the job market is driving behavior that harms both parents (the college admissions scandal) and the economic and mental health of their children (student loan debt, general anxiety disorder, depression, suicide).

This series of blog posts is now in its third year — throughout, we’ve seen how hyper-competitive capitalism and its staunch faith in the implicit justice of the “free” market is causing other economic loses. For example:

  • the stagnation of middle class real incomes;
  • the rise of the numbers of statistically poor people in the U.S.;
  • the dismantling of compassionate social safety nets in favor of expensive, counterproductive, and humiliating replacements;
  • the rise of the “rentier” economy in which formerly public benefits have been privatized, making them accessible only to those who can afford them through the payment of economic “rents”;
  • the end of the American ideal of upward social and economic mobility;
  • the high cost of housing and the death of the American dream of home ownership;
  • the elimination of “normal” jobs through off-shoring, outsourcing, and the delegation of productivity to intelligent machines;
  • the advent of the short-term, contract-based “gig economy” with its lack of fringe benefits and its precarious prospects for sustainable income;
  • economic inequality that favors the wealthiest of capitalists at the expense of the bottom 90% (or 99%, or 99.9%, depending on your data and point of view);
  • the creation instead of an insular top-level “meritocrat” socio-economic class;
  • the new state of “total work” and the “monetization” of goods and services;
  • rising rates of career burnout, mental illness, and suicide resulting from social isolation and the vain struggle to find meaning and purpose at work;
  • the rise of corporate nation-states with economic and policy-making power that dwarfs that of many governmental nation-states;
  • the private (non-democratic) social policy-making initiatives of the wealthiest elites;
  • and much, much more.

Nobody meant economic policy to do this, but it has, for roughly the past 30-40 years. Good intentions; unplanned results.

We’ve seen that both plutocrats and progressives advocate for systemic change, while status quo inertia weighs in on the side of those who don’t see what all the fuss is about, since capitalism is undeniably the best economic option and always has been, and besides it’s still working just fine, thank you very much. Instead of meaningful discourse, we have a predominant nostalgic, populist doubling down on the neoliberal socio-economic cultural ideology that jet-propelled post-WWII recovery but finished running its course in the 1970s, while the retrenchers and the media slap those who beg to differ with the kiss-of-death label “progressive.” As a result, we’re left with incessant lobbing from one end of the polarized spectrum to the other of ideological bombs that originate in data and analysis skewed by cognitive biases, intentional blindness, and fake news . Economic policy-making resembles WWI trench warfare — a tactical grinding down of the opposition and the numbing and dumbing of everyone else. It was a bad idea then, and it’s still a bad idea now.

I had no idea this is what I was getting into when I decided three years ago to research and write about the new economy and the future of work.

It’s in the context of this toxic environment that Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, offered his “progressive capitalism” alternative, based on “the power of the market to serve society.” Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron: We can save our broken economic system from itself, New York Times (April 19, 2019). His article, like virtually all of the economics books and articles I read these days, begins with a long parade of evils and ends with a handful of policy ideas. His version of the former is by now quite familiar:

“Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years.

“This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.

“We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking).

“Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities.

“Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.

“Politics has played a big role in the increase in corporate rent-seeking and the accompanying inequality.

“Markets don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to be structured by rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations must be enforced.

“We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.

“If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans.

“The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society.

“Progressive capitalism is based on a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.

“Part of this new social contract is an expanded public option for many programs now provided by private entities or not at all

“This new social contract will enable most Americans to once again have a middle-class life.

“The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest.

“America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people.”

His point seems to be that merely reciting litanies of economic woes won’t bring about systemic relief — for that, we need to embrace an essential factor:

Paradigms only shift when culture  shifts:
new ideas require new culture to receive them,
and new culture requires new belief systems.

Systemic change requires cultural change — remodeled institutions and revised social contracts that tether ideas to real life. Trying to patch policy ideas into the existing socio-economic system is like what would happen if a firm were to abruptly change its products, services, and strategic and marketing plans without bothering to change its mission statement, values and beliefs, and firm culture.

Like that’s going to work.

Coming up, we’ll look beyond policy bombs to the higher ground of revised cultural beliefs, starting with next week’s search for the “public” that’s gone missing from the Republic.

Can Capitalism Buy Happiness?

smiley face

Over two years ago, the first blog post in this series asked, “Can money buy happiness?” Today’s question looks past the medium of economic exchange to the more foundational sociological and psychological implications of contemporary hyper-competitive capitalism — a good example of which is the “meritocracy trap” we looked at last time, which clearly is not making capitalism’s elite happy, but instead is driving maladaptive behavior like the college admissions scandal.

The scandal evokes the kind of horrified fascination you get from reading the National Enquirer headlines in the checkout line:

“A teenage girl who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million.

“A high school boy eager to enroll at the University of Southern California was falsely deemed to have a learning disability so he could take his standardized test with a complicit proctor who would make sure he got the right score. Cost to his parents: at least $50,000.

“A student with no experience rowing won a spot on the U.S.C. crew team after a photograph of another person in a boat was submitted as evidence of her prowess. Her parents wired $200,000 into a special account.”

Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud, New York Times (March 12, 2019)

What the…?

The parents who wrote those big checks now face a stiff legal price, but why did they do it in the first place? An ongoing discussion over the past several years[i] suggests an answer:  they did it because of the “meritocracy trap” as evident in higher education, — an economic necessity for more than just the elite — where the current dynamics of of how capitalism is practiced are a significant contributor to mental ill health.

A long article on that topic came out last weekend:  The Way Universities Are Run Is Making Us Ill’: Inside The Student Mental Health Crisis. The Guardian (Sept. 27, 2019). The subhead reads “A surge in anxiety and stress is sweeping UK campuses. What is troubling students, and is it the universities’ job to fix it?” The article’s U.K. examples mirror those that prompted the USA’s college admission scandal,. Predominant mental health issues on both sides of the Atlantic include general anxiety disorder, depression, and “an alarming number of suicides.” What’s behind all this? Consider these quotes from the article:

“In the drive to make universities profitable, there is a fundamental confusion about what they are for. As a result, there has been a shift from prizing learning as an end in itself to equipping graduates for the job market, in what for some can be a joyless environment.

“Studies have looked at the impact of social media, or lack of sleep caused by electronic devices, as well as the effects of an uncertain job market, personal debt and constricted public services.

“In his book Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris … identifies the pressures of the labour market, rising student debt and a target-driven culture as contributing to steep increases in anxiety and depression among young people.

“Driving our universities to act like businesses doesn’t just cannibalise the joy of learning and the social utility of research and teaching; it also makes us ill,’ wrote Mark Crawford, then a postgraduate student union officer at UCL, in a 2018 piece for Red Pepper magazine… ‘It’s self-worth being reduced to academic outcomes, support services being cut, the massive cost of housing,’ he says.

“[Mental health authorities] have noticed a fall in participation. It’s getting harder to fill up events, most likely a symptom of the sharp increase in students living far away from campus to save money… Others have limited time as they juggle studies with paid work.

“For [Sean Cullen, a student featured in the article], money worries have been a grinding and ever-present aspect of his university experience. In his first year, he socialised more than he does now. But given that a single night out costs as much as a weekly food shop, he soon began to think twice about going out with friends. To complicate matters, the amount he receives from Student Finance England, the body responsible for student loans, changed year by year, with unpredictable amounts and repayment terms. “The financial aid is getting worse and worse, even though the cost of living is going up,” he says.

“In 2017, Cullen was elected as the student union’s disability officer… He heard accounts of mental health problems from hundreds of other students, many of whose experiences chimed with his own. ‘I’ve not yet met a student that hasn’t experienced high levels of stress while studying, whether it’s because of deadlines, balancing paid work, or problems with housing,’ he says.

“While many students survive more or less on their overdrafts, …many have mental health problems in their final year. ‘Nowadays, getting a degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a job, or not a better job than without one,’ he says.

“[The need to work many hours per week] has an impact not only on academic performance but on students’ ability to fully participate in university life.

“Students exhausted from working while studying full time, and still struggling to cover their basic living costs, are bound to be more anxious about deadlines and exams. ‘It’s all the environmental stuff that makes it more stressful… If you’re tired, you haven’t had time to study, you have to make a long journey to university, it’s all cumulative.’”

Cuts in social services, educational and housing costs, social isolation, student loans, constricted access to upward mobility, a stingy job market, precarious prospects for sustainable income, a struggle to find meaning and purpose at work… these are economic issues, not education issues. This series has looked at all of them. Next time we’ll look further into what’s behind them..

[1] See, for example, this NCBI study:  “Anxious? Depressed? You might be suffering from capitalism: Contradictory class locations and the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the United States.”

The End is at Hand

the end is at hand

… but you still might want to check out the bus schedule for your ride home.

I’ve been studying jobs and the new economy for nearly three years, and blogging about them for two. For reasons I’ll talk about later, I’ll be drawing this blog series to a close at the end of September. In the meantime, I thought this might be a good time to invite you to check out my other blog — here’s a link to its About page.

I say that because I just started a new “consciousness and the self” series there, and today I’m drafting an installment that borrows from an earlier post here, on the topic of “finding your true calling” in your vocation.

The other blog has a different focus than this one, but there’s some overlap in content, and I write it in the same style, with a commitment to research and letting the pros offer their opinions. If you like that approach, you might like what you find over there.

That’s all. Just wanted to give you a heads up. See you on Thursday with the next installment of “homo economicus.”

Free Market Professionalism

snake oil salesman 2

10- 15 years ago I discovered the Wannabe Economy.

It’s staffed by speakers, writers, facilitators, hosts, coaches, consultants… awake, aware, alive, attractive people ready to show us how to have it as good as they do. I needed their help. I dove in, gobbled up their wares.

At one point, I tried to be a Wannabe provider myself (books and workshops). But then doubt started stalking me: was I promoting sustainable change or just trashing people’s lives? How would know? I meant well, but so do lots of harmful people. The Wannabe Economy didn’t have an existential crisis:  it championed personal responsibility and trusted the marketplace to sort  things out.

The pitch is, “Do this, get that” — here’s the secret, the key, the code. the password, the knock. This gets you in. We want in, so we lay our money down. We feel grateful. We go for it. Then what? It’s all on us — personally responsibility, remember? — so if it works, we did it right, and if it doesn’t, we didn’t. We don’t call our guru to account; instead, we buy more.[1]

Why? Because we want desperately to play until we win. The sellers are invariably charismatic, assured, happy, rich — or appear to be. We believe in their sincerity, look for and find evidence that they live what they’re selling. (They’re making money selling to us, but we miss that point.) So we keep shelling it out, keep trying to finesse our way to the promised land. Meanwhile, our guides have no skin in the game — not our game, at least. There’s no investment, only well wishes.

I suspect that 99.999% of the helpers in the self-help industry genuinely want to help. But it’s a business, after all, not charity.[2] There’s no mens rea for buyer’s remorse in the Wannabe Economy. You pays your money, you takes your chance. Caveat emptor.

And, more pertinent to this blog, what I just described has become how “professional” services are bought and sold. Capitalism serves up both the Wannabe Economy and Free Market Professionalism.

Any problem with that?

In two words, trust and accountability, which are reducible to one word:   professionalism. And professionalism is taking a beating in the free market. That’s the message of this article: Why A Market Model Is Destroying The Safeguards Of The Professions. It’s written by a German academic mostly about the medical profession, but it applies to other professions as well.

“Wasn’t there a time when professionals still knew how to serve us – a cosy, well-ordered world of responsible doctors, wise teachers and caring nurses? In this world, bakers still cared about the quality of their bread, and builders were proud of their constructions. One could trust these professionals; they knew what they were doing and were reliable guardians of their knowledge. Because people poured their souls into it, work was still meaningful – or was it?

“In the grip of nostalgia, it’s easy to overlook the dark sides of this old vocational model. On top of the fact that professional jobs were structured around hierarchies of gender and race, laypeople were expected to obey expert judgment without even asking questions. Deference to authority was the norm, and there were few ways of holding professionals to account.

“Against this backdrop, the call for more autonomy, for more ‘choice’, seems hard to resist. This is precisely what happened with the rise of neoliberalism after the 1970s, when the advocates of ‘New Public Management’ promoted the idea that hard-nosed market thinking should be used to structure healthcare, education and other areas that typically belonged to the slow and complicated world of public red tape. In this way, neoliberalism undermined not only public institutions but the very idea of professionalism.

“This attack was the culmination of two powerful agendas. The first was an economic argument about the alleged inefficiency of public services or the other non-market structures in which professional knowledge was hosted.

“The second was an argument about autonomy, about equal status, about liberation – ‘Think for yourself!’ instead of relying on experts. The advent of the internet seemed to offer perfect conditions for finding information and comparing offers: in short, for acting like a fully informed customer.

“These two imperatives – the economic and the individualistic – meshed extremely well under neoliberalism. The shift from addressing the needs of citizens to serving the demands of customers or consumers was complete.

“The imperatives of productivity, profitability and the market rule.

“We are all customers now; we are all supposed to be kings. But what if ‘being a customer’ is the wrong model for healthcare, education, and even highly specialised crafts and trades?

“What the market-based model overlooks is hyperspecialisation, as the philosopher Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015). We depend on other people’s knowledge and expertise, because we can learn and study only so many things in our lifetimes. Whenever specialist knowledge is at stake, we are the opposite of a well-informed customer. Often we don’t  want to have to do our own research, which would be patchy at best; sometimes, we are simply unable to do it, even if we tried. It’s much more efficient (yes, efficient!) if we can trust those already in the know.

“But it can be hard to trust professionals forced to work in neoliberal regimes.

“Responsible professionalism imagines work-life as a series of relationships with individuals who are entrusted to you, along with the ethical standards and commitments you uphold as a member of a professional community. But marketisation threatens this collegiality, by introducing competitiveness among workers and undermining the trust that’s needed to do a good job.

“Is there a way out of this conundrum? Could professionalism be revived? If so, can we avoid its old problems of hierarchy while preserving space for equality and autonomy?”

Good questions that deserve engaged, real-time answers from people with skin in the game.

[1] For a scathing description of this particular consumer behavior in the Wannabe Economy,  see 11 Billion Reasons The Self Help Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know The Truth About Happiness (Hint: Unhappy People Buy Things) Inc. (Oct. 19, 2017).

[2] Although it is very much a religion — I write more on topics like that in another context.

“What Do You Do?”

Anybody else remember when “networking” was something you did at cocktail parties? That was before it became a fact of computerized life — see this pictorial history . The idea of old-style networking mostly gets eye rolls these days — too much objectifying, I’d guess — but it’s not dead yet:  as this promo for Social Media Marketing World 2020 makes clear.

The standard cocktail party question is, of course, “What do you do?” Turns out we’ve been asking and answering that question the same way for 114 years — ever since German sociologist and political economist Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[1]

“We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’. More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe.

“The idea that people were being ever more defined by the blinkered focus of their employment was one he regarded as profoundly modern and characteristic.

“The blinkered professional ethic was common to entrepreneurs and an increasingly high-wage, skilled labour force, and it was this combination that produced a situation where the ‘highest good’ was the making of money and ever more money, without any limit. This is what is most readily recognisable as the ‘spirit’ of capitalism

“It is an extremely powerful analysis, which tells us a great deal about the 20th-century West and a set of Western ideas and priorities that the rest of the world has been increasingly happy to take up since [the end of WWII and the advent of neoliberal economics].”

What Did Max Weber Mean By The ‘Spirit’ Of Capitalism? Aeon Magazine (June 12, 2018)

“What do you do?” was culturally relevant for most of the 20th Century, when jobs as we normally think of them were still around — but not so much today, especially for the new socio-economic lower class known as “the precariat.”

 “Globalization, neo-liberal policies, institutional changes and the technological revolution have combined to generate a new global class structure superimposed on preceding class structures. This consists of a tiny plutocracy (perhaps 0.001 per cent) atop a bigger elite, a ‘salariat’ (in relatively secure salaried jobs, ‘proficians’ (freelance professionals), a core working class, a precariat and a ‘lumpen precariat’ at the bottom.

“The precariat, which ranks below the proletariat in income, consists of millions of people obliged to accept a life of unstable labour and living, without an occupational identity or corporate narrative to give to their lives. Their employers come and go, or are expected to do so.

“Many in the precariat are over-qualified for the jobs they must accept; they also have a high ratio of unpaid ‘work’ in labour — looking and applying for jobs, training and retraining, queuing and form-filling, networking or just waiting around. They also rely mainly on money wages, which are often inadequate, volatile, and unpredictable. They lack access to rights-based state benefits and are losing civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights, making them supplicants if they need help to survive.”

The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2017)

I Googled “how to answer ‘what do you do?’” and got lots of articles about how to give your answer the right spin and turn the question into meaningful conversation — mostly directed at job applicants and people who hate their jobs — but the question’s relevance as an accurate reflection of Kultur is lost to the “gig economy” where the precariat hang out. It could be worse, though:  you could be a member of the “lumpen precariat.” Again from Guy Standing:

 “Below the precariat in the social spectrum is what might be called a ‘lumpen-precariat,’ an underclass of social victims relying on charity … Their numbers are rising remorselessly; they are a badge of shame on society.”

I’ve written before about how I made an ill-timed (at the height of the Great Recession) and otherwise disastrous exit from law practice for a new creative career that bombed,[2] while at the same time dealing with an as-yet-undiagnosed onset of “Primary Progressive MS” (the most degenerative kind you can get). During those years, I barely slowed down as I crashed through “precariat” on the way down from “salariat,” before ending up on the roles of the “disabled,”  a lumpen subclass. I did some awkward old-style networking during those years, and eventually developed my own Q&A. When asked “what do you do?” I would simply describe what I’d been doing that day. When it was my turn, I simply asked, “Who are you?”

Great conversation starters, as it turned out.

Photo is from Nimble Bar Co., re: how to throw an unforgettable party.

[1] Naturally there’s been lots of argument about whether the work ethic was Protestant or Catholic… and if Protestant, if it would be more properly “Calvinist” or “Puritan.” Sigh.

[2] For the full story, see my book Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download and on Amazon for cheap. It’s a short, quick read, I promise.