Upward Mobility — Pop Music Style

I had a different post planned for this week, but then I heard a song over the gym soundtrack last week that perfectly illustrates the dynamics of social capital and upward mobility and the perils of the rags-to-riches journey. It also captures an attitude that often accompanies that feeling of having your nosed pressed up against the glass:  wanting to move up but feeling blocked. That’s a lot of economics to pack into one pop song, so I just had to feature it.

I talked about all of that in the very first post in this series just a bit over a year ago, when I wondered out loud whether money can make us happy:

“I mean, all these famous (and mostly rich) people are entitled to their opinion,  but  we’d like to find out for ourselves if money could make us happy — we’re pretty sure we could handle it.”

Rapper Travie McCoy was pretty sure he could handle it, too. He wrote a song saying so — the one I heard at the gym —  then lived his own upward mobility rise, fall, and eventual comeback. His experience couldn’t be more different than that of the 9.9 percenters we heard from last week. Apparently the social capital of the pop music red velvet rope club isn’t the same as the club covered by Forbes.

McCoy teamed up with Bruno Mars to do the song back in 2010. Obama was president, we were just coming off the Great Recession, it was five years after Hurricane Katrina and four years before Bruno Mars did his first Super Bowl halftime. Last time I checked, the song’s official video was closing in on 330 Million views. Obviously it hit a sweet spot. The song made an appearance on Glee– the unofficial version I found had nearly a million views — more hitting a sweet spot.

Judging from what happened next, McCoy might have been wrong about whether he could handle it. A “whatever  happened to Travie McCoy?” search suggests his big hit didn’t give him the life or make him the person he visualized in the song. Among other things, there was a steep decline into opioid then heroin addiction, but since then he has clawed his way back into the music scene.

We’ll let the song deliver its economic lessons on its own terms. If you want to take a short break for a catchy tune, you can watch either the official video or the unofficial Glee version below. (The latter is an excellent cover, with the lyrics spruced up for prime time TV, as reflected below.)

Billionaire

Billionaire Glee

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

Oh every time I close my eyes
I see my name in shining lights
Yeah, a different city every night oh right
I swear the world better prepare
For when I’m a billionaire

Yeah I would have a show like Oprah
I would be the host of everyday Christmas
Give Travie a wish list
I’d probably pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt
And adopt a bunch of babies that ain’t never had **it
Give away a few Mercedes like here lady have this
And last but not least grant somebody their last wish
It’s been a couple months that I’ve been single so
You can call me Travie Claus minus the Ho Ho
Get it, hehe, I’d probably visit where Katrina hit
And damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did
Yeah can’t forget about me stupid
Everywhere I go Imma have my own theme music

Oh every time I close my eyes
I see my name in shining lights
A different city every night oh right
I swear the world better prepare
For when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire

I’ll be playing basketball with the President
Dunking on his delegates
Then I’ll compliment him on his political etiquette
Toss a couple milli in the air just for the heck of it
But keep the five, twenties tens and bens completely separate
And yeah I’ll be in a whole new tax bracket
We in recession but let me take a crack at it
I’ll probably take whatever’s left and just split it up
So everybody that I love can have a couple bucks
And not a single tummy around me would know what hungry was
Eating good sleeping soundly
I know we all have a similar dream
Go in your pocket pull out your wallet
And put it in the air and sing

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen
Oh every time I close my eyes I see my name in shining lights
A different city every night all right
I swear the world better prepare for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad!

More upward mobility stories coming up — one of them is my own.

But Isn’t Legal Work Essential?

“The most common complaint expressed within the legal profession
is a lack of meaning or sense of fulfillment from work.”

The above quote is from an article published by the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia. But how can anyone think their work in the law lacks meaning? I mean, the law is essential to the functioning of society, isn’t it? Yes, but apparently essential doesn’t count for much in the pursuit of meaning.

Andrew Russel, Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York, says this in his Aeon Magazine article Hail the Maintainers:  Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more (April 7, 2016):

“Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era… As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

Maybe so, but the maintainers themselves aren’t buying their own importance. This Huffington Post article from May 11, 2017, reported a study by Britain’s Office of National Statistics that found that workers in “maintainer” jobs — manual labor, construction, building trades, processing plants, factories, agriculture — had the highest rates of suicide in the U.K. A 2016 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study reported similar results in the U.S., with rates highest among lumberjacks, farmworkers, fishermen, carpenters, miners, electricians, construction trades, factory and production workers, and others who build, install, maintain, and repair things.

Other noteworthy findings of both studies were that suicide rates were three times higher among men than women; the highest female suicide rate was among police, firefighters and corrections officers; the second highest female suicide rate was in the legal profession; and among the professions, lawyer suicides were in third place after doctors and dentists.

The CDC study speculated that the principle causes behind these statistics include job-related isolation and demands, stressful work environments. and work-home imbalance, all of which are endemic in the legal profession. The British Columbia LAP piece quoted above states flatly that,

“It is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained.”

The article reports that a sense of meaningless is expressed differently by older vs. younger lawyers:

“[A sense of meaningless about their work] is stated more directly by older practitioners as boredom, lack of job satisfaction, just getting through each day, turning out work without time to contemplate, turning out product for clients like a machine, and lack of connection to clients, which is often expressed as lack of client loyalty. Legal professionalism has been eroded by the need for volume, speed and uniformity of work product.

“The younger practitioners… ask, “What good am I doing?” They express a lack of control over work or life. They worry about the demands of clients, and that there is little opportunity for them to utilize creative thinking. They also ask if they can have a life and practice law… [T]hey do not get a sense of fulfillment from practicing law. They do not get a sense of meaning from it and it seems to be valueless.”

We’ve been looking at books, articles, surveys, and academic research from business, academia, the professional world, and even the United Nations. All agree that meaningless malaise in the workplace is worldwide and afflicts both men and women across a full range of occupations from the “maintainers” to professionals. Money doesn’t help, neither does living in a “happy” first world country. Striving after wealth and income growth only makes things worse. Meanwhile, rates of self-destruction are alarmingly on the rise, especially in this century.

Richard Cory and How the Other Half Lives

Does anybody else remember that early Simon & Garfunkel song “Richard Cory”? (I just heard somebody ask, “Who’s Simon & Garfunkel?” Somebody else is looking them up in Martindale. <Sigh> I feel old.) Check out this video:  two guys in jackets and ties, one mic, one guitar… and that raw 60’s revolutionary edge. Here are the lyrics:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

Chorus:
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

Chorus

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

Chorus

The song was inspired by a poem of the same name, by Edwin Arlington Robinson, himself the son of a wealthy New England businessman:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

miuccia-prada-quotes-27338“How the other half lives.” My dad used to say that when he encountered someone who was, by his standards, rich. He would have said that if he had ever met Richard Cory.the devil wears prada

The song and poem drip with irony. Irony is an educated, acquired taste — something someone like Miuccia Prada might appreciate — yes that Prada, the kind the Devil wears. My dad didn’t qualify for irony, I guess. If he had, he would have noticed the irony in how he used the phrase.

This is from Wikipedia:

“How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) was an early publication of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future “muckraking” journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes. This work inspired many reforms of working-class housing, both immediately after publication as well as making a lasting impact in today’s society.”

Yet another irony is that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel probably went on to become wealthier than Richard Cory was himself.

And here’s one last irony for us all:  After all those UVA and Gallup and United Nations surveys I’ve been writing about, plus all those opinions and analyses of eminent economists like Adam Smith, Richard Easterlin, and Angus Deaton, and all those quotes by rich and famous people about money and happiness… most of us would still side with the factory workers and townspeople — we would still trade places with Richard Cory, given half a chance.

What is up with that?

Money, Happiness, Wealth, and Meaning

The ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to one vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

One reason money doesn’t make us happy is the stress of making it. The following is from Plutocrats:  The Rise of the new Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland (2012):

plutocrats“Until a few years ago, the reigning theory about money and happiness was the Easterlin paradox, the 1974 finding by Richard Easterlin that, beyond a relatively low threshold more money didn’t make you happier.

“But across countries, what millions of immigrants have always known to be true really is:  the people of rich countries are generally happier than the people of poor countries.

“The latest contrarian finding, however, is that moving to that state of greater wealth and greater happiness is decidedly unpleasant. As Angus Deaton, in a review of the 2006 Gallup World Poll, concluded, ‘Surprisingly, at any given level of income, economic growth is associated with lower reported levels of life satisfaction.’”

Freeland also cites Angus Deaton for showing that “the richer you are, the more covetous you become” — not a likely prescription for happiness.

A 2014 U of Virginia/ Gallup study weighed in with similar findings — Emily Esfahani Smith discussed them in The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, (2017:

power of meaning“Though the study was enormous, involving nearly 140,000 people across 132 countries, it was also straightforward. A few years earlier, researchers from Gallup had asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their lives, and whether they felt their lives had an important purpose or meaning. [Prof. Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of Gallup] analyzed that data by country, correlating the levels of happiness and meaning with variables like wealth, rates of suicides, and other social factors.

“Their findings were surprising. People in wealthier regions, like Scandinavia, reported being happier than those in poorer ones, like sub-Saharan Africa. But when it came to meaning, it was a different story. Wealthy places like France and Hong Kong had some of the lowest levels of meaning, while the poor nations of Togo and Niger had among the highest, even though people living there were some of the unhappiest in the study.

I.e., the ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to this vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

Analogizing from these findings to the legal profession, we would expect that, because the legal profession runs on the higher side of financial wellbeing, lawyers would report higher levels of happiness than less well-paid workers, but would also suffer from meaning malaise. And, since one of the wellbeing factors used in the survey was rates of suicide, we would also expect lawyers to have a correspondingly higher rate of suicide.

The high lawyer suicide rate (third highest among professionals, after doctors and dentists) has been well documented, and as we’ve been seeing, lawyers as a whole aren’t generally happy with their lives either, despite their profession’s higher rate of wealth.

We’ll look more into the meaning part of the equation next time.

Richard Easterlin is a professor of economics at USC. Sir Angus Stewart Deaton, FBA, is a British American economist and professor at Princeton. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.

For a summary of the UVA/Gallup study, see ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013:  “Residents of poorer nations find greater meaning in life.” For the original study, see S. Oishi, E. Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, 2013

Can Money Buy Lawyer Happiness?

I thought the answer might be yes. I was wrong. Money doesn’t just fail to make lawyers happy, it actually makes them unhappy.

I thought the answer might be yes. Why? Because a few years back I blogged about the 2013 Colorado Supreme Court Lawyer Satisfaction and Salary Survey, which showed that, although 2/3’s of Colorado lawyers didn’t like their jobs enough to recommend them to someone else, at least they liked the money. And because a widely-cited study published the following year found that people in wealthier countries are happier than people in poorer countries. Put those two together, and maybe lawyers might say they’re happy overall, despite their job dissatisfaction.

I was wrong. I went several pages into the results of several Google searches and found nothing about happy lawyers or what makes them so. Happiness isn’t bad news, so maybe it doesn’t get reported, but still… why the long faces? More Google searches turned up a LegalCheek.com poll conducted in Great Britain the day after Theresa May gave the required notice of Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. It reported that 70% of British lawyers weren’t happy about Brexit. But that doesn’t really count, does it?

the Happy LawyerThe Happy Lawyer:  Making a Good Life in the Law (2010) by law professors Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder had a promising title, but then, after an extensive review of the literature on lawyer happiness, the authors concluded that “[M]oney is the root of virtually everything that lawyers don’t like about their profession: the long hours, the commercialization, the tremendous pressure to attract and retain clients the fiercely competitive marketplace, the lack of collegiality and loyalty among partners, the poor public image of the profession, and even the lack of civility.”

So… money doesn’t just fail to make lawyers happy, it actually makes them unhappy. Hmmm.

Money certainly doesn’t make associates happy, even though 2016 saw their salaries leap to new heights — at least in the world of BigLaw. In fact, the position of associate attorney came in rock bottom in a 2013 CareerBliss survey of not just lawyers, but 65,000 employees of all kinds. Forbes, The Happiest And Unhappiest Jobs In America, March 22, 2013. (Here’s Above the Law’s take on that story.)

A couple years after the CareerBliss poll, the Dean of Pepperdine Law School countered that well, there at least some happy associates. Go ahead — guess who they were — answer below.

If money doesn’t make lawyers happy, then what does? Earlier this year, Global Financial (“Financing Justice”) reported survey results by Robert Half Legal that a business casual dress policy helps lawyers deal with stress. Not quite the same as making lawyers happy.

Seriously? Business casual is the best we can do?

the Anxious LawyerAn August 2016 Above the Law article had a promising title — Why Are Lawyers So Happy? — but it turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek response to an earlier article by Jeena Cho, author of The Anxious Lawyer, all-around great person and reigning Goddess of Mindfulness in the Marketplace. (I’ve met Jeena, and she would be horrified at me giving her that title, but I do it with a smile, and besides, I think it’s true.) Both articles were written in response to a survey conducted by the ABA and the Betty Ford Foundation, which Forbes reported in an article whose title tells you everything you need to know:  Study Indicates Lawyers Struggling With Substance Use And Other Mental Health Issues, July 30, 2016.

No, money doesn’t buy lawyer happiness — according to pollsters anyway. Of course some lawyers are happy — with the money, their work, and maybe even life in general. I hope that’s you, and I hope you know lots of people like you. As for the rest, it’s hard to be happy about much of anything when you don’t like your work.

We’ll keep following the thread of money and happiness next time, to see what else we can learn from it. In the meantime, here’s your answer:  Who are the happiest associates?  Tax lawyers.

The Culture of Law (10): Don’t Show Me The Money

It’s not the legal profession’s fault that you can make good money at it. The problem is when we use that as an excuse for personal powerlessness.

Personal powerlessness is when we buy into Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat as a cultural and personal norm that can’t be challenged. We think that way because our brains are running on established cultural neural pathways. There are other options out there, but pursuing them will cost our brains their cherished peace of mind.

We don’t need a research survey to tell us there are other ways to measure value than money, but consider this one anyway:

“Money and prestige aren’t key to career satisfaction, according to findings from a multiyear survey of University of Michigan law grads. Instead, work satisfaction is more closely related to the law grads’ perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers and superiors.”

If you’re willing to try something other than money and prestige, how about…

A Utah lawyer starts a flourishing non-profit law firm, where clients pay based on income.

Or this New York Times story about lawyers who have chosen less remunerative law careers:

“Of the many rewards associated with becoming a lawyer — wealth, status, stimulating work — day-to-day happiness has never been high on the list. Perhaps, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.

“Researchers who surveyed 6,200 lawyers about their jobs and health found that the factors most frequently associated with success in the legal field, such as high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm, had almost zero correlation with happiness and well-being.

“However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.

“Lawyers in public service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.”

Some lawyers went straight to these alternatives out of law school, others got there by exiting private practice. That path isn’t for everybody, but if you’re looking for a different option than show me the money, why not? While you’re thinking about it, consider this BigLaw partner’s case against being too enamored with the prospect of making money in the law:

“Becoming a lawyer is a great way to improve your standard of living if you come from a family of poors who thinks rich people “worked for every penny they had.” But if you are a lawyer, your income is pretty much restricted to how many hours you can work in a day. That’s no way to live.”

(“A family of poors”? Hmmm. Never heard that one before.)

Lawyers who opt for greater satisfaction for less pay are bucking a cultural norm that measures value in terms of money, which is in turn a function of hours worked — another cultural value standard. They’ve probably had their epiphanies and are on the Jerry Maguire path, and yes, as we saw last time, they will suffer for it.

And so will those close to them, as we’ll see next time.

The Culture of Law (9): Show Me The Money!

If you saw the movie Jerry Maguire, you remember the show me the money scene. Jerry has a moral epiphany, writes a middle-of-the-night manifesto, and hits the send button. He’s greeted at the office with a rousing ovation… as one colleague asks another, “How long do you give him?” His manifesto broke with the cultural status quo; he has to go. He gets fired of course, and now he’s dialing for dollars. He takes only one client with him, at the cost of everything he just gained from his awakening.

It’s funny, and if you’ve been there, painful.

I had my own show me the money moment my first day back in the office after taking the bar exam. My wife and I had escaped for 3½ weeks in the Scottish highlands and islands. The silent remoteness and stark natural beauty were disorienting at first, but in time we settled into it and returned home resolute about creating a more enriching lifestyle.

We flew back on a Saturday. On Monday morning I biked into work early, stopping to take photos of the downtown skyline and the Cathedral Basilica in the red light of the rising sun. At the office, the corporate department was in the middle of a merger on a fast track. I worked until 11:00 that night; I was the first to leave.

Welcome back. Epiphanies are nice, but duty calls. There are clients to serve and paychecks to earn. Culture wins again.

There were more epiphanies and more show me the money moments over the course of my career. I’m far from alone in that. At my CLE workshops on career and personal satisfaction, someone always brings up money. “I’m not happy,” they’ll say, “But the money is good, so I can’t change.”

Notice what just happened:  they took a cultural reality — the ability to earn a good paycheck practicing law — and turned it into a rationale for personal powerlessness — an attitude that derives from the cultural norm of resisting change we looked at earlier in this series. We saw this attitude at work in our midst a couple years back, when two-thirds of the respondents to a Colorado lawyer salary and career satisfaction survey wouldn’t recommend their jobs to someone else, but meanwhile the money was good, and 40% felt financially constrained from considering other options.

Yes you can change, I reply, but you will suffer. That’s not a challenge to dig deep or rise above, it’s a recognition of how hard it is to change our neurological cultural wiring.(See this Huffington Post video re: the difference between pain and suffering.)

Jerry Maguire suffered to get back what he gave up in his show me the money moment. We will, too. Epiphanies exact a price; we have to pay it. And one of the ways we pay is with money.

If we’re going to have epiphanies, we must deal with “show me the money.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean less money. It wasn’t that way for me in my law practice, or for most of the people I know who’ve made the break to a new law culture. Next time, we’ll look at lawyers who’ve deliberately opted for career and personal satisfaction over money. Not everyone will make that choice, but reconfiguring our relationship with money — one way or another — is a necessary stage along on the path to changing our personal response to dominant law culture.

At least we’ll be in good company. A reporter asked Rohan Dennis, winner of this summer’s USA Pro Challenge cycling race in Colorado, how he’s had such a great year. “You have to learn to suffer,” he said.

‘til next time….