Free Market Capitalism: Miracles, Magic, and Mental Illness

 

Free market economics promised magic.
We got the Hustle instead.

The Miracle-That-Isn’t

This year’s State of the Union Address featured an “economic miracle,” citing economic growth, decreased unemployment, and a soaring stock market. There’s nothing miraculous about any of that. It’s all on purpose. The U.S. economy is doing exactly what it’s designed to do — promote capitalism for capitalists — and it’s hitting on all cylinders.

Capitalists are people and companies with access to capital: the corporate nation-states and the people who own and manage them; the entrepreneurs who start them; and the financial firms who trade their securities. U.S. economic policy provides structural support for the massive amount of worldwide capital: low corporate taxes leave more profits in the companies’ coffers, and low capital gains taxes generate higher returns for those who provide the capital.

Since the new USA tax policy went into effect after the 2016 election, corporations have been using their profits to buy back their own securities in record amounts. Stock buybacks are easier to predict than corporate quarterly performance and dividends; instead, you get cash payouts on schedule. As for the shares that remain, when a company takes some of its shares off the market, the ones left are worth more – same numerator, smaller denominator. That’s good for the remaining shareholders and for executive compensation, which is largely based on share value. Stock buybacks have become what Goldman Sachs called the “dominant” reason for stock market demand.[1] Again, all of that is by design, and if you’re a corporation or investor, the Miracle-That-Isn’t is working just fine for you.

How’s all this working for the non-capitalists?

The Magic That Isn’t

Google “state of the union economic miracle,” and the results are predictable. The right crows over robust growth, the left nitpicks over percentage points, and neither side mentions that non-capitalists aren’t benefiting from the economic Miracle-That-Isn’t – none of that robust economic growth gets to them.

Non-capitalists don’t make money from capital, they work for a living, and their ranks include small businesses and self-employed individuals — your local tech consultant, plumber, florist, bookstore owner, micro-brewer. They aren’t capitalists. They’re not entrepreneurs either. Starting a business on a credit card, pledging your home as collateral, spending your savings to pursue a dream… those things don’t make you a capitalist.

All these working people were supposed to benefit from the same “free market” economic theory that’s powering the economic Miracle-That-Isn’t. This was supposed to happen because benefits at the top would “trickle down” to those below. (The term “trickle down” has been around since the 80’s. We don’t seem to notice that it’s condescending and stingy.) This theory was championed by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics:

“The core of [the school’s teaching on the free market] was that the economic forces of supply, demand, inflation and unemployment were like the forces of nature, fixed and unchanging. In the truly free market imagined in Chicago classes and texts, these forces existed in perfect equilibrium, supply communicating with demand the way the moon pulls the tides

“Just as ecosystems self-regulate, keeping themselves in balance, the market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.[2]

As we’ve seen previously, although Friedman and his colleagues characterized their capitalist vision as science, it wasn’t; it was instead a belief system, promoted with religious zeal. The belief was that “trickle down” would happen automatically, like magic. All you had to do was give capitalists free reign — cut taxes, provide trade protection and other incentives — and the economy would grow, the capitalists would get rich, and everybody else would be better off, too.

That’s the theory. Has it worked?

U.S. economic policy has given free market economics its best shot for four decades, including that most recent all-in super-size of the current administration. We now have the empirical data Friedman & Co. didn’t. What it shows is that the policy truly works at the top, but there’s no trickle down.

Trickle-down doesn’t happen magically.
It happens deliberately.
It happens when it’s part of the plan.
And when the plan is carefully executed.

Intentional trickle down policies need to work both sides of the ledger – income and expenses. For example, you could collect tax revenues on some of that newly-created economic “miracle” wealth and spend it for the benefit of the Public (which includes the capitalists). Trouble is, as we’ve seen previously, free market economics has eliminated the Public from policy-making. That leaves low unemployment as the best chance to move money to the pockets of the people who work for a living. But that’s not effective either, because not all jobs are created equal.

Jobs for the Poor

Free market economics’ belief that low unemployment is the best way to benefit non-capitalists has made jobs a sacred cultural norm. Young? Just starting out? Poor? Can’t make ends meet? Get a job! Jobs are morally right – they build character, they’re how you make your way in the world. Public goods and social safety nets are evil, but jobs are everlastingly good. If you don’t work (at a job), you don’t deserve to eat. (That’s in the Bible; [3].it’s also in Lenin’s The State and Revolution.) If unemployment is low, that means there are plenty of jobs to go around, and the slackers have no excuse.

Right?

Wrong.

The capitalist Miracle-That-Isn’t is not creating the kind of jobs that pay a living wage to full-time employees. The jobs are not full time, and the workers aren’t employees. Instead, the jobs are part of the new gig economy. The workers are self-employed contract labor, temporary and short-term. And since there is no Public good anymore, these new gig jobs have to pay enough to cover self-employed FICA and benefits, as well as living costs. That’s not happening, which means we now have something that sounds like a dance craze, but isn’t. We have…

The Hustle

The Hustle is what non-capitalists do when the Miracle-That-Isn’t creates gig jobs.

“Doing my taxes this year, I noticed that the W4 form has transformed into a somewhat confusing jumble of tables and boxes. In one of these boxes, you’re meant to identify if you’re working another job to make ends meet, like freelancing or picking up Instacart shifts. Basically, the form wants to know: “Are you hustling?”

“For most people I know, the answer is a resounding yes. A friend of mine is a talented videographer who bartends and takes odd jobs on the side. I know a preschool teacher who also babysits and moonlights as a Lyft driver. Two employees in my company run a side company and create content on Twitch. A fellow writer on Medium works a nine-to-five, then freelances in the evening. And me? I’m no different. I write, freelance in graphic design, and build websites to provide for my family.

“We’re hustling to make ends meet, ‘building our brand,’ ensuring our startup doesn’t tank, or dreaming about the day our side hustle takes off and we can walk into the office and give everyone the bird.

“Some of the things exacerbating Hustle Life™ are out of our control. I live in Austin, Texas, where the cost of living has skyrocketed in the past few years. Between 2017 and 2018, the cost of living rose by $20,000 per person, about a 33% increase. Also, the average CEO’s salary has grown by 940% since 1978, whereas their workers’ wages have grown by just 12%. It stands to reason, then, that most of us are hustling because we literally have to in order to survive.”[4]

The Hustle means living from paycheck to paycheck, with nothing left over for savings, home ownership, and other out-of-ordinary costs.

“It seems like everyone is just trying to make ends meet.

“One of the latest hashtag games making the rounds on Twitter TWTR, -4.31% invites social media users to provide pithy and honest answers to this open-ended statement: ‘With my next paycheck I will…’

“While these games generally draw amusing memes and witty zingers, many of the responses trending under #WithMyNextPayCheckIWill early Tuesday morning were pretty bleak, with ‘still be broke’ being the general consensus.

“This reflects just how many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

“Depending on the survey, that figure runs from half of workers making under $50,000 (according to Nielsen data) to 74% of all employees (per recent reports from both the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education.) And almost three in 10 adults have no emergency savings at all, according to Bankrate’s latest Financial Security Index.” [5]

Poor Becomes the Norm

When robust economic growth doesn’t tickle down, the gap widens between capitalists at the top and the poor at the bottom – this is the economic inequality that dominates economic news – and then the middle class falls into the gap and joins the poor. According to a 2017 Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report,

“Measured by the By the Official Poverty Measure (OPM), more than 95 million Americans (nearly 30 percent of the total population) are either in poverty or considered ‘low-income’ (living below twice the poverty line) … That number rises to 140 million people (43.5 percent) when using the (SPM) [Supplemental Poverty Measure].”[6]

What do we mean by “poor”?

“The OPM was adopted in the mid-1960s and has garnered widespread criticism because it measures pretax income and food-purchasing power, updated yearly to account for inflation. That methodology, experts say, fails to capture many people struggling financially in modern society.

“The Census Bureau responded with the SPM, which since 2011 has measured after-tax income, food costs and other necessities such as clothing, housing and utilities. The SPM accounts for geographic variations in the cost of living, includes welfare benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies, and subtracts child-care expenses.”[7]

Therefore, “poor” officially means you struggle with food, housing, utilities, and childcare. But what if you can’t come up with $500 to cover an unexpected expense[8] –does that count as a necessity? Or what about a car, washer and dryer, TV, air conditioning…maybe even home ownership, a shot at upward mobility, or relief from the insecurities of the gig economy? Are those necessities?

We have now landed squarely in the center of the necessity vs. luxury debate, which apparently will endure until the seas all melt, and to which the most reliable answer seems to be, it depends on what socio-economic level you’re talking about. For the middle class and up, things like a reliable car, smart phone, high-speed wireless, home ownership, savings… plus the occasional night out… are givens. As for the poor,

“There is a moralistic presumption that poor people, especially those receiving benefits, should not be spending money on anything but the bare essentials, denying themselves even the smallest ‘luxury’ that might make their lives less miserable.”[9]

If 32% – 43.5% of Americans are living at the official poverty line, the USA has truly become what one writer calls “the world’s first poor rich country.”[10] That means look left, look right, and one of you:

  • Does not plan for the future in the press of making ends meet right now;
  • Makes money and purchases stretch as far as possible;
  • Is shadowed by the what if? of emergencies and other unplanned costs;
  • Regularly opts out of social engagements for lack of funds;
  • Relies on unreliable transportation to get around;
  • Constantly sacrifices this in order to do and have that;
  • Does not ask for help because it’s too embarrassing and shameful.[11]

Things get worse when the poor become impoverished. Poor is lack of money, the inability to make ends meet. Poverty goes beyond poor: it is a mindset and belief system that drags the poor into a pit of mental ill health.

Why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?

The poor don’t, not necessarily. But the impoverished do. People use “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably, but not everyone who’s poor is also impoverished. The poor are poor because they lack money, but poverty goes further: it’s a chronic, grinding, demeaning, despairing condition that generates a specific outlook and way of approaching life. When that condition is shared, it becomes a culture. You might not know it when you’re around poor, but you definitely know it when you’re around poverty.

Poverty is institutionalized economic mental illness.

The Lost War on Poverty

“In the sixties we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.”

Ronald Reagan

Poverty is a “personality defect.”

Margaret Thatcher

That’s true: poverty won the war against it. But it’s also true that the poor lost.

The Gipper was referring to LBJ and his Great Society, but he got it wrong:  the Great Society failed to eliminate poverty because it never got all the way to dealing with it. Instead it took a more politically acceptable path focused on education and community involvement — not bad things, but there’s a difference.

As for the Iron Lady, there’s actually some truth in what she said, but almost certainly not in the way she probably meant it. She was more likely voicing the common attitude that the poor are intellectually impaired, morally flawed, prone to bad lifestyle choices, and criminally inclined, and therefore worthy of only the most grudging kind of help. That attitude and the Great Society reputed loss of its War on Poverty[12] explain a lot about today’s lack of safety nets for the poor – which, remember, refers to 40+ percent of Americans.

Rutger Bregman[13] tackles this subject in his book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017). (As smart and creative as he is, he still uses “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably. I wish he wouldn’t.):

“A world without poverty– it might be the oldest utopia around. But anybody who takes this dream seriously must inevitably face a few tough questions. Why are the poor more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?”

He continues with more tough questions:

“What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges [toward self-help and away from government assistance] only make the situation worse?”

He then profiles the work of Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, and Sendhill Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, who formulated a theory of poverty based on the concept of “scarcity mentality.” Their research shows that the chronic poor are really good at scrambling after short term solutions, but tend to be inept at sustainable long-term thinking. It’s a matter of mental bandwidth: today’s urgency gets all the attention, leaving other matters to go begging (sometimes literally). In fact, their research estimates that poverty costs a person about 13-14 IQ points. In other words, living in a chronic state of being poor can eventually rewire the human brain to the point where clear thinking and prudent behavior are challenged. Hence the grain of truth in Margaret Thatcher’s comment that the poor have a “personality defect”: having your brain rewired by chronic poverty is a personality defect in the same way that a “personality disorder” is a mental illness.

Mental Illness On A Societal Level

But mental illness is not limited to impoverished individuals. It seems that economic policy may have created an entire “Generation of Sociopaths” of policy-makers and the people who elect them. That’s the premise of a book with that title.[14]

“What happens if a society is run by people who are, to a large degree, antisocial? I don’t mean people who are ‘antisocial’ in the general sense, the sort who avoid parties and hide from the neighbors, I mean people who are antisocial in the clinical sense: sociopaths. Could a sociopathic society function? Unfortunately, this is not a thought experiment or an investigation into some ramshackle dictatorship in a distant land; it is America’s lived experience. For the past several decades, the nation has been run by people who present, personally and politically, the full sociopathic pathology: deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility, and the works. Those people are the Baby Boomers, that vast and strange generation born between 1940 and 1964, and the society they created does not work very well.

“The goal of American politics has been, until the advent of the Boomers, the creation of a ‘more perfect Union’ and the promotion of the ‘general Welfare’ to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’ The Constitution promises as much, and over time America generally made good on that promise, first to a few, then to many. By the twentieth century, constitutional abstractions had taken concrete form, and ‘Blessings’ in the modern vernacular were understood to mean the creation of an ever larger and more affluent middle class. If the middle was not doing well, neither was America. James Carville, the operative who brought Bill Clinton to power as the first Boomer president, understood that modern politics boiled down to ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ And the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) has made clear how to evaluate that economy: the ‘well-being of the middle class and those working to get into the middle class… is the ultimate test of an economy’s performance.’ [Citing the 2015 Economic Report of the President] Measured against the Constitution’s noble imperatives of the more prosaic words of Carville and the CEA, America generally made a great success of things for two centuries. Since the Boomer’s ascension to power, American has accomplished far too little, and in many important ways has slid backward.”

The book ticks through the diagnostics on the clinical sociopathic checklist — e.g. risk seeking, breakdown of relationship, lack of long-term thinking and short-term gratification – and cites a 1991 report[15] issued by the National Institute of Health” compiling the work of UCLA, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Washington, and Duke universities, using DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria that found higher levels of antisocial personality disorder in the Boomer cohort. The result goes beyond poverty-related individual mental illness, to systemic cultural mental impairment. (I’ll be looking further at all of this in upcoming posts.)

Why Poverty Matters to Capitalists (or Should)

Capitalists are sometimes characterized as unsympathetic to the poor, but it’s clearly in their best interests not to be: a sustainable economy needs consumers to buy the stuff they make. The rich can only buy so much, then it’s up to the rest of us, but we can’t do our part if our gig income is gone too soon. Ironically, the neglected middle class will have the last laugh. But by then nobody will be laughing.

“The fundamental law of capitalism is: When workers have more money, businesses have more customers. Which makes middle-class consumers—not rich businesspeople—the true job creators. A thriving middle class isn’t a consequence of growth—which is what the trickle-down advocates would tell you. A thriving middle class is the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies.

“Our economy can be safe and effective only if it is governed by rules. Some capitalists actually don’t care about other people, their communities, or the future. Their behavior, if left unchecked, has a massive effect on everyone else.

“The danger is that economic inequality always begets political inequality, which always begets more economic inequality. Low-wage workers stuck on a path to poverty are not only weak customers; they’re also anemic taxpayers, absent citizens, and inattentive neighbors.

“Economic prosperity doesn’t trickle down, and neither does civic prosperity. Both are middle-out phenomena. When workers earn enough from one job to live on, they are far more likely to be contributors to civic prosperity—in your community. Parents who need only one job, not two or three to get by, can be available to help their kids with homework and keep them out of trouble—in your school. They can look out for you and your neighbors, volunteer, and contribute—in your school and church. Our prosperity does not all come home in our paycheck. Living in a community of people who are paid enough to contribute to your community, rather than require its help, may be more important than your salary.

“Prosperity and poverty are like viruses. They infect us all—for good or ill.

“An economic arrangement that pays a Wall Street worker tens of millions of dollars per year to do high-frequency trading and pays just tens of thousands to workers who grow or serve our food, build our homes, educate our children, or risk their lives to protect us isn’t an expression of the true value or economic necessity of these jobs. It simply reflects a difference in bargaining power and status.

“Inclusive economies always outperform and outlast plutocracies. That’s why investments in the middle class work, and tax breaks for the rich don’t. The oldest and most important conflict in human societies is the battle over the concentration of wealth and power. Those at the top will forever tell those at the bottom that our respective positions are righteous and good for all. Historically we called that divine right. Today we have trickle-down economics.

“Some of the people who benefit most from that explanation are desperate for you to believe this is the only way a capitalist economy can work.

“The trickle-down explanation for economic growth holds that the richer the rich get, the better our economy does. But it also clearly implies that if the poor get poorer, that must be good for our economy. Nonsense.” .[16]::

What IS Magical and Miraculous

One thing that truly is miraculous about all this is that Americans persist in debating what’s a necessity and what’s a luxury. Why wouldn’t we want everybody to have as much as possible? Instead we concede luxuries to the capitalists but begrudge them to non-capitalists.

Similarly, Americans also persist in debating whether money can buy happiness, when we all know that of course it can, because it can buy things that make us happy – things like food, clothing, a place of our own, clean water to drink and take a shower in, safety and health, a chance to improve ourselves, a net to catch us if dreams don’t come true… all those things that used to be considered part of the Public Good. Countries that still provide those things for their citizens are the happiest in the world.[17] Countries that don’t – like the USA and the former Soviet Union – turn their citizens into a mob of stressed, afraid, hustling, poverty-avoiders who cast our sociopathic votes to elect sociopathic representatives who perpetuate more of the same.

Why?

  • Why wouldn’t we want all those things for ourselves, and for the people around us?
  • Why wouldn’t we think that having all those things is a sign that the human race is making progress, that we’re improving our lives, our world?
  • Why do we instead cling to the self-righteous and self-defeating notion that moral character requires suffering with unmet needs, poverty, and jobs that don’t pay the bills?
  • Why do we want our lives to be precarious and unhappy instead of secure and joyful?

And you know what else is miraculous?

That nobody notices the contradictions and double standards, how we perpetuate cultural norms that work against our own best interests, or that both economic growth and trickle down can’t happen without economic policies that favor both capitalists and non-capitalists.

  • The capitalists don’t notice.
  • The capitalist policy-makers don’t notice.
  • The non-capitalists don’t notice;
  • The former middle class — now the new poor — don’t notice.
  • The voters don’t notice.

The impoverished and the sociopaths don’t notice either, but we wouldn’t expect them to.

But wait — I guess it’s not quite true that nobody notices. I mean, the people quoted in this article notice, and they’re not nobody. But still…

I think we need a longer list of people who notice. A much longer list.

[1] See, for example: Share Buybacks Could Approach Record Levels In 2020 After 2019 Fell Short, S&P Global Market Intelligence (Feb. 13, 2020); Stocks To Buy For Buybacks, Forbes (Jan. 17, 2020); Buybacks Are The ‘Dominant’ Source Of Stock-Market Demand, And They Are Fading Fast: Goldman Sachs, MarketWatch (Nov. 9, 2019).

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

[3] “If any man does not work, neither let him eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10

[4] Sledge, Benjamin, We’ve Embraced the Hustle Life, and It’s Making Us Miserable, Medium (Mar. 5, 2020).

[5] A shocking number of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, MarketWatch (Jan. 11, 2020).

[6] Joe Biden apparently got his math wrong when he said half of Americans are poor – see Fact Checker: Joe Biden’s Claim That ‘Almost Half’ Of Americans Live In Poverty, The Washington Post (June 20, 2019). Right-leaning Ballotpedia also corrected Biden’s math, concluding that only 32% of Americans are technically poor. On the other hand, progressive Common Dreams is sticking with one-half.

[7] Again from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker:

[8] A $500 surprise expense would put most Americans into debt, CBS New Money Watch (Jan. 12, 2017).

[9] Standing, Guy, Basic Income:  A Guide For the Open-Minded, Guy Standing (2017).

[10] Hague, Umair, Why America is the World’s First Poor Rich Country, Medium (May 23, 2018).

[11] Everyday Things Poor People Worry About That Rich People Never Do, Everyday Feminism (May 7, 2015),

[12] Not everyone agrees that we lost the War on Poverty. See this article that considers both sides.

[13] Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His book Utopia for Realists was a New York Times Bestseller and has been translated in 32 languages. The Guardian called him “the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas.”’

[14] Gibney, Bruce Cannon, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (2018). “Sure to be controversial,” Fortune said about the book, and it certainly is that.

[15] Psychiatric Disorders in America,

[16] A Wealthy Capitalist on Why Money Doesn’t Trickle Down, Yes! Magazine (Sept. 10, 2019).

[17] While free market indoctrinated Americans seems to have a bad case of being right instead of being happy, the social democracies that feature the public good routinely score the highest in The World Happiness Reporta list dominated by the Scandinavians:Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.”

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.