Meet the New Boss

Same as the old boss.

– The Who

Commentary about economic inequality often compares the situation today to America’s Gilded Age. Back then they had the Robber Barons. Now we have the Robber Nerds. Same dif? It depends who you ask.

A quick check of a list of the Robber Barons on Wikipedia reveals the names of several household brand names that still endure, plus numerous key universities and charities. And this article from a European source — The Truth About the Robber Barons from the Mises Institute ( “30 Years of Austrian Economics, Freedom, & Peace”) — says don’t be too hasty to condemn:

“The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often referred to as the time of the ‘robber barons.’ It is a staple of history books to attach this derogatory phrase to such figures as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the great nineteenth-century railroad operators — Grenville Dodge, Leland Stanford, Henry Villard, James J. Hill, and others. To most historians writing on this period, these entrepreneurs committed thinly veiled acts of larceny to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers. Once again we see the image of the greedy, exploitative capitalist, but in many cases this is a distortion of the truth.”

For more, consider the following articles, whose titles telegraph whose side they’re on. but they’re all worth reading:

Seven Myths about the Great Philanthropists:  The turn of the 20th century was a golden age of American philanthropy. It deserves to be better understood.  The Philanthropy Roundtable (2011).

The Robber Barons Weren’t Robbers. Here’s Why. The Learn Liberty project of George Mason University (2017).

Robber Barons. Economists View (2007, reprinting a 1998 article).

The Dark Side of the Gilded Age. The Atlantic (2007)

The Myth of America’s Golden Age. Politico Magazine (2014)

On the lighter side, see P.J. O’Rourke’s Up To a Point: Robber Barons Make Way For Robber Nerds. Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan: This country used to produce impressive if immoral captains of industry. Now we’re stuck with unrefined geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. The Daily Beast (2014).

One thing seems to be consistent in all these commentaries:  both then and now. soaring wealth for the haves and a commensurate decline for the have-nots occurred in a capitalistic, market-based economy. A second key point gets less consensus:  whether the Barons benefited then and the Nerds are benefiting now from government policy and financial subsidies (including tax breaks in our day) — i.e., whether the economy was then and is now truly a free market.

Satisfy yourself, but at this point, after examining far more sources than I can cite in a blog post of this length, and having interviewed a couple free market champion friends of mine, I can comfortably say, as they did, “There never has been a free market.” Instead, what we had then and what we have now was and is a skewed version of capitalism — a perfect political and economic storm that made economic inequality possible back in the Gilded Age and makes it possible again today. This is the missing piece that Econ 101 and its simplistic supply/demand curves doesn’t provide.

The result in both eras has been a new class system that morphs the Horatio Alger ideal into a Great Gatsby reality. When the new class system hits the job marketplace, the result is a vast worldwide demographic of the Angry Left Behind — unhappy, disillusioned, dissatisfied, depressed, and even suicidal workers suffering from meaning malaise. What bothers them is often equated to the same anger that has fueled worldwide political shifts such as Brexit, Trumpism, the move to the right in Germany and France, and a whole lot more. (See for example No Job Left Behind and Back to Work, and countless more initiatives and opinions like them.)

When the subject of economic inequality invokes those kinds of inflammatory developments, it’s no wonder we don’t want to talk about it. Which is precisely what we’ll continue to do, right here.  Stay tuned.

meet the new bossHere’s the original music video of The Who’s We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here

And who first called the Robber Barons era the “Gilded Age”? Find out here.

The Lost Joy of Working (It’s Worse Than I Thought)

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to
answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Albert Camus, An Absurd Reasoning (1955)

The last few posts had a lot in them about suicide. I really didn’t plan to write about suicide. I meant instead to talk about happiness and meaning in our work, particularly for lawyers and the legal profession — nice, safe topics. I mean, who can argue with enjoying our work?

Trouble is, as I did my research, suicide kept coming up, along with other topics I didn’t plan to write about. Some were predictable, like globalization, technology, and disruptive innovation. I’ve written about those before, although they came up in new ways that merit re-examination. But then a whole lot of uninvited, touchier subjects jumped onboard. such as income and wealth inequality, poverty and the welfare system, nationalism and immigration, and more.

Uh oh. If last year’s election taught me anything, it’s that public discourse has been largely displaced by what this Aeon Magazine article calls “moral grandstanding.” As a result, if you write something, it’s likely to be slapped with an assumption that you’re on mission to convert other people to a point of view. and thus the fight begins. I learned that the hard way when a Facebook “friend” pounced one of my shares, and before I knew it our other “friends” were cheering us on like students making a circle around us in the high school cafeteria after I accidentally stepped on his potato chips.

How about we don’t do that? At least not here.

I recently shared some of the economic research I’ve been doing in connection with these posts with a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He immediately demanded that I define my terms. Whoa! I replied that I wasn’t pretending to be an economist, I’m just trying to figure out how the world of work is changing, and how that affects human beings. (If you’d like a book list of what I’ve been reading, you can check out my Goodreads page. Or email me.) Guess I won’t bring up economics again, I thought. And yet here I am, risking it in this column. Why?

joy of cookingMainly, because my research keeps linking all those touchy subjects to the safe ones I started with, and because all of them — controversial or not — seem to be symptomatic of a worldwide clash of social and economic narratives. And that interests me, very much. Work as a life-giving human activity has been an enduring passion of mine since college, when I cut a headline out of a magazine that was based on the iconic “The Joy of Cooking” cover, except it substituted “Working” for “Cooking.” I pasted it on a bookshelf I lugged around for decades until it got lost in a recent move.

The headline was lost, but not the interest. I plan to keep writing about The Joy of Working because I care about the human beings getting squeezed by the cultural and commercial shifts that are currently revolutionizing the world of work. I care that the legal profession is at Ground Zero for many of these developments, with its endemic high levels of career dissatisfaction and related loss of personal wellbeing. And I care because my research shows that things are worse than I thought:  feelings of a lack of meaning about our work aren’t just a complex and difficult social and economic phenomenon, they’re a plague that too often ends in self-inflicted death.

I also believe that, if anyone is positioned to steer public discourse toward constructive outcomes, it would be those directly engaged with how the law is learned and practiced, created and applied. We’ve already sailed some stormy seas together in this series, and we’re heading for more. I think we’re up for it.

One last that thing:  I have no illusions about my own objectivity; I am as prone to cognitive bias as anyone. (We’ll take more about that, too.) Thus I invite you to remember that I intend this be about conversation, not conversion. Plus, I’ll make the customary disclaimer that I write my own thoughts, not the CBA’s.

I will brave the discourse if you will.

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.

Something Rotten in Denmark

The lack of belief that our lives are meaningful is spiking suicide rates in wealthy First World countries whose citizens say they’re generally happy with their lives.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
Marcellus, Hamlet Act I Scene 4

Last time, we considered some of the findings of a huge international survey of money, happiness, wealth, and meaning conducted by Gallup and a couple University of Virginia professors. Digging deeper:

“One of the most disturbing findings involved suicide rates. Wealthier nations, it turns out, had significantly higher suicide rates than poorer ones. For example, the suicide rate of Japan, where per-capita GDP was $34,000, was more than twice as high as that of Sierra Leone, where per-capita GDP was $400.

“The strange relationship between happiness and suicide has been confirmed in other research, too. Happy countries like Denmark and Finland also have high rates of suicide.

“[The survey authors revealed] a striking trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning—or, more precisely, the lack of it. The countries with the lowest rates of meaning, like Japan, also had some of the highest suicide rates.”

From The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith (2017)

The Power of Meaning cites further data showing that:

  • Suicide rates are generally higher in wealthier countries than in poorer ones.
  • According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased 60% since World War II.
  • In 2016, worldwide suicide rates were the highest in 30 years.
  • In the U.S., suicide among 15-24 year-olds tripled from 1950-2000.
  • Among the middle-aged, suicide rates have increased by over 40% since the turn of the 21st century.

The lack of belief that our lives are meaningful is spiking suicide rates — especially in wealthy First World countries whose citizens say they’re generally happy with their lives. The 2017 World Happiness Report confirmed these findings:  Denmark ranked #2 in the list of happiest countries, and Finland was #5, yet both countries had high rates of suicide.

The World Happiness Report is no lightweight exercise in psychobabble — it is generated on the highest level of worldwide policy making. This is how it describes its origins:

HR17_3_cover_small-232x300The first World Happiness Report was published in April, 2012, in support of the UN High Level Meeting on happiness and well-being. Since then the world has come a long way. Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. In June 2016 the OECD committed itself “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts.” In February 2017, the United Arab Emirates held a full-day World Happiness meeting, as part of the World Government Summit. Now on World Happiness Day, March 20th, we launch the World Happiness Report 2017, once again back at the United Nations, again published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and now supported by a generous three-year grant from the Ernesto Illy Foundation.

The Report is long and packed with statistical analysis, tables, graphs, and other data-nerd content, but if you’re game for it, it makes for fascinating reading.

Both the UVA/Gallup survey and the World Happiness Report revealed that dissatisfaction with work is a key contributor to the feeling that life lacks meaning, and to the escalating suicide rate.

Imagine how different the legal profession would be if it sought to promote not just the happiness of its members (that would be radical enough!) but also a sense of meaningfulness about working in the law.

We’ll be talking more about that.

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. You can request a reprint here.

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