Follow Your Dreams?

No.

Don’t do it. It will hurt you. It’s not like you think. There’s no magic that makes dreams come true.

You don’t want to hear that. You’re psyched up, ready to roar. I get that. I did the follow-your-dreams thing several times — upping the ante each time until the crash and burn (which happened every time, and will happen to you, too) was so big that I finally got… not the dream but the personal transformation it required.

I wasn’t in it for the transformation. I was in it for the dream. The dream didn’t happen. The transformation did.

Dreams require personal transformation. You might get the dream, you might not, but if you stay with it long enough, you will get the transformation. Most people don’t stay with it long enough. If they do, the transformation is sure. The dream? Not so much.

The reason you’re not living your dream already is that you’re not qualified for it. You’re not the kind of person living the kind of life and doing the kinds of things that line up with your dream. Your life is not structured around living your dream – if it were, you’d be living your dream already. Your life is structured around not living your dream. Therefore you’re not. Simple math.

It’s not just that you don’t know the right stuff or the right people, or that you don’t have experience doing the thing you dream about. All that is true – you don’t — but that’s not the point. The point is that your dream is a dream – something far away from what you are and do and have right now. The gap between you and your dream is wide and deep and long and high. There’s no getting around, under, through, or over it… not in your current form.

What your dream needs is to not be a dream at all – instead, it needs to be just the next step – the next logical, obvious thing for you to do, so that it’s not a dream at all, just the next thing. What you need to make your dreams come true is to get to that point. And to get to that point requires a complete remake of you and the circumstances of your life. Without that, there’s no getting there from here. That’s where personal transformation comes in.

Transformation is the hardest, most ruinous thing you will ever do. Transformation is a complete tear down followed by a complete rebuild with the salvageable parts (not many) plus a bunch of new ones, most of which you won’t like. It starts with the obvious — what and who you are, what you do and what you think, the company you keep, where you live and how – the usual stuff. All that has to go. You need a complete replacement of all things. That will feel hard, and you’ll be surprised and amazed, disillusioned and despairing just to get that far, but once you’ve gotten through that, transformation will be just getting warmed up.

You have no idea much it’s going to cost or how hard it’s going to be. You can try to imagine, but you have no idea. All those adjustments take time. And money. And hardship. And more – more than you think you’ve got to give. And then some more. And then a whole lot more.

There are no shortcuts. There is no magic. You think there’s going to be magic because your brain fills up with feel-good hormones when you feel inspired by your dream. Just thinking about your dream makes you feel good – like it could happen, yes to you! Don’t be fooled. That feel-good stuff is a warning signal. Think about it:  you can feel what it will be like to live your dream without doing anything toward making your dream happen. Doesn’t that make you nervous? It should. It should make you wonder what you’re missing. You’re not there yet, you’re not anywhere close, and yet it feels like you are.

That makes the self-helpers jump for joy. They’ll say, “Just look at that! Your brain can’t tell the difference between wanting something and actually having it! Isn’t that cool?! That means your brain will act like you’ve already got it, and – shazam!! – you actually will!”

Anybody who would tell you that – and there’s a whole industry full of them – is not your friend. They know just enough brain science to be dangerous.

Just thinking about your dream makes you feel good – is that a problem?

Yes it’s a problem. It’s why everybody gives up on their dreams – they’re too hard, they cost too much, and all that feel-good stuff doesn’t help at all. By the time you’re ready to actually do your dream, you’re so beat up and worn out from not being who you were when you felt good about it that you can’t believe it was you back then, wanting what you wanted and thinking you knew what it would be like when you got it, and now look at you. The reason you’ll feel that way is because you actually won’t be who you were. You will have gotten a whole psychic/biologic makeover. You will have been transformed.

Welcome to the caterpillar-becomes-a-butterfly story, in real time. Trust me – the part about being reduced to goo inside the cocoon is… well, let’s just say I could live without it.

If you’re lucky – and it will take a lot of luck – and if you do the right stuff and learn the right things and get to know the right people and learn from them and generally get yourself to the point where of course you are the kind of person who can do the thing you want – I mean, it’s right there, the next logical thing for you to do — then you might have a chance. Might. Maybe. Not guaranteed.

But if you’re really lucky, you might be okay with that.

I know all this because I’m living the dream. And trust me — if I had known this was the dream, and what it would cost to get here….

Well, no way.

All I’m sayin’.

For awhile I gave seminars on this. Then I realized people didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe I meant it when I told them, “you will suffer.” After awhile, I quit doing the seminars. It was unethical, carrying on with something I knew people wouldn’t believe, and flooding them with disclaimers and warnings wasn’t enough to make it so.

You’re waiting for me to say, “But it was all worth it.”

I won’t, because it wasn’t.

You’re waiting for me to say, “But I have no regrets.”

I won’t, because I do.

I will say I had a lot of crapola that needed to get exposed and taken care of. And I will say that once the transformation process really got rolling, I got in touch with just how little I have control over. I’m grateful for both those lessons – and some others, too. It would have been nice to learn them without all the trouble, but that never would have happened. The trouble and the learning were inseparable.

For more about how I made every mistake in the book plus a few others, check here. For a Jungian look at transformation, check here. Both links take you to free downloads — free in the same way that a crummy old couch by the dumpster with a sign on it that says “take it” is free. They’re not bait and switch. Honest. I’m out of the seminar business, remember?

“Nobody wants to work anymore.” Oh please…

 “Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.” Oscar Wilde

The April jobs numbers are out, they’re lower than forecast, and the Republicans are crying “Socialism!”

“Nobody wants to work anymore.” Somebody who is capable of saying that believes a few essential things: 

  1. “Nobody” – that is, people in general — are lazy, unmotivated, irresponsible, and ignorant. They don’t get it. They don’t get that working at a job is the essential fuel that keeps the USA’s economic fires burning. The USA is nothing without a bull market IPO unicorns free privatize everything social Darwinism free market capitalism on steroids funning at full tilt. In fact, our nation is here on the Earth to carry this torch. We must hold it high. That’s our destiny, our plan, our purpose.
  2. Because people are lazy, unmotivated, and all the rest, we can’t help them out when they’re trying to not starve and not become homeless while surviving a pandemic (um.. “pandemic” means worldwide, like all around the world, the whole planet…) that has killed nearly 600,000 in the USA alone. Even if they needed some help with basic survival, we need to yank the rug out from underneath them in order to fire up our economic engine  — which by now everyone knows isn’t built to help them out, it’s capitalism built to benefit capitalists, Since they won’t do it willingly, we need to force them back into survival, scrambling-to-somehow-make-it mode. That’s when things get done around here.
  3. If we do that, we will build their character. We will make them strong. They will be the rugged individualistic stock that built America. They will sustain this great country into its glorious manifest destiny city on a hill future.
  4. And, I – the speaker — am exempt from all my own accusations. I am above it all, I am of better character than the great unwashed “nobody.” I am justified in arrogantly pronouncing that “nobody wants to work anymore.” I am right and true and noble and visionary when I label any policy “socialism” that would molly-coddle the lousy lazy bastards — without bothering to understand what “socialism” actually is, that it is not in fact synonymous with Communism, that the “free market” is not and has never been free, that tax breaks and pro-monopoly, anti-union, anti-minimum wage, and all the rest are a warped version of socialism in action). Not me. I am better. I am pure. I am on the top of the heap, a member of the club of what all true Americans would be if they would just get a job.
  5. And I – the speaker — can get away with insulting the “people” because they also believe I’m not actually talking about them, I’m not calling them lazy, unmotivated, irresponsible, and ignorant.” They, like me, believe they are also above it all, they are willing to fight for their own survival and they don’t need any stinking help from the government, and that’s the American way. I am my constituents are united in outrage, united in our belief that the problem is Them—the Mexicans and Asians and Moslems and Blacks and anybody else whose skin color isn’t classified as “white” – all those and immigrants and other lowlifes and people from shithole countries who are responsible for all this mess and who believe that there really was (and still is) a pandemic and that getting vaccinated is a good idea.

The April jobs data might have more to tell us than the average brainless if-you-don’t-understand-or-like-it-call-it-socialism Republican is capable of processing.[1] The problem is not that we’re lazy and don’t want to work and therefore need a good swift kick in the butt to get out there and show some character and initiative for a change. The problem is that the Republicans still live in a reality where The Job is everything. The Job is what made American a militarist fascist heartless capitalist powerhouse. The Job is the USA’s gift to mankind. The Job is the cornerstone of civilization.

It never would occur to a true believer in The Job that the great unwashed nobodies aren’t all that excited about working long hours, barely making enough to get by (if that), never having time off, sacrificing family and social life to work-induced zombie-ism. Or that The Job is the lifeless icon of a “free” market that is utterly failing at providing affordable housing, affordable higher education, affordable healthcare, or affordable anything else to the majority of the Americans.

The problem with The Job is that it’s crappy work with crappy hours for crappy pay. The only reason the benefits aren’t also crappy is because there aren’t any benefits. Which is pretty crappy.

The Job sucks. That’s pretty much a guarantee. The Job sucks because the boss probably sucks, and so does the corporation that pays its CEO a gazillion times more than The Job will pay America’s lazy slobs throughout their only-in-your-dreams lifetimes.

The Job sucks because the capitalist free market has been twisted and turned and distorted and warped to the point that capitalism only benefits capitalists. Capitalists don’t make a living at The Job, they make money by having capital – money, lots of money – something people with The Job will never have. And they make lots of money by making sure the lazy slobs of the world have to make a living at The Job. The Job fuels the capitalist engine, and never mind that technology is rapidly making The Job obsolete, so that one day those who work at jobs will become one more non-recyclable waste product loser of competitive zero-sum capitalism. But don’t tell anybody – let ‘em keep believing.

The politicians are good with all that. Let the lazy little fuckers work, don’t they see we’re busy here in Washington making the world safe for capitalism and militarism and totalitarianism? Don’t they see we’re busy making it as hard as possible for people to exercise their last bit of democratic power – the right to vote? People want all this quality of life bullshit – that’s socialism, and it would be the end of America. Socialism gives people stuff to make them happy! That’s as bad as it gets, my friends. Now get back to work. Get off your lazy butt and do your part. Go get The Job.

There never was a Golden Era of The Job. Radio journalist Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people for his 1974 book Working. Here are a couple quotes from it:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”

The Job hasn’t changed since Working came out. A few years back, a professor named David Graeber got more than 15 minutes of fame from his On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:  A Work Rant (2013):

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

Why has it become inflammatory to suggest that boring, meaningless work might not be a good thing? Because of the widespread “truths” about work that have become culturally sacred – and not just to Republicans. Another professor, James Livingston, also gave The Job a thorough shredding a few years back in his book No More Work:  Why full employment is a bad idea(2016)::

“Work means everything to us. For centuries–since, say, 1650[2]–we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labor, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve also believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives–at any rate we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”

“Those beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills–unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

“[Work] no longer functions as either a moral calendar or an economic calculator. You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities; you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.

“When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labor market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And here’s the rub:  they do not go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills, and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, or durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by “durable” I don’t mean just material things0, I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.

“When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above)–just business as usual on Wall Street–while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realize that my participation in the labor market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.”

The Job was already in trouble long before our government dared to soften the impact of a vicious pandemic – despite the Republican President and the rest of the Republicans and their supporters protesting — still to this day, after nearly 600,000 USA deaths (geez, people, what does it take??!!) — that it was all a hoax, it would go away if we ignored it, and getting vaccinated is a Commie plot, and as for the pandemic (worldwide) part, who cares about the rest of the shithole world and those pompous-ass European snobs anyway, we got MAGA.

So what happened while people actually got a few hundred dollars a week to save them from starvation and homelessness (yes, things were… and still are… that dire for millions of people), they got enough relief from The Job to see how crappy it really is. Be in a hurry to go back to that crap? Maybe not.

What we’re seeing from the crappy low jobs numbers is that The (Crappy) Job is a dying American institution. Wave the flag all you like, but The (Crappy) Job ain’t coming back. People who can think have been saying that for awhile, but it took a worldwide plague to reveal that to the rest of us (Republicans excluded). Reveal – revelation – is at the heart of what the word “apocalypse” means. The Republicans missed the revelation. American workers had an apocalypse, but the Republicans were too busy ignoring reality to notice. They’re still blind. They still believe in The (Crappy) Job. They’ll never get it. Never. Just like they’ll never get what socialism really means, that it’s not synonymous with Communism, that it does in fact co-exist nicely with private enterprise, and that yes, it thinks “We The People” deserve more from life than The (Crappy) Job.

How can you say, “Nobody wants to work anymore” without gagging on your silver spoon?

I guess they learn that in Republican school.


[1] See, e.g., ‘No one wants to work anymore’: the truth behind this unemployment benefits myth | US unemployment and employment data | The Guardian (May 7, 2021).

[2] 1650 is the year René Descartes died.

Can Capitalism Buy Happiness?

smiley face

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambition: Promised Land or Wasteland?

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

We’re exploring how inspiration, motivation, and ambition can help create meaningful work. We found that inspiration is essential, but has a dark side that includes mania and delusional risk taking, and that motivation is a ManagementSpeak relic and a brain stressor.  As for ambition, much current commentary focuses on my kids’ generation, but there’s plenty here for the rest of us if we view it in the larger economic context.

Here’s a quick summary:  Our parents came of age in the glory years of The Job and a Fair Income for the Middle Class. We Baby Boomers were born into that economic model, customized with our own iconoclastic and utopian social visions. The model weakened in the 70’s and 80’s, but we were too busy with kids and careers to notice. The Gen Xers got in early enough to ride the upward mobility escalator, but now that the Millennials are  young adults the model is bankrupt, leaving them to face a whole new gig — as in “gig economy.”

All that happened while most of us didn’t know it. Along with our policymakers, we were and still are stuck in the cognitive and cultural bias of the jobs heyday. Back in the day, we showered the Millennials with self-esteem-building, be-all-you-can-be positive thinking, and told them to follow their dreams. But when they came of age the economy wasn’t set up to support them. Maybe that’s why some parents habitually hedged their advice, urging the kids to have a Plan B and for crying out loud quit with all the cold filtering and get a real job.

(For a remarkable look at the current state of economic opportunity, see “I’m a Millionaire Who Creates Zero Jobs. Why Do I Pay Less Tax Than You?” by Morris Pearl, a career Wall Street One Percenter who is now chairman of the Patriotic Millionaires.)

No wonder people write books like Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before , by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge. This is from the flyleaf:

Generation Me“In this provocative and newly revised book, headline-making psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge explores why the young people she calls “Generation Me” are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.

“Born in the ’80s, and ’90s… the children of the Baby Boomers are … feeling the effects of the recession and the changing job market.

“Her often humorous, eyebrow-raising stories about real people vividly bring to life the hopes, disappointments, and challenges of Generation Me.  Engaging, controversial, prescriptive, and funny, Generation Me gives Boomers and GenX’ers new and fascinating insights into their offspring, and helps those in their teens, twenties, and thirties find their road to happiness.”

I was okay with the blurb until it got to “happiness.” I’m more in tune with the article we looked at last time — You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015):

“Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, says that .. we’ve seen ‘rising expectations among everybody for work that’s more than just a salary… You see this among people who are highly educated… and that helps explain why job dissatisfaction tends to rise over the past couple of decades, because people are asking … to use their talents or passions in their work.’

“The shift in expectation has resulted in tremendous anxiety over achieving these goals and, paradoxically, sheer delusion. Point out to parents or teens just how difficult it can be to achieve such a high-level career and you’ll likely be treated to a catalogue of all the people who bucked the odds. Not just the Oprahs or the Steve Jobses who achieved super-status but the friend of a friend who just bought a modern all-glass home overlooking San Francisco Bay with his signing bonus, or the daughter of a work colleague who was cast in a new TV show, or the neighbour’s son who got a scholarship to Harvard.

“If it’s possible for them, we want to believe that it’s possible for our children too. Besides, who wants to be the killjoy who has to remind the struggling math student that medicine likely isn’t an option? … Besides, technically it is possible. At what point do we abandon possible for probable, and encourage our children to do the same?

“‘This links to the cult of positive thinking,’ says Krznaric, ‘where we’re always wanting to feel up and good and send positive messages… and so we feel that we should only be sending good messages and positive messages to our children and to young people. That it’s somehow wrong or bad or inappropriate to tell them: actually, it isn’t possible.’”

Ambition says it’s possible. Current economics says it’s not. Now what? Back for more next week.

The Rentier Economy: A Primer (Part 2)

My plan for this week’s post was to present further data about the extent of the rentier economy and then provide a digest of articles for further reading.

Turns out that wasn’t so easy. The data is there, but it’s mostly buried in categories like corporate capitalization, profits, and market concentration. Extracting it into blog post sized nuggets wasn’t going to be that easy.

Further, the data was generally only footnoted in a maelstrom of worldwide commentary. Economists and journalists treated it as a given, barely worthy of note, and were much more interested in revealing, analyzing, and debating what it means. The resulting discourse spans the globe — north to south, east to west, and all around the middle — and there is widespread agreement on the basics:

  • Economic thinking has traditionally focused on income from profits generated from the sale of goods and services produced by human labor. In this model, as profits rise, so do wages.
  • Beginning in the 1980’s, globalization began moving production to cheap labor offshore.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, artificial intelligence and robotics have eliminated jobs in the developed world at a pace slowed only by the comparative costs of technology vs. human labor.
  • As a result, lower per unit costs of production have generated soaring profits while wages have stagnated in the developed world. I.e., the link between higher profits and higher wages no longer holds.

Let’s pause for a moment, because that point is huge. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, wrote about it in their widely cited book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014). The following is from a chapter-by-chapter digest  written by an all-star cast of economists:

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress.

On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Okay, point made. Let’s move on to the rest of the rentier story:

  • These trends have been going on the past four decades, but increased in velocity since the 2007-2009 Recession. The result has been a shift to a new kind of job market characterized by part-time, on-demand, contractual freelance positions that pay less and don’t offer fringe benefits. Those who still hold conventional jobs with salaries and benefits are a dying breed, and probably don’t even realize it.
  • As non-wage earner production has soared, so have profits, resulting in a surplus of corporate cash. Low labor costs and technology have created a boom in corporate investment in patents and other rentable IT assets.
  • Rent-seeking behavior has been increasingly supported by government policy — such as the “regressive regulation” and other “legalized monopoly” dynamics we’ve been looking at in the past few weeks.
  • The combination of long-term wage stagnation and spiraling rentier profits has driven economic inequality to levels rivaled only by pre-revolutionary France, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.
  • Further, because the rentier economy depends on government policy, it is particularly susceptible to plutocracies, oligarchies, “crony-capitalism,” and other forms of corruption, leading to public mistrust in big business, government, and the social/economic elite.
  • These developments have put globalization on the defensive, resulting in reactionary politics such as populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and trade protectionism.

As you see, my attempt to put some numbers to the terms “rent” and “rentier” led me straight into some neighborhoods I’ve been trying to stay out of in this series. Finding myself there reminded me of my first encounter with the rentier economy nine years ago, when of course I had no idea that’s what I’d run into. I was at a conference of entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, life coaches, and other optimistic types. We started by introducing ourselves from the microphone at the front of the room. Success story followed success story, then one guy blew up the room by telling how back in the earliest days of the internet, he and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz spent $250K buying up domain names for the biggest corporations and brand names. Last year, he said, he made $76 Million from selling or renting them back.

He was a rentier, and I was in the wrong room. When it was my turn at the mic, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Welcome to the real world, my idealistic friend.

As it turns out, following the rentier pathway eventually leads us all the way through the opinionated commentary and current headlines to a much bigger worldwide issue. We’ll go there next time.

Eric and Kevin’s Most Excellent Career Adventures

thermos

 

lunch bucket

 

David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs is loaded with real-life job stories that meet his definition of “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” One of those stories rang a bell:  turns out that “Eric” and I had the same job. The details are different, but our experiences involved the same issues of social capital and upward mobility.

Eric grew up in a working class neighborhood, left to attend a major British university, graduated with a history major, landed in a Big 4 accounting firm training program, and took a corporate position that looked like an express elevator to the executive suite. But then the job turned out to be… well, nothing. No one would tell him what to do. He showed up day after day in his new business clothes and tried to look busy while trying in vain to solve the mystery of why he had nothing to do. He tried to quit a couple times, only to be rewarded with raises, and the money was hard to pass up. Frustration gave way to boredom, boredom to depression, and depression to deception. Soon he and his mates at the pub back home hatched a plan to use his generous expense account to travel. gamble, and drink.

In time, Eric learned that his position was the result of a political standoff:  one of the higher-ups had the clout to fund a pet project that the responsible mid-level managers disagreed with, so they colluded to make sure it would never happen. Since Eric had been hired to coordinate internal communication on the project, keeping him in the dark was essential. Eventually he managed to quit, kick his gambling and drinking habits, and take a shot at the artistic career he had envisioned in college.

My story isn’t quite so… um, colorful… but the themes are similar. I also came from a strong “work with your hands” ethic and was in the first generation of my family to go to college, where I joined the children of lawyers, neurosurgeons, professors, diplomats, and other upper echelon white collar professionals from all 50 states and several foreign countries, At the first meeting of my freshmen advisory group, my new classmates talked about books, authors, and academic disciplines I’d never heard of. When I tackled my first class assignment, I had to look up 15 words in the first two pages. And on it went. Altogether, my college career was mostly an exercise in cluelessness. But I was smart and ambitious, and did better than I deserved.

Fast forward nine years, and that’s me again, this time signing on with a boutique corporate law firm as a newly minted MBA/JD. I got there by building a lot of personal human capital, but my steel thermos and metal lunch bucket upbringing was still so ingrained that a few weeks after getting hired I asked a senior associate why nobody ever took morning and afternoon coffee breaks. He looked puzzled, and finally said, “Well… we don’t really take breaks.” Or vacations, evenings, weekends, or holidays, as it turned out.

A couple years later I hired on with a Big 4 accounting firm as a corporate finance consultant. My first assignment was my Eric-equivalent job:  I was assigned to a team of accountants tasked with creating a new chart of accounts for a multinational corporation and its subsidiaries. Never mind that the job had nothing to do with corporate finance…. Plus there were two other little problems:  I didn’t know what a chart of accounts was, and at our first client meeting a key corporate manager announced that he thought the project was ridiculous and intended to oppose it. Undaunted, the other members of the consulting team got to work. Everybody seemed to know what to do, but nobody would tell me, and in the meantime our opponent in management gained a following.

As a result, I spent months away from home every week, trying to look busy. I piled up the frequent flyer miles and enjoyed the 5-star accommodations and meals, but fell into a deep depression .When I told the managing partner about it, he observed that, “Maybe this job isn’t a good fit for you.” He suggested I leave in two months, which happened to be when our consulting contract was due for a renewal. Looking back, I suspect my actual role on the team was “warm body.”

Graeber says that, at first blush, Eric’s story sounds like yet one more bright, idealistic liberal arts grad getting a real-world comeuppance:

“Eric was a young man form a working-class background.. fresh out of college and full of expectations, suddenly confronted with a jolting introduction to the “real world.”

“One could perhaps conclude that Eric’s problem was not just that he hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for the pointlessness of the modern workplace. He had passed through the old educational system … This led to false expectations and an initial shock of disillusionment that he could not overcome.”

Sounds like my story, too, but then Graeber takes his analysis in a different direction:  “To a large degree,” he say, “this is really a story about social class.” Which brings us back to the issues of upward mobility and social capital we’ve been looking. We’ll talk more about those next time.

In the meantime, I can’t resist a Dogbert episode:

Dilbert

On the Third Hand Cont’d.

working robot

Will the machines take over the jobs?

In a recent TED talk, scholar, economist, author, and general wunderkind Daniel Susskindl[1] says the question is distracting us from a much bigger and more important issue:  how will we feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves if we no longer work for a living?:

“If we think of the economy as a pie, technological progress makes the pie bigger. Technological unemployment, if it does happen, in a strange way will be a symptom of that success — we will have solved one problem — how to make the pie bigger — but replaced it with another — how to make sure that everyone gets a slice. As other economists have noted, solving this problem won’t be easy.

“Today, for most people, their job is their seat at the economic dinner table, and in a world with less work or even without work, it won’t be clear how they get their slice. This is the collective challenge that’s right in front of us — to figure out how this material prosperity generated by our economic system can be enjoyed by everyone in a world in which our traditional mechanism for slicing up the pie, the work that people do, withers away and perhaps disappears.

Guy Standing, another British economist, agrees with Susskind about this larger issue. The following excerpts are from his book The Corruption of Capitalism. He begins by quoting Nobel prizewinning economist Herbert Simon’s 1960 prediction:

“Within the very near future – much less than twenty-five years – we shall have the technical capacity of substituting machines for any and all human functions in organisations.”

And then he makes these comments:

“You do not receive a Nobel Prize for Economics for being right all the time! Simon received his in 1978, when the number of people in jobs was at record levels. It is higher still today. Yet the internet-based technological revolution has reopened age-old visions of machine domination. Some are utopian, such as the post-capitalism of Paul Mason, imagining an era of free information and information sharing. Some are decidedly dystopian, where the robots — or rather their owners — are in control and mass joblessness is coupled with a ‘panopticon’ state[2] subjecting the proles to intrusive surveillance, medicalized therapy and brain control. The pessimists paint a ‘world without work.’ With every technological revolution there is a scare that machines will cause ‘technological unemployment’. This time the Jeremiahs seem a majority.

 “Whether or not they will do so in the future, the technologies have not yet produced mass unemployment… [but they] are contributing to inequality.

“While technology is not necessarily destroyed jobs, it is helping to destroy the old income distribution system.

“The threat is technology-induced inequality, not technological unemployment.”

Economic inequality and income distribution (sharing national wealth on a basis other than individual earned income) are two sides of the issue of economic fairness — always an inflammatory topic.

When I began my study of economics 15 months ago, I had never heard of economic inequality, and income distribution was something socialist countries did. Now I find both topics all over worldwide economic news and commentary and still mostly absent in U.S. public discourse (such as it is) outside of academic circles. On the whole, most policy-makers on both the left and right maintain their allegiance to the post-WWII Mont Pelerin neoliberal economic model, supported by a cultural and moral bias in favor of working for a living, and if the plutocrats take a bigger slice of pie while the welfare rug gets pulled on the working poor, well then so be it. If the new robotic and super-intelligent digital workers do in fact cause massive technological unemployment among the humans, we’ll all be reexamining these beliefs, big time.

Finland flag smaller

I started this series months ago by asking whether money can buy happiness, citing the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. The 2018 Report was issued this week, and who should be on top but… Finland! And guess what — among other things, factors cited include low economic inequality and strong social support systems (i.e., a cultural value for non-job-based income distribution). National wealth was also a key factor, but it alone didn’t buy happiness:  the USA, with far and away the strongest per capita GDP, had an overall ranking of 18th. For more, see this World Economic Forum article or this one from the South China Morning Post.

We’ll be looking further into all of this (and much more) in the weeks to come.

[1] If you’ve been following this blog for awhile and the  name “Susskind” sounds familiar, a couple years ago, I blogged about the future and culture of the law, often citing the work of Richard Susskind, whose opus is pretty much the mother lode of crisp thinking about the law and technology. His equally brilliant son Daniel joined him in a book that also addressed other professions, which that series also considered. (Those blogs were collected in my book Cyborg Lawyers.) Daniel received a doctorate in economics from Oxford University, was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, and is now a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Previously, he worked as a policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and as a senior policy adviser in the Cabinet Office.

[2] The panopticon architectural structure was the brainchild of legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. For an introduction to the origins of his idea and its application to the digital age, see this article in The Guardian.

Brave New (Jobs) World

“The American work environment is rapidly changing.
For better or worse, the days of the conventional full-time job
may be numbered.”

The above quote is from a December 5, 2016 Quartz article that reported the findings of economists Lawrence Katz (Harvard) and Alan Krueger (Princeton, former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers) that 94% of all US jobs created between 2005 to 2015 were temporary, “alternative work” — with the biggest increases coming from freelancers, independent contractors, and contract employees (who work at a business but are paid by an outside firm).

These findings are consistent with what we looked at last time:  how neoliberal economics has eroded institutional support for the conventional notion of working for a living, resulting in a more individuated approach to the job market. Aeon Magazine recently offered an essay on this topic:  The Quitting Economy:  When employees are treated as short-term assets, they reinvent themselves as marketable goods, always ready to quit. Here are some samples:

“In the early 1990s, career advice in the United States changed. A new social philosophy, neoliberalism, was transforming society, including the nature of employment, and career counsellors and business writers had to respond. (Emphasis added.)

“US economic intellectuals raced to implement the ultra-individualist ideals of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society…In doing so… they developed a metaphor – that every person should think of herself as a business, the CEO of Me, Inc. The metaphor took off, and has had profound implications for how workplaces are run, how people understand their jobs, and how they plan careers, which increasingly revolve around quitting.

“The CEO of Me, Inc. is a job-quitter for a good reason – the business world has come to agree with Hayek that market value is the best measure of value. As a consequence, a career means a string of jobs at different companies. So workers respond in kind, thinking about how to shape their career in a world where you can expect so little from employers. In a society where market rules rule, the only way for an employee to know her value is to look for another job and, if she finds one, usually to quit.”

I.e., tooting your own résumé horn is no longer not so much about who you worked for, but what you did while you were there. And once you’re finished, don’t get comfortable, get moving. (This recent Time/Money article offers help for creating your new mobility résumé.)

A couple years ago I blogged here about a new form of law firm entirely staffed by contract attorneys. A quick Google search revealed that the trend toward lawyer “alternative” staffing has been gaining momentum. For example:

This May 26, 2017 Above the Law article reported a robust market for more conventional associate openings and lateral partner hires, but included this caveat:

“The one trend that we see continue to stick is the importance of the personal brand over the law firm brand, and that means that every attorney should really focus on how they differentiate themselves from the pack, regardless of where they hang their shingle.”

Upwork offers “Freelance Lawyer Jobs.” “Looking to hire faster and more affordably?” their website asks. “ Tackle your next Contract Law project with Upwork – the top freelancing website.”

Flexwork offers “Flexible & Telecommuting Attorney Jobs.”

Indeed posts “Remote Contract Attorney Jobs.”

And on it goes. Whether you’re hiring or looking to be hired, you do well to be schooled in the Brave New World of “alternative” jobs. For a further introduction, check out these articles on the “Gig Economy” from Investopedia and McKinsey. For more depth, see:

The Shift:  The Future of Work is Already Here (2011), by Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, where she directs the program “Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Companies.”

Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today (2017), by University of Indiana Anthropology Professor LLana Gershon — the author of the Aeon article quoted above.

Next time, we’ll begin looking at three major non-human players in the new job marketplace:  artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. They’re big, they’re bad, and they’re already elbowing their way into jobs long considered “safe.”