October 19, 2017

Ideas and Economics

Yes, ideas matter. In economics, they matter a lot.

Three key economics ideas have shaped academic debates and national policies about economics for the past 240 years. Communism was the latecomer: Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Das Kapital in 1867, and his ideas took their place in the triumvirate in the 20th Century. Meanwhile, Scotsman Adam Smith articulated capitalistic economics in The Wealth of Nations (1776), which subsequently split into two key versions.

The first was championed by the Fabian Society, formed in London in 1884 in part as a counter to the growing interest in Marxism. The Fabians’ ranks included H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, and their agenda was democratic socialism, which became Europe’s dominant model. The Fabians advocated nationalized industry, centralized banking, and social welfare through “state-protected trade unionism and other state interventions such as social security and unemployment insurance. And [they] did so by claiming that capitalism worsens inequality and exploitation, that it is rife with robber barons and virtueless inheritors.” A History of the Mont Pelerin Society (1996), The Foundation for Economic Education.[1]

The second major version of capitalism got its most significant boost in 1947 when Austrian-British economist and philosopher F. A. Hayek invited a group of intellectuals to meet in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland to chart the Western world’s recovery from WWII, and specifically to counter Marxism and Keynesian economics. The group became known as the Mount Pelerin Society. Its original gathering included luminaries such as Hayek, Karl Popper, and Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics, and Milton Friedman and George Stigler of the University of Chicago. The MPS agenda came to be known as neoliberalism, and advocated private enterprise and limits on government regulation of the kind that — despite the word “liberalism” in its label — have become associated with conservative politics.

Thus the lines between economic ideas were drawn, and debates among them persist to this day. Of the three, Communism’s Soviet version tanked in the late 80s. but persists in China, albeit in vastly altered form. Meanwhile allegiances to the competing schools of capitalism are today more polarized than ever.

But do any of these models support current realities? A whole new generation of economists don’t think so, and believe it’s time policy-makers heeded some advice articulated by John Maynard Keynes:

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote this in The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (2001):

A time is marked not so much by ideas argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. Power runs with ideas that only the crazy would draw into doubt. The “taken for granted” is the test of sanity, “what everyone knows” is the line between us and them.

This means that sometimes a society gets stuck. Sometimes these unquestioned ideas interfere, as the cost of questioning becomes too great. In these times, the hardest task for social or political activists is to find a way to get people to wonder again about what we all believe is true. The challenge is to sow doubt.

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and journalist Carolyn Gregoire expressed a similar sentiment in Wired To Create (2015):

While experience is an important aspect of excellence in any creative discipline, one risk of being a seasoned pro is that we become so entrenched in our own point of view that we have trouble seeing other solutions. Experts may have trouble being flexible and adapting to change because they are so highly accustomed to seeing things in a particular way. For this reason, the newcomers to a field are sometimes the ones who come up with the ideas that truly innovate and shift paradigms.

In the coming posts, we’ll examine some of today’s paradigm-shifting economic ideas and their impact on the contemporary working world.


[1] For another excellent review of this history lesson, see The Mont Pèlerin Society: The ultimate neoliberal Trojan horse (2012), The Daily Knell.

 

Kevin Rhodes left a successful long-term law practice to scratch a creative itch and lived to tell about it… barely. Since then, he has been on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. He has also blogged extensively and written several books about his unique journey to wellness, including how he deals with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning.

How Did We Get Here From There?

We got nudged, that’s how.

Economic news is a media mainstay, but I’ve always felt that real people don’t live in “The Economy.” Instead, I think we live in a world forged from our outlook on life, which is derived from personal biases and cultural norms, so that economics is only news when our internal outlook (“I can afford that”) clashes with external reality (“No I can’t”).

Turns out somebody just won a Nobel Prize for thinking along those lines (well, sort of), except he took it much further and figured out how policy-makers who know better than we do can come to our rescue by nudging us ahead of time in the direction we really ought to go.

Richard H. Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School Professor. Together, they wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009). Their concept of “nudging” super-sized behavioral economics and spawned a lucrative new consulting field. (Google “nudge” and you’ll see what I mean.) Prof. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize not only for Nudge, but for a body of work the The Economist summarized as follows in an article earlier this week:

Not long ago, the starting assumption of any economic theory was that humans are rational actors who maximise their utility. Economists summarily dismissed anyone insisting otherwise. But over the past few decades, behavioural economists like Richard Thaler have progressively chipped away at this notion. They combine economics with insights from psychology to show how heavily economic decisions are influenced by cognitive biases. On September 9th Mr. Thaler’s work was recognised at the highest level when the Nobel Committee awarded him this year’s prize in economics. Mr. Thaler thus becomes one of very few behavioural economists to win the prize.

That started to change when Mr. Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar at Harvard University, co-authored a book, “Nudge”, in 2008. The book attacked the assumption of rational decision-making in economic models and showed how context could be changed to “nudge” people to make better choices. In 2010 Mr. Thaler advised the British government on the creation of the Behavioural Insights Team, a unit that sought to put their ideas into practice. The wildly successful government unit has since been spun out into a quasi-private company and now advises governments around the world.

“The Nobel In Economics Rewards A Pioneer Of “Nudges” — Richard Thaler becomes one of very few behavioural economists to receive the discipline’s highest honour,” The Economist, October 9, 2017.

Vox also summarized Thaler’s work earlier this week:

Richard Thaler, one of the founders of modern behavioral economics and the winner of the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is obsessed with how people make decisions — not just investors or policymakers but everyday consumers and taxpayers. He’s tried to explain why people won’t sell wine they own for more than they paid for it, why people take out big loans even when they have plenty of savings, and how to encourage people to sock away more of their paychecks toward retirement.

“This Headline Is A Nudge To Get You To Read About Nobel Economist Richard Thaler — Okay, it’s not a very good nudge, but his work is really important!” Vox, October 9, 2017.

I confess, I read Nudge and could never quite silence my own biased subtext of resentment over the idea that politicians, think-tankers, captains of industry, and other members of The Illuminati know what’s best for my health, wealth, and happiness, and are deliberately nudging me to carry out their own agendas. I’ve made liberal use of my human right to make dumb mistakes, thank you very much, and prefer to keep it that way. On the other hand, I respect the scholarship that went into theorizing something we all probably realize but try not to admit: that we decide subliminally before we act, and then rationalize what we’ve done after the fact.

Turns out that, like it or not, “The Economy” actually does run on ideas that come down from the top. Next time, we’ll look at some of the most famous economic nudgers of all time.

By the way, there’s an Illuminati website. Watching the greeting video, I think this has got to be a parody in the same league as This is Spinal Tap. If it’s not, then it’s it just plain creepy.

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.

The TED Inequality All-Stars

Economic inequality is so important to a thorough look at happiness on and off the job that, before we leave the topic, I decided to provide an all-star lineup of TED talks on the subject, from a variety of perspectives. We’ve heard from the first two before, but not the last three.

This is Chrystia Freeland, journalist turned politician. We’ve heard a lot from her book Plutocrats already. Her political biases are evident in this talk.

Thomas Piketty, economist and professor at the Paris School of Economics, literally wrote the book on the subject — a 600-page runaway bestseller Capital in the Twenty-first Century. He talks fast enough to get through much of his book in this talk. I’ve quoted him before, too.

Paul Tudor Jones II is the billionaire founder of hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation and a philanthropist. Here’s a sample:

[Capitalism is] a system I love because of the successes and opportunities it’s afforded me and millions of others.

Higher profit margins do not increase societal wealth. What they actually do is they exacerbate income inequality, and that’s not a good thing.

This next chart, made by The Equality Trust, shows 21 countries from Austria to Japan to New Zealand. On the horizontal axis is income inequality. The further to the right you go, the greater the income inequality. On the vertical axis are nine social and health metrics. The more you go up that, the worse the problems are, and those metrics include life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, literacy, social mobility, just to name a few. Now, those of you in the audience who are Americans may wonder, well, where does the United States rank? … Yes, that’s us, with the greatest income inequality and the greatest social problems, according to those metrics.

Now, capitalism has been responsible for every major innovation that’s made this world a more inspiring and wonderful place to live in. Capitalism has to be based on justice. It has to be, and now more than ever, with economic divisions growing wider every day.

I’m not against progress. I want the driverless car and the jet pack just like everyone else. But I’m pleading for recognition that with increased wealth and profits has to come greater corporate social responsibility.

‘If justice is removed,’ said Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, ‘the great, the immense fabric of human society must in a moment crumble into atoms.’

Public health researcher Richard Wilkinson studies the social and health effects of income inequality. In his writing and in this talk, he offers piles of statistical evidence from worldwide studies on a wide variety of social issues including life expectancy, social mobility, math scores, literacy rates, infant mortality, homicide and incarceration rates, teenage pregnancies, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, school bullying, violence, high school drop-out rates, and more. In this talk, he returns often to three points that seem to be commonly cited in inequality research and commentary:

  1. There is a strong statistical link between these social issues and economic inequality.
  2. Conventional economic measurements such as GNP per capita, gross national income, and national income per person fail to recognize this link; and
  3. The problem of inequality at its core revolves around relative inequality (the human trait of comparing what I have to what you have).

Nick Hanauer is another plutocrat — a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” — who has founded and funded 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He openly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for the future if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind. In 1980, the top one percent of Americans shared about eight percent of national [income], while the bottom 50 percent of Americans shared 18 percent. Thirty years later, today, the top one percent shares over 20 percent of national [income], while the bottom 50 percent of Americans share 12 or 13. If the trend continues, the top one percent will share over 30 percent of national [income] in another 30 years, while the bottom 50 percent of Americans will share just six.

You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.

Fellow plutocrats, I think it may be time for us to recommit to our country, to commit to a new kind of capitalism which is both more inclusive and more effective, a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.

Next time we’ll look at the complex nature of real economics for real people in the real world.

Kevin Rhodes left a successful long-term law practice to scratch a creative itch and lived to tell about it… barely. Since then, he has been on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. He has also blogged extensively and written several books about his unique journey to wellness, including how he deals with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning.

Meet the New Boss

Same as the old boss.

– The Who[1]

Commentary about economic inequality often compares the situation today to America’s Gilded Age.[2] 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 it’s so hard to talk about. Which is precisely what we’ll continue to do, right here.  Stay tuned.


[1] Here’s the original music video of 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.

[2] And who first called it the “Gilded Age”? Find out here.

 

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.

Economic Inequality Stats

My research on economic inequality consistently turns up three key points: (1) since the 80’s, there has been an ever-widening gap in incomes and capital ownership between the rich and poor, (2) the gap has been growing at an accelerating rate, especially since the year 2000, and (3) this phenomenon is worldwide.

So what?

As I’ve mentioned before, many U.S. economists and policy-makers greet those findings either with indifference or as a clarion call to defend endangered capitalism, while their international counterparts find them alarming. We’re talking about them here because it turns out that economic inequality has a lot to do with happiness and meaning at work. (Stay with me — we’ll get there, we’re just taking the scenic route.)

We all know that it’s easy to mold statistics to fit opinions — here’s a neurologist’s take on Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts. Any stats we look at here will have been pre-sorted, pre-analyzed, and pre-interpreted. My goal today was to provide a sampling of statistics from a variety of global sources — starting with a quote about how the new global super-rich are a bunch of economic data curve busters, which makes finding honest data even harder.

The skew toward the very top is so pronounced that you can’t understand overall economic growth figures without taking it into account. As in a school whose improved test scores are due largely to the stellar performance of a few students, the surging fortunes at the very top can mask stagnation lower down the income distribution.

Consider America’s economic recovery in 2009-2010. Overall incomes in that period grew by 2.3 percent — tepid growth, to be sure, but a lot stronger than you might have guessed from the general gloom of the period. Look more closely at the data, though . . . and it turns out that average Americans were right to doubt the economic comeback. That’s because for 99 percent of Americans, incomes increased by 0.2 percent. Meanwhile, the incomes of the top I percent jumped by 11.6 percent.

Plutocrats (2012), by Canadian journalist and politician Chrystia Freeland.

Across the developed world, vast fortunes are again ascendant. In the United States, the top 1 percent take home a larger share of total income than at any time except the late 1920’s. The total wealth of the world’s billionaires has quadrupled in the past two decades (even when the definition of “billionaire” is adjusted for inflation).

In the 1950’s, a typical CEO of a large company took home as much money as twenty average employees; today he makes as much as two hundred workers.

Economism (2017), by UConn law professor James Kwak.

In 2014, the inflation-adjusted income of the typical American household was just 7 per cent higher than it was in 1979. By contrast, the income of a household in the 95th percentile of the income distribution grew 45 per cent over that period.

The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016), by Ryan Avent,  a thoroughly Anglicized American who works as a senior editor and economic columnist for The Economist.

[C]ompare Detroit in 1990 . . . with Silicon Valley in 2014. In 1990, the three biggest companies in Detroit had a combined market capitalization of $36 billion, revenues of $250 billion, and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley had a considerably higher market capitalization ($1.09 trillion), generated roughly the same revenues ($247 billion), but with about 10 times fewer employees (137,000).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016), by German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Prior to the 2017 WEF annual meeting of world leaders last winter, U.K.-based Oxfam International issued a report that offers a fascinating slant on Schwab’s comments. According to the report:

Eight men now control as much wealth as the world’s poorest 3.6 billion people . . . The men — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Amancio Ortega, Larry Ellison and Michael Bloomberg — are collectively worth $426 billion.

As reported by CNN.

By contrast, half the planet’s population, some 3.6 billion people, have a combined wealth of $409 billion.

As reported by The Mirror Online (the U.K.’s “intelligent tabloid”).

Not only are the Elite Eight collectively worth more than the lower half of the world’s entire population, each individual member of the group is worth more than the combined market capitalization of Detroit’s three largest companies 27 years ago. The Mirror also noted this about the study:

The report found that between 1988 and 2011 the incomes of the poorest 10% increased by just $65, while the incomes of the richest 1% grew by $11,800 – 182 times as much.

A couple years ago, Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Report 2015” reported that half of the world’s assets were controlled by the top 1% of the global population, while the lower half owned less than 1%.

There’s plenty more where all of that came from. In fact, there’s such an abundance of global data and opinion on the topic that, if nothing else, it’s probably safe to conclude that economic inequality either really is a problem or, even if it’s not, a whole lot of people around the world sure seem to think it is.

We’ll continue our economic inquiries next time.

 

Kevin Rhodes left a successful long-term law practice to scratch a creative itch and lived to tell about it… barely. Since then, he has been on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. He has also blogged extensively and written several books about his unique journey to wellness, including how he deals with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning.

Why We Can’t Talk About Economic Inequality

It is not just the super-rich who don’t like to talk about rising income inequality. It can be an ideologically uncomfortable conversation for many of the rest of us, too. That’s because even — or perhaps particularly — in the view of its most ardent supporters, global capitalism wasn’t supposed to work quite this way.

That’s from Plutocrats: The Rise of the new Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland (2012). The book reads like an extended academic version of People Magazine meets CNN meets The New York Times, and could only have been written by someone who logged years on the insider track and took lots of notes.

Turns out that’s precisely who Chrystia Freeland is. She’s a Canadian writer, journalist, and politician. She worked in a variety of editorial positions at the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, and Thomson Reuters, was elected to the Canadian Parliament in 2013 (the year after the book came out), and was appointed Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs earlier this year. She’s a Harvard grad, a Rhodes Scholar, and was named one of Toronto’s 50 most influential people by Toronto Life Magazine in 2015.

The book takes names and tells stories, and is awash in dates and times and statistics. Reading it all the way through can be a bit of a slog, and I wonder how many people actually do — I confess, I skimmed a lot. I quote it here because it does a great job of capturing the lessons of my last two posts: 1) most of us haven’t updated our understanding of economics since Econ 101, and 2) we don’t like talking about economic inequality. Beginning with the quote above, the book provides a useful overview of how those two things are related. (These quotes are particularly re: income inequality, but apply to capital inequality as well.)

Until the past few decades, the received wisdom among economists was that income inequality would be fairly low in the preindustrial era—overall wealth and productivity fairly small, so there wasn’t that much for the elite to capture— then spike during industrialization, as the industrialists and industrial workers outstripped farmers (think of China today). Finally, in fully industrialized or postindustrial societies, income inequality would again decrease as education became more widespread and the state played a bigger, more redistributive role.

(This theory was articulated by Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuzmets, and can be plotted in what has become known as the Kuzmets curve. According to Wikipedia, Kuzmets won the award in 1971 “for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development.”)

Continuing with Plutocrats:

Until the 1970’s, the United States… was also an embodiment of the Kuzmets curve. The great postwar expansion was also the period of what economists have dubbed the Great Compression, when inequality shrank, and most Americans came to think of themselves as the middle class.

But in the late 1970’s, things started to change. The income of the middle class started to stagnate and those at the top began to pull away from everyone else. The shift was most pronounced in the United States, but by the twenty-first century, surging income inequality had become a worldwide phenomenon, visible in most of the developed Western economies, as well as in the rising emerging markets.

The switch from the America of the Great Compression to the America of the 1 percent is still so recent that our intuitive beliefs about how capitalism works haven’t caught up with the reality. In fact, surging income inequality is such a strong violation of our expectations that most of us don’t realize it is happening.

We’ll look at some inequality stats next time.

 

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.

Taboo Economics

Last time, University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak challenged us to upgrade our Econ 101 understanding of economics. I’ve spent the past year doing that, and have come across what appears to be the one single issue that will instantly and absolutely shut down all further inquiry. It is the ultimate economics taboo — the quickest way to destroy any hope of further learning or discussion. Taking it head on is like signing up for a an adventure tourism trip into the Labyrinth, live Minotaur included.

No thanks, I’m pretty sure I’ve got something going on that night.

It’s especially taboo if you’re an American — economists around the rest of the world talk about it all the time with a sense of urgency, like it’s something we need to get on right now if we know what’s good for us. More on that in a moment. But first, what is it? In a word,

Inequality

Uh-oh. I think I just heard the footfalls of a really large, really nasty creature.

Understanding economic inequality is the key to Economics 2017. Trouble is, the topic threatens the very bedrock of a country founded on this premise:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

“Equal” means “Anybody Can Make It Here.” We are the land of Horatio Alger. To suggest that public policy — where the study of economics is played out — might include income inequality on its agenda is to throw Alger’s rags-to-riches enthronement of hard work, determination, courage, and honesty under the bus. Questioning those values is un-American by definition — the province of the Occupiers, who we all know finally had to give up and get a real job.

And so it goes.

You think I’m exaggerating? Read this NY Times op-ed piece from earlier this summer, then read these two completely polarized responses. The writer who started the exchange is a Brit who writes for the Brookings Institute and wrote a book entitled Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about Itwhich pretty much tells you everything you need to know, doesn’t it? About as surprising as finding this lesson plan primer on economic inequality on the PBS website.

And so it goes.

As the NY Times exchange makes clear, the issue isn’t so much economics, it’s the complete, total, utter American rejection of anything resembling a class system — a yoke we threw off with those Declaration of Independence fightin’ words. Which is why, these days, if you’re an European or Asian economist you’ll talk about inequality with a sense of urgency, but if you’re an American you won’t talk about it all — unless you’re a foreign-trained economist teaching at a prestigious U.S. university, which doesn’t really count. See the analysis of the USA vs. the Rest of the World Economic Divide in “Why So Few American Economists Are Studying Inequality, The Atlantic, Sept. 13, 2016. (The article’s killer opening line is “In recent years, it’s been European scholars who have written the blockbuster papers on the topic.” “Blockbuster papers”? Seriously? Are we talking about economics here?)

Which is why it takes a Frenchman to write an international blockbuster (there’s that word again) economics book that takes 600 geeky pages to reckon with economic inequality. (Google Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century — it’s all over the place.)

I mentioned the book to a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He’s the most dedicated to the study of economics person I know. His comment? “Piketty didn’t talk about benefits.”

That was it.

We can let the topic of income inequality send us scurrying to the safety of Econ 101, or we can brave the Minotaur.

We’ll enter the Labyrinth next time.

 

(By the way, the reputed lefty Brookings Institute and its equally reputed righty arch-rival American Enterprise Institute actually collaborated on a 2015 study called “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream.” And if the BI is given to favoring its own touchy topics, the AEI isn’t afraid to tackle its own controversial counterparts, as I learned while squirming my way through The Inequality Taboo. I’ll just leave it there for now.)

 

Kevin Rhodes left a successful long-term law practice to scratch a creative itch and lived to tell about it… barely. Since then, he has been on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. He has also blogged extensively and written several books about his unique journey to wellness, including how he deals with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning.

Reckoning

“What would you do if money were no object?”

Baloney. Money is always an object. We always have to deal with it.

And now, more than ever, we need to deal with it from a fresh perspective, says University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, whose book Economism warns against “the pernicious influence of economism in contemporary society.” He defines “economism” as “a distorted worldview based on a misleading caricature of economic knowledge.” Most of us learned what we know about economics in Econ 101, he says, and haven’t moved on since then, while the world of economics has.

The competitive market model can be a powerful tool, but it is only starting point in illuminating complex real-world issues, not the final word. In the real world, many other factors complicate the picture, sometimes beyond recognition.

Still, the answer to econonism is not to reject economics altogether. Rather, the immediate antidote to economism’s simplistic model of reality is more and better economic analysis, which can help identify the fundamental drivers of social phenomena or select the most effective solutions to difficult problems.

His fresh take on “more and better economic analysis” exposes the limitations of theoretical models, statistical analysis, empirical research, laments the academic turf wars fought over them, and acknowledges that the study of economics “does not provide a single, simple answer to all questions.” Still, he says, taking a fresh look at economics “ is a crucial step in throwing off the blinders of economism.”

We’ll hear more from Prof. Kwak in subsequent posts, but first we might consider where we stand on this perspective from Albert Camus:

There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.

From The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955).

Who am I to disagree with Albert Camus? But on this point I do: I believe that exposing our truths is a critical first step to getting free from them. And I agree with James Kwak that it’s time we reckoned with the truths we hold about economics.

“Reckon” comes from Old English (ge)recenian — “to recount or relate” — and from Dutch rekenen and German rechnen, meaning “to count.” To reckon with our attitudes about money and work, happiness and meaning, means to bring our truths about those topics out into the open where we can evaluate whether they’re making us prey or setting us free. If we don’t do that, we’ll just keep mindlessly paying the price of holding them — wishing we could be Richard Cory, keeping ourselves in a state of meaningless malaise that sometimes — in the case of suicide — literally threatens our existence.

Lots more on economics coming up.

James Kwak is one of those guys: before graduating from Yale law School, he earned a Ph.D. in Intellectual history from UC Berkeley and had a career as a management consultant and software entrepreneur. For a sense of his perspective, check out his article The Curse of Econ 101 from earlier this year.

Alan Watts bridged the East/West philosophical divide. Today, many of his quotes read like a treasure trove of pop psychology advice. The title of his book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is certainly as relevant for our time as it was when first published it in 1951.

 

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.

The 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?

Mainly, 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 to be about conversation, not conversion. Plus, I’ll make the customary disclaimer that I write my own thoughts, not the CBA’s or CLE’s.

I will brave the discourse if you will.

Kevin Rhodes left a successful long-term law practice to scratch a creative itch and lived to tell about it… barely. Since then, he has been on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. He has also blogged extensively and written several books about his unique journey to wellness, including how he deals with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning.

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:

From a health perspective 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.

More next time.

 

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.

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.

“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 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?

Something Rotten in Denmark

“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:

The 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.

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.