What the Right and Left Get Don’t Understand About Ambition, Hardwork, and Success

I am starting to be annoyed and very dissatisfied with how the left and right-wing spheres talk about the economy. Specifically with how they talk about income inequality, ambition, and jobs.

Again, it is a bit necessary to go into my background. I applied to law school in 2007 and entered in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. When I was in law school, at least three major firms shut their doors and the market for lawyers and legal work went reeling. I graduated and took the bar in 2011 which was arguably one of the worst years for lawyers on the market. Since then, I’ve been doing okay as a freelance contract lawyer and have worked three major long-term jobs and a bunch of smaller side gigs.

I have slowly but surely been building up experience. My rough estimate is that this puts me in the middle of my class performance wise. I know many people who did receive jobs at small firms or as the first associate hired by a solo lawyer but I have no idea how well those jobs pay. Other people work for their parents. Many friends are in so-called “JD-advantage” jobs. This is just a fancy title for doing contract-administration, regulatory compliance, and grant administration. These jobs previously did not require a JD and could probably be done by someone with an undergrad degree or a Masters in Public Administration. Other people I know have jumped out of law and are working in business, learning coding, and even working as a chocolate maker.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to get out of the gig/contract work economy. My ideal would be to get hired as an associate and to work up to being a partner but that might not be an option. The legal market is still suffering from the blows it took during the Great Recession. Lately I’ve been more seriously thinking about hanging my own shingle. This prospect is not pleasing. The rewards could theoretically be great (be my own boss, set my own hours, wear what I want to work, and potentially make a good living). There is also a lot of risk in starting my own practice because I am still a new lawyer and will be doing things solo instead of under supervision and mentorship. Or it can just bomb. A few friends started their own practices and they all found it miserable and stopped doing it as soon as they got an offer elsewhere. As far as I know, none of them decided to stick with their solo practice if they got an offer. Yet opening up my own practice might be my least bad option.

The way the left talks about people in my predicament is that the American Public were sold a false-bill of goods. Many liberal and left-wing sites in the last few years have seemingly embraced the old Steinbeck quote about America being filled with “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Left-wing sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money seem to to think that the American public has largely been hood-winked into a largely unwinnable con game of “you too can be a millionaire” and the only people who are a combination of being born wealthy, lucky, or relentlessly amoral come out on top (1). When I am on liberal sites discussing income inequality or the “law school scam” and mention that I think I am slowly but surely building up a career as a lawyer, the general response seems to treat me like I am a deluded fool who going to be still freelancing into my 50s and I should give up any dream of a comfortably middle class or above lifestyle.

There seems to be a large embrace that everyone should be a combination below medium chill “anti-consumerism” and Homer Simpson’s “Lisa, if you don’t like your job, you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed.” The left also likes to express cynicism and doubt that someone can work their way up from doing nothing cases to get experience and building it into a well-respected career. Stories from old lawyers who said that they started out arguing in traffic court or doing small-value car crash cases are to be mocked and ignored.

The left-wing seems to think that we will all be in welfare-state utopia as soon as we abandon any concept that someone can work their way to career and material success and I am not sure that this is true.

Yet at the same time, I also think the right-wing is equally wrong in how the view the economy and people’s economic decision making. It is simply impossible in a modern globalized economy for everyone to be self-sufficient yeoman farmers or business owners. If you want large businesses like Apple and Google, you are going to need employees. There is nothing wrong with someone preferring security over market chaos and anarchy and just wanting to do a good job and earn a living for themselves and their families. There are a lot of risks in running a business and it is not for everyone and people should not be looked down upon or disrespected if they dislike being a freelancer or being in business for themselves.

People can also lose jobs for reasons unrelated to themselves in a global economy and it seems callous and cruel to blame people for losing jobs because of reckless decisions made by people at the top. I often hear people in the right-wing argue against significant or extended unemployment benefits because it creates incentives to be lazy and not work. This is a very old argument and it is wrong. (2)

Sometimes there is simply no work to be had. I question why it is good to have someone do a job, any job rather than build a career. Suppose someone is an entry-level engineer and is laid off because of some bad business decisions made by people in the C-suite. I don’t see why it is better to get that engineer working as anything than having a society that allows said person to continue on their career trajectory.

The right-wing also fails to acknowledge that a lot of success can happen from really dumb luck. I would say my three major jobs happened from a combination of connections and luck with timing. I got called into one firm for a three month job and the job ended up becoming two projects and lasting for thirteen months. Then I got another job because another random connection through my mom’s synagogue is a lawyer and she knew a firm that needed help on the same kind of law that I did at my first job. It seems to entirely feasible that had any of these events not happened, I could be in a much worse place than I am now career wise.

The short version is that the left-wing could be better at seeing career building as a decades long process and sometimes people are in it for the long haul and there is nothing wrong with a little ambitious and possibly unrealistic dreaming. I wanted to go to the Yale School of Drama for graduate school when I was trying for a theatrical. Was I good enough for the Yale School of Drama? Not at all. But perhaps that dream allowed me to apply to graduate school and find one that would take me and did see me as having some artistic talent. At this point it is probably do or die for me as a lawyer and it could be that way for many other people in many careers.

The right-wing could be better at acknowledging random luck plays a big role in success and failure.

(1) http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2014/10/come-around-tomorrow-ill-take#comments

(2) See The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837 by Ben Wilson. The early 19th century British had debates on charity and welfare that are remarkably similar to the ones we have today including worries about people on public assistance living more decadently than Kings and Queens and doing the 19th century equivalent of buying lobster tail and steaks with food stamps. Also see every book written by Rick Perlstein.

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56 thoughts on “What the Right and Left Get Don’t Understand About Ambition, Hardwork, and Success

  1. I think you are correct in general about the leftie tendencies although LGM comments are not the best evidence. They are often pretty hyperbolic and echo chamber like. For most college educated folk we can work and build career’s that will serve us pretty well with a nice middle class life. For non-college ed people, or at least w/o more advanced tech skills, their analysis is more correct. There is a bit of over emphasis on the middle class dying out on the L side. There are certainly problems with inequality but the MC isn’t destroyed.

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    • Potentially fair point on LGM.

      I don’t disagree overall with the liberal critique and think it is more right than wrong. There are commercials for a for-profit and on-line university that I see and it does make my blood boil because research shows that these are often fairly to very scammy. There is a lot snake-oil in the American (and maybe world?) economy that I would like to weed out. But like Gabriel, I am not an anti-consumerist and don’t think there is anything inherently evil, lesser, or immoral for wanting nice things, or for striving.

      There are also times when the problems of inequality do seem very vast. David Brooks had a column a week or two ago asking the rich to be modest with their purchases. Paul Krugman rightly pointed out that the historically the rich have always been ostentatious in their purchases and the relative modest life-styles of executives in the 1950s and 60s was because of high levels of taxation and a corporate structure that paid income, not stock. Wall Street was also a lazy little backwater in the American economy until the late 1970s or 80s. In the documentary Inside Job, there is a wonderful story about a bonds-trademen who used to need a job on the rail road to support his family but became a millionaire overnight in the 80s because of deregulation. I think Krugman is also right that people generally underestimate income inequality because the really rich have found ways to make themselves largely invisible to the naked eye except for celebs like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Jennifer Anniston, Sports Stars, etc.

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      • Paul Krugman rightly pointed out that the historically the rich have always been ostentatious in their purchases and the relative modest life-styles of executives in the 1950s and 60s was because of high levels of taxation and a corporate structure that paid income, not stock.

        I question exactly how modest those lifestyles were. Yes, they were not getting the same level of equity and their salaries were lower relative to everyone else’s, but they also often had company cars and apartments and expense accounts. A relatively modest salary goes a lot further when the company is picking up a bunch of your personal expenses.

        The other issue of course is that the executives of the ’50s and ’60s were more likely to come from money and, therefore, not be dependent on their salaries to secure their place among the wealthy.

        As I’ve said before, the income equality phenomenon has almost no direct bearing on what is happening to the middle and working classes. There was a point where simply belonging to the right family, going to the right schools and/or being a “professional,” whether you were a banker or lawyer or non-profit executive or college professor, guaranteed your place among the upper class (ie a house in the right neighborhood, membership at the right club, kids in the right school). The income equality that the chattering classes talk about is mostly about finance and tech pulling away from the other professions and bidding up the price of things that wealthy people value (ie a house in the right neighborhood, dinner at the right restaurant, kids in the right school).

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      • They were modest compared to the grand mansions Newport Beach and along 5th Avenue and being able to purchase most of the Art that is currently on display in major American museums.

        There is also evidence that the last few years did have extreme income inequality:

        http://theweek.com/article/index/268765/speedreads-how-the-rich-devoured-the-american-economy-in-one-chart

        Between 2009-2012, the Bottom 90 percent saw negative income growth of nearly 20 percent while the upper ten percent saw income growth close to 120 percent. This is staggeringly bad.

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      • Between 2009-2012, the Bottom 90 percent saw negative income growth of nearly 20 percent while the upper ten percent saw income growth close to 120 percent. This is staggeringly bad.

        I haven’t said anything that counters that. My point is that just because these two things are happening at the same time does not mean that one is causing the other. These are likely two separate phenomena stemming from a number of the same causes.

        This is important, because if you attack inequality at the top of the income distribution thinking that it will solve the problems of the middle and working class, you are going to be in for a rude awakening.

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      • jr,
        I sincerely doubt you are privy to the plans of the ultra-rich.
        Not that they’re terribly hard to figure out (following the money generally does the trick)…
        But I suspect you’d change your tune about the rich’s opposition to fixing National Security Issues, if you bothered to do a bit more analysis of the situation.

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    • Campos isn’t really a liberal. I don’t mean that in the “No True Scotsman” sense, but because I don’t believe that’s how he self-identifies. He was opposed to the Iraq War, and critical of Bush administration’s handling of it, but was just as critical of Gore around that time. His politics seem thoroughly centrist, though he’s pretty critical of the contemporary Republican party, like a lot of “moderates.”

      Fun to watch his battles with Leiter (and his sockpuppets) a few years ago, though. And his complete inability to think straight on the subject of obesity.

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  2. A few thoughts.

    First, is it a viable strategy to start your own firm with the hope of being hired off? As someone who knows nothing about prospects in the legal field (other than that they suck), I wonder if hirers are impressed by someone who’s tried their own firm, perhaps because the trier would have learned a heckuva lot.

    Second, oddly–because of the types of comments I tend to write here–I tend to have an affinity for most of this “leftist” attitude, except for the fact that I don’t consider myself anti-consumerist:

    There seems to be a large embrace that everyone should be a combination below medium chill “anti-consumerism” and Homer Simpson’s “Lisa, if you don’t like your job, you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed.” The left also likes to express cynicism and doubt that someone can work their way up from doing nothing cases to get experience and building it into a well-respected career.

    Third, I have mixed feelings about this, but think I disagree:

    Sometimes there is simply no work to be had. I question why it is good to have someone do a job, any job rather than build a career. Suppose someone is an entry-level engineer and is laid off because of some bad business decisions made by people in the C-suite. I don’t see why it is better to get that engineer working as anything than having a society that allows said person to continue on their career trajectory.

    Perhaps this is more a reflection of my temperament than anything, but I tend to believe that work can give dignity in a way that unemployment doesn’t. Also, while I don’t mean to comment specifically on the market for engineers, I assume that in some careers, those who train for them have simply rolled the dice and found that the career won’t work (because of new technologies, glut of workers in the field, etc.) It can be better to have a robust economy that permits one to try out something else.

    Fourth, I really like this post and despite my reservations expressed above, I don’t feel that ole chip-on-shoulder knee-jerk defensiveness creeping on like I usually do. So….good takedown of the “leftist” and “rightist” tendencies.

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      • Lots of people need lawyers, very few people have the disposable income to pay for lawyers. If the need for a lawyer is great enough, most people will be willing to take a hit and pay for a lawyer. This is most common in criminal defense and immigration law because the stakes are very high.

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      • True even top or close to top-tier firms have trouble getting paid by their clients. The lawyers who are good at getting paid seem to charge a flat fee and demand all or most of it upfront or work on a contingency basis and be the agent for collecting the damages (if any).

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      • In my experience, engineers who can’t find work are unemployed because:

        A) They are unable/unwilling to relocate (I had this problem living in Madison, WI – too many engineers who wanted to live in Madison thanks to the UW-COE, not enough engineering jobs to go around, because Madison thrives on education, government, & tourism, not industry).

        B) They have unrealistic expectations regarding where they want to work or the kind of work they want to do.

        C) They got the degree by the skin of their teeth & haven’t done anything to show that they are a good bet. New engineering grads live & die on the strength of their GPA, their portfolio of projects, their connections, and any internships or co-ops they did. I finished my undergrad with a ho-hum GPA, no internships or co-ops, poor connections, and an average portfolio. My job prospects were slim. Things were much better by the time I finished my Master’s, because my GPA was excellent, I had more connections, & I had a better project portfolio.

        Usually, it’s a combination of the three that undoes an engineer.

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    • I have some of the same issues as does in an even more obscure field. My undergrad is in anthropology with a minor in art history my graduate is a double in Art History and Art Conservation. Art Conservation, I hear you say, whats that?, Well pretty much we are at the basis of any museum work or so you would think, We preserve and take care of historical objects. There is no end of work that needs to be done. but because you can’t get your name on a building for donating to conservation (unless you subsidize a whole conservation lab) most small museums where there is the most work to be done can’t get the money to have it done because its not sexy enough. I live in a state where there are four conservators (two objects, two paper and me a textile conservator) you would think we would have museums knocking down our doors, but no, it is even worse than the performing arts in that most people have NO idea what we we do yet it is most integral to museums missions the preservation of historical objects.

      I have thousands in student loans, I realize by my own choice, but unless you live in NYC, DC, or LA the chances of you finding an institutional job are slim to none unless someone retires or dies. Yet the graduate schools who are churning out who am I kidding 40 or so graduates a year spend no time on how to build a independent conservation practice, they all act like everyone will get a position with a museum when that is actually the opposite of what is the reality in the field. So I very much get bitterness about what degree programs are selling. Okay rant over

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      • I read a fascinating article a while ago about a guy who did art conservation for modern art. The article was in the New Yorker.

        Law Schools are slowly trying to turn their students into being somewhat entrupenurial and opening up their own shops right after graduation. The problem is that law school trains you to be a law professor generally and not a lawyer. You get some of the thinking like a lawyer skills but none of the day to day skills.

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      • I currently work in a somewhat related field (archiving) and while the situation is not quite as dire, it still seems challenging. I got my job kind of in a roundabout way (and it’s also not clear how much longer they’ll keep me on, with budget difficulties and all), so I 1) sympathize/empathize with your situation and 2) believe that what Saul said about luck is quite true. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I got there through a large measure of luck (and unearned privilege), and, again, even the prospect of staying where I am is tentative.

        I will say that I am willing to work in a lot of different fields, even if they don’t fit with my expertise (in history). I am probably in a more comfortable situation than most people, because my spouse has a well-paying job, so that means I can take a job with much lower pay than I currently earn. Even so, there are some jobs I probably wouldn’t consider and because of my situation probably can afford not to consider. In other words, I’m still lucky.

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      • As a fellow anthropology major I share your complaints. In general they aren’t very honest about job prospects. That’s why I found they kept raising the bar for what was required to be successful. When I graduated I knew that a good job wasn’t even possible without a Masters. In my circle there was a whole culture built around suffering as long as possible to prove that you deserved one of those rare dream jobs. Some of the folks I graduated with 11 years ago are still working two jobs and waiting for their shot.

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  3. I’d rather do what I do than work in a coal mine.

    I think everyone’s expectations are… weird, based upon historical norms. Everybody seems to expect everything to be a whole lot better than I think they have grounds to think, right now, today. Their ideas of why things aren’t awesome are hugely colored by the fact that they have highly messed up expectations to begin with.

    If the economy tracks at a very conservative rate, I might be an on-paper millionaire when I retire, because I lead a very conservative life when it comes to expenditures. I do this while volunteering and trying to stay very active in my community and being an engaged parent.

    I’m very tired very often.

    I’m still less tired than a coal miner, and I’m way better off than so many more folks on the planet that the scale doesn’t even register.

    Should I feel happy about my position or not?

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    • I think you are asking the crux(es) of the question.

      Piketty could very well be right and the mid-20th century period that everyone remembers was the freak exception rather than the rule. The problem is that most of us were alive to remember it or are close enough to that time. None of us remember the original Gilded Age or anytime previous.

      There are also big arguments about relative poverty and how we are not really poorer now because of cheap consumer gadgets and all sorts of embarrassments of riches in terms of consumer products and entertainment options. I think this is the chief divide between liberals and libertarians.

      Also you gave me an excuse to post this song:

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  4. The number one change that I’ve seen in my short-to-middling career is that corporations used to be willing to engage in some on the job training. They’d pay some fresh meat right out of college some just-barely-better-than-restaurant-work wages, tell them how lucky they were, make them feel too guilty to quit for at least a year or two, and train them how to do a job.

    Some of the kids showed promise and they got trained to do other stuff. Some of the kids jumped ship and got a similar job for better wages somewhere else. But, and here’s the point, the kids eventually turned into people who got better jobs, and then better jobs, and then, eventually, decent jobs.

    Corporations don’t seem to be doing that anymore. They’d rather hire kids out of college who have a degree in something close to what the job might actually require… or, better yet, just steal the kids who might have gotten trained at one of the few places left that does engage in OJT.

    But then they’ll find that it’s harder to promote from within, and all of the associated costs with having employees who don’t care about the company they work for because, hey, “caring” costs money.

    So morale is in the toilet, turnover is high, and executives keep wondering why none of the temps show any company loyalty.

    Corporations are eating their own seed corn.

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    • I think lots of liberals will agree with you here Jaybird.

      One of the reasons for the law school/lawyer crisis/crunch is that corporations and other clients were no longer willing to pay to train lawyers. From what I’ve read, clients told firms “We aren’t willing to pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to train an associate to be a lawyer.”

      I wonder if this is true in other businesses. It seems common sense that OJT is one of the first things that will go in a really horrible economy because you can hire someone who already knows how to do the job. If you need to hire anyone that is. You can also burden shift the work to existing employees.

      You might be right that corporations are eating their own seed but it could be decades before they really feel it. They will probably feel it suddenly though.

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    • Corporations are eating their own seed corn.

      In much the same way that new episodes of Buffy ‘are’ airing each Tuesday at nine.

      I.e., you’re about two decades later with that sentence. There’s no seed corn at all. Corporations have, at this point, actively salted their land and poisoned their well, all in the name of stock prices.

      Gen X grew up in a universe with no loyalty from corporations, but went into the workforce sorta irrationally expecting it. But they didn’t get it. So they lost that expectation, either when they first entered the job market, or somewhere in the naughts.

      And Millennials can’t even *conceive* of corporate loyalty. They have never really considered themselves on the same side as their place of employment, at least outside a few specific ‘worker-friendly businesses’.

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      • I am going to agree with this. There is still a bit of an exception in law where you are theoretically suppose to rise in the ranks from associate to partner during a ten-year course but law firms have added so many layers that this is weirder now. There used to be three levels: associate, partner, and of-counsel (who used to be semi-retired partners). Now you have associates, senior associates, income partners, equity partners, of counsel (which now means something like not an associate but not a partner either), and you even have no tenure track staff attorney positions.

        Lateral moves are also more common in law now than they were in the past.

        I think even in the “worker-friendly businesses” where employees consider themselves on the same side (tech comes to mind), many Millennials think or know they will jump to different employers.

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      • “And Millennials can’t even *conceive* of corporate loyalty. They have never really considered themselves on the same side as their place of employment, at least outside a few specific ‘worker-friendly businesses’.”

        I was born in 1986, so I believe I qualify as a Millenial, and I have to say that at least in my experience, this is absolutely true. In 9 years of working life I’ve been employed by 6 different major corporations, and I felt zero real loyalty to any of them; I doubt any of my peers would say any different.

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      • When I first got into the biz, it was for a Global Multi-National Company that bragged about how well it treated its employees. The best remuneration, the best retirement plans, the best work environment, the best ice cream socials.

        I was a temp for this company but I did my best to bust my ass because I wanted to get hired permanent (something I was told that I could expect, if I busted my ass).

        Well, the corporate culture changed while I was there. I saw it disintegrate around me. The ice cream socials stopped. This changed. That changed. The company stopped hiring temps and started (I know I’ve given this rant before) outsourcing anything that wasn’t part of its “Core Competency”.

        Anyway, I still have a friend who works there (he’s part of the company’s “Core Competency”) and he’s mentioned that the changes that I saw just kept coming even after all of the tech support was sent overseas.

        The company in question no longer brags about how well it treats its employees.

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      • How much of company loyalty was ever real loyalty? It was an understanding that if you stuck with the company, you could move up or at least stay employed. In a world with more lateral movement, people adjust their strategy.

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      • There isn’t any one thing but probably a dozen things that contribute.

        Corporations becoming too big to the point where executive types are not only in different parts of the building than the engineers, but in different buildings entirely.

        Corporations no longer being “American” but “Multi-National”.

        Corporations going public and a corporation whose stock goes up is held as being worth more than a corporation whose stock is already high.

        If you look at any discussion of “troubled areas”, one of the things that comes up in certain quarters is the whole “eating the marshmallow” issue of time horizons. Well, that applies to corporations too. Their time horizons have shrunk.

        And that’s without getting into perverse incentives.

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      • Time horizons, and incentives for executives. if you’re thinking 3months out, you don’t care whether someone will be good at their job 5 years from now.

        Hell, for about 20 years there, Detroit wasn’t even trying to build a better car.

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      • Became corporations started caring more about stock prices than actual corporate profit.

        We used to live in a universe where the stockholders of corporations wants to slowly make dividends, or maybe slowly have their stock price go up.

        Now we live in a universe where stockholders want the stock price to jump for a week so that they can sell their stock. Those are the people companies feel they have to make happy.

        So they removed OJT for the same reason they’ll randomly cut their workforce by 10%: It looks good for long enough to juice the stock price.

        As someone on the left, I always feel odd complaining that modern corporations don’t care about profits enough. But caring about profits at least requires corporations to provide goods and services and hire some employees to do that. Caring about *stock prices* is just kabuki theatre.

        Of course, this is more indirect: Companies hire CEOs that have their pay based on short-term stock prices, and then pretend to be all amazed when the CEO does stuff that is good for that, but an absolute disaster for the company in the long run. Wow, it sure is odd that the board of directors, the guys who hold a bunch of stock, would hire CEOs like that, and structure their bonuses in exactly that way. It’s almost as if they *want* their stock to random go up and down in such a way they can predict it in advance.

        It’s basically long-term insider trading. ‘I’m on the board, so I have a bunch of stock in this company. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I hired someone to run it that did a big song and dance and got stock prices to jump, and then later it turned out what he had actually done was gutted the place, so stock prices dropped back down? Why, I could sell some of my stock at the high point, and easily buy it back at the low point.’

        Rinse, repeat, until the company has collapsed.

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      • DavidTC,
        Broken clocks are right twice a day. You’re about as accurate — your timing is WAY WAY off.
        If you were to post this comment over at CalculatedRisk, I’m certain folks over there would be “kind” enough to point out your mistakes.

        Long versus short term investing seems like your primary one, fwiw.

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      • Yeah, , I wasn’t trying to say that was the only thing.

        Other things I imagine contribute:

        1) Shifts in worker skills from things considered ‘trainable’ to things considered ‘part of education’.
        2) Reduction in union membership.

        Of course, it might be useful to look back at the start of this, which was the 80s, with massive layoffs and a recession, and ‘greed was good’. Perhaps both employers and employees took that to heart, and we’ve just gone from there.

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      • …incentives for executives.

        Certainly a part of it. I finished my tech career in a field that was in a massive “mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions” frenzy. I said about it then, and still believe, that if the CEO’s compensation plan has the three components that were common then — (1) salary is $1M per year, with modest bonus opportunity; (2) if the stock price goes up 10%, the options are worth $10M; and (3) if the company is sold there’s a $50M golden parachute — then the CEO’s actions are entirely predictable. Polish that sucker up and find someone to buy it.

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      • Well, much like with the “at-risk youths” in the “troubled areas”, the eating of the marshmallow is an indicator of a problem rather than a problem in itself.

        If you don’t trust the researcher to give you two marshmallows in 10 minutes (or whenever), a marshmallow in the hand is worth a lot more than the empty promises of the jerk in the white coat.

        Why would they not trust the jerk in the white coat?

        Why would corporations gain a similarly short time horizon?

        Now, *HERE* is where I get all “let’s talk about the gummint” for a bit.

        I know some folks who used to work in a Used Book Store (indeed, in the best danged used book store in Colorado Springs!) and the stories I heard about the regulations involved with taxes and inventory and whatnot would curl your hair.

        I mean, dig this: a person comes in with a decent used book that is likely to move with a cover price of $10. Look up at the sign and the sign says “10% price of the book in cash, 15% of the price of the book in trade.”

        The bookstore itself will sell the book for $5. Do you want $1 or would you rather get $1.50 off one of the books on the shelf? Good, now get the hell out of here.

        Someone else comes in and buys what used to be your book for $5. I now have either $4 or $5 more cash in my drawer than I did 10 minutes ago and the book in question is gone, daddy, gone. Now imagine this transaction happening hundreds of times a day, thousands of times as we near the holidays. We’ve got thousands of bucks here and, wouldn’t you know it, the books in question are gone.

        This is actually a pretty decent setup for a money laundering biz. I’ve got all this money and all of the books are gone.

        Well, the government noticed this and put in rules that shopkeepers had to prove that they bought not just “a” book but “Stephen King’s Insomnia” (or whatever). And keep a running list of your inventory so you can prove that the money you have in your drawer is from people buying used books that others have sold rather than from some shady smack dealing you’ve got going on in the back. And keep track of this and keep track of that. And add alllllll of this overhead to your buying and selling of used books… because of, tah-dah, The War On Drugs and its associated money laundering.

        The book store in question has since gone out of business.

        Now I’m sure that you can give me any number of good reasons to have good regulations when it comes to small businesses, certainly ones with a constant revolving stock.

        But it seems to me that it’s harder to run a small business today than it used to be. And that strikes me as bad.

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    • “They’d rather hire kids out of college who have a degree in something close to what the job might actually require… or, better yet, just steal the kids who might have gotten trained at one of the few places left that does engage in OJT.”

      Of course, hundreds of thousands or millions of employers didn’t just shift for the hell of it. The world changed. First, a lot more people did get degrees, creating a supply of better skilled candidates in that field (which is why more people got degrees to get the jobs as per their career counselor). Action reaction.

      Second, the relative costs and benefits of lower skilled (tabula rasa) workers changed with global markets, mandatory benefits and regulations. Action. Reaction.

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    • We do have OJT positions: Internships & Co-Ops. Granted, some companies squander the opportunities offered by their interns & co-ops, but many do OJT & provide students with useful experience.

      Of course, IIRC, internships & co-ops are not as abundant as they used to be. Something about mandating living wages, etc. Not sure if that carries any weight, but I knew a lot of kids when I was an undergrad who worked internships for peanuts & were happy for it, because the experience & networking was worth so much more.

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  5. I take some issue with this: “Sometimes there is simply no work to be had. I question why it is good to have someone do a job, any job rather than build a career. Suppose someone is an entry-level engineer and is laid off because of some bad business decisions made by people in the C-suite. I don’t see why it is better to get that engineer working as anything than having a society that allows said person to continue on their career trajectory.”

    I’m not sure what this would look like. Are you suggesting society should create career opportunities so that people can do what they want to? And what about the simple need to feed yourself? I took a job, any job, during college so I could pay my bills. When I graduated and the prospects in my field were crap I decided to focus on my get-me-through-college job and it turned into a career I (mostly) enjoy. Those kinds of stories happen much more often than colleges want to admit.

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  6. I am always “pulled in” to your comments and posts, Saul. In just about every paragraph you say something which I find just a tad startling. My reaction is along the lines of “hmmm, that is interesting, why would someone think THAT?” Of course this reaction says as much about me as it does you, or more accurately it reveals how very different we are.

    I had a similar experience with the VP in charge of Pricing when I worked. Regardless of the topic or problem, he and I would always see it or address it in diametrically opposite ways. Oddly enough, to a degree we “completed” each other. In personality surveys we were mirror opposites of each other.

    Here are some random thoughts or reactions…

    I don’t believe those on the right believe entrepreneurialism is THE major path to success. Certainly it is “A” path, and a valuable one. I believe the better characterization would be to “work hard at something others value and you will be rewarded financially and can gain skills which you can further leverage.” In a large network global economy that usually means getting a job and working your way up. For school it means getting an education in a field which is in demand so that you can get a better entry position. This is how I see their characterization at least.

    I was also surprised at your emphasis on the under appreciated value of luck on the right. Again this does not match my experience with them at all. I think a better way to characterize it is that success is a matter of luck, skill and effort, and you can influence the latter two more than the first. At best one should prepare for bad luck to counteract it where possible.

    Next I was startled that you characterize the issue of people losing their job through no fault of their own (the gratuitous due to the fault of superiors is best ignored) as an issue of blame. This one just leaves me scratching my bald head. I believe those on the right are well aware that people lose their jobs due to countless reasons beyond their control and influence. Unemployment isn’t a reward or punishment, it is a form of insurance. All I can think is that you are possibly conflating incentives and rewards. Yes the right believes unemployment benefits change the incentive structure of unemployment and finding or keeping jobs. It changes the cost and benefit structure and influences actions for all the players in economic networks. To characterize this primarily as an issue of justice or just desserts is to mischaracterize their views IMO.

    Finally, there is your paragraph on unemployment. My reaction there is to wonder why anyone would think systemic unemployment exists. Unemployment over the long haul is simply a signal that demand and supply cannot meet. I would personally offer a job to every human on earth at the right price if allowed to do so. The reason I don’t, and every potential employer doesn’t is that the price is not right (or someone is forcing them not to). Why is the price not right? Here we go back to regulations, mandatory benefits, minimum wages, unemployment benefits (changing the incentives of getting a job vs not getting one). I am not arguing against these things, I am just explaining their possible effects, one of which is systemic unemployment.

    Your final sentence of that paragraph on ensuring the career trajectory was the most startling of all. It seems to assume that we have or should have or even could have a master planner over the economy running it like a giant chess game. I guess I wonder if you think this would be a good idea? Would the pros outweigh the cons in your mind?

    On a personal level, I suspect the market (a summary of the collective choices of all humanity) does not value lawyers relative to the available supply. This isn’t anyone’s fault. The market is sending a message though. A loud one. Luckily you are bright and industrious and can leverage your education, skills and abilities in all kinds of useful directions which are valued.

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    • I don’t see why there would/should be a left and right view of work. I think that what Saul sees as support for entrepreneurship-as-a-career-choice on the right is really support for entrepreneurship-as-an-economic-boon.

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  7. Couple of thoughts:

    Loyalty: Since my work is interesting but I’m not passionate about it, I come from a somewhat “unloyal” perspective. I had one great boss in 25 years-I’d have done anything for him. He took care of me. He gave me bonuses-that I earned- and was on the verge of promoting me. Then it all went to hell due unrelated issues. Never had a boss as good. Never gave that much loyality again. It’s a two way street.

    I’ll not disagree with the points in our commentary . They are generally in line with my opinions. However, I the point about the Right not acknowledging random luck, I think isn’t acknowledged by either side much. It doesn’t fit “the narrative” That being said, most folks find success through hard work AND catching a lucky break.

    I will take strong issue with the whole “extended unemployment benefits… creates incentives to be lazy and not work. This is a very old argument and it is wrong.” I disagree. When you subsidize something, you get more of it, and when you pay folks who aren’t working you remove a powerful incentive to find work. That being said, I’m not as heartless of some on this site would say, and do recognize that “dudes gotta eat”.

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    • Damon,
      by paying people to look for “good jobs” rather than taking McD’s (and pulling their kids out of school so that they can help as well), you prevent folks from going into the economic downspiral that can occur when someone is let go (particularly if they don’t have savings, which most folks don’t).

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  8. Good post Saul.

    I think the two errors you identify are in part a result of some common errors in statisitcal reasoning.

    In the case of the left, it’s recency bias, the tendency to over-weight the present, relative to the past. Recessions are by their nature temporary, even left to their own devices they eventually burn out and the economy returns to normal. But I’ve heard of a lot of people acting as if the last 6 years were part of a new normal, rather than an anomaly.

    In the case of the right, I think it’s survivor bias, or the tendency to forget about observations that drop out of your sample. If you only continue to observe the business owners whose businesses don’t fail then you will overestimate the odds of successfully running a small business.

    There is one point I would make about your suggestion that career support is more important than getting people to work at any cost. While I broadly agree, that line of thinking needs to account for the possibility that someone either isn’t very good at their chosen career, or that their industry is contracting meaning people need to leave it an find other careers.

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    • James,
      And you may be showing a different bias, yourself. The “things will go on as they have been” bias. When I see economists hypothesizing about a “new normal”, and as I see the continual impoverishment of the American middle class (as demonstrated by the fact that suburbs are becoming increasingly unaffordable, regardless of the housing crisis…), I’m not inclined to say “they’re biased.” I’m inclined to look at their damn evidence, and evaluate that.

      Look, if in 20 years, we lose 50% of jobs worldwide — what the fark is the world going to look like then?

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