Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Truism and some Implications

A truism came home to me with force over the holidays, along with some implications that are obvious enough if (but only if?) you stop to think about them.    The truism is: the mark of a mature society is that it's progressively harder to scratch a place in the elite.

I started with lawyers, and the long bacchanal of prestige, decent pay and interesting work that began, oh, just about the time I started law school and extended to, oh, more or less the time when I retired.  And the corollary: maybe we just have enough lawyers.  Maybe it really is not worth while to pile--what?  40k?  50k More? every year to become overtrained in a field where you don't offer anything anybody much wants.

But on a bit of reflection, I recognized that lawyers aren't the only example and in many ways aren't a very good one.  For so many other trades/professions, the party may have ended earlier, but it started earlier as well.  Focus on California.  Go back to the 20s, or if that is too far, come forward to post WWII, specifically from the time of the second atomic bomb to the time of the first OPEC oil shock--1945 to 1973.  During all those years, if you were even moderately well put together-matched set of eyes and ears, pleasant smile (oh, and if you were a white male), why then you had it pretty much made in the shade.  You finished school (or you did not) and a good job was waiting for you, perhaps building airplanes, or highways, or water transfer systems or highways.

 If you were a tad better scrubbed, you drifted into "the University"--in those days, you didn't even need to call it "Berkeley," there really wasn't any other.  You'd spend a good part of the next four years rooting for the home team or trying (admittedly without great success) to put the make on sorority girls.  You'd drift out of school into a job managing those guys who built all the stuff, or perhaps if you were really ambitious, into a profession--medicine perhaps or (uh oh) law.  Anyway the wheel kept turning and the next thing you knew there you were in Marin.

Short point: I think we sometimes forget how good those good times were, at least for the luckily positioned. Granted, I remember the 50s and I hated them, for all the usual reasons.  But life was forgiving.  You could make mistakes (don't get me started).  You could let your mind wander.  Things were going to work out.

So what the lawyers are waking up to now is, in a sense, the kind of reality therapy that has brutalized--well, virtually everyone else in their social niche--over the past 38 years or so.  The well-paid work where you didn't have to be overbright: gone.  The easy places are gone. The "build stuff" phase is over, and for all our talk,it ain't never comin' back. It may (just may) be replaced by something equally attractive whose name and shape we can't begin to conjure up yet.  But that's a topic for fantasy and faith and I confess I've never been much good at either one.

The University places--well for the old timers, or the children of the old timers with long cultural memories, there is just a whole hell of a lot more competition: all those "other people" of whose existence we were only dimly aware one day, all trying to scratch their own way to the head of the same queue, thankyouverymuch.   And when you get to the front of the queue, you can be excused for thinking that someone put up the velvet rope just before you made it.  Sure, they talk about how desperate we are for high tech this and that,  but the task of responding to that kind of desperation seems far trickier from the outside than it sounds from the in.  You do the tech program.  You do the PhD.  You do a postdoc.  You do another postdoc.  Then maybe you get lucky, although the chances that you get to be the famous professor are only a little better than your chances of batting cleanup for the Yankees.  Your chances of teaching eighth-grade science in a decent private junior high school--well, perhaps a little better.

I should make it clear that I really don't that my thoughts go rancid here.  For one thing, I'm a natural pessimist; I have lived through nine of the last four recessions and at least I am never surprised when the wheels come off.  For another, I don't think I ever had the sense of natural entitlement that makes it easy to accept all the goodies.  I always loved the joke about Brezhnev's mother as she viewed his panoply of blessings: Leonid, this is wonderful, but what if the Reds get back in?  I am always wondering, what if the Reds get back in?

But I do think this long view helps to explain a lot of otta-be-obvious basics about our current political imbroglio.  Put it this way: (so called) "conservative" politics in this country are really best understood as "reactionary"--but "reactionary" in a narrow and technical sense.    Not dispossessed monarchists with Jesuits in the hidey

Except of course people--that would be me, your honor--never really do deal with it in the stance of rough realism that I commend upon them.  They don't take downward mobility well.  Every man lives, says Chateaubriand (yes?)  for a hypothetical country to which he always yearns to return, whether he ever lived there or not.    I think it was Benjamin Friedman who observed that there never was a society anywhere in the galaxy that went through a severe economic contraction without poisonous political consequences.  "Fully mature" might not be quite the same as ""economic contraction" but it might be close enough.  Put them together and you've probably got something explosive.  So try to be patient, and to keep your nerve. And congratulate that post-doc on his new job as a teaching aide.  And say a silent prayer that he keeps it until the end of the academic year.  

1 comment:

New York Crank said...

Helluva good essay, Buce. It brought to mind that I was born on the eve of America's soaring rise to the height of its military power, prestige, influence, and widespread domestic prosperity. With any luck (for me) I will leave this life a few milliseconds before somebody pulls the flush handle on the crapper.

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank