The Bald Soprano Economy

The Bald SopranoI was thinking of of the movie The Paper Chase today. It was released forty years ago. I’ve watched it a few times over the years and each time it is different. When I first saw it, it was the story of Hart trying to get the grade and graduate Harvard Law School. Later, it was the story of a man learning what matters in life and how to juggle all the complexities that go along with that. But most recently, it is the story of the futility of attainment. Law school, like almost everything else that we are taught to value is pointless.

You may remember an episode of the cartoon The Flintstones. In it, Fred lost his job and so Wilma is reading the help wanted ads from the morning news “tablet.” She read, “Wanted: man to put cotton balls in glass bottles.” This was followed by, “Wanted: man to take cotton balls out of glass bottles.” It’s a funny gag, or at least it was when I was a kid. Once I found myself as an adult working in the corporate world, I found that was about right. The vast majority of what people are paid to do is busy work.

When I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station, they wanted me to get a certain amount of work done each night—cleaning and stocking—because there were very few customers. I could get all that work done in 45 minutes because I was young and capable. This allowed me to read and write much of the rest of the night. But as soon as they found out I did that, it became verboten. I had to spend my whole night very slowly doing my work.

I’m sure most of you reading this have experienced the same thing. It took me a long time to figure out why this was so. My employer—and I dare say most employers—did not think I was being paid for the work that I did. I was being paid for the rental of my body, although I’m not sure that they understood this. For that time I was on the clock, they owned me. And this isn’t just the case with crummy jobs like running a gas station. A number of times, I’ve had to have writing contracts changed because the standard contracts claim that they own everything that the artist creates. This was very strange when I was, for example, signing a contract to write software but the fine print claimed to own the novel I was writing at night. In general, employers don’t have a problem making these changes for employees observant enough to point them out. In fact, that are often visibly embarrassed. But the default position is that a worker is signing on to be a slave—temporary though the contract may be.

What we, the non-power elite, are taught, however, is something totally different. The following clip from The Paper Chase is from the middle of the film. Hart is finally starting to understand what Susan has tried to teach him, “They finally got you, Hart, they sucked all that Midwestern charm right out of you. Look, he’s got you scared to death. You’re going to pass, because you’re the kind the law school wants. You’ll get your little diploma. Your piece of paper that’s no different than this [toilet paper roll] and you can stick it in your silver box with all the other paper in your life. Your birth certificate, driver’s license, marriage license, your stock certificates, and your will… I wish you would flunk, there might be some hope for you.” Well, Hart fights back. He sees the absurdity of the system and he refuses to play:

It’s a great scene. It is also a lie. It is the modern version of the Horatio Alger myth: if you stand up to power, it will respect you. That’s not the case. If you stand up to power, it will crush you.

I’ve also been in a very different situation in corporate America, where I had actual power. I was the head of IT at a medium sized real estate investment company. When I started, it had net profits of about $2 million per year and when I left two years later, it had net profits of $20 million per year. Its sudden growth required huge increases in telecommunication and computing resources. But since the growth wasn’t expected, the infrastructure grew in an ad hoc manner. By the end, it was very complicated and I was the only one who really understood the system. I have no doubt that this made me kind of a pompous dick. But the management hated me because they needed me. It would have all been fine if I had simply contracted with some million dollar consultant who had come in and created the system. That would be one of them. And I would have remained the cog I was hired to be—rather than becoming half their whole machine.

At no time did the company I worked for think that I ought to be rewarded. Being productive is not the point in our economy. And it is not the point of American business. It is all a kind of theater of the absurd where every person comes to work each day to play a part. There is no plot. The point of the play is to create a static image of what society is. And what our society is, is a caste system with just enough mobility to allow for the illusion of a meritocracy.

The ending of The Paper Chase sums us up perfectly. Hart gets his grades in the mail. Susan says to him, “Aren’t you going to open your grades?” Hart says nothing. He makes a paper airplane out of the letter and sails it into the ocean. He did his best and he doesn’t care what the power elite have to say about it. But Hart is a mythical figure. And the filmmakers know this. Because we were shown what Hart was not: Professor Kingsfield writing down his grade of A. We care, you see.

At the beginning of the film, Kingsfield gives his great speech, “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” But in the end, society doesn’t care if you have a mind full of mush or the mind of a lawyer. It wants the graduate with his grade of A. He can be depended upon to play his part and do his busy work. He won’t upset the type casting.

It isn’t your fault. We have an economic system that is desperately in need of an overhaul. But everyone spends so much of their time performing their parts that they don’t have the energy or the inclination to rewrite the play.


Since I am often criticized for being too oblique, The Bald Soprano is the first play of absurdist Eugene Ionesco. It is a good analogy of our economic system because the characters are pretty much interchangeable. In fact, the traditional ending of the play has it start over at the beginning with the two main couples switching parts. I wouldn’t take the analogy too far. Someone suffering from Down syndrome could not be interchanged with Persi Diaconis. But generally speaking, the genetic material that goes into the rich goes into the poor and what differentiates them is the casting of birth and other accidents.

This will give you a feel for the play:

No Filibuster Until GOP Is Destroyed

Jonathan BernsteinSigh. I like Jonathan Bernstein a whole lot. He’s a very smart guy and I’ve learned so much from him. But sometimes, he is such an idiot. This week he wrote, Still Hoping to Save the Filibuster. His argument is that with lifetime appointments, there really should be some kind of legislative check against the majority. So he offers up some ideas for how we could maintain something along the lines of Filibuster Lite. One idea is that the majority would have to get unanimous agreement. He has other similar ideas.

The problem with all of them is the problem with the filibuster itself. And Bernstein himself has written repeatedly and at length that the problem was not the filibuster but the Republican Party. What would Bernstein’s proposal mean with a big tent party like the Democrats and a tiny tent party like the Republicans? When the Republicans were in control, the most extreme judges would be put on the bench for life. But when the Democrats were in control, the Blue Dogs would insist on “moderate” judges; no more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs. (And note: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is hardly an extremist.)

Martin Longman takes on all of Bernstein’s proposals, Don’t Revive the Filibuster. But even it doesn’t get at the most important aspect of all of this. Namely that the Republicans wanted to kill the filibuster and they would have killed it the first chance they got, regardless of whether the Senate came up with some kind of deal or not.

I understand the desire to keep minority rights strong in the Senate. But any efforts to do that depend upon everyone involved abiding by the historic Senate norms. And as I’ve shown, over the last 50 years, the Democrats have abided by the norms set by the Republicans who broke with those norms each and every time they were in the minority. So this game is played out.

There are two ways to deal with an adversary. One is to try to woo them and find common ground. That is usually the way to go. But when the adversary is a revolutionary group like the Republican Party, there really is no option but complete defeat. So it amazes me that Jonathan Bernstein can be so clear-headed about what has happened to the parties but then pine for some kind of comity that just won’t happen.

There is a conservative party and a liberal party in the United States. And those two parties are inside the Democratic Party. The Republican Party only makes sense in a parliamentary system, where minor extremist parties can thrive. But in our system, we need two reasonable—big tent—parties. There is no indication that the Republicans are capable of moving away from their extremist positions. And the biggest example of this is their approach to the filibuster. They are happy to see it go because they know the Democrats will not make any major changes to the government, and they look forward to one day having complete control of the government when they will try to radically change the nation. God help us if we citizens allow that to happen.

Noam Chomsky and Other Greats

Noam ChomskyOn this day in 1598, one of the greatest sculptors of all time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born. He was also a great painter and architect. Oh, and he was involved in the theater and wrote plays. He’s not as well known as Michelangelo, but he is at least as good and I would say better. He pretty much invented Baroque sculpture. Of course, that is why he isn’t terribly well known outside of art circles. With the rise of the Neoclassical movement, Baroque art fell out of favor. I much prefer the Neoclassical period myself. But it does show how stupid art criticism tends to be. The old saying is all you really need to go by, “I may not know art, but I know what I like!” Caveat: that doesn’t mean what you don’t like is bad.

The composer Pietro Mascagni was born in 1863. He composed in that wonderful period between Romantic and Modern, where the music was crisp but beautiful. He is mostly known as an opera composer. Indeed, his one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana is still one of the most performed to this day. What follows is the Intermezzo from that opera. I dare you not to love it.

The great actor Eli Wallach is 98 today. Good God! And he’s still working. I just saw him in two recent films Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Ghost Writer. I once worked with his nephew on a short film that I was making. His name was Marz, and was an ND. And a horrible actor. All he did was mug at the camera. I gave up after two days. But he was a very nice and smart guy. Regardless Uncle Eli and Aunt Anne are great actors. Here is Wallach in his iconic role of Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

The great Tom Waits is 64. Here he is doing “Heart Attack and Vine”:

Other birthdays: poet Allan Cunningham (1784); composer Ernst Toch (1887); actor Ted Knight (1923); actor Ellen Burstyn (81); musician (who I really don’t like for a couple of reasons) Harry Chapin (1942); and basketball player Larry Bird (57).

The day, however, belongs to Noam Chomsky who is 85 today. He is one of the greatest linguists of the 20th century. But unlike other linguists who I can understand, I don’t really understand his work. The basics of it are simple, however: linguistic syntax is built into our biology. If you want to know more, check out the Wikipedia page on, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

Chomsky is mostly known for his political writing. He had a profound impact on my thinking. But actually, he’s pretty hard to read. A colorful writer he is not. But I am with him on his analysis of American imperialism and neo-liberalism. And I too consider myself a libertarian socialist, which he explains beautifully in the following audio file:

Happy birthday Noam Chomsky!

Economic Racism

I Want to WorkJonathan Chait has been writing a lot about race this week with having finally seen 12 Years a Slave and now with Nelson Mandela’s death. I wrote a very positive take on one of his articles only yesterday, Liberal and Conservative Views of Racism. But I think he is a bit confused today, Why Conservatives Got Segregation Wrong a Second Time in South Africa. He’s prevaricating terribly. He really doesn’t want to come out and say that conservatives are racists, but he ends his article simply enough, “And a failure to grasp the historical character of racism is not merely a recurring problem for conservative racial thought, it is its defining quality.”

The word “racism” has gotten to be almost useless. In the minds of most people, it conjures up southern bigots lynching a black man who whistled at a pretty white girl. But that’s really not what I mean by racist anymore. We live in a racist society where blacks especially are an underclass. The conservative animosity toward them is not based upon race a priori. The great conservative myth is that hard work and intelligence will allow anyone to thrive in this great nation of ours. If blacks as a group are not now doing as well as whites, it must be because they don’t work as hard and aren’t as intelligent. So it is not that conservatives want to keep minority groups down; it is that their own mythology leads them to the conclusion that minority groups keep themselves down. Thus, in a meritocracy, it would be wrong to do anything for them.

Conservatives believe in the existing power structure, whatever it might be. This is the basis of Corey Robin’s work. What defines conservatism is its reaction against liberation movements of subordinate classes. I write about this all the time, but not in such highfalutin language. Simply: conservatives think that the way things are is the way things ought to be. Anything that might drag the rich down (e.g. taxes) or raise the poor up (e.g. public education) are theoretically repugnant. It is not, as is often claimed, that conservatives think the free market will make a more equitable society; they think the free market will make a more moral society.

Hence, conservatives are racists as long as blacks do not succeed as well as whites in this economic system. This, in itself, would not be so bad. But what passes for the “unfettered free market” in conservative thought is nothing but ossified privilege. They already think that the society is nearly perfect. Thus, giving no-bid contracts with no accountability to the rich just makes sense. If the poor were deserving of government largess, then they would already be rich. And it isn’t just the rich themselves who deserve this special treatment; their children do too. If conservatives really believed in the survival of the “fittest,” they would be in favor of a high estate tax. Instead, they want no estate tax at all.

So let me be clear. Conservatives don’t want to lynch blacks. But they most definitely think that poor blacks and poor whites alike are inferior. And given the statistics, there must be something wrong with the blacks. But that doesn’t make conservatives hate them. They just don’t care. And in particular, they don’t care enough to address gross inequalities in healthcare and education and criminal “justice.” Because in the conservative brain, the only social ill is that the rich are not rich enough and the poor make too much noise.