I 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: