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:

5 thoughts on “The Bald Soprano Economy

  1. I see that scene (in which the blocking and camerawork is outstanding, I focus on stuff like that) a bit differently. Not as a lie stating that standing up to power will make it respect you. Rather, I see it as a lie ignoring the fact that if you stand up to power, they will notice you enough to co-opt you.

    I don’t know anyone who went to Harvard Law, but my brother went to Harvard Business, and proudly declares how every time he called out his professors they loved him more. He went in a liberal (whom I essentially raised.) He came out a "free-market" acolyte. In his mind, nothing he was told at HBS put pressure on him to conform. Of course not; there were huge non-academic rewards for conforming. If he’d stuck to his liberal guns, he would have graduated with about the same GPA, and gotten exactly zero professional references to six-figure jobs.

    Quite rarely, I imagine, are the gatekeepers of power truly cruel, the way John Houseman is in that movie. Generally, they are very charming. A la Mr. Scratch. I (as you know) am not religious, but I do enjoy the mortality play of deal-with-the-devil stories. You never get what you think you would get. You never get to keep your soul; and while I don’t believe in damnation, I do believe in losing one’s soul.

    I spent some time, a few years back, when I was desperate for work, at H&R Block. For a month or two, I loved the fact that I was being given all kinds of accolades from higher ups. I’m a depressed person; I can use all the rah-rahs I can get. Fortunately, I ran into corporate higher-ups who disabused me of how pleasant accolades could be, and I stopped being a selfish dick just in time to turn some prospective customers away from H&R Block’s predatory payday loans. Not before I’d signed quite a few up, however.

    It’s very easy to buy into our awful system. Especially because the difference between financial-services income and almost any other income are so extreme. If you could be assured of a decent life, a decent home, decent health care, and so on, doing something remotely useful, then the temptation to buy in wouldn’t be as strong.

    I don’t mean to degrade the West Coast, but I grew up there, and when I started working in social services in my mid-20s, I’d go to parties and meet people in California and Portland, and all would be well until I said what I did. Helping people with disabilities poop, essentially. It was like signing a social death warrant.

    It’s a bit different out here, and not because Minnesota/Wisconsin are special. (That’s what my friends tell me, but I think they’re wrong.) Just because our unions died last. There’s a lingering sentiment (not in the suburbs, thank you Michelle Bachmann) that blue-collar work is more honorable than harming others for profit. Helping the disabled poop doesn’t make you a pariah here, nor does being a teacher or postal worker or garbageman. (Certainly not garbage women; they attach plows to their trucks and save our asses in the winter.)

    This is not a given. Attitudes are strong depending on where you live, suburbs or the city. Inequality is rising here like everywhere, and many of the educated (the ones I have an easier time talking to) are becoming awful snobbish shits. The same thing that’s happening in Europe. I don’t know how this will pan out.

    I do know that I don’t blame anyone for being co-opted. I’m just too much of a total pissant to accept that, myself. But the rewards are huge and the penalties huger. Plus it’s fucking cold in my building right now. Rant over . . .

  2. "And what our society is, is a caste system with just enough mobility to allow for the illusion of a meritocracy."

    Exactly. Great article, as depressing as it is. In most corporate jobs, were are expected to be replaceable parts.

  3. @Terrapin Lover – I just read an article by Thomas Frank where he was discussing all the "business creativity" books. He noted that they were all the same. They all used the same tired examples that they’ve been using for decades: post-it notes and so on. Now I love Thomas Frank, because he has interesting ways of looking at things. But he’s not always right. In this case, he convinced me. He said that most people in middle management jobs want to [i]think[/i] of themselves as creative people. And who knows, maybe they [i]are[/i] creative. But they know that being creative at their jobs would upset the system and thus make their jobs and potential for promotion much less secure. So they read these books and learn yet again how creative the post-it note was. And how they are thus creative without actually, you know, being creative.

    I’ve been working on some new ideas about economics that are truly radical. But I really think that it is the only way forward. We are rich enough for everyone to have food, housing, and healthcare. Conservatives have it all backwards. They think people will only innovate if they know they have the potential to make a billion of dollars tax free. But I’ve worked with creative people all my life and I know that isn’t the way they think. When Steve Jobs started Apple, all he was thinking of was that he might be able to make money doing this work he enjoyed. (BTW: I don’t actually think that Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were innovators, but that’s another story.) If you want a fabulously varied society with all kinds of entertainment and consumer goods, don’t allow people to fail. Make sure they know they have a base that they can depend upon, which will allow them to take risks they would never even try in our human-eat-human society.

    There are lots of details to work out. But the up side is so much larger than people realize. One of those is that you [i]can[/i] be creative at your job. If they don’t like it, you don’t have to work for them. You can start freelancing, start your own business, finish your novel. We’re not talking communism here. You could still become a rich novelist–just not quite as rich a novelist as you could now. (BTW: Stephen King agrees with me!) I believe within my lifetime (assuming I live a reasonable period of time), the rich will demand such a system. Because it’s either that or complete economic meltdown. They have a hell of a lot more to lose than I do!

  4. @JMF – I think that’s economics. When you were in your 20s, the economy was good. At that time, people probably saw your job as indicating that you were uneducated, even though you are clearly smart and very well read. (I also think you were just hanging out with a bunch of assholes.) I think it might be different in Portland now. I don’t know. I hate liberals only slight less than I hate conservatives. There’s a lot to like about humans. But there is so much [i]not[/i] to like. The biggest fights I get into are with liberals who don’t like unions. Unions are the reason we still have a residue of a middle class! But I’ve pretty much given up on unions. If you read my comment to Terrapin Lover, you will see why: unions are the only thing that is holding back the economic revolution. (I still support them though; I’d rather not have the revolution.) But in 20 years, we are going to have an economy that looks like El Salvador in the 1980s.

    As for the movie: it is a fantasy. It says that you can remain independent and still be one of them. The co-opting is him sitting there in lecture. Once he stands up to Kingsfield, it’s over. He’s first year. He has no protectors. When I was in grad school, I made a number of impressive enemies because, well, I’m me. But I had two extremely powerful protectors. Without them, I would have been given my MS and shown the door.

    Of course, what the movie doesn’t show is that at Harvard, there would have been a comparable anti-Kingsfield. And it is easier to protect a student than to destroy a student. But first year no one even knows who you are, much less gives a fuck about you. Unless, of course, you embarrass the teacher in class!

  5. Interesting article over at Common Dreams:

    Seems that the "rank everyone and fire the bottom percentile" method Bill Gates touted as making Microsoft so brilliant has now been dumped by Microsoft. Apparently an atmosphere of high pressure and fear of falling behind is a terrible way to promote creativity. Who woulda thunk it?

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