Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

A Queens’ Marxist in the Lions’ Court

When I first walked into the conference room, two other girls were already there. One of them caught my eye and with a friendly nod indicated I should take the seat next to her. I did and then observed the girl on the other side of the table.

She was quite striking, well-dressed in the trendiest fashion, and clearly intelligent, but she exuded an agitation and antagonism that clashed with the sleepy serenity of the room and our own quiet desire for friendship. As our other six classmates trickled in, the Girl across the Table never relaxed and though she responded correctly to any friendly overture, she did so with an attitude of suspicion. Puzzled but too preoccupied to give it much thought, I turned my attention to the department chair who was opening orientation.

For the first couple of weeks I was much too in awe of my new surroundings at this Ivy League university to concern myself with anything more than adjusting as quickly as possible. Only one of us had attended an Ivy for undergraduate and she was one of the nicest people in the class. Recognizing how intimidating the new environment could be, she went out of her way to demystify the place for us, and with her help we soon realized that the tranquil, yet demanding, atmosphere of the first day was genuine. We were meant to become our best selves, not to compete insanely with each other. About three weeks in, our entering cohort of nine had settled into a social and academic routine with everyone participating in a cordial, collegial manner, everyone except one: the Girl across the Table – hereafter called GatT. 

Her hostility from the first day was unabated, and now we were its direct target. During lunch, if someone suggested a book, she had a snarky putdown, even if seconds later she would be raving about another book by the same author. One evening a group of the classical music lovers took advantage of free tickets from the school to go to the opera. GatT came with us. Stretching our legs at intermission time devolved into standing in  a circle and listening uncomfortably as GatT made snide comments about how everyone in the lobby was dressed. As we turned to go back in, I heard her mutter something about “bourgeois” under her breath. A light went on in my heard: GatT was a Marxist – puzzle solved! The next morning, GatT publicly avowed her Marxist leanings during a seminar discussion. 

The mystery of her hostility solved, we moved on with our social lives and pretty much managed to maintain a state of cautious détente with GatT. She made her desire to lead a jacquerie against us fairly clear a couple of times a week. This became funny once a casual lunch conversation revealed that eight of the nine of us had some familiarity with firearms; I commented to the friendly girl from the first day that this particular jacquerie wouldn’t end the way GatT thought. Eventually we became accustomed to her outbursts, and it took one of extraordinary absurdity to elicit any reaction from us. The closest anyone came to snapping at her was the time she claimed that our completing assignments on time was an act of class oppression against her. 

One of the other students was the daughter of two economists who had became ardent free-marketeers after spending their youths as equally ardent Marxists; consequently her grasp of both arguments was comprehensive. After losing a verbal bout with her, GatT refrained from practical arguments and retreated to social commentary. One day during our daily class coffee gathering, she proclaimed that if she had known our school was an Ivy, in order to show support for the proletariat, she would not have applied. As the “discussion” continued, she branded us as privileged elitists. Meanwhile, we quietly drank our cheap coffee and pondered the fellowships that made this our most affordable option. 

The remainder of our graduate studies passed in the pattern of endless writing and studying, intense debates on all sorts of topics, excursions to museums and evenings at the theatre or concerts, and of course simply socializing with each other. We tuned out GatT’s insulting nattering and someone always ensured she received an invitation to whatever activity was scheduled. Despite her clear resentment, she usually came. 

In the final term, when the course load was intentionally light to leave room for writing the Masters thesis, GatT disappeared for a few weeks. We learned through her social media that she was participating in anti-austerity protests in Europe and was immediately sprayed with tear gas during a raucous demonstration. Soon after she returned to school, I ran into her. She told me that she hadn’t started writing her thesis yet: the submission deadline was three weeks away.

I haven’t seen GatT since that last meeting, but the rest of us stay in touch. During a dinner with some of the gang a few months ago we tallied where everyone is now. GatT was the only one we couldn’t account for; because of her propensity for agitating, we suspect she might be locked away in a third-world prison somewhere. We also wonder if she ever managed to complete her thesis.     

Eco’s ‘How to eat ice cream’

A friend recently gifted me a vintage copy of some of Umberto Eco’s essays translated to English. One of the essays, titled “How to eat ice cream,” opened with an anecdote Eco said was based on his childhood. In the story, there was an ice cream vendor who sold regular cones for two cents and ice cream pie cones for four cents. Eco said his parents and grandmother would buy him which ever type he requested, but there was a limit. Young Eco envied the neighbor children who would parade down the street carrying a regular cone in each hand. But whenever he asked for four cents to buy two cones, the adults would flatly refuse and tell him that he could have a pie cone instead. As an adult, he mused:

[…] I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. […] And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenus, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

The parenting method must have worked because he became Umberto Eco. What Eco recognized was that his parents had inoculated him against false consumerist behavior. The preventative measures were not against the so-called consumerist society but ostentatious display, the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Around January 2018, there was a meme floating around social media. It said something along the lines of “Entrepreneur: someone who lives a few years the way most people won’t so that they can spend the rest of their lives living the way most people can’t.” I very belatedly discovered Carl Schramm’s 2004 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative. Schramm identified the 1950s as the time when American society ceased valorizing business ownership and virtuous risk in favor of material security. As part of the “security first” mentality, children and young people were openly discouraged from seeking independence or from being different in a positive way. The world was one of ossification and stagnation, even as the federal government and media pushed a strong Keynesian message of “consume to grow.” On a side note, now that I think about it, Keynesian economics resemble the children’s video game Snake: one guides the snake to food so that it will grow but eventually it becomes so big that it bites itself – Game over.

Even given the massive propaganda effort put into promoting Keynesian theories, scapegoating “consumerism” or “consumerist society” is a form of escapist thought, a dodging of responsibility. Eco spotted the cause and effect nature of being a parvenu. The desire for “fictitious privilege” creates a set of priorities that cause one to spend his wherewithal thoughtlessly. In turn a “boast of wealth” strategy leads to “’I’d like to but I can’t’” through ensuring that there is no money when real opportunity arrives. The world becomes one of abundant middle as the effort to possess everything spirals.

The Good Life vs. reality

Recently, a former classmate badgered me into accompanying her on a run to the supermarket. As we were checking out, I, as a person who is very dedicated to the principle of self-interest, used a handful of coupons and a discount card to lower my final tally. My companion had a judgmental reaction to the proceedings: she gave me to understand that she never sought discounts or used coupons because to do so was beneath her station. Oddly, she could see no connection between her attitude and her continuous complaints about being short on funds. It was only much later that I connected her attitude at the cash register with her frequent monologues about a “broken society,” a slight fixation on “inequality,” and an overweening sense of entitlement.  

In 1971, NBC produced a sitcom called The Good Life, not to be confused with the British series of the same name. The American series was unsuccessful, in comparison to its competition, and it was canceled after fifteen episodes. I have never seen the show as NBC has never rerun it or provided a home release of it. I first heard of The Good Life in a book, whose title I have regrettably forgotten (for a long time I thought the book was Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox but now I can’t find any allusion to the tv show in Easterbrook’s book.). The author of the forgotten book alluded to The Good Life as a watershed moment in tv history with its portrayal of the so-called super-rich – the one bit I remember was that the book described the show as “the most luxurious show [in terms of portrayal of lifestyle]” and connected the show to a sudden increase in a broad sense of entitled victimhood throughout society. The Good Life  was also, apparently, part of creating the environment conducive for the success of the soap opera Dallas (1978 – 1991).

The plot behind The Good Life is that a middle-class couple become exhausted with the pressures of suburban life and maintaining a lifestyle that’s beyond their means. Consequently, the pair decide to scam their way into the household of an industrialist multimillionaire by disguising themselves as a butler and housekeeper. The theme which (apparently) underlay the show was the idea that there is a class of people who live extravagant, exotic lives (the proverbial good life) and therefore can afford to support some sponging malcontents.

When researching the show, one thing that struck me about it was how prescient it was in terms of foretelling some of the themes which are present in our current socio-political discourse. The two con-artists are reasonably successful college graduates who believe that society promised them the good life as a reward for going to college and having careers; however, when the pair see the lifestyle shown in glossy magazines – mansions, tennis courts, Rolls-Royce cars – the couple feels that society has reneged on its promise. The logic of the show’s premise is that the couple has been pushed by society – that wicked, amorphous “they” – toward a life of deception because there is no other path to riches open to them.

LitHub ran an article titled “How the well-educated and downwardly mobile found socialism.” The article isn’t worth reading, but the title touches on what began as the fictional premise of The Good Life and has become a full blown, ideologically fraught, issue today. What happens when perception of status is overblown and there is no sense of timeframe to temper expectations? 

Thinking of the popularity of AOC or Andrew Yang and the manner in which they have successfully tapped into the tropes of “unjust society” of “inequality,” the modern millennial (my own generation) seems to have embraced the premise of The Good Life. The tv show contained a very subtle, and completely subversive, inversion of the moral order: because “society’s promises” were broken, the dishonesty of the protagonists was not immoral. The extension of such reasoning is that the industrialist was obligated to support the swindlers anyway due to his greater wealth.

Capx just ran a terrific article by Jethro Elsden, “Jane Austen, the accidental economist,” in response to the new film version of Emma. One of the interesting tidbits the author found was that in modern terms, Mr Darcy’s £10,000 per annum income is probably equivalent to £60 million today, which would make his wealth around £3 billion. Even then Elizabeth Darcy had to “make small economies” once she decided to support her sponging sister and feckless brother-in-law. Granted the economies might have been the result of not telling her husband, but still the point remains that no one can long support spongers.

Elsden alluded to the logic of social pressure and the malignant effect it had on Austen’s characters who feel compelled to engage in an “arms race.” A major reason the swindlers of The Good Life turn to dishonesty is that they feel pressured to look like successful suburban college graduates. The problem was that  in the case of Austen’s characters and the tv show from 154 years later, the definition of “success” in relation to appearances was fungible. Rationally, it is ridiculous for the youngish couple of The Good Life to be in same place financially and socially as their mark, the middle-aged, widower industrialist whose lifestyle (but not work ethic) they covet.

To return, finally, to the anecdote regarding my shopping expedition, the episode is an example of a type of path that begins with frivolous preconceptions and ends with The Good Life on the comic end and the rise of Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren on the other. These politicians have located a demographic which has no sense of progression of time, stages of development, or realistic expectations. A perfect example is my ex-classmate, who has subjected herself to a fantasy regarding her own realistic expectation and now believes that the social contract has been broken.  For such a demographic, the emotional trumps the rational. It is easier to believe themselves wronged than as merely victims of their own imaginations.

The veil of nostalgia

In article for Worth, titled “A new wealth gap is growing – attention inequality,” authors Joon Yun and Eric Yun of the Yun Family Foundation, an institute dedicated to “transforming the way people think,” argued that “attention inequality” is having a destructive force on society and expressed nostalgia for the days of “monoculture.” They defined this idyllic time as one where all attention was focused on one or two people or groups, e.g. the Beatles, and on no one else. The idea expressed by the Yuns is that the new internet world where everyone may take his best shot at fame is unfair, and a veil that should not have been lifted has been removed. In the meantime, everyone, described as “the heart-broken masses,” wanders through the selection at will, as customers as well as fame-seekers. The Yuns’ complaint is very similar to a running theme in the works of Michel Houellebecq: the free market of choice has created winners and losers and in doing so has destroyed the dreams and self-respect of the last group.

Perhaps the question is whether existing in a world of dreams, one in which a person could feel good about himself using the “might have been” fantasy, is an acceptable burden to thrust upon society. After all, in his short story “The secret life of Walter Mitty [which the Ben Stiller film butchered],” satirist James Thurber’s point was that living in dreams replaces action, allowing people to imagine themselves as people filled with unrecognized abilities. Even Thurber’s picture of the type for whom such an existence is necessary was probably accurate: a passive middle-aged man who had missed opportunities in his youth (implied WWII vet, so both chances to be a military hero and cash in benefits to start a business, further education, etc.) and resents his wife as the cause and the personification of the mediocrity of his existence.

But are we better off with the veil of mediocre monoculture lifted? Is the fact that revelation may not be pleasant for those who discover that they are unappealing to the modern market really a justifiable cause for concern? Is the old world of “monoculture” really something to look back upon with nostalgia?

My former composition and counterpoint teacher was also a concert pianist, who trained at The Juilliard School. While still a student my teacher was signed by a major record label. One of the tidbits I learned from him was that back in “those days (mid-20th century)” practically the only way a young (classical) artist had of obtaining notice was to be at an elite conservatory since that is where the scouts went almost exclusively.

The MO for finding the “latest new thing” made perfect sense for the time period. There was (and still is) a tremendous amount of investment on the part of the label that went into publicity for and grooming of a young artist. Further, in my teacher’s case, the label handled studio and recording expenses, created and booked concert tours, and handled venue costs. The artist did not have to repay the funding; however, total expenses would be deducted from any royalties should he/she become successful. The investment risk meant that going to places where the already-succeeding were clustered was the safest bet for the big labels. There was very little room in the equation for a person who was not already positioned to join the upper professional echelons, or someone who had no insider access.

Was a situation where the major labels acted as gatekeepers and only considered people who fit a certain profile really better than the current one where the internet and digital tools allow artists to perform directly to the audience? The nostalgia for a time of “monoculture” speaks to a yearning for a closed, stratified world. The world where my teacher grew up and worked was a world in which someone with big dreams could imagine himself as simply undiscovered, an unrecognized talent whose gifts would never benefit society. There is some security, a perverse comfort, in such a dynamic. A person never has to confront the idea that maybe he has no talent, maybe his music is not good enough, maybe what he does is something no one finds interesting, perhaps there is no market for him to fill.

The breakup of the “monoculture” has forced average Joe dreamer to confront these possibilities. Instead of only playing and dreaming in his garage, he can now release his own albums on iTunes and Prime Music, upload videos to YouTube and Daily Motion; he can have his own website and create his own publicity. He can wait to see if his work is accepted and if there is an audience for it. The Yun family has argued that the process of exposure and competition is cruel, that it breaks up human contact, that it consigns the vast majority who desire to be part of the “culture” to being part of the “heartbroken masses.” But the real question is: How is average Joe dreamer any better off under the old system? Isn’t a situation in which he at least has a chance to be seen, to make it big, better than one in which he is simply locked out? 

Contempt for capitalism

Scarcity is merely contempt for that which is easily obtained.

                                                                                               ~ Seneca (attributed)[1]

While I am aware that many of the NOL writers do not agree with Jordan Peterson, I think he is correct when he says that many of the contemporary problems faced by society are the product of prosperity. The essence of his argument is that in an evolutionary sense mankind has two sets of priorities: 1) necessities of life and 2) social standing attached to life meaning. For the first time in history, we are living at a point where the necessities of physically staying alive, e.g. housing, food, medical care, etc. are obtainable and now people are free to fixate on the second set of priorities. The point where I personally diverge from Peterson and those of a traditional “conservative” inclination is that I do not think it is incumbent upon broader society to provide a sense of meaning or status for others.

In an interview with Christina Hoff Sommers and Danielle Crittenden of AEI for their Femsplainers podcast, Peterson illustrated his argument with an anecdote from his childhood on the Canadian plains. He described how, despite college being free in Canada at the time, he was the only one from his high school class to go onto tertiary education. Some but not all of the cause, he said, was ignorance. He observed that much of the reasoning related to an inability to delay gratification. At the time, his hometown was an oil center and was flush with money from the boom of the 1980s. Consequently, going to work immediately and making a lot of money was more attractive for high school seniors than was attending university. For the next decade this strategy worked. But, as Peterson recounted, when he was in the final year of his PhD, two things happened: 1) the wells supporting the town ran dry and 2) the oil bubble burst.

Unsurprisingly, what were a blip on the radar and a minor hiccup in the global and historical scope were disastrous for Peterson’s hometown. What became apparent in the fallout was a softening of character and mind. Counterintuitively, men who had no problem rising at 4:00 AM and working in subzero temperatures for sixteen hours were shown to be fragile in the face of greater adversity. Having manufactured an identity that emphasized the pointlessness of skill acquisition but also placed great importance upon high income, these beneficiaries of the oil bubble were devastated when their incomes disappeared and their lack of relevant skills left them unemployable and consequently without status. In the following decades, the town became one of many others of the rustbelt variety, plagued by unemployment, substance abuse, and apathy. It was this sequence that Peterson said caused him to start thinking in terms of the evolutionary stages of development. For us, the most relevant takeaway is the limitations of money on conferring status.  

As Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) wrote in his article “Influences affecting the development of thrift (1907)” in which he lamented the loss of capitalist mentality among the American people,

It is obvious that the more closely society is knit together, the greater the influence of social standards upon economic conduct. The solitary frontiersman shapes his economic conduct with very little regard for the opinion of other frontiersmen with whom he may occasionally associate. The one rich man in a community of poor men is scarcely at all under the dominance of social economic standards.

Saunders ultimately concluded that increased status anxiety or social dissatisfaction was, however counterintuitively, a sign of progress. After all, the real life of a frontiersman was quite different from that romanticized in Zane Grey books. Therefore, assuming that no one really wants to live a subsistence existence, a world in which people are materially comfortable, even if subjected to social pressures, is inherently better.

The concerns induced by social pressure are external to material wellbeing since a positive environment for the latter ensures that people can live above subsistence without difficulty. Social pressure is hardly objective, and because of its variable nature, symbolized in Johnson’s essay by a “suburbanite touring car,” which was both unproductive and quickly superseded by newer vehicles, sweeping claims about feelings of social pressure must be denied validity. Johnson presented the thirst, which he observed in 1907, for status symbols as both positive and negative. Positive because it indicated greater prosperity; Negative because it created a different set of societal problems. As society became increasingly removed from a subsistence existence, the human cycle of craving and acquisition – which in a hunter-gatherer environment meant survival of winter – developed into an obstacle, rather than a necessary tool. The contemporary extension to Johnson’s line of reasoning correlates to Peterson’s assertion that the fixation of broader society on status is a natural sequitur to achieving a level of prosperity sufficient for the basic needs of all to be addressed.

While the topic of interest to Johnson was thrift and capitalist mentality, or rather the lack of it, on the part of the American people, his essay contained an interesting and pertinent observation regarding land practices. Remembering that he wrote this particular essay in 1907, he remarked on an agricultural real estate bubble existing in the Midwest, his native region. The reason he thought it was important was that he maintained it demonstrated two points in the spending-thrift, status- (genuine) capitalist paradigm. Property prices and valuations had risen, he argued, past the productive potential and therefore market value of the real estate in question. This rise was driven, he said, by the farmers themselves who spent lavishly on land because of an association of ownership with status, even if they were then unable to use the land effectively and therefore unable to recoup the investment. He predicted that land purchased under these circumstances was not a good investment. Further he added that when the bubble collapsed, not only would there be monetary loses, there would also be ego and identity crises as those farmers who saw the value of their holdings diminish would feel as though they had lost social standing, even if they didn’t lose a single acre. However since, Johnson observed that many of the farmers he knew, and upon whom he based his hypotheses, had repeatedly mortgaged their current holdings in order to buy additional pieces, the economist predicted property forfeiture as well.

A prototype Austrian economist, though born and raised on the Nebraska plains, Johnson made no moral judgements about the acquisitive instinct or the needless purchase of property. The pettiness exemplified by Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929) and his claim that curved driveways was a pointless display of wealth and status because they used space that might be put to better use (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899) was simply not a factor in Johnson’s works. Johnson’s conclusion on improper land acquisition and use was based purely on dollars and cents: for a farmer, unprofitable land was not an investment, and no amount of wishful thinking would make it into one. Johnson’s predictions about an impending time of property price collapse and hurt egos came to pass in the 1920s with the agricultural depression, which was in full swing by 1924. The bubble burst was possibly delayed by World War I. The Dust Bowl and Great Depression of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was an epilogue to a situation that had begun many decades before.

In 1922, shortly before the agricultural bubble burst spectacularly, Johnson wrote another article, “The Promotion of Thrift in America,” in which he warned, again, that the American land-owning farmer was overleveraged. He also identified the existence of a tenant farmer class whose status was due to lending policies which encouraged current owners to become overleveraged through easy mortgages, thereby inflating property prices, but prevented first-time buyers from entering the market. The dispute between NIMBY and YIMBY is hardly new. To further exacerbate the situation, the agricultural sector had begun to receive federal subsidies as part of the war effort. While Johnson didn’t mention this in his article, the subsidies further distorted the connected real estate market as they made farming appear more profitable than it was. In response to criticism for his decision to refuse to subsidize agriculture in any way, Calvin Coolidge, who was desperately trying to salvage the American economy and took a firm anti-subsidy, anti-price control approach, said, “well, farmers never have made much money.” Johnson’s predictions from 1907 came true, but Coolidge’s 1926 decision on subsidies received the blame.   

What relevance, one might reasonably ask, has a set of observations from 1907 on the investment attitudes of, primarily Midwestern, American farmers have today? Why should these observations be combined with comments on status, work, and society made by a controversial academic? The reason is best exemplified by Sen. Marco Rubio’s article in the National Review titled “The case for common good capitalism.” It was an apology of soft socialism swaddled in pseudo-religious sanctimony culled piecemeal from various Catholic encyclicals. Since Kevin Williamson already dissected the article and its flaws, there is no need to rebut Rubio at this juncture. The overarching thesis to Rubio’s piece is that society has robbed the working man of dignity. The logic is tangled, to say the least, and it crescendos to the conclusion that a shadowy, disembodied society has mugged the working man and taken his dignity (or sense of status). The basic equations appear to be as follows:

  • burst property bubble = conspiracy to deny ownership, at least dignified ownership, to average Joe
  • loss of jobs for unskilled labor = denial of right to work;
  • lack of workforce-owned corporations = some vague travesty that is tied to denial of ownership.

For this last, Johnson in “The Promotion of Thrift in America” specifically mentioned such corporate arrangements as complete failures because they created hostility between employers and employees, and in fact reduced employee-loyalty, since the latter believed that such arrangements were intended to defraud them of their wages.

In his two articles, Johnson frankly argued that only the middle-classes and up practiced thrift and engaged in capital acquisition and investment. He dedicated most of “The Promotion of Thrift in America” to expounding upon the ways that the “wage earners (polite speak for working class back in the 1920s),” farmers, and the lower-middle class not refused to pursue capitalist behavior but would respond with active hostility when thrift campaigners (yes, there was an save-and-be-a-capitalist campaign in the aftermath of World War I, right up there with the temperance movement![2]) suggested that they should. The crux of the issue, one which Rubio’s article refuses to recognize, is that, like in the 1920s, the roots of broader societal complaints lie decades in the past. The efforts to create a quick fix are therefore both futile and infantile. Every couple of decades a specific subgroup, be it the overleveraged farmers of the early twentieth century or the unskilled oil workers of Peterson’s youth, discovers that its values are defective and that the signs its members believed to be markers of status are liabilities. Eventually the price of the decisions built on these misplaced values and symbols must be paid. In order for the payment to occur in a way that does not unjustly burden the rest of society, we must recognize that the scarcity experienced by the indebted subgroup lies more in their contempt for the genuine capitalist way of life than in any wrong society has inflicted upon them.


[1] Despite attribution to Seneca, I have been unable to find this aphorism among his works currently in my library, and I would be very appreciative if someone could tell me in which work he wrote this phrase (if indeed he did).

[2] Interesting which of the two movements gained enough political clout to have its agenda inscribed in the Constitution.  

Perspective and riches

Sometimes working in the arts can be quite disorienting, especially in terms of what comes out of the mouths of colleagues. For example, a close friend was in rehearsal and an ensemble member, having spent the first hour staring at her, suddenly demanded: 

“Are those real diamonds [pointing at a simple crystal strand bought at H&M]?” 

“What?! These?! No.”

“Oh, okay. I was trying to figure out how rich you are.” 

There were so many things wrong with this actual exchange that it is hard to know where to start. The main, collective reaction was: “Who openly admits to sitting there thinking things like that?” The episode embarrassed everyone except the person who asked the offensive question. Aside from the immediate disruptive effect it had, the incident was indicative of a greater socio-cultural problem, a shameless voyeurism that, while not new, has reached a fevered pitch today.

While one could easily say that reality TV and Instagram are primary causes, there are plenty of examples which predate these media, most memorably Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and its prescient view of tabloid and celebrity culture. What is new, though, is the idea that the envious and their curiosity have any legitimacy. We have come from Flaubert’s view that Emma Bovary was a colossal idiot to articles published by the BBC lamenting “invisible poverty.” The BBC writer’s examples of “invisible poverty” were an inability to afford “posh coffee,” a qualifier which he declined to define, and neighbors wondering if a “nice car” was bought on auto loan or owned outright. Like the question about diamonds, not only should such matters be outside the concern of others, to think that they are appropriate, or even a valid source of social strife, is disgusting and disturbing. 

In his book Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell complained about being sent to Eton, where he spent his school years feeling as though everyone around him had more material wealth. The essence of his lament was that he wished his parents had sent him to a small grammar school where he could have been the richest student. He also claimed, in a wild generalization, that his feelings on the matter were universal through the British upper-middle class. Further, he said that it was his time in secondary school, not as commonly claimed his time as a civil servant, which fueled his turn toward Marxism, following the traditional logic of grabbers – “they have so much and therefore can spare some for me.” 

The most baffling part for Orwell was the way that the upper-middle class, which included his family, was willing to move to far-flung corners of the globe and live in conditions the lowest British laborer would not accept in exchange for educational opportunity for their children and a high-status, reasonably wealthy retirement for themselves. For a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of self-sacrifice, its role in the development of capitalism, and why only the century upper- and upper-middle classes were the ones willing to make such exchanges, see Niall Ferguson’s Colossus

It is important today for us to become more critical regarding complaints about society and anecdotes that are presented as proof regarding unfair societal mechanisms that prevent social mobility. An example of the reason we must be careful is art recent article published by written by a Cambridge undergraduate for The Guardian, who identifying as working class and having many problems along those lines, cited as her biggest complaint the Cambridge Winter Ball. Her problem was not that she hasn’t been able to attend, but that she had had to work for an hour in order to get into the Ball for free. This is a questionable example of social immobility. Her complaint about the Ball was that there were others who could pay the £100 entrance fee upfront. From this, she assumed a level of privilege that might not necessarily exist, i.e. “the other students could part with 100 pounds.” 

Another example of failure to understand the availability of resources and extrapolating a false conclusion of social immobility is the Columbia University FLiP (First-generation, Low-income People) Facebook page, which was, through 2018, their primary platform. In response to Columbia University’s study on their first-generation low-income population, many of the complaints related to books and the libraries. FLiP students didn’t know that books were available in the library, and so they had purchased study materials while their “wealthier” peers simply borrowed the library copy or spent the necessary number of hours in the library working. Ironically, this complaint is not valid if you also consider that Columbia does an immersive orientation in which new students are taken into the libraries and are shown the basics of the book search system, card operations, checkout procedure, etc. In response to the publicity surround the FLiP drive[1] the university opened a special library for these people where there is no official checkout; all loans are on the honor system. On a hilarious side note, in the middle ages libraries would chain books to lecterns to keep the students from walking away with them.

While we may have moved away from a society that encouraged living modestly to avoid arousing the envy of one’s neighbors, we now live in a culture in which our neighbors’ jealousy is too easily aroused. Chaos is the natural resting state of existence, but people have lost the ability to construct order for themselves out of it. It is possible to argue that modern people have not been taught to do so; after all, no one comes into the world knowing the underlying skills that are the foundation of the “invisible poor” complaints, e.g. social interactions, sartorial taste, self-sacrifice, etc. To tell the truth, mankind’s natural state is closer to the savages of the middle ages whose covetous inclinations necessitated the chaining of library books. On the one hand, we have progressed tremendously past such behavior and in doing so created order from chaos; but on the other hand, the external signs of progress are now under fire as symbols of privilege. Chillingly, the anti-civilization narrative, because that is ultimately what it is, is being incorporated into an anti-capitalist agenda through the conflation of “civilized” with “privileged,” which in turn is conflated with “rich.” 


[1] It is also revealing that the sign off for these people while the drive lasted was FLiP [school name]. Yes, one must wonder if even the acronym was picked for its stunning vulgarity.