Belmont Club

Failure in the First Degree

When is failure good? Usually when it signals a wrong turn. Negative feedback can save your life. It can also save your Life (with a capital letter) since possibly the worst thing that can happen to a college graduate is to gain a degree in a career that will doom him.  The higher education bubble has now cheapened the lower tiers of certain professions to the point where lawyers are on food stamps.

I went to Northeastern University School of Law. I worked my ass off at a school that did not give out real grades. The joke is/was on me. I took and passed [two state] bar exams. [I now work] 40-50 hours a week at a law firm that pays me a $1000/month stipend. I work a second job serving drinks at a comedy club on the weekends. And the icing: I’ve just qualified for food stamps. I’ve got over $200k in law school student loan debt. The career services office at my school has no advice for me. I network everyday, writing emails after work and making calls on my 30 minute lunch break.


Winston Churchill once wrote that observing the signs are just as important today as it was in Hawkeye’s day. You know how it goes in the old movies. The dialog,  “I don’t like it. It’s quiet. Too quiet” is always a sure sign the ambush is just moments from being sprung.  Describing the feckless descent of Europe into war with Nazi Germany he rewrote the ‘it is too quiet line’ in more refined prose:

For five years I have … watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet.

That poor lawyer should have realized there was something wrong when government wanted everyone to have a diploma,  because it was easy, just too easy. Now, instead of making an investment in human capital, he may in fact have made a malinvestment. Fooled by easy credit into allocating resources badly. Malinvestment wastes — in this case, it wastes the lawyer’s potential.

Before I went to law school, I was full of potential. Now, I can’t even get paid a living wage. I have more debt than I’ll ever be able to pay off and Northeastern simply counts the dollars rolling in while relying on federal loan forgiveness programs to deal with the graduates. Northeastern, and schools like it, have absolutely no incentive to prepare its students for a career. Its a cash cow for those professors who thought they would like to work 5 hours a week for their six figure salaries and provide the university at large with a prestigious addition.

I’m so f***ed I don’t even want to get out of bed. I hate my life. I can’t change any of it. I’m stuck. Its not all Northeastern’s fault. Its probably mostly my fault. But Northeastern said the job prospects were in the 90%s. Not true. Never was.

The recent scandal at the GSA has caught the public attention. “How did a government agency that, among other things, is supposed to figure out ways to minimize government costs, put together such a stunning debacle?” asks Forbes.  But let’s ask another question. Granting the GSA scandal showed something bad was happening to the government: what can we say about what it did for the people involved?

Ann Althouse looks at how ex-GSA chief Martha Johnson felt after having to resign for being caught at letting her agency get out of control. Her chief regret was for herself. “‘I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment’ … That’s what really hurts,” says Althouse.  So she’s sad, not because of the loss of a chance to do a good job but because she’s no longer getting paid for doing an utterly worthless one.

Although the plight of the lawyer is an obvious case of a malinvestment returning its bitter fruit,  many unionized teachers, deadwood bureaucrats and journalistic hacks are similarly ruining their lives, from a certain point of view, even when they are being well paid for it.

Why? Because they’re not doing anything nor learning anything that has any real value. Their works consists mostly of taking payments for a largely worthless product.  Their own economic value added is near zero. It may even be negative. One way to describe the economic crisis is there are too many parasites; too many people doing worthless tasks that are only paid for by exactions on others. Once the music stops, and reality takes revenge, then it’s on to food-stamp hell.

Althouse suggests that Johnson may be sad for the wrong reasons. Now the shocking results of a Gallup Poll showing Mitt Romney now leading President Obama by 48% to 43% is probably spreading gloom in the White House.  Is it because the staffers fear that their fine and upstanding administration is unjustly coming to an end, or does it merely represents resentment at the gravy train chugging to a stop?

And yet from one point of view it would be the best thing to ever happen to them. It would jolt them off the Road to Perdition. And even if individuals could not rationally see the advantages of doing so, the economy would. It may not be in the subjective interest of parasites to lose their gig. But it is in the body politic’s interest.

People who are willing to ruin their country if that job well paid are in some fundamental sense making the malinvestment of their lives. The fear of wrong used to be of some concern back in the day when people believed in God, or even when they believed in human justice. But in an era when men fear neither God nor Justice, it’s up to Food Stamps to hold the ring.

Those who look to their superiors, and seeing them make out like bandits and determine to the same for themselves, must be able to fear the possibility of macaroni and cheese forever. They need the prospect of something to make them mourn for the rest of their lives. In Russia that role was fulfilled by the Cheka. In America, that function is fulfilled by losing your income.

Perhaps if there is a God, He hides Himself and the possibilities of Heaven or Hell out of the desire to avoid turning salvation into the ultimate Las Vegas GSA vacation. Maybe the whole point of Faith is to give people a chance to do things for their own sake rather than applying for gig in heaven. There’s nothing so sad in human terms as watching people say they love you for the money. Perhaps God, or justice, or the Creator or aliens all feel the same way.

And maybe you’ll get the money anyway if you do the right thing. A successful man who invited me to lunch recently recounted his youthful days as a stockbroker. He was determined to make a lot of money. After a few weeks his boss asked the staff to a meeting, and requested all those who were in it for the money to raise their hands. My host raised his hand. Then the manager said, “all those who are in this job to do the best they can, raise your hand”.

What the manager said next surprised my host. “My boss said that only the people who were being their best by working at stockbroking would make money in this profession. Most of the rest,” he said, “would fail. I realized he was right. That’s when I quit stockbroking and got into mining. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The hardest choice any of us has to make is where to invest our lives. Perhaps that is not so very different from choosing how to live our lives. If so, the worst thing about a credentialing education system is that it makes young people dedicate their lives to chimera instead of becoming all they were meant to be.


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