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Secrets to a Capitalism Free You: Skip Grad School

January 11, 2011

In the debate between top-down and bottom-up politics, I take a middle position. By all means, let’s go to the ballot box every two years and vote against Republican candidates. Yet surely there are sharp limits to what a Barack Obama or an Al Franken can accomplish while in office.

Credit where credit is due: the 2008 Democratic landslide has resulted in comprehensive health care reform, the appointment of Elizabeth Warren as Interim CFPB Director, and an end to the Iraq War. At the same time, even when you take Republican obstructionism into account, the aims of Barack Obama and his party are very modest. Obama may have supported a public option, but he has not once expressed support for universal health care (not since taking the oath of office, at least). He may have pulled the troops out of Iraq, but only to embark on an equally quixotic venture in Afghanistan. He may have called Wall Street bonuses “obscene”, but he later described the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase as “savvy businessmen.” As with Obama, so with the majority of Democrats in Congress.

I therefore conclude that those of us with more sweeping objections to capitalism are on our own. Radical change must come from the bottom-up. I almost hesitate to say that because it sounds so grandiose. It conjures up marches and acts of civil disobedience and dogs and fire hoses. Perhaps history will repeat itself — but, for now, I hope merely to initiate a dialogue as to what might be done, apart from seeking control of the political machine.

In this, I am inspired by GK Chesterton, who once gave the following advice (see “The Tyranny of Trusts”) for those seeking to resist capitalism:

Do anything, however small, that will prevent the completion of the work of capitalist concentration. Do anything that will even delay that completion. Save one [small] shop out of a hundred shops. Save one croft out of a hundred crofts. Keep open one door out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison. Throw up one barricade in their way, and you will soon see whether it is the way the world is going. Put one spoke in their wheel, and you will soon see whether it is the wheel of fate.

You may have heard about secrets to pleasing your man in bed. Or secrets to making six-figures. Well, I am adding to this blog “Secrets to a Capitalism Free You.” The idea is to identify specific ways in which you and I can take Chesterton’s advice to keep open one door, throw up one barricade, and put one spoke in the wheels of capitalism.

My first installment is inspired by a recent New York Times article on the crippling debt faced by growing numbers of law school graduates. Law schools, the article explains, frequently manipulate data so as to boost their rankings in the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings. Thus, for example, Yale Law School might count an alum-turned-Starbucks barista as “employed after nine months.” This creates a wildly unrealistic set of expectations on the part of incoming students, which is itself exploitative.

But it gets worse. Saddled with debt, students end up taking jobs that they wouldn’t otherwise — jobs at lucrative, capitalism-friendly firms. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Most of us either went to the wrong law school, which is the bottom two-thirds, or we were too old when we graduated,” [one law school graduate] said. “I was 32 when I graduated, and at 32 you’re washed up in this field, in terms of a shot at the real deal. They perceived me as somebody they can’t indoctrinate into slave labor and work to death for seven years and then release if they don’t like you.”

This gets to what might be the ultimate ugly truth about law school: plenty of those who borrow, study and glad-hand their way into the gated community of Big Law are miserable soon after they move in. The billable-hour business model pins them to their desks and devours their free time.

Hence the cliché: law school is a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie.

Law school defenders note that huge swaths of the country lack adequate and affordable access to lawyers, which suggests that the issue here isn’t oversupply so much as maldistribution. But when the numbers are crunched, studies find that most law students need to earn around $65,000 a year to get the upper hand on their debt.

That kind of money is hard to earn hanging a shingle in rural Ohio or in public defenders’ offices, the budgets of which are often being cut. As elusive, and inhospitable, as jobs in Big Law may be, they are one of the few ways for new grads to keep out of delinquency.

As the Native Americans were well aware, debt is a powerful method of social control. Those who oppose capitalism would do well to avoid it — even if that means forgoing a graduate school education in law, social work, or the humanities.

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