Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Troubles of the Peasantry

Megan McArdle, my favorite writer, had a conversation with a law school professor about the economic viability of a law degree. The exchange has a decent bit of wit in it and some instances of impressive wordsmithing. But what I find most fascinating about the conversation is what the conversation is: a publicly available transcript between two elites speaking in earnest with no filter.

On why the law school crisis was only just recently being discussed:

Megan: So let's start with the contraction of the market for lawyers: do we know what's causing it? And why did it take people so long to notice?
Paul: It's being caused by technology and outsourcing. Machines can now do many things that lawyers did formerly, such as e-discovery. In addition, corporations have found that much work which used to be performed by lawyers can be performed quite adequately by much cheaper sources of labor -- paralegals, compliance officers, and even people in India.
As for why it took so long to notice, law is a very hierarchical profession, and there's a great deal of stigma that attaches to failure. So as long as the contraction wasn't evident to people in the highest reaches of the profession, such as law professors at prestigious schools and partners at top firms, it remained largely invisible at the level of public discourse.
Megan: There's a bit divide between the graduates of Harvard, and the graduates of, say, Thomas Cooley
Paul: Yes indeed, but the waterline has now risen so high that large portions of the classes at top ten law schools are struggling, so now there's a "crisis."
The main thing to take away from that is the last bit. When the elites are suffering, that's when it starts appearing in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. And that's when the rest of the upper middle class takes notice. Any time before that, and you've got no shot at getting the public's attention.

On why law schools get away with doing what they're doing:
Paul: Yes, and because the cost is borne by graduates (who are prone to cognitive errors, ie optimism and confirmation bias) and by taxpayers, who are a diffuse group. The benefits, on the other hand, are reaped by a very discrete group -- law schools in particular and universities in general. It's Poli Sci and Econ 101 respectively really.
On the hopeless market that JDs find themselves in:
Megan: There's always been some of that, of course--John Grisham has dramatized it quite vividly.  But now you're saying that we're basically putting the ambulance chasers out of business?
Paul: Well there's always going to be room for some personal injury lawyers, but the reality is that we're graduating 45,000 people per year for 20,000 jobs, and two thirds of those jobs don't pay enough to justify the cost of law school, so that's some pretty dire math. Of course people go to law school because they can't do math, hence here we are.
 What is he really saying? The graduates are idiots and the taxpayers don't care.

And, finally, the kicker:
Megan: I take it you've gotten some flak from your fellow law professors for pointing all this out?
Paul: Oh yes of course. Basically legal academia right now is France in 1780, and my lord doesn't care to hear about the supposed troubles of the peasantry.
The dude is absolutely correct in his assessment, but what's astounding to me is that this conversation is doing something very similar. They're both part of the upper middle class talking very candidly about real problems and yet the vast majority of the US does not understand what is happening in the legal market or law school. The extended metaphor is that Megan and and Paul are also part of the Second Estate discussing affairs of state while the peasantry (about 90% of the US population) toil in the fields complaining about the growing scarcity of bread.

The key difference between Pre-Revolutionary France and today is that the Second Estate (aka the upper middle class) is not a heritable title or privilege in the United States. The right education is all that's necessary for access. Anybody with internet access has the ability to see the strings that control the system. And anybody with the right credentials can start pulling on those strings. But most Americans, for whatever reason, don't leverage their incredible advantage into valuable, actionable information.

I've referenced Game of Thrones in the past and there's a very appropriate quote for this phenomenon: "The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play." In the US, the common people are essentially everybody who doesn't care about government, which is probably over 95% of the country.

Hang on, you might say. Over a hundred million people voted last election. You can't tell me that they don't care about government. To that, I reply that voting in elections doesn't mean you care about government. The people who care about government follow government during the "off season". They read about Supreme Court rulings, Presidential appointee battles, regulatory decisions, and the latest economic trends. And then they talk about them constantly to anyone who will listen.

Because the game that the American nobility plays is public policy. And while the peasants go about their day and their mundane little lives, the nobility will be fiddling with the levers of power. And that affects all of us whether we know it or not.

There are plenty of idiots who say something along the lines of "you can't complain if you don't vote". Let me offer something else. If you don't follow what happens between elections and then you start complaining about the blunders of government, you're a modern day peasant.

1 comment:

  1. I hate that the term peasant is used as a pejorative. They play a vital role. One in which the business of the nobility is none of their concern. You may disagree, but given that their level of interest in government is inversely proportional to their political liberties (as you appear to conclude), I'd say I'm right on target. The only time peasants seem to get excited about government is when some disgruntled wool merchant whips them up into a furor.