Two Stories, Conflated

Choose your cell wisely
(image by Giorgio Grani, via Unsplash)

News from Bloomberg: 46% of college graduates over age 25 surveyed reported that they worked in the field that they went to college for, a quarter of them make $30K per year or less, and about 15% don’t make the poverty line. All interesting facts, but it’s pretty sloppy thinking to put those things in the same article. It falls totally into the trap of crushing every version of college into the trade school model, and then accusing people of picking the wrong trade when they were 18.

Let’s take those two stories apart. The bad news is that college isn’t the infallible safety net that everyone claims it to be. Now that a third of all Americans have college degrees, it’s just not special the way it once was. Any employer at any level can require an irrelevant degree to qualify for a job that once would easily have been done by non-collegiate adults. And in our current economic model, in which labor is always a cost to be avoided, humane work at a humane wage is hard to come by. There are enough college grads that we’re no longer protected from the humiliations that we once would have simply visited upon others. When we insist upon low, low prices and 24-hour-automated service and free overnight delivery, we can’t be surprised when the plague of low wages and job insecurity eventually arrives at our household as well.

But the other half of that story can’t be surprising to anyone, and we can’t imagine that it’s bad news at all. More than half of all adults work in a field other than the one they majored in at college. Could we expect anything other? And what a tragedy it would be if we all set our course at the age of 18 and 19 and never, ever deviated from it! I did not have the same enthusiasms and the same sense of mission when I was a kid that I do now. I was smart and obedient, I did what people told me to do, and they gave me a pat on the head and a nice grade. I have indeed grown into my adult life, and thank god for that.

That’s been my favorite version of college all along, the one that sets riches at our feet and kind, intelligent adults to show us their wonders, and lets us fall in love with something we might never have expected. I thought I was going to be an architect, but I discovered architectural and landscape history, and then in my very last semester, took a course in journalism where we learned something about the craft of writing criticism. Those five courses set my career, not all the studio design courses or building technology courses or visual design/graphics courses. I never practiced the career that my major “prepared me for,” because I could discover the right path only by walking the path.

I was talking with a wise friend the other day, and I was talking about the ways in which suffering had prepared me to help alleviate suffering. I said that there was a way in which my history of traumas had become a tool that I could employ on behalf of others. And he said, “Does it have to be a tool? Can it be a toy?”

What an interesting idea, that something can be freed from our perpetual Puritan drive to productivity and can simply be playful. And as I mused on that, I realized that to play requires safety. We can’t play when we’re afraid, we can’t play when we’re being judged (or judging ourselves as a proxy for all the judgments we’ve internalized). We can only play when we feel safe, unselfconscious.

College can be that place of safety, the place where we can wander through the garden of intellect and choose the particular fruits that appeal to us. Where it’s okay to taste a plant and say, “Yuck! Never gonna eat THAT again!” Where we try on the enthusiasms of our friends to see how they fit us, and share our own with them as well, the roles of teacher and student becoming blurred and indistinct.

But we’ve engineered a version of college that can never, ever be that toy. That can only ever be a tool, employed for survival or defense against penury. That fear-filled way of thinking is imbedded in this Bloomberg article, and in the college model that it recognizes and upholds. That way of thinking is native to most non-college families who send their kids to college thinking that it’s a “leg up,” a “safety net,” a “first step,” a “foot in the door,” a “career path,” any of a hundred metaphors that make it clear that college is not a toy! How could college be a toy, when so many families are at the edge of danger even with decent jobs? How could college be a toy, when every commentator around us is shrieking be afraid be afraid be afraid?

We have built a fear-filled economics, and that economics has robbed college of its possibilities except for that handful of well-to-do families whose kids will always land on their feet no matter what. We hobble curiosity in favor of knowledge far too early, and leave ourselves to merely work.

Paired Test

It seems like A OUGHT to be like B…

Nora and I were at an event this weekend at the Bennington Museum, to celebrate friends who’d been important parts of that museum community as volunteers and donors. I’d never been to that museum before, so between snacks and drinks, I took a few minutes to see the exhibitions. And one of them, called Parks and Recreation, was interesting for several reasons, one of which was that I learned the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the clearing of ski trails for many of Vermont’s most popular resorts. Vast numbers of unemployed young men worked through the Depression to build roads, parks, fire safety infrastructure. To do the coarse work of clearing and grading land to make a road, and also to do the finer work of building benches, signs, cabins.

Vermont, like most of rural America, had been hit pretty hard by the Depression. And it was Federal funding that saved it… projects that were later monetized by venture capital and turned into private wealth.

We don’t often think about how much wealth has been appropriated through gaining private control over things that the public has paid for. Empires have been built on the back of Federally-subsidized railroads, and Federally-owned interstate highways. From Federally-built dams and power projects to the technological miracles of the Internet and GPS, our history is littered with men who were given a vast gift and then said “look upon what I have made!” Given our various panics over the last century, it’s a nice paradox that we now see that the native end state of capitalism is Russia, where a few dozen men own everything.

When you get to the top, don’t say we never did anything nice for you.

I raised this question in passing at one of my last live events, back in February 2020, but it’s bugging me more thoroughly today, so I’m going to place it upon you with more detail than I did before. You’re welcome.

Condition A: a moderately sized private college. (I have one in mind, but why embarrass anyone?) Annual budget: $350 million. Number of employees: 1,500. Number of constituents served: 3,000. President’s salary: $560,000, plus loads of travel money and an on-campus house, in a job that lasts as long as the Board of Trustees are happy—seven years and counting for the current occupant, ten to twenty years in historical average.

Condition B: a moderately sized city. (Okay: Burlington, Vermont.) Annual budget: about $100 million, a third of the college’s budget, and that includes running its own major police, fire, road, and airport divisions. Number of employees: 2,900, about double the college (on a third of the budget). Number of constituents served: 43,000. Mayor’s salary: $115,000, and he pays his own mortgage, and has to convince the majority of the community every three years that he should keep his job—not merely a board of a couple dozen people, but all of the adult residents, thirty thousand or more.

So explain to me again about the efficiencies of capitalism? Explain to me again about overpaid public servants feeding at the public trough? Explain to me why being the mayor of Vermont’s largest city, an enormously complex job answerable to a diverse population of over forty thousand, in the face of a vigorous independent media and an organized opposition party, should pay a fifth of the wage of a president of a comfy, well-to-do college serving three thousand children of privilege? I know absolutely and without a doubt which one of those two is harder and more complex work.

Explain to me why Jeff Bezos personally, individually made over five billion dollars last year, and fifty billion the year before. Yes, he’s smart. Yes, his business is successful, and profitable. But from the point of view of both the consumer and the worker, profit = tax. It’s as simple as that.

Actually, profit is worse than tax, because it’s a surcharge that doesn’t benefit either the consumer or the community in any way at all. It doesn’t get turned into public roads or parks, it doesn’t get turned into electrification projects or schools or bridges. Every dime that gets sucked out of a transaction and kept by the ownership is a tribute tax. It doesn’t benefit the actual worker or organization who provides the service, nor does it benefit the customer who uses the service. It’s just the emperor’s cut. Money is the only thing in the world that flows uphill.

There is no reason why the president of a major research university should make more than that state’s governor. (Don’t even start on college football and basketball coaches…) There is no reason why the president of a small state college or a private liberal arts college should make more more than the mayor of the city that hosts them. There is no reason why a CEO of anything should make more than a couple hundred dollars an hour. Think about that—think about you, personally, making $250 an hour. That’d be unimaginably fantastic, right? Now multiply that ridiculous sum by TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND and you’ve approaching the growth in Elon Musk’s net worth last year. That’s not the worth of work, that’s just a tribute to the emperor. We’ve just stopped paying attention to numbers and their meaning, and have invested ourselves fully in habit and mythology.