A very old friend writes to send me a job listing he’s come upon, director of communications for the Columbia University School of the Arts. It so happens I attended that school; and I’ve served as a director of communications for two universities in the past. So this is sensible and generous of him to do. I write back:
Thanks for this. I can’t do this kind of work now, I can’t make the high squeaky noises anymore nor feign the belief that it isn’t a waste of time and resources, i.e., total bullshit. But you were right, it’s exactly in my range of experience on paper and thank you for thinking of me. You’ll know what I mean when you’re turning 58, just biding your time until you’re on Soc Sec and buying cat food for your supper….. or the like. (I actually never understood the cat food trope with the elderly since there are eggs and beans to be had cheap. Plus you’re all decrepit and shit and so you can’t open the cans anymore anyway).
Were you here in the East for Thanksgiving? I hear from the lads that a great time was had down at A—–‘s. I hope you and yours are well.
This friend is in his mid-40s with two kids and he’s out of work: he left a career in one devastated field, journalism, and went to law school. While he was there the law, once a step ladder for many into lives of modest prosperity, became another devastated field. Another culling of the herd of the upper middle classes. He replies:
Ha ha. I’m in NYC doing a temporary doc review project. It’s wrapping up, so I’m on hiatus. A—– was a terrific host. Your kids have so much musical talent. I cannot get over how beautifully and quickly P— has learned to be a finger-pickin’ maestro. We brought a bunch of instruments and had fun.
BTW – I’m not even eligible for that job that I contacted you about because a credit check revealed – surprise, after three years of law school! – that my debt-to-income ratio is too high. Go figure. If I had a job, of course, then that wouldn’t be such an issue….
This last bit of news, him being classified ineligible for a job because his debt is high, when, if he got the job, he could and would lower it, set me off. It harmonized with stuff I’d been thinking about obsessively anyway. (For a long, long time, actually: see http://harpers.org/archive/1998/08/wholl-stop-the-drain-reflections-on-the-art-of-going-broke/ ) And it struck me as so plainly an aspect of American life that we no longer have the power to cure, not in my lifetime anyway, that as usually I got angry. At my keyboard. Here’s what I wrote back.
Your debt is high not merely because of your own circumstances but in a larger sense because of the longstanding policies of the same government that won’t hire you because your debt is too high. There is no way to hold down wages as long as we have, and grow as much as we have in terms of consumer spending, without making available a LOT of easy credit. To the point where you’re paying two percent a month to be alive. And now the credit check is the great arbiter of everything — whether you can have a job, get an apartment, etc. Of course it’s an instrument of exclusion and a further wedge between a small portion of the population and the roiling — nay, inert — masses. A complete system that you can’t escape and that is designed to fuck you over.
This is the kind of shit I heard about and read about when I was a kid — about the Soviet Union, about Germany before that, other places — the systematic and never-resistible disempowerment of the individual, a wearing down of one’s ability and will to fight back or even to feel autonomous as a human being, with full agency, or even partially immune to the mechanisms of power. You can’t fight it of course because such would be like fighting with a sheet blowing in a high wind and then another and then another, the wind never relenting, the sheets never running out. The rise of the relentless modern bureaucracy. Kafka predicted it beautifully.
It occurred to me today that there are essentially three classes of people in the US now: in the bulky middle are those who spend a spirit-crushing amount of time calling their insurance companies, their banks, their credit card companies, their children’s schools, the local officials, the state officials, federal offices, trying to straighten out endless problems, unjust late fees uncredited payments refusals of coverage the discovery that some privilege you know you’d paid for and been told you were paying for now, inexplicably, you are not eligible for — a constant grinding down of your skull by a system of automated directories and inapplicable instructions, phone limbo, shit you realize that the website, after it runs you in a circle a couple of times, doesn’t even hint at how to deal with. How could you possibly feel like a full agent of your own life in such circumstances? Every move against the bureaucracy is a reminder that you have no power. You know, for a fact, that this never happens to the senior executives of Halliburton or Raytheon or to any of the partners at Goldman Sachs. But who exactly you’d call to make sure it never happens to you is a mystery whose power goes if possible beyond even the power of religion. And that is the class above you, a priestly class, essentially: shamans of wealth. Below you are the desperately poor indeed. They’re up against social welfare offices and the judicial systems, the departments of housing and health and education, they’re not fighting with PayPal or Chase but to keep their children fed and out of jail, housed if God is good, and forget educated. And you know very well that as rarely as you are able to solve a problem with your goddamned health insurance company, they, in fact never win, ever. They are the TF’s, for Totally Fucked.
Anyway, there — I’m happy to get all THAT out of my system (and, okay, into yours). I’m so glad about Thanksgiving. Your [late] mother’s great gift, passed down through her children to her grandchildren, is that capacity for joy, especially in the presence of music. Nobody in my world ever had that and I often feel the lack…. Funny about P—. As a kid he had the least interest in his music lessons, getting him to do anything was like taking a whale for a walk in the park, but somehow over the last few years he’s turned into the most dedicated musician — or musical performer anyway, since J— composes a lot — of them all. I gave him the banjo you know (he bragged, stupidly). Got it offa eBay.