Many years ago my old friend’s father, a practical and even in some ways heroic man, caught me in a vestibule we were both passing through and told me something I will never forget. He congratulated me on my (misguided in hindsight) decision to become a lawyer. He told me he thought it was terrific that I was finally going to use my intelligence to its fullest. He encouraged me, telling me I’d be a great lawyer. Then he cautioned me with words that will live as long as I do: “One thing; don’t be a poor lawyer. Don’t let your ideals stand in the way of making a good living.”
My friend later described the kind of lawyers his father had in mind. These were sour-faced men in worn sports jackets, men who drank in the morning on their way to the dingiest agencies and hearing rooms in the world, doing the work that respectable lawyers would not touch. These were the kind of lawyer I indeed became, standing in the cracked shoes of the underdog, except that I never drank much, especially when making my way to these dungeon-like rooms where bureaucracies ground life into bad-smelling dust.
My father encouraged me to go to law school, even gave me most of my living expenses while I was reading an endless stream of cases, researching and writing a huge, unwieldy tome on the betrayal of 1877 and the ninety year sleep of the Civil War Amendments that I’d hoped to publish in the scholarly journal I was editor of. The law school tuition, however, was up to me, and so I took a loan and incurred the kind of debt I had avoided all my life. This is the kind of endless debt that crushes perhaps millions of young graduates, though I was forty when I graduated law school.
Had I not become a poor lawyer it would not have been very crushing to me. The amount I borrowed seemed manageable (before the interest on the long repayment plan kicked in) and the plan was to dispose of the debt in a few years. That plan didn’t work out. I am not crushed by the debt for my law school loan, but I’m angry every time I think about how I locked in the historic low 3.85% interest on the loan and watched the interest my bank pays go from 3% to 2.85% to 2.70% and all the way down below 1% now. This happened while the greediest and least ethical among us dragged the economy into the toilet bowl for their own obscenely large profits. In the years since, they and the rest of the richest 1% made 95% of the economic gains in the years that followed. (FN1) In terms of paying the mortgage on a house full of snakes and scorpions that I will never live in, I am better off than many.
That being said, the outrage of the interest government loans to college students being several times what banks pay in interest burns me every time I think about. The government, who owns the debts, could easily cut the rate in half, or tie it to the rate banks pay, or to the prime rate, or the rate of inflation. But nobody is going to do much about it, either; when you screw a class of powerless people there’s rarely any kind of accounting that needs to be made.
I am now self-employed, CEO of a phantom non-profit whose goal is to get into the worst schools in NYC and demonstrate how much creativity and expression there is in the doomed children in those schools. To shine a light on the true capabilities and aspirations of these children of the poor.
Most businesses, I understand now, get seed money for operating expenses before they begin. It is kind of a basic business principle, even in the world of charity: you figure out how to put your own oxygen mask on before helping the kid next to you into his mask. Most businesses also sell a product much more tangible, and easier to put a price on, than the one I am selling. No matter how much I understand, value and cherish the product.
When picking sides, and I will try to remember this in my next life, there is a side that wins and another side that loses. “Slaughter sides!”, as the kids protest when all the best players wind up on one team and the uncoordinated and slow moving kids are on the other. The best player on the team that’s about to be slaughtered usually calls out “slaughter sides!” and a few of his teammates join in, as the team about to do the slaughtering shrugs it off and walks to the other side of the field, smiling good-naturedly. Then the game begins, if we can call slaughter a game.
And of course, slaughter is a game, as old as life itself. If you align yourself with the team who is about to be mashed, you’d better have your philosophy in order. Rationales are one thing, and we tell ourselves many stories, some completely absurd, to justify our actions and get through the day. But a nourishing philosophy based on deeply held values must be called upon to sustain you if you play for the team that is fated to be destroyed. A constant challenge, but one must do it when playing for the losers. The only alternative is despair.
ROBERT REICH: Yes. Since the film, actually we put the film together, there are new results that came out just within the last week or so show that in the year 2012 inequality reached a new peak in the United States. The previous peak, we thought was the peak, that is 2007 actually has been superseded by this new peak of inequality, concentrated income in 2012 that almost all the gains of economic growth have been going to a very small number of people at the very top.
BILL MOYERS: The figures are so startling, I had to shake my head in disbelief when I first saw them, showing that in the first three years of the recovery from the recession brought on by the financial collapse in 2008, the top one percent of Americans took home 95 percent of the income gains. Ninety-five percent?