Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Economies of Helplessness

Economies of Helplessness
One of the legacies of the Woodstock generation, my generation, was the development, and unchecked extension, of powerful economies of helplessness. Helplessness directly finances a tremendous number of private businesses and government jobs. Helplessness pays billions of dollars of wages and taxes, and has become a significant component of the American GDP, as well as the GDP of India and other nations to whom our helplessness is outsourced. Most significant is that American economies of helplessness are expanding and unlikely to slow anytime soon.

It is a truism that American industry is no longer as deeply rooted in manufacturing as it once was. We are no longer the dominant producers of steel, automobiles, televisions or even computers. Our economy, as a consequence of the shift away from manufacturing, has become ever more dependent on service providers. But the services we have begun to specialize in are best described as soft services in distinction to hard services. Hard services are those that depend on extensive education in fields including mathematics, biology, chemistry and engineering -- those typically described as hard sciences. But as we lose international market share in manufacturing we also seem to be losing international dominance in the empirical sciences that created the hypotheses that led to the stunning technological advances that originated in America. We may have invented the computers and the programs, but most of both are now produced in other countries. Hard Science education is falling to Social Science education in America. Hard services are being surpassed by soft services, social services. Where my students once aspired to become scientists and doctors, they now aspire to become psychologists and social workers. And the nations that are moving to dominate world manufacturing are also rapidly outstripping us in hard-science based services, leaving us to make the most of our helplessness.

The American soft service industry has continued to flourish by growing services uniquely applicable in America and Europe. These services include those of a myriad of consulting firms run out of America’s largest accounting companies. For the most part corporate consultants use interviews, questionnaires, a smidgen of statistics and applied math. Based on this far-from-rigorous data, consultants then make the recommendations that corporate boards need to justify their decisions. In a word, it is common for corporate boards to look to the equivalent of tea-leaf readers and pseudo-scientists to justify their decisions, and thereby protect themselves legally if things go awry. Other soft services include, but are certainly not limited to family lawyers, psychological evaluators, tax consultants, social workers and realtors. As a consequence, enormous pockets of the American economy depend on wage earners and service providers who profit from the confusion, harm and hardship created by the very society that now depends on these soft services for our growing helplessness. Simpler tax code? Not a chance. Our very economy and that of many Indian communities who do hundreds of thousands of American tax returns annually depend on our maintaining our absurdly complex tax code: a tax code that assures our helplessness and the continuation of the soft services that unnecessary complexity requires.

The divorce and child-custody industry, which began to boom in the late 1960’s, is perhaps the clearest example of the progress economies of helplessness have made in the financing of America and now Europe as well. For example, we need marriage counselors to help us determine when to divorce. We then need lawyers to protect us from divorce or to initiate unilateral divorce. We need home evaluators and psychologists to help us with our child-custody disputes, and their pseudo-scientific diagnoses and arbitrary therapies are demanded by judges who have deemed themselves helpless to make legal decisions without the soft services of these consultants. Divorce and child custody has thus become one of America's most important growth industries. Imagine how many people make their living in this perverse trade: child psychologists, accountants, tax consultants, lawyers, mediators, evaluators, judges, jailers, social workers, IKEA! Our GDP would conceivably plummet if people suddenly felt a genuine incentive to raise their children in two parent homes with an authentic commitment to family and community. No one would be able to buy bling, not even the ex-wives of mobsters. God forbid.

Consumers, of course, have always had needs that service industries have filled, but within economies of helplessness we feel ourselves needy in ways never before experienced. Consumers have always purchased the services of highly trained experts for specialized information, procedures, and education, but within an economy of helplessness, we somehow, fundamentally, need more than expert advice in order to resolve our difficulties independently. We now need therapy: physical therapy, legal therapy, psychological therapy, family therapy, marriage therapy, financial therapy, divorce therapy, social therapy, credit therapy, abuse therapy, religious therapy. Few individual problems can be resolved without “professional partnering.” Economies of helplessness have transformed consumers of services by transforming the variety of help consumed: it is now help needed rather than help wanted. Economies of helplessness require consumers who are unable to make the most personal decisions alone. These are consumers who are unable to resolve the difficulties of their family lives without marriage counselors, family therapists, lawyers, mediators, evaluators, sheriffs and judges. Economies of helpless also depend on the creation of laws that mandate the consumption of services of providers of arbitrary yet specialized information. Economies of helplessness require government-certified, allegedly trustworthy, professional help-providers. All of these professionals, from home evaluators to divorce mediators to child psychologists are state certified, state mandated, and court appointed. This transformation of services to repair specific ailments into therapies to help us navigate our personal ”issues” is the new twist, a post-hippy, neo-romantic perversity. With the advent of computer chips even our cars now need a diagnosis by trained and state certified professionals before they can be repaired. Even our automobiles need licensed therapists.

Within economies of helplessness consumers do not pursue services in order to resolve the problems consumers independently discover. Rather, consumers pursue services to resolve the problems legions of soft professional helpers have convinced them they need to solve. “Something is wrong with my marriage,” we say to our lawyers, our consultants, our psychologists, our religionists. “Tell us what it is. …What is wrong with me, with him, with her, I do not know. Tell me if I am doing well, I do not know.” We are helpless to determine with any confidence at all what we even need. Only the magical expert can quantify this soft science of neediness. In fact, our extraordinary contemporary willingness, unflinchingly, to hire corporations of specialists, consultants and therapists to provide us with services designed to help us with our myriad personal and social problems, imagined and real, over time, will likely become the greatest engine of economic growth in America.

With manufacturing waning, there is big money to be made in misery, and equally big incentives for us to remain miserable. Depression is gold; despair, the glittering diamond of economies of helplessness. Consumers who are helpless to remedy their despair will spend virtually unlimited energy and money to remediate their perceived helplessness. Extraordinary amounts of tax dollars are spent to provide social-service therapies for the impoverished helpless until they can afford to purchase these therapies on their own. In turn, the industries that illuminate and remediate consumers’ perceived helplessness thrive. College freshmen, most of whom have personal experience with psychotherapy, flock to major in psychology but shun chemistry, mathematics and computer sciences. And perhaps the most sinister aspect of economies of helplessness is the creation of helplessness itself. Vast segments of our society will never learn what a mathematical equation is but will certainly be taught the meaning of “self-defeating behavior” or “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

There is an explosion of new academic degrees blossoming across American campuses based on securing, in perpetuity, the economics of helplessness. Few are the universities that have not recently added an advanced degree in some variety of social service especially designed to serve some newly identified group of helpless consumers. Serving, promoting, and maintaining helplessness are booming growth industries that are loath to teach the hard skills that lead to personal reliance and the reduction of helplessness. Students who learn to create durable products are unlikely to become helpless. Students whose skills lead to the advancement of the manufacturing of some material good or whose education teaches them to provide a hard service linked to material goods will not likely need social workers to help them navigate their helplessness. Economies of helplessness therefore depend on the perpetuation of helplessness, and a decided resistance to the rigorous sorts of education that ignited the now blazing Asian economies.

In America and Europe the divorce industry, is the quintessential example of the creation of helplessness through the careful construction of dangerous webs of law and pseudo-science. The divorce industry is a socially constructed quagmire that guarantees generations of helplessness and neediness for legions of social workers.

Until we are willing to pursue -- as a nation -- our place as that premier economic power rooted in imagining, developing and producing the material goods that create tangible well being, we become continually more dependent on our helplessness to drive our economy. Until we are willing reclaim morality from the therapists, child rearing by families will continue to disappear, replaced by an ever growing industry of family helplessness. Helplessness pays much of the taxes to pave our roads and supply our schools with the literature that continues to reinforce the notion that we are all in need of some sort of therapy. Perhaps we should resist the ease of helplessness and make things as well as learn things that are materially helpful. Perhaps we should love our families and teach our children how to effectively engage the material world. Perhaps we should spend more effort growing economies of helpfulness instead of helplessness. The unemployed need therapy vastly more than the well employed, and perhaps therein is the lesson.


Anonymous stam said...

America had its turn dominating the world. Let it go. Trying to hold on will create needless hurt. For America, its time of decadence and reflection - read your history books. Know thyself is still the key quest. Sure the attempts at reflection in the form of social sciences are rather clumsy, but be kind. Smile at the toddler.

From the purely economic perspective: Americans are doing all kinds of things that were never done before, creating new jobs, organizations and relationships - don't you think it makes sense to devote some people to observation and perfection of the new practices?

P.S. Move your posts up, they are easy to miss :)

3:13 PM  

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