It sometimes seems like historians should be the first to provide some perspective when something in our lives seems to be going downhill. Like many readers, I felt that sense when reading a recent New York Times article about changes in the experience of psychiatrists and their patients. The professionals interviewed clearly feel regret and loss about changes to the nature of their work, and I suspect their patients might feel the same, if they had any sense at all that things used to be different. But it’s hard to think about how to explain a change that has so many moving parts.
Sometimes people are simply wrong about a change like this, and what they think is worse is unquestionably better. Sometimes when the world around us changes, it’s neither better nor worse, just different. Still, sometimes things really do get worse by any standard. I don’t think there’s anyone over the age of forty who thinks that airplane travel today is generally a more pleasant experience than it was thirty or more years ago. Maybe planes fly a few more places than they once did, or fly more often, maybe the relative cost of a few fares is lower than it once was, but that’s about it. This change, however, is not altogether that hard to understand. The cost of fuel, the consequences of deregulation, and a business model where the pursuit of profit margins has so far done nothing that could erode the inflexible need of a large subset of customers for air travel.
The mysterious cases are the ones that trouble us because they frequently involve no obvious or easily targeted villains, no apparent solutions, and the terrifying sensation of being on a very unfun version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, only one with no madcap amusement value at all. The case of changes in clinical psychology described by the Times, however nuanced we might make it by adding in more details or complications, is one of those baffling instances where what we now do is very obviously worse than what we used to do. We could start listing the reasons why it’s happened. The intensification of profit-seeking in medical treatment both by the medical and insurance industry and among individual practicioners, the power of the pharmaceutical industry, the loss of professional autonomy by many psychologists, the complex failures of many past non-pharmaceutical therapies, an increasing number of patients pursuing treatment for mental health issues, and the widening income gap leading to fewer middle-class patients who can afford anything but highly standardized care are explanations that leap to mind. None of them would be easy to reverse through policy or organized social pressure.
The feeling of bafflement in the end comes from something more elemental. Only thirty years ago, psychologists could see and come to know a good deal about their patients from sessions lasting for an hour or more then at prices that many middle-class patients could afford. Are we so much poorer a society now, so that it is obvious that this is absurdly lavish, impractical, or implausible, a snapshot from a vanished golden age? Despite recession and war, that degree of loss and failure doesn’t seem to leap out at us at every moment.
Paul Krugman’s March 6th column on education underlined a similarly disorienting moment. Krugman’s argument is that most college education is rapidly losing value because most of those educations trained a white-collar middle-class to do modestly skilled but repetitive forms of clerical work that can now be done much more cheaply either directly by computers or by using information technology to subcontract such work to similarly trained workers outside the United States. Whatever you think of Krugman’s argument that the decline of the union movement is the key explanation for this transformation, I think the basic observation is fairly accurate. Maybe one thing this shift tells us is that those jobs were always a profound misuse of human capital. On the other hand, I’m as optimistic as anyone that there are new professional niches and functions waiting for the properly educated college graduates of the future but even I don’t really have an idea of how those niches could possibly support a white-collar middle-class the size of what we had thirty years ago. Without some kind of far broader commitment to restock the economic and social middle of the income distribution and to pinch back the tails, there’s nothing that even the best-designed system of higher learning can do to make headway. Again, it just feels like life is worse and it’s not clear why it must be so.
The number and density of feelings of this kind in my life lately has a lot to do with why I found President Obama’s “Win the Future” slogan to be one of the more repellant political visions of the past three decades. I wish it were merely an empty marketing slogan. I wish it were merely a cynical toss-off. I wish it were merely as silly and irrelevant as “Whip Inflation Now”. But it’s not. “Win the Future” is the central credo of the people who are steadily losing us any hope of a future that improves upon the past. It is the slogan of misdirection and humbug, a motto whose best translation is, “Nothing up my sleeves, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.
Behind the slogan was the 21st Century version of dark satanic mills: we must be ever more dire and invasive in the way we ratchet competitive pressures into education and work, ever more aggressive in how we extract productivity at every stage of social and economic life. The speed setting on the treadmill must go up each week without fail. The usual range of boogeymen was trotted out: in China they are prepared to eat their own young, so we must as well! In India they chain their elementary-school students to a slave barge fueled by the study of calculus and SQL, and so must we!
“Win the Future” is about re-imagining human life as the worst massively-multiplayer online game ever designed, an endless boss raid without a poopsock in sight, perpetually amassing the gearscore necessary to take on the next boss, the next expansion pack, always having to outdo the other l33t guilds by surrendering ever vestige of a life which might be about something other than the game, and never a moment to rest, never a sense of real progression.
Where’s the vision of an easier, better, more satisfying life? A richer life in both material comfort and leisure time? A more satisfying spiritual life, or a life more fulfilled by intimacy in family, community or love? A life which progresses us towards freedom or discovery or truth? Towards new technologies whose deliverables are something other than, “Work hard to make more technologies after this technology!” A future based on reflection or wisdom or understanding? Anything besides, “Those guys over there are coming to eat your lunch, better get your nose to the grindstone!”
I’m the first to see the folly and sometimes serious danger of past projects to envision and create better futures. But the very worst feeling of all that I have of being delivered into a present which is mysteriously so much worse than the memorable past is the hollow misery that comfortably lounges inside “Win the Future”.