Over the past year, law and medicine have been characterized as the “falling down professions“–losing both status and economic clout to “masters of the universe” in CEO suites and Wall Street offices. We now better understand some of the sources of those Wall Street profits. But as doctors and lawyers in training lament their plights on message boards, I’m struck by the curiously non-ideological nature of their complaints. Most appear to believe themselves afflicted by economic forces as natural and unavoidable as a tsunami–when in fact it’s political decisions that have led us to where we are.
Whatever complaints the young lawyer or doctor has today, they must be contextualized in a larger economy. As Nan Mooney’s new book (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class argues, most young professionals today feel more financially pressed than their boomer parents. Basic costs of health, education, and housing have skyrocketed. In the health arena, politicians are adopting policies that allow more and more of the costs of health care to be shifted from the government and employers to individuals. Alan Greenspan disastrously inflated the housing market, and anyone in a big urban area on the coast is caught up in the uncertainty of wondering whether an inflation-fearing Fed will shock prices back to normal or if “Helicopter Ben” Bernanke will keep the easy money flowing.
I could go on and on, but just look at the recent spate of books on new middle class anxiety:
*Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap.
*Jared Bernstein, Crunch.
*Steven Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze.
*Peter Gosselin, High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families.
*Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch.
*Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift.
Each of these authors examines particular political and legal decisions to shift risk from government and business and onto individuals. So those who feel economically insecure today shouldn’t think their worries are the bane of a particular profession or region, or the inevitable result of global economic change that could be remedied if they could just get a bit more education. And a final note for practicing attorneys: it would be quite surprising if an ideological movement to shut the courthouse door to the injured failed to threaten your livelihood. Just as primary care doctors should not be surprised if their incomes suffer in the face of extraordinary efforts by the federal government to avoid spending money to help those entitled by law to care.