Noam Scheiber

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Noam Scheiber, who emerged from the TNR apocalypse to work the Labor beat for the New York Times, has published a piece that argues the Uberization of the economy occurred decades before Uber and ridesharing and smartphones and the whole thing. We were on a piece-work trajectory for decades, with efficiency experts and management gurus urging leaner missions for corporations. Makes sense since the middle class began its faceplant in the 1970s, a dive which may only get worse. An excerpt:

David Weil, who runs the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Labor Department, describes in his recent book, The Fissured Workplace, how investors and management gurus began insisting that companies pare down and focus on what came to be known as their “core competencies,” like developing new goods and services and marketing them.

Far-flung business units were sold off. Many other activities — beginning with human resources and then spreading to customer service and information technology — could be outsourced. The corporate headquarters would coordinate among the outsourced workers and monitor their performance.

Cost was unquestionably an advantage of the new approach: Workers were typically cheaper when off the corporate payroll than on it, and the arrangement allowed a company to staff up as needed rather than employ a full complement of workers at all times.

But simply cutting costs wasn’t the primary motivation. The real advantage was to enable the organization to focus on what it did best rather than distract itself with tasks for which it had little expertise and which were not especially profitable.

Since the early 1990s, as technology has made it far easier for companies to outsource work, that trend has evolved beyond what anyone imagined: Companies began to see themselves as thin, Uber-like slivers standing between customers on one side and their work forces on the other.•

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I’m really going to enjoy the Buckwild Obama of the last two years of his Administration. The President has always been playing the long game, and though some announced his Presidency as “over” even before the Democratic losses in the recent mid-terms, he’s continued moving forward with his policies and now really has no reason to listen to the shouting people on the TV box. With immigration reform, he’s also put his opponents on their heels. From Noam Schrieber at The New Republic:

“Intellectually, of course, conservatives understand the importance of sticking to procedural objections even here. They can read polls as well as the rest of us. And the polls say that while Americans overwhelmingly favor the substance of Obama’s preferred immigration reforms, they also oppose enacting the reform by way of executive fiat.

No surprise then that the conservative message machine has gone on at length about the ‘constitutional crisis’ the president is instigating. The right has compared Obama to a monarch (see here and here), a Latin American caudillo, even a conspirator against the Roman Republic. (Ever melodrama much?) The rhetoric gets a little thick. But if you boil it down, the critique is mostly about Obama’s usurpation of power and contempt for democratic norms, not the substance of his policy change. Some Republicans no doubt believe it. 

And yet, try as they might to stick to the script, there’s something about dark-skinned foreigners that sends the conservative id into overdrive. Most famously, there’s Iowa Congressman Steve King’s observation last year that for every child brought into the country illegally ‘who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.’

While King tends to be especially vivid in his lunacy, he’s no outlier.”

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The Bay Area, home of Moneyball, seems to have created a market inefficiency waiting to be exploited: tech workers who’ve reached their thirtieth birthdays. A strong bias in favor of not just young employees but very young ones, a culture with values akin to Logan’s Run, has left talented people fearing their first wrinkle or gray hair. Where will these “olds” go? The opening of Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article “The Brutal Ageism of Tech“:

“I have more botox in me than any ten people,’ Dr. Seth Matarasso told me in an exam room this February.

He is a reality-show producer’s idea of a cosmetic surgeon—his demeanor brash, his bone structure preposterous. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, he would periodically fire questions at me, apropos of nothing, in the manner of my young daughter. ‘What gym do you go to?’ ‘What’s your back look like?’ ‘Who did your nose?’ In lieu of bidding me goodbye, he called out, ‘Love me, mean it,’ as he walked away.

Twenty years ago, when Matarasso first opened shop in San Francisco, he found that he was mostly helping patients in late middle age: former homecoming queens, spouses who’d been cheated on, spouses looking to cheat. Today, his practice is far larger and more lucrative than he could have ever imagined. He sees clients across a range of ages. He says he’s the world’s second-biggest dispenser of Botox. But this growth has nothing to do with his endearingly nebbishy mien. It is, rather, the result of a cultural revolution that has taken place all around him in the Bay Area.

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. ‘Young people are just smarter,’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its ‘careers’ page: ‘We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.’

And that’s just what gets said in public.”


“There’s just one catch…”:

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Noam Scheiber of the New Republic just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit about his recent article which predicts the collapse of Big Law. A couple of exchanges follow.



Why do you think the business model is collapsing? 

How can you show that the current biglaw downturn is not just the product of a big recession that will subside? 

Why do you think that corporations will pay less for legal services in the future in a systematic way? 

Noam Scheiber:

I think the business model is collapsing because of increased transparency in billing/pricing. Corporations are able to see what they’re paying for in more detail than ever before when it comes to legal services, and they don’t love what they’re seeing. Increasingly over the past decade or so, but especially since the recession, they’re simply refusing to go along with it. The best example is paying $300 an hour for the continued legal education of a first or second year associate who just doesn’t know anything. That is a dying institution. It’s of course possible that the current downturn is a product of the recession, but certain numbers suggest otherwise. According to NALP, the percentage of law grads who find a job where bar admission is required within 9 months is at its lowest ever – significantly lower than it was midway through the recession.



Is the collapse of the biglaw model generally good, bad, or neutral for society as a whole?

Noam Scheiber:

From a purely economic perspective, it’s probably a good thing. it was economically inefficient – because of the irrationalities in the system, lawyers and big law firms were paid more than they could justify, output wise. which attracted to many smart, productive people into the legal profession and siphoned them away from other professions, where it would have been more efficient to deploy them. on the other hand, as i note in the piece, the beauty of the big law model was that it served as a psychological safety night for generations of college grads. you could go off and try your true passion, knowing that a respectable upper-middle class existence awaited you via law school if things didn’t work out. the loss of that safety net is a bit of a bummer. but it’s hard to say it justified the bigger economic distortion.


Gerrymandering has begotten obstructionism, as the GOP, despite being really out of step with the American mainstream, has maintained a grip on Congress and slowed governance to a crawl for several years. But a Republican Party that wrests control through process rather than popularity may be further imperiling itself since it can’t be chastened and reborn. From “House of Pain,” Noam Scheiber’s insightful New Republic article:

Suffice it to say, gay marriage is hardly the only issue on which House Republicans have managed to position themselves on the dicey side of public opinion. Their insistence on letting the government default on its debt unless the president accepted trillions in Medicare and Medicaid cuts drove their approval ratings to subterranean depths in the summer of 2011. Their refusal to deliver on $60 billion in aid for Hurricane Sandy victims earlier this year drew a rebuke from Chris Christie, one of the GOP’s biggest celebrities. Recently, as immigration reform has moved to the center of the Washington conversation, they’ve demonstrated their sympathy for the little guy by employing such terms of endearment as “wetbacks” while alternately describing immigrants as dogs, livestock, and terrorists. (Okay, those last three all came from Iowa Republican Steve King. Still…)

What explains the PR pileup that GOP elders can’t seem to clear to the side of the road? Partly it’s the structural forces at work in American politics, which have reorganized the two parties along ideological lines at the same time the GOP has become much more conservative. But the more direct and mundane explanation is gerrymandering. Thanks to the way Republican legislatures drew congressional districts in 2000, the median House district leaned Republican by two points over the next decade—a big edge given the tiny margins that frequently decide competitive races. Since 2010, the built-in advantage has grown to three points. The result of all this gerrymandering is to give the Republicans a death grip on the House. In 2012, they won 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in all the House districts combined, but still managed a 33-seat majority.

There’s no question this hold on the House is a huge short-term advantage for the GOP, giving it the power to thwart a Democratic president even when his agenda has widespread support. (Look no further than the ongoing budget negotiations, in which the president’s preference for trimming the deficit through spending cuts and tax increases far outpolls the GOP’s cuts-only approach.) But the flip side of being so insulated from public opinion is, well, being so insulated from public opinion. Thanks to the relative safety of their seats, most Republican House members feel no particular need to adjust to the political trends that have enormous consequences for anyone who isn’t running in a gerrymandered district—like, say, the party’s presidential nominee. It’s killing the GOP nationally.”