Friday, May 02, 2008

Hanging on in quiet desperation

I've just done what they say nobody does, which is watch an hour-long clip on the web. It's a lecture given recently by Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor, about "the coming collapse of the middle class".

There are two reasons to watch it: she's a brilliant lecturer who, as far as I can see, is working without notes and just talking over a few Powerpoint slides. More importantly, her argument is a powerful one studded with lots of surprising details that you're tempted to introduce into dinner party conversation immediately. She sets a number of questions and then, on the basis of a study that compares the American family today to its predecessor thirty years ago, answers them. Does the average family spend more or less on clothes, food and appliances? How do hospitals become more efficient? Is it by curing the sick or sending them home? Do people believe in social mobility more or less than they believe that the moon landings were staged? Do you personally know more people who've gone bankrupt than people who've got divorced? And although the expression "middle class" summons up different pictures in America than it does in Britain – it's Homer and Marge rather than Margot and Jerry - I think a lot of her lessons could be applied here.


  1. If you're won over to long talks on the web, try TED talks - among all the eco crap and 'how I saved the world' stuff, there are many good things - Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce, Ze Frank on Nigerian fraud, Erin McKean on hip librarians, Stephen Pinker etc.

    I find they work best downloaded to the ipod - you can listen to the audio in the car, or watch the video on the bus....

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for that.

    And I'm sure my employer thanks you too.

    Grahame D

  3. Interesting lecture. I much prefer to spend time watching this kind of thing - Hitchens and Dawkins; Oliver James on afluenza; Naomis Klein and Wolf - than I ever did watching television, which is why the damn thing was binned.

    Back to Elizabeth Warren. She makes a compelling case, at least it seems that way, although as a workaday berk it could well be horseshit and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. No doubt a spotty bedroom libertarian with a keyboard will be along any moment to point out where she's wrong.

  4. Anonymous11:25 pm

    Brilliant piece, which I watched all the way through. But how often is it worth watching the 'broadcast' media that is on-line. What I'm referring to is the way that newspapers (I'm thinking Guardian, Times etc) that I now read and no longer buy, seem very keen on putting up podcasts and video instead of articles. To many times I've been about to click on a link on a film review say, and then seen a little logo that points out it's a podcast rather than an article. What's the point of making it a podcast? It's much, much slower to get the information from, I can't skim it, and more often than not the 'presenter' is rubbish. Worse of the video clips from some of the journalists who they scrub up and put infront of a crappy lighting set up, who look deeply uncomfortable, knowing there skill is in the written word rather than connecting through a lens. Are the papers just hedging their bets in case they find they can fill a hole that the broadcasters fail to fill? I think they are mistaken.

    Obviously there is an audience for podcasts (I use screencasts on how to operate software on my mac, and some round table discussions), and of course you seem to have an audience for the Word podcast. But I'm confused as the the future of this form.

  5. This was really useful as well as interesting. It explained a lot of conversations I have been having with friends. We took the (apparently extraordinary) decision NOT to go for the biggest possible mortgage, and therefore are somewhat more relaxed about the future. We can pay the mortgage on one income and could quickly cut back (drop the au pair, gym subscription etc). Our friends with much higher incomes (lawyers and so) feel really tense about the future - I could never understand it until this highlighted the fixed cost vs. variable cost argument.