Off Topic: A short discourse on “Breaking Bad,” the best show on television

September 13, 2011

Over at Megan McArdle’s blog, there is a post up today about “the new new economy.”  In it, Megan cites Arnold Kling on the disturbing state of the current American employment situation:

The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

The marginal product of people who need well-defined jobs is declining. The marginal product of people who can thrive in less structured environments is increasing. That was what I was trying to say in my jobs speech.

That was Kling.  Megan follows up with this:

The jobs that are being automated are the stable, well-paying jobs where you could settle in and know exactly what you’d be doing for years.  As Arnold says, if you can define it, you can probably outline it specifically enough to outsource, either to a lower-wage worker somewhere else, or to a computer.

Why is this troubling?  Aren’t routine jobs stifling? Soul-destroying? A tool of the oppressive overclass?
Well, that’s what we used to say when we had more than enough to go around.  The assembly-line was grinding modern man into just another machine part; the stultifying conformity of the white collar world was producing a nation of anal-retentive Casper Milquetoasts.

Then the jobs started to go away and we discovered that many people like dreary predictability–at least, compared to the real-world alternative, which is risk

OK, anyone who is reading this post because of the “Breaking Bad” reference might be lost, but stick with me.  Go read Megan’s whole post, then you will get the context for my post.

Kling’s and McArdle’s description of the current employment culture are spot on.  It is the cultural reality that the lead character of “Breaking Bad” found himself mired in at the beginning of the show, and it is why  I believe Breaking Bad” is the essential television show of our time.

Everyman Walter White, high school chemistry teacher and part time car wash cashier, was a clear casualty of the declining marginal product of the defined career and the shaky foundation on which the contemporary middle class stands.  However, once he took the risk (prompted, of course, but cancer-driven desperation) and dove into the (seemingly) unstructured economy of methamphetamine production and distribution, he saw his marginal product skyrocket.

However, the rewards of the unstructured economy came with great danger, and eventually Walt opted once again for the more defined – but also vastly more financially rewarding – role as meth kingpin Gus Fring’s chemist.   But here, Walt faces the same threats he did as a middle income earner, only on a vastly larger scale.  First, he is confronted more clearly with the soul-sucking reality of being a mere cog in a larger machine, especially when juxtaposed with his more recent exhilarating exploits.  Second, Fring and others are constantly watching and analyzing White’s process, seeking to copy it and replace him with a cheaper alternative or, in upcoming episodes, to outsource it entirely to a third world location.

This is why “Breaking Bad” is more than just a fascinating character study, more than a thrilling crime drama.  While so many other popular shows are either nostalgic (“Mad Men”), escapist confections (“Glee”), or increasingly tedious procedurals (too many to mention) “Breaking Bad” has its finger firmly on the pulse of our era.  I am both saddened and relieved to know that the show has been picked up for a fifth and final season.   Saddened because it is one of the finest television shows ever produced, but relieved because I know that the creators and producers are committed to the original story arc and will end the show as realistically as they have produced it all along.


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