Jun 082003

Old joke. Q: How can you spot an intellectual? A: He’s the guy in the corner worrying about “the problem of the intellectuals.” The problem of blogging, then.

The principal lesson of blogs is that the market price for reasonably well-considered rumination is zero, and the competition for readers at that price is fierce. This understandably alarms people who are paid for ruminating — “thumb-sucking” in the argot — as opposed to reporting. It also explains both big-media hostility to bloggers, and concomitantly, blogger hostility to big media, columnists in particular. Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman are regularly savaged by people who write as well as they do, think much better, and must wonder to themselves why Dowd and Krugman have highly-paid jobs at The New York Times while all they have is their damn blogs.

It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy. Back in the salad days of Spy magazine, its writers were paid almost literally minimum wage, and there were 50 people who were dying to work there for every one who did. Anyone who has taken a freshman economics course will tell you that these two facts are intimately related. (One of Spy‘s best writers was asked at his year-end review what he wanted in the coming year. “More money,” he answered. He went on to become a well-known TV producer and is now richer than Croesus.)

Michael Blowhard has an essay on the economics of book-writing that has inspired a fair amount of hand-wringing in the thread. He gives several reasons for writing a book, the most important of which is being “an obsessed lunatic.” It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation:

The activities of [artistic geniuses] cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation…

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact of praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term.

The productivity of labor has become so high in this country that most anyone who has bothered to acquire some marketable skills and is not grimly devoted to his job is awash in leisure. Trollope, who produced 40-odd novels by arising at 4 AM daily and writing for two hours before his day job at the post office, would envy us. The Marxist fantasy of a people milking cows in the morning and practicing drama criticism at night has nearly come to pass, though not in the way that Marx intended. You want to make money and write in your spare time, be my guest. You want to make money writing, write romance novels or technical texts. You want to make money writing serious books about your cherished passions, go whine to someone else.

(Update: AC Douglas comments. The Digerati Peninsula comments.)

  20 Responses to “Art and Economics”

  1. There is something pernicious about viewing
    creativity in its various manifestations as "intellectual capitol" which is the subtext of this 2 Blowhards fulminating. In so far as MB sketches out the bloodless facts he performs a service. Most writers know this and in fact the people who go to writing programs can’t avoid the harsh glare of these so-called truths. While I am prepared to continue to award respect to people who think about and in fact do write books I also marvel at the knee-jerk response that treats them as silly neurotics.

    Where is the thinking that supports this bald assertion?" It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy" Which, by the way, I subscribe to.

    If you want to savage Dowd or Krugman by all means have your will but the distracting non sequitor that the savagers are as suited for the columnist’s positions is worse than sour grapes, they are grapes of infantile wrath.

    I could digest this salad of musings if I knew what the last sentence meant. Who should stop whining? (an understandable human activity that everyone with a drop of warm blood occasionally engages in)

  2. I’m not sure whom you refer to as "treating writers as silly neurotics," but I hope it wasn’t me, since I did nothing of the kind. Neither did Michael, for that matter.

    The proposition that one ought to make a living doing what one enjoys is such common currency that there have been at least two national advertising campaigns, one print and one television, devoted to it (Southern Comfort, "Do what you love"; and Budweiser). That you share it further speaks to its universality.

    Writing a regular column is a tough job. But supposing that someone else might do better than the incumbent scarcely qualifies as infantile wrath. And since you interview writers, you have doubtless heard them make the exact complaint of my final sentence, and more than once. My sister, who writes books that make no money and supports herself with trash for the women’s magazines, makes it all the time.

  3. Adam

    You are correct I wrongfully accused you and Mike of something that I read in these passing references:

    Some are obsessed lunatics
    Some don’t know better
    Let’s grant that a few of these nutcases have talent and brains
    How many such "normal" voices have really been heard in this conversation before?

    But hold the thought. I expect to make the accusation again, probably the next time the M Blowhard fulminates about publishing.

    Please don’t quote marketing campaigns to me as zeitgeist indicators. One, I have no way of being acquainted with these things, two, why give them credibility and three my commitment to an idea or principle suggests nothing about its universality and furthermore may even hint that its viability is suspect.

    Telling some one not to whine is good advice. So is "don’t drink too much champagne" or "don’t forget to floss." One’s hope is that it not be a minor pastime that becomes a career.

  4. Hmm. So, according to Ludwig von Mises, if I enjoy writing and it comes fairly easily, I must not be a genius. Gosh, and there I was, beginning to wonder.

  5. Robert: I’m Aaron. Adam must be that guy running around treating writers as silly neurotics. Marketing campaigns strike me as the best possible zeitgeist indicators, and you needn’t be familiar with them to accept them, unless you doubt my veracity. But if they won’t do, and your own views won’t do either, then what will?

    Will: I think what von Mises was getting at is that real artistic geniuses are always unsatisfied, though they may be fluent. That’s where the agony comes in. Writing is hell for me, and I’m no genius either.

  6. I don’t think writing is all that different from a lot of other jobs. Whether you want to write a book, or make partner, or close the big sale, or get the commission for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, you have to work within constraints set by the people who are paying you. If it’s not your boss or your client, it’s your editor or your publisher. I don’t think writers whose brilliant book proposals are turned down whine any more than middle managers whose higher-ups "just don’t get it."

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that writers whine because they think they’re entitled to support themselves writing. They whine because people in a position to pay them choose not to. (Full disclosure: I’m sensitive this week, having just been told that the editor who wanted to buy MY precious book was shot down by her higher-ups because my thesis was too controversial and the publishing company would only take the flak if there were a famous name on the cover.)

    The publishing industry is understandably focused on making money, but I think even those of us who are die-hard capitalists can mourn some of the books that don’t make the cut. Readers lose, and writers go back to women’s magazines (it’s not ALL trash, Brother Mine). I can acknowledge that publishers should make money, but still be miffed when my deathless prose loses out to Suzanne Somers’ lowfat recipes.

    I could go on and on, but I’ve got a 1500-word article on food allergies due tomorrow.

  7. A-a-r-o-n

    The declarative sentence, "It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy." is, I think, unverifiable.

    I do think that for the most part people are actually trained to accept the contrary.That may be at the root of what I sense is the love/hate relationship with writers that I regularly see evidence of, especially in weblogs like this.

    A regular display of this ambivalence is when bright and literate people try to generalize about writers and writing. I guess there are worse past timesbut I can’t think of any more frustrating well not many, anyway.

  8. Well, if it’s unverifiable, then demanding verification is a rather sneaky rhetorical trick, wouldn’t you agree? Rising wealth brings rising expectations. No one could reasonably dispute that many more people expect to make a living from their favorite pastime than in 1503, or even 1903.

    And as long as we’re psychologizing invidiously, I never told anyone to stop whining, only to whine to someone else. I know just the guy…

  9. One of the comments here reminded me of something to add to remarks I just made at CafeBlowhards:

    One should never write a book with the goal in mind of writing a book.

    The book is only a means to communicate heart-felt ideas. If you don’t really care about the ideas, hey! go ski and/or play golf.

    I speak from experience. I wrote a book; I didn’t really want to. But I didn’t think anyone else would do it. So I had to.

  10. I’ve responded to Michael on my own blog, but I want to ask Aaron a question, and maybe clear up some confusion in the process.

    "It is odd, and unprecedented, that people think they ought to be able to make a living doing what they enjoy."

    What do you mean by this, Aaron? On the one hand a person might reasonably, when young, look at a number of remunerative activities and assess which might be enjoyable. But few of us are that reasonable when young, or old, for that matter.

    However, if you mean it is odd to expect that one’s hobby-horse should win the Belmont, then I agree with you.

  11. Alan: More the latter than the former. I agree with Adam Smith, and Karl Marx, who stole the concept from him, about the alienation of labor. Most people would prefer to do something other than what they do for a living: ’twas ever thus, and ’twill ever be. Only recently, however, has this been generally perceived as some sort of cosmic injustice.

  12. I’ve devoted most of my leisure time for thirty-five years to writing three books of poetry I never expected to be published. Since they did appear, I’ve earned about $2000 in royalties, which works out to about two cents an hour. It is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. Ludwig von Mises is spot on, and thanks, Aaron, for posting his thoughts on this.

  13. I’m a published writer. I started out telling dire stories to my younger siblings. Now, I yell dire stories at my nation…they dont hear too much either. Writers are – possibly unduly- interested in income (I’m skint, and am relying on Lotto just now) simply because we have always been peripheral beings, hangers round the outer edge of the campfire, tellers of the ghoulie stories to the the kids when the hunters have gone to bed…we are not *necessary* in the sense that midwives and farmers are necessary,,,we are only necessary for humans to continue to dream and imagine beyond the god-purveyors – and therein lies our stupidity,power, helplessness- and enduring glamour

  14. Everyone wants to live a life that has "meaning." Creative forces that derive from both external, cultural, sources and from internal, innate, drives motivate us to build meaning into our activities. High culture,"The Arts," is only one focus for the creative drive to build meaningful existences. The arts, when done truthfully, are an intense experience that concentrates our attention on the meaning in life but it is difficult to sustain that kind of focus. I think that is why so many of us work on ouir "high culture" projects part time and allow our real life work to fill up the majority of our life.
    Robert Frost in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" gave a way out of the dilemma (and a credo for an educational system)-
    "But yield who will to their separation,
    My object in living is to unite
    My avocation and my vocation
    As my two eyes are one in sight.
    Only where love and need are one,
    And the work is play for mortal stakes,
    Is the deed ever really done
    For heaven and the future’s sake."

  15. A Little History on The Blog. Blogging is an extremely old but re-discovered pastime. Its first recorded appearance was the in the colonies (now known as the U.S.A.) and the blog was its first best seller.

    Benjamin Franklin’s blog was titled "Poor Richard’s Almanack" and was released to the public once a year from 1733 to 1758. The first blog of 1733 was a whopping four pages long. As a far as blogs go it was a fine example and a good template for all future blogs to come.

    Old Ben was quite the guy and an inspiration for all who aspire to make a living by putting pen to paper, he was principally self-taught and self published. He published his first blog at the age of 27 It won a popularity in the colonies second only to the Bible, and its fame eventually spread to Europe

  16. "awash in leisure"?

    Was the author talking about America? Or maybe it was Germany or some other civilized country, but not the United States. That’s because we are the most impoverished country(by far) in the advanced capitialist sector.

    Being "awash in leisure" may be apt for Continental Europe, but not for countries suffering under the Anglo-American economic model.

  17. I agree. We live in a capatalist society, therfore our focus is on value (monetary value). It has become our assumption that we should be duly paid and be able to live off our creative endeavours. I would think this would lead to mediocrity. People should write (or do other art) because they love it.

  18. Seores,

    "Si hacen lo que quieren el dinero los seguir"

  19. have you ever known something was going to happen before it did?

    i know i will be published, i dont care about money, writing is fun.

    worry is a driving feul but so is hatred or any million logical rationals derived via what have you.

    LOL if you want something bad enough it will happen, just be smart about it and persistent.

    most of all learn how to deal and talk with people, i did so by selling many and various and pleasurable drugs to them, and their parents.

    im 19

  20. Mr Poole, great reminder about how Ben Franklin embodied the “blogger” spirit with his commitment to the idea that a true author writes to be read, not to be fed. He wrote because he believed he had something worth saying: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.” (He ended up as one of the lucky ones who was able to do both.)

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