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Friday, July 27, 2012

How the market changes civilization

In around 1954 or 1955, when I was only seven or eight years old, I began reading Sport magazine every month. Like so many monthlies in those days, it ran very long articles, and it featured an outstanding group of writers including Ed Linn, Roger Kahn, Al Stump, and Ed Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald particularly caught my eye for some reason--his pieces had a quiet calm about them--but in 1960, he disappeared from the sporting scene, and I had no idea what had happened to him.

I found out in the mid-1990s when I happened on his autobiography, A Nickel an Inch. Earlier, I had gotten ahold of one of his first efforts as a ghostwriter, a book he had done with Lou Boudreau about the 1948 Indians, about whom I had already written (but not yet published) a book of my own. He had gone on to much bigger things: an editor at Doubleday, the head of the Literary Guild in the mid-1960s, and eventually the chairman of the Book of the Month Club. What I did not know the first time I met him was that he was an alcoholic. Like many other Second World War veterans, he had collapsed in retirement and wound up in a rehab facility in Minneapolis called St. Mary's. Typically, he had turned that into a wonderful book called That Place in Minnesota, which I have read more than once. Alas, heart problems caught up with him, and he died in his late 70s in the late 1990s.

I got to see him several times, and he discussed what had happened to publishing. He was very upset by the influence of MBAs. His own philosophy, stated in A Nickel an Inch,, was simple: one could, he said, make more money than anyone really needed publishing books that intelligent people wanted to read. But the MBAs thought one could make more money publishing books less intelligent people would want to read, and that was already affecting the quality of what was published. Another important trend was segmented marketing. In the middle of the century the Book-of-the-Month club turned a great many writers into national figures, but once they gave up their monthly Main Selection they lost their power. "It doesn't take as much as it used to be to make a best-seller," an agent commented to me recently.

Publishers and movie studios used to combine their concern for profits with a concern for art and culture. They published undistinguished money-makers and made films for the masses, but they also promoted more distinguished writers and, after the late 1960s, made remarkably creative films. That continued through the 1990s, but it is much less true now. The teen audience rules most multiplexes. (I am fortunate now to have moved back to the Boston area, centrally located among three different art houses. Very few Americans can say as much.) "Adult drama" is now poison at the box office. Cable TV, as I have mentioned, has filled some of the gap with series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland. Gen Xers and Millennials do not go to many movies as adults, except with their kids. They have also lost touch with our film legacy.

The rebirth of western culture that began in the renaissance, led to the Enlightenment, and peaked, apparently, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not come out of nowhere. High educational ideals created both its achievements and its audience. It is moribund now in the United States because no cultural values compete with market values, and we are very much poorer for it. These are large topics, and the change has taken place with such terrifying speed that it we are already taking it for granted. That is a fascinating commentary on human nature, whose attitude towards the past varies enormously from century to century.


Bruce Wilder said...

It might seem like a minor quibble, but I object to attributing the changes you note to "the market". I know that's the cliche, but it requires us to overlook the dominant role of hierarchy in the form of corporate bureaucracy in our economy, as well as our culture.

The emergence of the giant Media conglomerate, combining ownership and strategic direction of everything from book publishing to movie studios to music publishing to cable news programming to local cable franchises, might have something to do with the decline of the culture under the flood tide of hackishness, in our internet-saturated, 500-channels-and- nothing's-on, universe.

Confusing that hulking mass of concentrated political power, the bureaucratic corporate conglomerate, with the "market" is a case of misdirection, at best. (I'm certainly not touting the magic goodness of markets, just noting that the observable reality isn't the working of markets, per se, not the mere exchange of commodities for cash, but the working of authoritarian bureaucracy, and processes of political strategy and administration they marshal.

The dominance of this form of social association and power in our civilization scarcely existed before 1880, and has increased enormously since WWII, and its character has changed markedly, as idiosyncratic founders have been replaced by the cadre of business-school-trained grey flannel suits.

That's my obsession, and I don't mean to distract from your observations.

How would Chautauqua compare to PBS? Repertory cinema to Netflix streaming? News in the era of Horace Greeley or W.R. Hearst to the web in the era of Time-Warner?

Anonymous said...

Good movies with oscars, fine British and Scandinavian and US TV Series and excellent art films are shown in Germany very late past midnight for example(occasionally only-mostly B rated horror at that time) so that only the unemployed can see them and Big Brother type garbage is shown at prime time. So I end up seeing cop series of moderately good quality and know very little of good quality. I go to the cinema to see kid's animation films (with my kids) which are, thank God, of high quality thanks to stiff competition(and they cost lots of money to buy even decades later like a pink floyd album for example whereas the daily junk on TV or in film is in the 1 dollar basket at the supermarket after 6 months to a year).

As to books when I go into a bookstore there are all these middle ages semi historical novels. There seem to be trends there of course. Top sellers might have been fantasy in the 90s or Agatha Christie Type stuff in the 50s. A cultural broadening is taking place as recent immigrants write autobiographical or novels based on own culture. When something is unique and speaks to genuine experience it tends to bubble up and get attention whereas the mass of copycat garbage fades into obscurity. Of course as millions of books and films, short films and series are made every year and ever Joe puts up his novel on his blog it is hard to know even what has been published. They send us a books/film catalogue monthly and just reading about the books (cheap prices for remaining stocks) is interesting to know what is on the market. Browsing in book stores and libraries would of course also be interesting.

I know from my Russian wife that art of all sorts was supported by the govt. in Soviet times so that actors, writers,etc. could go about their business and not expect to starve and quality and teaching of classics and current art was supported whereas now in Germany actor suicide is not uncommon.

I think post 90s were bad for all stability in quality of product and life with temp jobs increasing, a million MBAs annually graduating from colleges(I got one) spreading efficient market hypothesis (Darwin revisited). If short term profit according to the stock market is the absolute good (GDP, profit margin, efficiency) then humans and biological life forms have no business here on earth and must be replaced by machines. Might not be a bad idea.

Bozon said...

Many thanks for this short essay.

"The rebirth of western culture that began in the renaissance, led to the Enlightenment, and peaked, apparently, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not come out of nowhere. High educational ideals created both its achievements and its audience. It is moribund now in the United States because no cultural values compete with market values, and we are very much poorer for it."

Very complex thought provoking passage above.

On some of these somehow topics, the history, and relations of education, cultural, and economic achievements, I have been reading Collins' The Credential Society. Great book.

Its arguments and conclusions, re education and its relationship to other institutions, and its roles in American history, are not what one might have expected.

All the best,

Lowell Mick White said...

A book you might find interesting:

Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, by F.S. Michaels

Michaels argues that the culture of the marketplace dominates our world now in ways it never did before....

DAngler said...

I'm glad to see that others dislike the Harvard MBAs ruining all our good businesses! It isn't just the arts and culture; it is everyday grocery shopping and home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes. If an item doesn't turn over so many times a year, they won't stock it. So that special salad dressing you like so well suddenly is off of Safeway's shelves because it doesn't turn over fast enough. And despite how huge the home improvement store is, just try and find a part for something over 5 years old! They drive out the neighborhood hardware store that stocked lots of items that sat on the shelves for a long time before being bought -- but when you went there, you could always find what you needed.

Life becomes less rich when all you can get is what all your neighbors have bought! And frustrating too, when you can't find what you need.

But these same stores will spend millions on advertising! What if they spent half their advertising money on stock that rotates slowly, but gives customers the chance to find what they need? Imagine a Home Depot or Lowes with most everything you needed instead of just the high-turnover stuff! I think they'd soon be more profitable. Perhaps they could even advertise that if they don't have it, they'll find it. But it goes against the cult-like belief that everything has to turn over quickly to maximize profit. There is no room for the idea that slow moving stock may be more of an attraction to customers than pages of advertising all carrying what everyone else carries.

My father worked for a paint store that supplied all the paint contractors in a small town. He carried a bit of everything. And he told his customers, "If we don't have it, we'll get it for you." He owned the paint business in that town, despite other competing paint stores there. But he retired, and his son took over -- after getting an MBA and all the cultish business ideas that go along with it. He started unstocking the slow moving stuff, and drove the business into near bankruptcy in a few short years.

When maximizing profits is more important than satisfying your customers, you are on the road to failure -- unless you can somehow monopolize the business, which is what the big conglomerates essentially do.

If we really lived in a country of, by and for the people, we could figure out tax laws that encouraged holding a richness of stock -- to benefit the customers -- and discouraged the de facto monopolies created by big conglomerates. But that idea -- that we could shape our country the way we want it to be by encouraging some types of business and discouraging others -- is anathema to the true believers in unbridled capitalism. But unbridled capitalism is anathema to true democracy. Take your pick and live with it.