Saturday, April 27, 2013

Giving It Away III


For lo, another dance around the Maypole.  I'm hoping to round off my commentary on what is changing in our society, too fast and in a highly destructive direction.

The hope and expectation -- Wall Street is huffing and puffing -- is that a conciliatory Fed and traditional economic cycles are pulling us out of what is referred to as "the worst recession since the depression."  I hope so, Lord knows I hope so.  Printing trillions of dollars and pouring them into federal bonds has supposedly raised the water-line enough so we can float back out to sea.  Our huge international corporations are electric with "productivity," which means finding ways to manufacture and distribute goods and services cheaper and without the labor costs heretofore associated with middle-class capitalism.  Profits are way up.

In 1896 William Jennings Bryan grabbed off the Democratic nomination for president by decrying the willingness of the Republicans to nail up the country on a "Cross of Gold." Gold meant the gold standard, the sine qua non to the plutocrats of his day.  This reverence for gold in our time equates to productivity.  The productivity we celebrate has been accomplished by a variety of methods -- off-shoring, automation, the dizzying and frequently dangerous rush into computerization of vital functions from financial bookkeeping to national defense.  Money is being saved.  But employment stays down, union wages are a memory, and millions and millions of competent people here are working for wages below what it takes to pay the bills.

Various remedies present themselves:  In China, where Apple I-phones are assembled, the workers reportedly line up every afternoon once their shift is completed for the oppportunity to climb the ladder at the back of the towering building and throw themselves off, one of the few corporate perks.  Options for the increasingly desperate middle class here are not a lot more attractive. The thousands who slave for minimum wage at McDonalds are routinely dependent on food stamps, which translates nicely onto the corporation's bottom line.  American taxpayers are subsidizing McDonald's worldwide expansion.

In America the arts have always been the canary in the coal mine, to coin a phrase, and surviving writers and painters and actors and film-makers are now wading around ankle-deep in dead canaries.  I hear it everywhere.  One friend, a seasoned director of movies for TV, tells me that the $120,000 he got to take on a film has now been cut back to $10,000.  He can expect to absorb the expenses.  Another friend with a worldwide reputation as a photographer of the great tells me that The New York Times, which once routinely sent him $250 to run one of his photos, now remits $2.50.  I'm told things are no better in the music business.

And writing?  I tried to suggest in a recent blog what sort of contracts writers -- myself included -- are expected to submit to.  When Poland was under the heel of the Soviets I visited a couple of times.  What the Soviets had not looted was given over to conditions that approached slave labor.  I heard the same joke several times.  A Red Army officer approaches a local workman.  "Give me your watch," the officer demands, "and I'll tell you the time."

Surviving publishers -- and, I am told, a number of agents, who seem to get quite upset when their charges hesitate to turn over years of work for next to nothing, forget the residuals -- appear to be reconciled to living off the land.  Work is so hard to sell that whoever is left is out there is cannibalizing the remains.  Books are increasingly being written on a "work for hire" basis -- a small guarantee out front, no secondary rights retained, a year's work pounded out in a couple of months, a rushed literary product that is effectively unreadable, little or no marketing effort, and the result all but disappearing on publication day. 

Here we have "productivity," the soulless exploitation of talent and resources, everything calculated toward the bottom line.   Is this the culture we make so many sacrifices to protect?  Perhaps we should reconsider.

If we still can.

Burton Hersh


  1. "cannibalizing the remains" is apparently what Samuel Pinkus is doing to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", having allegedly tricked her into a contract that gives him full rights.

  2. Dear Mr. Hersh

    Do you have a public email adress?


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