Monday, October 25, 2021

A matter of money.

One of the things you're not taught in advertising school or in advertising, or frankly, at all if you're a "creative" person is one of the most important. 

How to make money. 

Years ago, while I was ECD at a crappy non-entity of an agency, I picked up a large freelance piece of business from an ex-account guy of mine. This wasn't like doing an ad in the pennysaver for your cousin's aunt's nephew's fourth-grade teacher's next-door-neighbor, these were formative ads for a well-capitalized company that wanted to be taken seriously by both its clients and "the street."

The business could easily have been given to a mid-sized local shop and they'd have been glad to get it. But it came to me.

If you're like most creatives (and by definition most creatives are like most creatives) you rightly worry about the work. You find an angle. You learn the brand. You partner up with an art director. You present three campaigns or five. 

There are smiles all around. People like the work. They really like campaign two, but could you add in this element from campaign four?

That mash-up doesn't really make sense, but you work some more. A client's a client for all that. And as long as they're not asking you to shit in the beef bourguignon, you work until you figure out how to make it work.

They're happy. They're very happy. You produce the work. The work runs. The work works.


Now the hard part begins.

You have to bill them. 

Even if you have a business associate, you're closer to the work than they are. You remember the 3AM wake-ups and scribbling ideas on a bed-side pad. You remember the shower-or-dog-walk derived headlines. You remember the trimming and the art-director bickerings. And the hours of tedium. And the night until 2AM printing out (this was years ago remember) ten beautiful four-color decks at Kinkos.

You realize if you put in a bill for $10,000 you've sold yourself, your partner, your family short by about $60,000. You've done this on your "leisure time." And one 101 course in economics will tell you that all time costs money and leisure time, like weekend time, costs more because there is less of it. I think the concept there is called "opportunity cost."

Now, it's late. It comes to your digits to submit a bill for $70,000 or $50,000, or $40,000.

Maybe you're one of the few lucky ones who's learned or was blessed with deep-self-appreciation (DSA). But most people don't have that. So you battle a series of cloven-footed devils.

"$30,000," Beelzebub says, "you're not worth that. That's double what you made in your first job." "Are you kidding me?" A Succubus taunts, "that's the price of the used BMW you want." "They'll never pay that," laughs the Whore of Babylon. "Look at you. You're a schlub."

The battle of leaving an agency, having an agency leave you, or finding firm footing on a shaky-ground universe is the battle of belief in your worth and your power. It's a battle to believe in what you do. In your unique powers, abilities and perceptoins. It's you learning that you might not be the best ________ in the world. But you are the best you in the world and whoever you're charging bought you.

This is something to inculcate. Or mantra-ize if you can't inculcate. Or write on a note and paste on your bathroom mirror until it becomes imbued.

This is about your worth.

Getting the money you deserve.

Demanding it, in fact, not with arrogance and hauteur. But with belief.

We never learn this growing up in the business. We never have to ask for money. That's someone else's job and we're well-insulated from it. 

That insulation hurts us. Tamps us down. Stifles us.

If I ever again, and I won't, take a job at an ad agency in a high-level capacity, I will try to encourage my people to have their own P&L on their own pieces of business. They will learn things no one teaches.

I will encourage them to be like the local carpenter, or snow-plower, or leaf-blower if you live in a small town.

Kindness and friendship and being one of the gang is all well and good. But we are--never forget this--business people. We are in business to make money. We give our souls and hearts and brains and muscles to our clients. And we don't give those things away.

Of all the things I've had to learn in the almost two-years I've been the wandering advertising Jew, this has been the most important and the hardest.

There's a Yiddish word, gonif. It means thief or canoodler. Someone who's always working an angle.

There's another bit of Yiddish I learned along the way: schvare arbiter. I'm sure I'm spelling it wrong. It means a straight-shooter. An honest person. A broad-shouldered human that comes through. Someone with the wherewithal and spine to do and expect the right thing. Demand it.

Be a schvare arbiter. 

Train like a boxer. Lift. Run. Spar. Take the hits and give them. Work hard. Know your worth. Once you do, it increases.

Not to go all Jewish on you, you but 2200 years ago there was a wise old Rabbi born in Babylon, not Long Island. Rabbi Hillel. 

I've never met the man, but he's my business advisor. He should also be yours.

He wrote these words: If I am not for myself, who am I? When I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

It took me decades to learn that. Probably $300,000 of therapy sessions. It's been worth it.

Uncharacteristic for this freelancer: no charge.

Friday, October 22, 2021

You forgot. I didn't.

Back when Mastodons roamed the earth, when I was growing up in advertising, people used to say with some regularity that "the best advertising is news."

Not only has advertising as news make sense to me, I would see proof of it almost every day. I'd see great ads capitalizing on items in the news and they'd give me the sense that the company advertising was in the right place at the right time. They knew what they were doing.

When fronald frump fwas ftill fresident, my friends Rob Schwartz, Patrick O'Neill and editor Dan Bootzin put this news item together. It didn't elect Biden. But it didn't hurt. And it got, without any paid media, almost half-a-million views. Not bad for something that doesn't feature a bare midriff.

Beyond that, in years gone by, when the awards books came out, I'd see example after example of "newsy" ads winning accolades. I think because they "punched above their weight." Not merely because they were notorious.

Here are just three examples, all I believe from the hard-edged fine point pen of Ed McCabe. McCabe was one of the founders of the great agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves and was the youngest person ever inducted into the advertising Hall of Fame. 

Today, because our corporate lust for Mammon is so great, the  news and entertainment divisions of many television networks have merged. You can scarcely find out about a genocide. We're too busy grinning about some d-list celebrisham who has a "baby bump" to pay attention. (PS. the genocides don't stop. We just stop paying attention.) 

Even the once austere and authoritative New York Times seems to blur the distinction between the two. The "newspaper of record" now has items like this on its home-page. There's more about fashion than the Sixth Extinction--an event that has already led to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people.

Today, the advertising "phrase that pays," tells us repeatedly that advertising must influence and become a part of culture. No one tells you why. And I seldom see actual examples of culture being influenced. What's more, no one wants to admit that my culture (and I have a lot of disposable income) is not the same as what seems to be the prevailing culture. I am not one to break into spontaneous dance and it's been years since I've undulated in public and spoke what to my ears is a grating vernacular.

I see a lot of culturally adroit work these days that I just don't understand. I don't know how something like this sells a $90K automobile. (If you worked on the ad--drop me a note and explain. I'll be glad to listen until you argue tautologically. That is that it is part of culture because it is part of culture, therefore it is part of culture.)

A few months ago, I wrote some "newsworthy" ads for a client. A very dear client.

On Friday, this one ran in the Journal. My client posted it on LinkedIn and many people remarked, "How did you do that?" Or"Amazing placement." 

Other people commented. They said things like this:

I'm not trying to be humble. Or unhumble.

I'm almost 64 now, and through the long decades in advertising I've picked up a small handful of tricks. More than five but less than 20. I could print them all here, but then this blog would be out of business.

One of those tricks, as above, is "The best advertising is news."

For about 55 of my 64 years I've read two or more newspapers every day. You get a gut along the way. A sense about things. With training you can sometimes tell when something is going to stay on the front pages longer than a belch.

I just wrote a simple line. That had something to do with the news. It played off headlines I knew were coming.

The client ran it.

The news stayed news. I got lucky. The ad ran almost as a call-and-response to the Journal article right above it.

If my luck continues, the ad will get more business for the client and I'll get more business from the client. That's what running your own agency is about.

There's no telling that I'll be able to do it again.

But I'll try. I didn't forget how.

Thank you.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

I leave for Saltillo.

When I escaped the silent noisy penitentiary I grew up in, I had read no primer on running away, unless you count those dopey episodes of Leave it to Beaver where some kid is worried his mom will be angry for riding his bike into a hydrangea or getting a C in arithmetic, so he hides for six hours--till just past dark--in a small clump of trees the neighborhood boys call the woods. 

I was thinking more like Huck. Turning to the barefoot and stupid for guidance. Huck, like me. Or me like Huck, locked in an old shed by a drunk of a father who had disappeared somewhere, who was laying, maybe, on the muddy bottom of some metaphorical river, with me locked up with no way to escape. Or my drunk of a mother locked in her room and howling silently like a de-trachea'd wolf on a moonless night, mad at the world, mad at it all, mad at herself and mad at the bottom of her glass because too much had gotten away and would never be.

If you've never set foot amid the sonic boom silence of a house filled with hate, you don't know what fear is. You don't know what emptiness is when you are punished, not for anything you did but for who you weren't and couldn't be. 

Punished with silence and straps that turned off and on like a broken traffic light, without rhyme or order. The hatred and the hurt, the stench of stench filled every crack between every piece of parquet on their expensive for-appearances hardwood floors and none of it made a difference, I was locked in Huck's shed, the door nailed closed, no windows and no way out.

Also like Huck said, both my parents had gotten too handy with their hick'ry, and I was all over with welts. The worst kind. The kind no one could see.

For months I planned without telling anyone. Coach Babich, I asked him, one afternoon after I had gone three for four with maybe a double thrown in, could you write me a letter, to coaches I'll play for someday, describing my skill as a ballplayer. A testimonial? Could you do that for me, Babich? Of course he would.

I took that note to Senor Cowan, my Spanish teacher, the class I goofed off through, where in ninth grade a girl called Bev showed me her left breast when we were silent and smirking taking a test on el camino real. Senor Cowan translated Babich's note and I folded it in thirds and put it in an envelope, properly, like kids were taught in those days and sto
red it in my old army surplus olive drab canvas duffle.

I saved my money, here and there. Summer funds from being a game-room attendant at a cheap ping-ping-ping arcade, where I made $2.30 an hour and was able to save $300--which was a middle-class week's pay in 1974, though it took me an entire summer to do it.

Every night, it was like Marciano in the ring against me. Two Marcianos with heavy, well-taped hands. Pummelling away at my soul, with short hard rights and roundhouse lefts, hating anything, everything, any idea I had about doing what I wanted to do, and doing it my own way. Every night, Marciano, pere and mere, pummeling. 

It will kill your father. He is not well. It will kill your mother. She is not well. It will ruin your life and you will never recover. You will fall behind and never catch up. College. You must. You can't delay. It will kill us.

And every night, I bounced back. Or tried to, against the scar tissue. I will go to college in January, instead of September, I promised. I'm still young for my class--I skipped fifth remember, and I am a December birthday. Everyone else is 18, I'm barely 17, I tried.

But it would kill them, they assured me with needles and lasers. It will kill them--not just me chasing a dream--me even having a dream. It would kill them, it would kill me, it would kill the world, some how, if I were to play baseball for a season--if I were to find out if I were any good and play baseball for a season, or most of a season, I had already missed a dozen or twenty games, down in the Mexican Baseball League (AA).

But I had read my Huck Finn, in Mr. Pike's 9th Grade class, and through the beatings and the bleatings and the weedings and the cheatings, Huck's words, Huck's decision to "lit out someplace," was like a beacon. What was lit was the light of hope, the light of escape, the light that I could have a life of light away from the vise and the vice of my parent's mis-correctional facility. 

So like Huck, I lit out for somewhere, somewhere I had never been, to do the one thing I loved doing, and the one thing I was good at, playing ball.

I left when it was still dark, not all the way closing the front door lest their hatred-heightened-hearing would somehow stop me at the doorman. I left in the still dark, with a note written by my Huck in my neatest private school script.

Off to see, I wrote. Off to play ball. Off to discover. 

I signed my name, first and last, to be sure they knew who the note was from.

And with my bag and my glove and my spikes and my $300, I headed to the 
urine-scented capital of the world, New York's Port Authority bus terminal for a bus ride to who knew what.

With ever-watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed South, looking, hoping that I might win some redeeming meaning for having struggled and suffered here beneath the dirty skies.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Tears and the man.

I think it was Lenin who said "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." Sometimes life is like that for us mere mortals, too. 

Sometimes, you're in the middle of a therapy session, 45 stinking minutes during which you return from deep inside your scraped knee childhood, through the beatings and the anguish and find yourself old and forgotten--alone--and thinking about a piece of raisin bread you had 75 years earlier that might have been the best thing ever to happen to you, the apotheosis even, if you went to an Ivy League school.

I had one of those therapy sessions--or I've had a few of late. Endless vistas of despair like something out of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Where the despair goes on and on like a powerpoint presentation, yet there's no leaving the room, it just goes on.

It was one of those sessions where I sat at the bottom of an emotional Niagara Falls and every stupid thing I've ever done or said or even thought, every chance I didn't take, every left that should have been a right comes crashing down on me fracturing my fractures until my head itself is Benoit Mandelbroit- fractalized.

The good news here is stupid and simple.

I think a lot of people look at old, nominally successful people like myself and think, somehow that we're like Marvel superheroes. Somehow we're able to resist the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or able to summon up our strength and Stoic our way through whatever adversity comes our way.

They think every assignment ends in a victory and every blurt contains champagne bubbles of brilliance. I suppose that's an image a lot of people project. It makes them feel good and strong and powerful. Maybe after a while they believe in their own imperviousness.

Today, whatever day I wind up posting this, let me tell you something: It ain't that way. For anyone.

No one is impervious. Outside of a few money-ed republicans, very few people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.

There's crying in baseball.

Crying in life.


I cried when I got fired from R/GA. Cried when I got fired at Ogilvy. Cried when I looked at myself--old for the business and unemployed and boom, done. 

I've cried when I've been passed over. For money, for promotions, for the good assignments. Cried when others, who I don't think are as good as me, bound ahead of me because of this reason or that.

I cried.

I cried when I couldn't sell work. 

When I could no longer stand my boss and asked off business I loved.

When I had more work to do than any 10 other creatives and could get no help from the agency and less respect. I cry when the prevailing story in the industry becomes, 'he was born white and male, he had it easy.' Rather than, 'he was born poor and was beaten by his mother, he had it hard.' I cry at the simplicity of bias that obscures and detracts from the complexity of reality.

Every once in a while I have a long phone call with an old friend or two. Or a pastrami sandwich at Sarge's. Or a cheese omelet at some diner in mid-town. Believe it or not, sometimes, I have these repasts with people older than I, and certainly more accomplished. We eat like Monks, taking disinterested little bites and mostly just pushing our food around. We weep into our dirty tap water.

And mostly we cry.

If you've read this far and you sometimes feel like you've fucked up, or you don't know what you're doing, or you did something that turned out lousy, or you got asked off a piece of business, or a partner walked out on you, cry.


And keep on crying.

That's ok.

That's how it's done.

Everyone does it whether or not they admit it.

Cry. And cry some more.

And then keep on going.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Agency and Agencies.

Lately, like for the last 63 years, I have been burning the candle at both ends. The American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay said it best. (By the way, her middle name is St. Vincent because she was born in that hospital in Greenwich Village. Just call me George Yonkers Hospital Tannenbaum.) 

Millay's poem was called "First Fig." Here goes:

My candle burns at both ends;
    It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
    It gives a lovely light!

I've been talking to a new old friend of late, the surpassing copywriter and Executive Creative Director, Debra Fried. Debra wrote this wonderful post for this blog not long ago. If you didn't read it first time around, do yourself a favor and read it now. Also, follow Debra on Medium. It's well-done.

In any event, I said something to Debra the other day--a throw-away line that she picked up on. I'm giving us both credit for it. I did the easy part--I wrote it. Debra did the hard part--she noticed it.

The line goes like this: "It was only when I left the agency world that I got my agency back."

I started thinking about my two-years since I was kicked to the curb by an agency I was making money for--presumably due to the white hair around my temples and the convocation of avoirdupois around my mid-section. I can reach that conclusion because only 1/100 WPP employees is over 60. Around the world, 1/7 people are over 60. Go DIVERSITY!

(I'll write an homage to Millay's doggerel above with more than a soupcon of Ogden Nash added.)

If you live today
Anywhere in the universe,
You must quickly learn,
To use the word diverse.

Use it here. Say it there.
Whether you're feeling bad or feeling great.
Use it in writing, use it in speech.
Just don't forget to discriminate.

It doesn't matter,
Whiskey or beer,
Say there or say it here.
Just make sure you're insincere.

Right now, I have about a dozen clients with multi-billion dollar marketcaps. I am working on building a couple of teaching programs. And with some friends, I am working on a book on advertising. 

I am working harder than I ever have. With greater productivity, happier clients, and better work than I've ever done as the output. I'm also exercising and reading more. 

Dr. Lewis, are you reading this? I'm happier, too.

During one of my long, wayward walks, I started thinking about this productivity phenomenon. Why do I suddenly have my agency back? What accounts for my prodigious productivity. Here's a list that might begin to make sense of it all.

1. I no longer have a coterie of jealous supervisors and so-called colleagues who spend parts of their day keeping me down because they're afraid of me getting ahead.

2. I no longer have to sell my work 61 times internally to people who are not concentrating or are looking at their phones or wondering how they can make my thinking theirs.

3. I no longer have to spend weeks at a time bringing people along because they were expecting one thing and I gave them something else.

4. I no longer have to sit in six hours of meetings a day so the people presiding over the meeting can feel important--showing up late to show you what's what. (Read John Kenneth Galbraith's thoughts on meetings here.)

5. I no longer am forced to watch stupid compliance videos to satisfy corporate lawyers. I must have watched 20 anti-bribery videos over the years. But WPP, not me, was sued by the Securities Exchange Commission for bribery and was forced to pay $19 million in fines--though they admitted no guilt.

6. I no longer get a badly-written all-caps emails yelling at me for being nine-minutes late on timesheets.

7. I no longer have to listen to the insane jargon that spews out Vesuvius-like from mindless doyens of corporate tomfoolery under the guise of "we can see the future."

8. I no longer have to deal with 17 rounds of client revisions and track-changes in more colors than your average Alfred Sisley painting.

9. I no longer have to deal with the petty squabbles inherent in social organizations.

10. I no longer have to deal with the turf wars that take place when an agency is a zero-sum game--that is, a place where when someone gets, someone else loses.

11. I no longer worry about being fired because I'm big and old. White and male. Outspoken and funny.

I could easily go on--adding 40 or 50 more items to this list--all before my Eggos pop-up from the toaster. I'd bet a lot of you already have a pain or two in your neck from nodding in agreement with the above.

So that's enough for now.

Besides I have work to do.

Monday, October 18, 2021

F-You. With Fellini and Frost.

There's something about doing things year after year that gives me the hope of a placid continuity in a world that seems to be on the brink of spinning off its axis.

According to many, the Sixth Extinction is here--and as someone who's read a fair bit about the first five--it's safe to say that as a species on a dying planet, we have more to worry about than what Halloween candy to buy, who's wearing what at whatever talentless awards show or some outrage from some comedian about something that will be of no consequence two-sneezes from now.

Last Saturday, however, my wife woke up with an apple-cheeked glow on her face and I knew what that meant. It was time for our annual sojourn into the country. Time to visit one of America's few remaining farms and to pick more apples than is remotely reasonable. 

My entire family loves apples, however. And since my early 20s, blessed with the manual dexterity of a Philadelphia tailor or a Rififi safe-cracker, I've once-or-twice a year peeled and sliced dozens of pounds of apples then made container after container of the most-sumptuous apple-sauce you can imagine. My wife, with a coffin-sized freezer in our rickety garage, keeps it all year. She gives it to people she visits, sends it to our faraway daughters and even sneaks it frozen past the TSA who often have to be convinced it's not some sort of plastic explosive and she's not a page out of The Battle for Algiers.

It's the passing of time, however and the events that mark that passage that this post is about. Apple time means something. It means the winter holidays are coming, the year's end is near and it means hours in the kitchen steaming up the windows with an incipient apple-infused torpor.

When I was a boy, a city-bound boy, I'd anticipate the coming of the seasons by the plastic menorahs that would pop up in shop windows along Jewish Broadway, appearing just before Thanksgiving. They were as tilted as cones after a new driver's test--placed willy-nilly in the windows of drug stores, hardware stores and drycleaners always hewing one way or another, a-kilter to an old flatiron or some gift-set of monkey wrenches.

As Jewish Broadway's Jewish shop owners retired their shops were bought by the next generation, cigarette smoking Asian men and women who spoke more Yiddish than they did English, spitting along the way.

Unsure about the neighborhoods' holidays, as we are unsure about theirs, those same plastic menorahs--never with the right number of candles lit, would begin to pop-up like crocuses earlier and earlier. Conflating, I suppose "Jewish Rush Week," (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) with Hannukah, the candelabra would be up and running around the time the baseball season wound into the playoffs.

The best recounting of the passage of time--of ephemeral and eternal--I viewed as a 16-year-old boy when my friends and I decided to go see, instead of a summer blockbuster, Fellini's "Amacord." It was playing at the local art house bijou--and it was really the first movie I ever saw without a discernible plot.

The movie opens with a harbinger of spring. Small white spores are wafting through the air. Children are running after them, chasing them. Windows are thrown open. Boys are chasing girls. The white flows waft.

The movie goes on with a thousand scenes. Sad. Funny. Sadly funny. Funnily sad. And more.

At the end, my friends and I not really knowing what we had watched, the white spores came again. 

I said aloud, "A year in Italy at the rise of Mussolini's Fascism."

Oh. My. God.

A canvas of hope. Despair. Laughter. Lust. Mischief. Hate. Death. Life. Birth. Fucking. Eating. Pissing and more.

The movie so moved me, that forty years after first seeing it, I drove in an Alfa Romeo 200 miles out of my way in Italy to visit Fellini's home-town of Rimini, because I needed to see it and breathe the same air he might have breathed.

I don't know if the rise of Amerikan Fascism will be chronicled as well as the rise of Italy's. I know, Amerika's descent will be deeper, darker, crueler and more deadly. And won't be set to the music of Nino Rota--some of the best music ever recorded for the movies.

The apples are picked now. A good 75 pounds of them. They take up every bowl and container my wife owns and our house smells like a symphony. Soon, I will be dragged away from this Apple--my MacBook Pro, and the weekend assignments I have to do and go to work on Macouns, Jonah Golds, Empires, Pink Ladies and more. 

As we think about the passage and the permanence, I leave you, as I do pretty much every year around this time, with this from Mr. Frost.

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

By the way--if you ever have a chance to hear Frost read Frost,

put down your phone and listen. I promise it will do more for your soul than the status meeting you'll be late for. Actually, listen twice through--you'll get eight times the pleasure.


Friday, October 15, 2021

The Great Resignation. ( A Tough One for a Friday.)

The Great Resignation--as journalists, social scientists and economists are calling it--is here. People are leaving their jobs en masse. 

It occurs to me however, that one person's Great Resignation might be another person's Great Awakening.

People aren't leaving the workforce because they don't need to work. They're leaving because they've begun to wake up to the lack of equity--the unfairness--built into the system.

They're Awakening to:

--workers are expected to be loyal but they can expect no loyalty in return.

--workers are expected to work perhaps thousands of hours a year without pay.

--workers are expected to work more than the occasional weekend without additional pay.

--workers are expected to be ok with ending the year with fewer real dollars in their paychecks (after taxes and inflation) than they began the year.

--workers are expected to accept that they have less year after year, rather than more.

--workers are told they must accept factory-like working conditions, chaos and noise because open-plan offices maximize creativity when all they really do is strip away dignity and save the company rent.

--workers no longer regularly receive either raises or cost-of-living increases. They're often lied to about this.

--people with no knowledge of a particular industry--no skin in the game other than money--are running the industry.

--workers are meant to accept compensation inequities where the top of the food-chain makes 200 to 300 times the pay of a median worker.

--workers are tired of working for an industry that disparages the very work the industry is supposed to do. It commoditizes the "unfair advantage," (creativity) and promotes instead that which is a truly a commodity (data.)

--workers never actually see a paycheck or even a pay stub. Everything happens electronically and there is never a handshake or a thank you.

--workers essentially have no interaction with the people and the macro-forces that control their career path and livelihood.

Basically, there are two ways to run any sort of social organization. From a marriage, to a corporation, to a nation-state.

1. WITT. We're in this Together. When people--even those who are nominally unequal--share the risks and the fortunes in equitable proportions.
2. YOYO. You're on Your Own. Where powerful forces make the rules, take the money and blame you for your torpor and vassalhood.

I've been working fairly steadily since I was a child-star back in the early 1960s. I started paying into Social Security way back in 1961 when I was already earning a middle-class income because I had platinum blond hair and disarmingly winsome blue eyes and starred in some minor TV commercials.

I've had in that time maybe 50 jobs. From installing aluminum siding, to working as a night-clerk in a downtown Chicago liquor store, to assistant dean of students at Barnard College to about a dozen and a half agencies.

I've observed that most people enjoy work. They enjoy the fruits of their labor. And the sense that they are taking care of their own and building something, somehow.

What's changed isn't the work ethic of workers. I think societally, we might be having a Popeye moment. "That's all I can stands. I can'ts stands no more."

Maybe people are realizing what you realize when you wake up to the realization that you're in a diseased relationship.

You're putting a lot more into it than your getting out of it.

People are resigning because they're not resigned to accept that inequity.

BTW, if you want a macro-economic look at what's happening today, you might want to check out The Great Leveler by Princeton professor, Walter Scheidel. There's a lot of pretty heavy economics in it, complete with GINI coefficients that put a mere copywriter's brain into a spin cycle.

Nevertheless, if you can stick with it, you might understand something of my generation. I grew up at a time of economic compression--when the distance between the richest and the poorest was narrowing. When there was more fairness in the world.

It would be safe to say, entire generations (myself included) believed society was generally moving in the direction of more equality. Scheidel believes--and I go along with him--that what my generation regarded as normal was really an anomaly. Wealth begets wealth and poverty begets poverty. That's what's happening in the West today and the Great Resignation is just one result.

FWIW, here's the review of the book, since I can't imagine anyone but my brother and nephew, Ben, slogging through it. Mind you, it's a review from the cheery neo-fascists at the Wall Street Journal. So take it with a spoonful of gruel. Mean-spirited gruel.

The Surest Cure for Inequality

The peak of inequality in world history was 1914. What solved it? Total war —and decades of strife. Gregory Clark reviews “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century” by Walter Scheidel.

A British tank in World War I.


In academic economics as in electoral politics, inequality has become a topic of pre-eminent importance. Yet economics has no accepted theory of inequality—no scientific understanding of the mechanisms and processes that create it. Until recently, wealth distribution was regarded by many economists as a minor issue compared with growth. Too much focus on distribution was even considered a threat to growth. The economists who have offered theories of inequality tend to be those on the heterodox fringes: David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Henry George and, more recently, Thomas Piketty. Broadly convincing explanations remain elusive.

Into this vacuum steps an outsider, Walter Scheidel, a historian of ancient Rome and an ingĂ©nue in the brash world of economic analysis. “The Great Leveler” is an astonishing tour de force, a dense 500-page survey of the known history of inequality in all societies, from hunter-gatherers to hedge-fund profiteers. The author believes that settled, stable societies have an inevitable tendency toward greater inequality. The only substantive countervailing forces are all bad news: mass-mobilization wars, social revolution, plague and state collapse. The cure is worse than the disease. Thus in Mr. Scheidel’s telling Lenin, Hitler and Gavrilo Princip did more than the embrace of social democracy to make the 20th century an era of equality.


By Walter Scheidel

Princeton, 504 pages, $35

The re-establishment of stronger states in Europe in the later Middle Ages was associated, Mr. Scheidel argues, with rising inequality—though here the evidence is thin. Before the onset of the Black Death in 1348, political stability created conditions that helped markets and towns flourish, generating a highly unequal society. As the population expanded, many independent peasant cultivators in England and France lost their land and were reduced to day labor. In France, for example, the typical plot size of peasants fell from 25 acres to less than 7 acres between the ninth century and the early 14th century. At the top, great lords magnified their possessions.
Across the globe and across centuries, the author documents inequality increasing during conditions of peace and security in society after society, starting with Ancient Rome. As the empire expanded, Mr. Scheidel explains, the citizen-soldier state was replaced by the imperium, and the senatorial class magnified its wealth across the far-flung territories of the Pax Romana. Even at the level of provincial society, we can see evidence of increasing wealth concentration: Archaeological evidence from Pompeii shows how, in the period of about 160 years before the town’s destruction after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, house sizes became steadily more unequal, as upper-class houses expanded their footprint and middle-class housing disappeared. The scholar Robert Stephan has looked at the variation of square footage in dwelling footprints elsewhere in the empire as a systematic measure of inequality. The dispersion in dwelling sizes in England was larger under Roman rule in England than in the preceding Iron Age or the later early Middle Ages. Centralized states become increasingly unequal states.

Then came the bad news (or good news from the point of view of equality): the catastrophic population losses of the Bubonic Plague era. All across Europe, these losses acted as a great equalizer. England’s population, for example, went from around six million people in 1315 to 2.2 million by 1450. The resulting shortage of workers in the deserted countryside meant that the real wages of unskilled laborers in England soared to levels not seen again until the 20th century. As land rents declined and cities contracted, the incomes and wealth of property owners shrank relative to those of workers. This equalizing trend, Mr. Scheidel notes, was particularly evident in the wealth-distribution records of northern Italian cities.

As the plague lost its grip and population again grew across Europe after 1500, however, the march of inequality resumed. England, the Netherlands and Italy all saw rising inequality in a process that industrialization did nothing to counter. In Dutch cities, one technical measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient on wealth, where higher is more unequal, rose from 0.5 in 1500 to 0.65 by 1750. (For comparison, the current number for the U.S. is 0.40.) In northern Italian cities, the rise was even more dramatic, from 0.65 in 1500 to 0.85 in 1750.

Even in the New World, the land of opportunity, the trend was toward inequality. In the territories of what became the United States, inequality grew steadily during the entire period from 1650 to 1914. In Central and Southern America there were similar disparities. The only counters were the social revolutions, which saw colonies break away from their motherlands.

The tale Mr. Scheidel tells is of a 2,000-year process of disequalization that was halted, in his account, only by the violence, misery and disruption unleashed upon the world in the 20th century—by two world wars and the great Communist revolutions in Russia and China. For him, 1914 appears to have been the peak of all inequality in world history, with the top 1% wealth share in the U.S. and Europe averaging 50% of all wealth, compared with only 35% in 1800.

Afterward, as the author shows, there were notable shifts in the economies of many of the participants in World War I and World War II toward greater income and wealth equality. In the U.S., France, Canada and Japan, for example, the income share of the top 1% fell from an average of 17% in 1939 to 9% by 1945. There was also a compression of wage differentials at the bottom. From top to bottom inequality was seemingly vanquished.

As the great wars become distant memories, however, and as revolutionary ardor matures into materialism and self-seeking, the march of inequality has resumed. And the future of mankind, in Mr. Scheidel’s account, is one of ever increasing inequality—or of violence and turmoil none would wish for.

What about more benign attempts to rein in inequality through policy? Can’t we attribute at least some leveling in the 20th century to the extension of the franchise from elite oligarchs to the common citizen? After presenting his historical account, Mr. Scheidel attempts to investigate these and other questions. With the extension of the franchise, there was a huge rise in the appetite of governments for taxation and spending. Yet various studies, he reports, find no association between the extent of the franchise and inequality. Across 184 countries from 1960 to 2010, for example, there was no significant observed effect of democracy itself compressing income distributions. More specific meliorist institutional measures, such as land reform, Mr. Scheidel argues, tended also to have little effect unless carried out in the context of violent, wholescale revolution. Absent war between China and the U.S., or the European Union breaking into warring kingdoms, there seems to be no prospect of ending the march toward disequalization.

Is this a convincing theory of inequality? No. The factors Mr. Scheidel points to are descriptive regularities, not mechanisms—processes that are observed but not understood. Any projection into the future is uncertain. He presents no Piketty-like rule of wealth acceleration, no law that wealth will accumulate faster than output whenever the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output. There is no social mechanism underlying the apparent centripetal forces of inequality. It all just kinda happens.

In truth, the historical record is a lot thinner and more speculative than Mr. Scheidel acknowledges. And in terms of the 2,000-year record of increasing inequality before the 20th century, there are factors at play that he does not consider. One is the role of interest rates in determining wealth inequality. Income from assets gets capitalized into wealth through the interest rate. The lower interest rates are, the greater the wealth associated with a given stream of property income will be. An important long-run trend in the world over all of recorded history has been toward ever lower interest rates. Risk-free real returns in medieval Europe, such as on farmland, were 10% (farmland was a very safe investment, its value changing little decade from decade). In ancient Babylonia interest rates were at least double that level, according to most scholarly estimates. Returns on much riskier assets, such as U.S. equities, are now only 4%, and real returns on safe assets like government debt are 1%. A long trend toward increasing values for assets such as land, houses and equity makes it harder for people without wealth to accumulate significant wealth through savings from wage earnings or even from property income. This reinforces existing wealth inequalities. And we have no idea what future returns on capital will be.

Total war is certainly linked with declining inequality, but again Mr. Scheidel offers little insight as to why. There were so many individual elements to declining inequality in each country in the war periods: destruction of physical capital, hyperinflation, progressive war taxes, rent controls, unionization. But the total effects were fairly uniform. Is that because the wars accelerated processes already under way? The period of mass conflict, from 1910 to 1955, also coincided with dramatic social movements driven by ideology. Thus Sweden, which was neutral in World War II, saw as great a decline in the income share of the top 1% as the U.S., a major combatant. And even now the countries of greatest equality are those with the highest tax rates, the greatest social spending and the largest degree of unionization: Denmark, Norway, Sweden.

“The Great Leveler” is an important book, but it is not one for the general reader. Despite his background in history, Mr. Scheidel is as much a quant as the most ardent economist. This is history narrated through the medium of Gini indexes, top 1% income shares and regression coefficients. When the elaborate social structure of Florence in 1450 is reduced to a Gini measure of 0.5, general readers may struggle to feel engaged. To be fair, income and wealth inequality are a much more difficult topic to write about for a general audience than warfare, politics, crime, gender or demography. It does not come with simple narratives: personalities, plots and poison. Inequality is a highly abstract subject and one difficult to translate into narrative history.

Further, Mr. Scheidel tends to focus on inequality at the top. The conventional abstract metrics he uses—Gini coefficients, the top wealth shares—give a lot of weight to the superrich. But most people’s perception of inequality is much more driven by what is happening to the income and wealth distribution among the bottom 90%. We much more care about how the middle class is doing relative to the working class, and here history shows a very different trend. The wage premium of skilled workers like carpenters has tended to steadily fall across the centuries, being much greater in medieval Europe than it is now.

So, still wanted: a theory of inequality. And please make it one that can be relayed in 200 pages, with plenty of stories and images.

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Appeared in the January 21, 2017, print edition as '.'