Thursday, March 19, 2009

Your quarter of a million?

A few days ago Rush Limbaugh took a call from a man who agreed that the bonuses paid to AIG executives were too much, and a misuse of "our taxpayer money." Rush is of course always trying to explain, first, that these bonuses were planned and known about a year ago, which makes outrage about them a deliberate class-war sideshow now, to explain further that they represent a fraction of the bailout money that went to AIG and which AIG then disbursed liberally elsewhere, and to explain still further that punishing the successful does not put money in all our pockets. He then led his caller to talk about what he wanted or needed to be successful himself -- since another of his constant messages is that "you are your best resource," that it is still possible to achieve anything in this country.

"What income level do you want, ideally?" Rush asked his caller.
The caller hesitated, not wanting to name a figure. Rush said to him, "Don't be embarrassed to name a figure."
So the caller said he'd like an income of $225,000 a year.

Rush struggled with the silence. You knew what he was thinking. Well, wouldn't we all like to earn that much. The figure was embarrassing, and the caller should have known not to aim so high. Yes, Rush earns far more than that, but he has been working for decades and is a force of nature anyway. It's not that $225,000 a year is impossible for anyone; but it is a very, very high figure for just anyone to quote, and this caller's voice and demeanor marked him as the kind of person who is never going to earn that kind of money. He's never going to deserve it; he's never going to be that valuable to anyone. Rush also spends time on his show explaining that, unfortunately, human beings are not all equal and cannot be made so. They can only be equal before the law, and equally free to make best use -- unpunished, in a free market democracy -- of what abilities and ambitions they have and are willing to use. This man's abilities were clearly not of quarter-million dollar caliber, unless by chance he was an athlete, and at his age (31) he was clearly past being a major athlete.

Rush struggled on, because he does want people to succeed, and because he is mannerly and obviously could not very well say 'I take it back. Not you. You're a doofus.' And technically, theoretically, nothing is standing in this caller's way. "That $225,000 is out there waiting for you," he still said. "The only thing stopping you is you."

Technically true. But the caller hung up on him. Rush acted frustrated but was undoubtedly relieved. That caller knew Rush was not being truthful, not for him personally. No, that quarter million is not out there waiting for him, but why not? In what way was our host, with his "talent on loan from God," not being truthful?

Is that $225,000 out there waiting for you, for me, for anyone? Am I the only thing standing in my way? When Rush asked this man his preferred income level, I answered for myself, too. Last year, at my part time job, I earned about $7000. This year I'll probably earn about $12,000. For years, I was a stay at home mother, earning nothing. I mused as I drove to work, hmm, I'd like ... $20,000 a year. That would be princely, and it's not asking too much. It would only amount to $10 an hour somewhere, full time.

Ah, but doing what? Am I the only thing standing in my way? It occurs to me that there are some things about life that Rush either does not understand or has not experienced, and pointing them out does not necessarily make me a whiner, no more than it makes him a liar or out of touch. These are the things that perhaps inspired our caller to hang up, inarticulately. I can picture him muttering bitterly to himself as he walked away from the phone. You don't get it. Man, you been lucky. We can't all be like you.

My first inclination is to say that Rush has no experience of making his way in the world as an artist. Assuming the point of a princely income is to earn it by doing what we love, as he does, he has been lucky in making a career out of not-art, a career such that his job is not dependent on pleasing gatekeepers who hand out piecework, piecework, at random discretion. Now, he would no doubt roar at this. He is the conservative commentator who has carved out a Grand Canyon-sized niche in talk radio, after eight or nine jobs elsewhere and despite the gates of the entire left wing media being shut as firmly as possible against him and anyone like him, for years. To his caller, he explained that success, his or anyone's, is not magic. He said (paraphrased) "you've got to work hard -- even for successful athletes, ten years of virtually unrecognized work is normal -- and you've got to do what you do better than anybody else."

All right, granted. And yes, he is an artist of a sort, as all performers are. But it is still very possible to do what you do better than anyone else, or at least absolutely as well as anyone else, and still scarcely be seen. Especially in the more traditional arts. His having been fired eight times indicates that he was at least hired eight times. He has earned a living, even under the thumb of superiors who both denied his talent and lacked it themselves. A radio microphone is already a very different and unique tool for its artist than a pen and paper, or a paintbrush or a guitar, are for theirs, and there are lots more people who try handling those. Sheer luck plays into it, sheer timing. There is the problem of people carving out niches when the niche was fresh. Join in, try for that portal yourself, and too many niches all together simply make a big hole in the ground. Is there a broadcaster out there somewhere today, a conservative, who is smarter and funnier than Rush Limbaugh? It's possible. I daresay, his chances of meeting that quarter-million-dollar salary are less, now. And how many bloggers are there, God help us? (In 1996 a couple of economists wrote a book called The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More than the Rest of Us, which I really must read next.)

And there is that other little problem involved in making one's way as an artist -- painter, writer, sculptor, actor, blogger, who knows, local radio broadcaster -- namely, that one can feel compelled to produce things for interior satisfaction, which the world does not feel compelled to pay for. Time is a problem. You can make yourself very unhappy by not producing what your very body tells you you must, in order instead to hold down a real job and aim for that quarter million that spells "success." On the other hand, in order to keep doing at least some art, you may opt for a job to live on which is not terribly interesting or lucrative but that pays bills and leaves you that precious commodity. Time. I'm not sure if that sounds lofty or whiny or both. But it happens. How many Victorian writers spent their days quietly managing bank branch offices, so as to plunge with ink-stained fingers into smoky Gothic mysteries by the fireside at night?

Then -- we jump around, but bloggers do -- there is the problem of illness. On the very day that Rush took this call from someone with big dreams of impossible money, he also told us that he had never filed a claim with his insurance company, which happens of course to be AIG. Never filed a claim. I take that to mean he has never been seriously ill, nor had a dependent seriously ill. He does not know, therefore, what illness does just for a start to the finances, the energy level, and the propensity for risk-taking of your average human being. He does not know how it affects what economists call the opportunity costs of any decision in life. You've got an illness, but you've got a job with good health insurance. You live in a state with a high income tax, and scheduled to go higher soon. If you had real ambitions for that quarter million dollar income, you would let nothing stand in the way of your picking up and moving to a state like Florida, where there is no state income tax. Think of the benefits. But think of the costs. Think of the stress, which is bad for your health. Rush did it, packed up and moved. Rush was never ill.

And there's family. I take it Rush has none. Wife and children are bound up in one's ambitions, success, plans to move, hell, -- in one's time and ability to make art. Not having them, for whatever reasons, opens up wider and fresher avenues, I imagine, leading toward that income. Not having them, for whatever reasons, also is a kind of choice, and I must say a kind of failure. You're free. But what matters?

There are littler things, blocking the road to "your" princely income. An unwillingness even to commute beyond a certain point. An unwillingness to pursue what seems a superfluous and debt-laden education. An unwillingness to lead a life without leisure.

Does all this and more, whatever you can think of, amount to standing in one's own way? I suppose truthfully it does, but then I ask, what is the point of that quarter million dollars, in the end? Oh, heavens, I won't insult anyone's intelligence by saying that money can't buy happiness. I like the delightful and wise quote from Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, when he scolds sixteen-year-old Scarlett O'Hara for "palming off that twaddle" on him: "Generally it can, and when it can't, it can buy some of the most remarkable substitutes." But the platitude writers are correct, too, when they announce you can't take it with you. Shakespeare was right when he noticed that in the end, we are all perforce satisfied with two paces of earth.

"Do what you love, and the money will follow." Another platitude writer wrote that, and I've heard it repeated by actual human beings. After more than thirty years' experience working, however clumsily, for success in arts more traditional than radio broadcasting, I can answer: It might. It might not. Add this. Amid all the little things standing in our way, most of them self-devised, sometimes history plays a trick on us and we get great big things standing in our way. Like a new president who is willing to destroy the foundations of the best wealth-creating engine in human history, because he's been taught that it doesn't work fairly and he agrees. It could be worse. Sometimes there were wars or plagues.

Are you, only, standing in the way of your success? Is success mostly wealth? It comprises a whale of a lot of it. But I suspect that Rush is himself the sort of person who would do what he does for love, regardless of income. I suspect he would staff a ham radio station of one and still talk about the Constitution and economic reality to an audience of three, if those were the only circumstances under which he could fulfill his vocation, which is fundamentally to teach. I suspect he may have asked that caller to phrase his ambitions in terms of ideal income level because he knew a dollar amount was how that caller would define success. (How predictable, really then, was the caller's wildly unrealistic estimate even of that. No, it doesn't buy all happinesses.)

What's your ideal of success would probably have been the more sophisticated question, and I'm sure Rush would have asked that of a more sophisticated caller. Whatever your answer to that, the proper qualifier is yes, given some historical luck, only you are standing in your way. It isn't all money. And what a good thing that we can work our way to this understanding, just at a time when we've got this new Lord President who so hates grubby, icky money. Well, hates yours, anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment