Why We Can’t Wait (Modern Library Nonfiction #78)

(This is the twenty-second entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.)

It was a warm day in April when Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. It was the thirteenth and the most important arrest of his life. King, wearing denim work pants and a gray fatigue shirt, was manacled along with fifty others that afternoon, joining close to a thousand more who had bravely submitted their bodies over many weeks to make a vital point about racial inequality and the unquestionable inhumanity of segregation.

The brave people of Birmingham had tried so many times before. They had attempted peaceful negotiation with a city that had closed sixty public parks rather than uphold the federal desegregation law. They had talked with businesses that had debased black people by denying them restaurant service and asking them to walk through doors labeled COLORED. Some of these atavistic signs had been removed, only for the placards to be returned to the windows once the businesses believed that their hollow gestures had been fulfilled. And so it became necessary to push harder — peacefully, but harder. The Birmingham police unleashed attack dogs on children and doused peaceful protesters with high-pressure water hoses and seemed hell-bent on debasing and arresting the growing throngs who stood up and said, without raising a fist and always believing in hope and often singing songs, “Enough. No more.”

There were many local leaders who claimed that they stood for the righteous, but who turned against King. White leaders in Birmingham believed — not unlike pro-segregation Governor George Wallace just three months earlier — that King’s nonviolent protests against segregation would incite a torrent of violence. But the violence never came from King’s well-trained camp and had actually emerged from the savage police force upholding an unjust law. King had been very careful with his activists, asking them to sign a ten-point Commitment Card that included these two vital points:

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

Two days before King’s arrest, Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and a man so vile and heartless that he’d once egged on Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders to a pulp for fifteen minutes as the police stood adjacent and did not intervene, had issued an injunction against the protests. He raised the bail bond from $200 to $1,500 for those who were arrested. (That’s $10,000 in 2019 dollars. When you consider the lower pay and the denied economic opportunities for Birmingham blacks, you can very well imagine what a cruel and needless punishment this was for many protesters who lived paycheck to paycheck.)

And so on Good Friday, it became necessary for King, along with his invaluable fellow leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to walk directly to Birmingham Jail and sing “We Shall Overcome.” King took a very big risk in doing so. But he needed to set an example for civil disobedience. He needed to show that he was not immune to the sacrifices of this very important fight. The bondsman who provided the bail for the demonstrators told King that he was out as King pondered the nearly diminished funds for the campaign. In jail, King would not be able to use his contacts and raise the money that would keep his campaign going. Despite all this, and this is probably one of the key takeaways from this remarkable episode in political history, King was dedicated to practicing what he preached. As he put it:

How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning and then excused himself?

Many who watched this noble march, the details of which are documented in S. Jonathan Bass’s excellent book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, dressed in their Sunday best out of respect for King’s efforts. Police crept along with the marchers before Connor gave the final order. Shuttlesworth had left earlier. King, Abernathy, and their fellow protestors were soon surrounded by paddy wagons and motorcycles and a three-wheel motorcart. They dropped to their knees in peaceful prayer. The head of the patrol squeezed the back of King’s belt and escorted him into a police car. The police gripped the back of Abernathy’s shirt and steered him into a van.

King was placed in an isolation cell. Thankfully, he did not suffer physical brutality, but the atmosphere was dank enough to diminish a weaker man’s hope. As he wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” Jail officials refused a private meeting between King and his attorney. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff, sent a telegram to President Kennedy. The police did not permit King to speak to anyone for at least twenty-four hours.

As his confidantes gradually gained permission to speak to King, King became aware of a statement published by eight white clergy members in Birmingham — available here. This octet not only urged the black community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, but risibly suggested that King’s campaign was “unwise and untimely” and could be settled by the courts. They completely missed the point of what King was determined to accomplish.

King began drafting a response, scribbling around the margins of a newspaper. Abernathy asked King if the police had given him anything to write on. “No,” King replied, “I’m using toilet paper.” Within a week, he had paper and a notepad. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” contained in his incredibly inspiring book Why We Can’t Wait, is one of the most powerful statements ever written about civil rights. It nimbly argues for the need to take direct action rather than wait for injustice to be rectified. It remains an essential text for anyone who professes to champion humanity and dignity.

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King’s “Letter” against the eight clergymen could just as easily apply to many “well-meaning” liberals today. He expertly fillets the white clergy for their lack of concern, pointing out that “the superficial kind of social analysis that deal with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He points out that direct action is, in and of itself, a form of negotiation. The only way that an issue becomes lodged in the national conversation is when it becomes dramatized. King advocates a “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” — something that seems increasingly difficult for people on social media to understand as they block viewpoints that they vaguely disagree with and cower behind filter bubbles. He is also adamantly, and rightly, committed to not allowing anyone’s timetable to get in the way of fighting a national cancer that had then ignobly endured for 340 years. He distinguishes between the just and the unjust law, pointing out that “one has a moral responsibility to obey unjust laws.” But he is very careful and very clear about his definitions:

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

This is a cogent philosophy applicable to many ills beyond racism. This is radicalism in all of its beauty. This is precisely what made Martin Luther King one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. For me, Martin Luther King remains a true hero, a model for justice, humility, peace, moral responsibility, organizational acumen, progress, and doing what’s right. But it also made King dangerous enough for James Earl Ray, a staunch Wallace supporter, to assassinate him on April 4, 1968. (Incidentally, King’s family have supported Ray’s efforts to prove his innocence.)

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Why We Can’t Wait‘s scope isn’t just limited to Birmingham. The book doesn’t hesitate to cover a vast historical trajectory that somehow stumps for action in 1963 and in 2019. It reminds us that much of what King was fighting for must remain at the forefront of today’s progressive politics, but also must involve a government that acts on behalf of the people: “There is a right and a wrong side in this conflict and the government does not belong the middle.” Unfortunately, the government has doggedly sided against human rights and against the majestic democracy of voting. While Jim Crow has thankfully been abolished, the recent battle to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, shows that systemic racism remains very much alive and that the courts for which the eight white Birmingham clergy professed such faith and fealty are stacked against African-Americans. (A 2018 Harvard study discovered that counties freed from federal oversight saw a dramatic drop in minority voter turnout.)

Much as the end of physical slavery inspired racists to conjure up segregation as a new method of diminishing African-Americans, so too do we see such cavalier and dehumanizing “innovations” in present day racism. Police shootings and hate crimes are all driven by the same repugnant violence that King devoted his life to defeating.

The economic parallels between 1963 and 2019 are also distressingly acute. In Why We Can’t Wait, King noted that there were “two and one-half times as many jobless Negros as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man.” Fifty-six years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that African Americans are nearly twice as unemployed as whites in a flush economic time with a low unemployment rate, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the median household income for African-Americans in 2017 was $40,258 compared to $68,145 for whites. In other words, a black family now only makes 59% of the median income earned by a white family.

If these statistics are supposed to represent “progress,” then it’s clear that we’re still making the mistake of waiting. These are appalling and unacceptable baby steps towards the very necessary racial equality that King called for. White Americans continue to ignore these statistics and the putatively liberal politicians who profess to stand for fairness continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to feral wrongs that affect real lives. As Ashley Williams learned in February 2016, white Democrats continue to dismiss anyone who challenges them on their disgraceful legacy of incarcerating people of color. The protester is “rude,” “not appropriate,” or is, in a particularly loaded gerund, “trespassing.” “Maybe you can listen to what I have to say” was Hillary Clinton’s response to Williams, to which one rightfully replies in the name of moral justice, “Hillary, maybe you’re the one here who needs to listen.”

Even Kamala Harris, now running for President, has tried to paint herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” when her record reveals clear support for measures that actively harm the lives of black people. In 2015, Harris opposed a bill that demanded greater probing into police officer shootings. That same year, she refused to support body cams, only to volte-face with egregious opportunism just ten days before announcing her candidacy. In the case of George Gage, Harris held back key exculpatory evidence that might have freed a man who did not have criminal record. Gage was forced to represent himself in court and is now serving a 70-year sentence. In upholding these savage inequities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to out Kamala Harris as a disingenuous fraud. Like many Democrats who pay mere lip service to policies that uproot lives, she is not a true friend to African Americans, much less humanity. It was a hardly a surprise when Black Lives Matter’s Johnetta Elzie declared that she was “not excited” about Harris’s candidacy back in January. After rereading King and being reminded of the evils of casual complicity, I can honestly say that, as someone who lives in a neighborhood where the police dole out regular injustices to African-Americans, I’m not incredibly thrilled about Harris either.

But what we do have in this present age is the ability to mobilize and fight, to march in the streets until our nation’s gravest ills become ubiquitously publicized, something that can no longer be ignored. What we have today is the power to vote and to not settle for any candidate who refuses to heed the realities that are presently eating our nation away from the inside. If such efforts fail or the futility of protesting makes one despondent, one can still turn to King for inspiration. King sees the upside in a failure, galvanizing the reader without ever sounding like a Pollyanna. Pointing to the 1962 sit-ins in Albany, Georgia, King observes that, while restaurants remained segregated after months of protest, the activism did result in more African-Americans voting and Georgia at long last electing “the first governor [who] pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.”

It’s sometimes difficult to summon hope when the political clime presently seems so intransigent, but I was surprised to find myself incredibly optimistic and fired up after rereading Why We Can’t Wait for the first time in more than two decades. This remarkable book from a rightfully towering figure seems to have answered every argument that milquetoasts produce against radicalism. No, we can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait. We must act today.

Next Up: James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom!

John Lanchester (The Bat Segundo Show)

John Lanchester appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #471. He is most recently the author of Capital.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should stop sending postcards to random people.

Author: John Lanchester

Subjects Discussed: Mysterious postcards, stalkers, Ron Charles’s review, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, people who live in close geographical terms who don’t talk with each other, parallel private lives that barely touch, “community” as a cant term, postcards as a plot device, planning out Capital, using Scrivener, E.M. Forster and Nabokov, the relationship between I.O.U. and Capital, anticipating a fictitious economic meltdown before the real one, the problems with explanation within fiction, Booth Tarkington, novels about money, describing economic phenomena within fiction, how explanation breaks fiction, the “Tell me professor” problem, audience expectation, what you can do with nonfiction that you can’t do with fiction, the problems with unlikeliness, William Goldman, why bubbles and busts are all the same story and how they can be different in fiction, the virtues of obliviousness, Christian Lorentzen’s “Fictitious Values,” Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, why lawyers, cops, and writers can’t watch television, Californication, irreducibly complex vocations, people who work in the finance sector who have no idea what they’re doing, John Banville, cutting yourself off at the bar of curiosity, working out rules for what you could make up and what you cannot, how different novels generate their own sets of rules, whether or not the adverb gets a needlessly bad rap in fiction, whether or not American writing has converged in voice in recent years, getting a filtered view of another nation’s literary output, the influence of Wes Anderson on younger writers, self-conscious quirkiness, omnidirectional irony, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” New Sincerity, Sam Sacks’s review, why we don’t see the Banksy-like Smithy at work, deciding who to depict working within a novel, throwing out characters, why Capital required a large canvass, the virtues of a gap between drafts, Paul ValĂ©ry, and writing a novel “as exactly as intended.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: To go to the “We Want What You Have” campaign, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles made a comparison that also struck with me, that the postcard harassment in this book is not unlike the anonymous phone calls in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. So I’m wondering, because this is such a pivotal narrative element upon which the book rests, where did this come from? I’m guessing this book was a little early — before the London riots. So was it Spark? Were you the recipient of too much junk mail? How did this exactly happen?

Lanchester: No. I was thinking about — I love that book, by the way. And if there is a literary referent, that’s a good one. But I was thinking about the fact that you get — and I don’t know whether this is a London thing, a UK thing, a big city thing, or a thing about modernity or maybe a thing just about some cities as opposed to others. But the sense that people living in very close geographical and physical proximity don’t actually know each other at all. They don’t know anything about each other’s lives. They have nothing in common. And the term much beloved of politicians — “community” — is actually a cant term, I think. It really describes something that people pretend exists, but a lot of the time doesn’t. Communities in a geographical sense, in my experience living in cities, just simply don’t exist. It’s certainly true of my experience in London life. And I wanted to have a novel that had the sense of these parallel private lives that barely touch, and then to have something that forced them into contact with each other and gathered up these strands of these different lives. And the idea of these postcards came from thinking about what people in the street actually have in common. And, in a sense, the main thing they have in common is that they live in a place other people want to live.

Correspondent: It’s rather ironic, in light of the fact that here in the United States we’re seeing our postal service decline. It will get to the point where what we get in the post — well, we’re not going to get much, if anything at all. So I think you’ve reached that possible maximum window of what could unite a community. But this does beg the question of, well, can you, in fact, use a plot device like this to unite a community composed of a Muslim family, a soccer player. You have a “Polish plumber” type. I’m curious as to whether communities really are united around the lines of a plot device or if it takes a plot device now for us to consider the great cosmos of Pepys Road in this or London or anything right now. Can the novel unite community in a way that, say, other forms cannot?

Lanchester: I think one of the basic movements you get in a story, or in stories in general, is that thing of strands being gathered together. And I think that sense of these things that seem to be disparate that actually do have a cohesion — that’s a very kind of fundamental underlying dynamic of lots of stories. It’s also a kind of story I really like. I like that feeling of gathering together. I mean, I suppose there’s a melancholy undercurrent to the thought that without those cards, these people actually don’t really know each other. And without an effort of weathering the imagination, I think, a lot of the time we don’t know each other. And I did want that sense in which they knew each other to feel slightly fragile. Because actually it would be very easy for it not to happen. And, as I said, that’s my personal experience of the city. That there is this thing about immensely close physical proximity being sort of shadowed by the fact that actually we don’t want to know too much about each other.

Correspondent: Well, speaking of knowing about one another, the feeling I got when reading this book was that often a chapter would spring forth from another chapter. That a particular character such as Parker would then get his own little hotel room chapter and that sometimes that narrative tension produced a desire or curiosity or a need to explore another angle of this vast community. I know that you planned much of Capital in advance. But I’m wondering to what degree you strayed from the map that you laid down when writing this novel? IF you drift away from your map in the act of writing and revising, do you need to go back and modify the floor plan? How does this work for you?

Lanchester: Well, you’re right. I did spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve sort of described to myself as the architecture of it. The structures of the story and who goes what when. My memory is that I had — it was the equivalent of index cards. I say the equivalent because it was actually this software program called Scrivener. I write in longhand.

Correspondent: Oh, you used Scrivener.

Lanchester: I’ve been using Scrivener. I’ve never used a computer program to write a novel before, but Scrivener was very helpful because of this index card thing that I could then move around. The chapters or the scenes too. And I kept running through that rhythm of what when. And I think I had it pretty thoroughly mapped. But only I think on a very granular level of exactly what I’d say for the first quarter or third. And then once I’d got through that, the chapters further ahead did keep changing order as I was coming closer to them. In order to have that sense of “Oh, actually, no, I’m going to need that bit there just to change the tone.” Or “It’s been too long since we last had so and so back now.” And there was a lot of juggling and a lot of jiggling and a lot of swapping A with B and C with D and X with Y. But not very much going outside the framework of it. But in my view, it’s a pretty accommodating framework. There was quite a lot of room for the characters inside it. But I think in terms of genuine things — the E.M. Forster thing about characters escaping. That didn’t really happen. But I’ve always rather liked Vladimir Nabokov’s reply to this.

Correspondent: Yes.

Lanchester: “Forster’s books are so boring that you couldn’t blame his characters for wanting to escape” And I actually think both parts of that — the structure is pretty determined in my books, but the things that the characters do and say within that structure I find constantly surprising. I find both halves of that to be the case.

Correspondent: The questions I have though is that if a character is going to act in a certain way or behave in a certain way that is in defiance of the plan — and it’s interesting that you use A, B, C, D in this answer because in the course of the book we often get these little A, B, Cs of the character mind and so forth. Do you have a situation where you lose the thread of a character because a character’s going to act in a particular way when you’re laying it down on the page? And the other question I had, sort of related to this, is, well, we do know that you wrote a book called I.O.U., Whoops! in the UK. And if you are writing in some sense in response to the 2008 economic meltdown, and if you are to some degree enslaved by newspaper headlines, what does that do to you from a novelist’s standpoint to corral this, what I would presume to be, tightly enmeshed plan? That if you stray from it, it causes more time, more difficulty, and so forth.

Lanchester: Well, it was the other way around. Because I started in 2005, early 2006. And I felt certain that there was a bust coming. I mean, certain enough to bet years on writing the book. And it was very important that, right from the start, the reader knows something that the characters don’t. That the reader could see this thing coming that they’re all oblivious of. And partly I was just very interested in obliviousness. And I had a very strong sense that there was this kind of implosion or meltdown, that things had gone out of hand. And so I started writing the book with that kind of shape in mind. And if there hadn’t been a crash, it would almost be the other way around. If there hadn’t been a crash, I really would be in trouble.

The Bat Segundo Show #471: John Lanchester (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #297.

Ellen Ruppel Shell is most recently the author of Cheap. The book was also featured in an in-depth five-part discussion with several thoughtful people, which you can investigate here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bargain hunting for alcohol.

Author: Ellen Ruppel Shell

Subjects Discussed: Pinpointing the phenomenon of discount culture, Edward Bernays, bargain hunting, game theory, Gresham’s law, fixed pricing vs. elastic pricing, John Wanamaker and the price tag, haggling, thought experiments concerning the powerless buyer, mattresses and reference prices, discount pain medication and less effective treatment, the placebo effect, Jason Furman, Jerry Hausman, and the underestimated price benefits on Walmart, not accounting for quality when considering working-class Walmart benefits, iPhone pricing, dishwashing liquid and the pennies price trap, manipulating public opinion, Whole Foods and the decline in demand for luxury goods during 2008, Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” outlet malls, buying one more thing because of a shopping cart, shrimp’s move from a delicacy to a cheap and ubiquitous food, IKEA’s illegal wood-cutting, “out of sight, out of mind” business practices, the Chinese “luxury” of human rights, Henry Ford’s virtue of a worker owning his own car, the rise of disposable employees in the 1990s, at will employment, the lost social contract between the company and the employee, labor aristocracy, workers monitored by the corporations, deficient pencils, T-shirts that work, thought experiments about minimal manufacturing standards, the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States, Andrew Jackson, and the financial panic of 1837, globalism, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, and Douglas Rushkoff’s Life, Inc..

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

ersCorrespondent: You bring up Gresham’s law a few times in the book. That principle in which bad money drives out the good. Your example involves watered down milk over purer milk. But as you point out both in the book, with the idea of Americans having less spending money for T-shirts and lettuce, and in this particular idea that you just said in your last answer about looking for the ultimate bargain, if we have indeed become accustomed to our watered down milk, why then would we start accustomizing ourselves to purer milk? Or this higher aspect of craftsmanship? If there is no economic incentive for us to do so, then surely are we trapped in this cycle of bad money driving out the good?

Ruppel Shell: Well, that’s a really good question. And Gresham’s law is a very important concept — I think — for us to keep in mind. Gresham’s law — the so-called bad money driving out good — was illustrated, as you mention, with this milk example. And that is, if there are merchants or retailers selling watered down milk at 80 cents a gallon. And this is just theory. We know we don’t pay 80 cents a gallon anymore for milk. But if they’re selling watered milk for 80 cents a gallon and full milk for $1.20 a gallon, and they write down the label, “This is watered down milk. This is pure milk,” people who want a bargain or who want to pay less buy the watered down milk. And there’s no problem there. They know what they’re getting. But if it becomes the case that watered down milk gets sold as milk — just milk, okay — both cartons were sold as milk and were charged 90 cents, it seems that we’re getting a bargain when we buy this watered milk. Because we just assume it’s milk, okay? And those who try and sell full milk at $1.20 a gallon will go out of business because of this low price. We’re driven by price, not quality, right? We’re looking at the price. And they will go out of business. So pretty soon, everyone is selling watered down milk at 90 cents, and we all think we’re getting a bargain. And this is the metaphor I use for American retail culture today. Many of us are buying what I consider to be — including myself; I include myself in this — watered down milk and paying a low price for it, and thinking we’re getting a bargain. But we’re not getting a bargain. We’re getting watered down milk at a somewhat higher price than we might be paying if all the actors were transparent. If we really knew what we were getting.

And another thing I say in the book is that knowledge in the marketplace is probably the most valuable thing. Actually knowing what you’re getting. But in global retail culture, it’s very, very difficult to know what you’re getting. It’s very difficult. The Internet hasn’t helped us all that much. There’s all sorts of tricks that retailers use to hide the product’s background and the manufacturing techniques that go into building up products. It’s very, very difficult to know. And I go into the many tricks in the book. And I won’t bore you to death today with all the tricks. But so many of us go into retail stores not knowing what we’re getting. So what we are is price-driven. Since it’s the only thing, the only so-called objective factor is price and that’s how we make our comparisons. And one of the things I point out in the book is, in fact, pricing is not objective. It’s probably one of the most subjective factors in purchasing. But we think it’s objective and so we use it as a marker.

Correspondent: Well, there’s also the innovation of the price tag, and the fact that you no longer have a scenario in which the buyer can in fact haggle with the seller. That relationship has completely changed in the last 120 years. And I’m wondering if you feel that, if we were to restore that particular impulse, we might perhaps drive out this additional impulse. This present impulse. I mean, we go to Kayak to get the best flight deal. We go to Google Shopping to find out who’s selling that iPhone, that iPod, or what not at the lowest possible price. And yet at the same time, price is elastic, as you point out in the book. The common example used is: when the iPhone initially came out, it was marked $200 more than what it was two months later. And a lot of people were upset by this. So if the buyer has no control over the price, then I’m wondering if offering some kind of return to haggling in some sense might be part of the solution here. Or is our relationship with, for example, Third World Labor so interdependent upon cheap labor and cheap goods that it’s impossible now?

Ruppel Shell: I think haggling over price has become quite difficult for the very reasons I cited before. We have real difficulty knowing what things are worth. And you talk about the price tag, that’s true. The price tag is a more recent innovation than I think people realize. It’s about a 120 year old invention, as you say, invented by a retailer named Wanamaker, who was actually among one of the first people to buy the notion of sales. He was actually a really good guy. His idea was that his own employees should be able to afford the things that he had. He devised the wholesale model. The low-cost model. He kind of popularized that model. And after that, the model was kind of perverted by a colleague of his — Frank Woolworth, who many of us have probably heard about historically — who believed that the way to keep prices low was to pay his clerks as little as possible and to deskill the position of clerk. That means that they had very little knowledge. Very little authority. And he would pay them $2-3 a week, which forced them to live at home with their parents and allowed them very little latitude. So the Woolworth model is a more typical model in some of the discount empires today — the most famous being Walmart, in which employees are paid quite poorly on average and there’s a very, very high turnover. So that’s the model. The Walmart model was actually a very old model that was started by Frank Woolworth.

But to respond to your question about whether I think unfixing the prices, freeing the prices, allowing them to haggle over price would be helpful, it’s an interesting idea. And I could imagine it happening. I think certainly when we buy a used car, for example, we apply that method still. There are still things we do haggle over. When we go to a flea market, we can haggle. But in general, I don’t think we’re going to lose the price tag. I don’t think we’re going to go back. What I’m suggesting that consumers do is think a lot about the object and less about the price.

BSS #297: Ellen Ruppel Shell (Download MP3)

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The Publishing Industry: An Economic Thought Experiment

Case Study 1: During Presidents Day Weekend, the software company Valve tried out an experiment. Valve, the company behind the successful Half-Life franchise, temporarily halved the price for Left 4 Dead, a cooperative first-person shooter title, from $49.99 to $24.99, over the course of a few days through its centralized Steam client. The results exceeded Valve’s wildest expectations. Sales rose 3,000 percent, and the revenue generated over the weekend dwarfed the game’s sales during its launch. By temporarily offering the game at a price point that was affordable to everybody, and making the game instantly downloadable, not only was Valve able to breathe life into a four month-old game, but they were able to get more people attracted to the product. Valve’s DRM policy is fairly straightforward. If you purchased a game, you can download the game on another computer, should you login as that user. (This was, incidentally, how I was able to redownload Half-Life 2 last year after a move, when I had accidentally deleted my Steam files and couldn’t find the original disc that I had purchased. One overnight download and I was back in action, happily fragging alien creatures.)

There are a number of important points here.

1. Unlike the Kindle or the eReader, there isn’t an expensive entry point here. You don’t have to pay $400 to get started on Steam. You can download the client for free on the hardware you already have and just pay for the games. The cost is minimal and affordable.

2. Unlike the Kindle, the DRM rights aren’t limited to the device or a singular computer (unlike last year’s Spore DRM controversy). If your hard drive goes kaput, then you can download the game again on another computer. Simply identify yourself through your Steam ID, and you can download the game on as many PCs as you want.

3. By offering a variable price point that considered what the general (and probably out-of-work) consumer wanted, Valve was able to generate more interest in the title than they anticipated.

Case Study 2: For seven years, the comic book industry has offered Free Comic Book Day. The idea is this. The general consumer goes into a store, gets a few free comic books, and is reminded why comics are great in the first place. The consumer divagates through a store and purchases more titles. And the whole thing gets considerable media attention.

The smart retailers, like Mike Sterling, spiff up their stores and offer additional in-store sales: 10% off graphic novels, four for the price of three on manga. (And in Sterling’s case, the graphic novel sales alone paid for the cost of the FCBD floppies.) You get the community involved by making celebratory cakes. You get to find out what titles get people excited. You get to form relationships with potential new customers. You move product. (For Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find owner Shelton Drum, FCBD is one of the top three sales days of the year.) You get to demonstrate to people why they need to keep going to a comic book store. And, like the Valve experiment, there’s no expensive entry point. Plus, the consumers will walk away from the store with something.

Case Study 3: Board game manufacturers are now considering something that worked very well during the Great Depression. If you offer an American family a reasonably priced form of entertainment that will last for a long time, they may very well set aside $20 to buy the product during lean times. (According to a Hasbro spokesman, board games and puzzle sales rose 2% in 2008.)

Case Study 4: Soft Skull had a surprisingly profitable year in 2008 because the efforts here were focused on (1) knowing the audience and (2) working hard to connect the audience as intimately and personally as possible. (In other words, if you treat your audience like some dopey general demographic, why on earth would they bother to buy your product?)

* * *

So what do we take away from all this? How did these successes emerge during a recession? In each case, the individual’s daily realities were respected. There probably isn’t a lot of money to go around in the household, but there was just enough cash for a micropayment. The individual wasn’t asked to invest money she didn’t have in some fancy-schmancy technological doodad before purchasing an affordable form of entertainment. The individual received an affordable long-term option that would keep her entertained or occupied for many hours. The individual did not have to deal with invasive DRM that suggested she was a criminal. The individual was listened to and treated with respect by the retailer. And the retailer never assumed that it would make a sale. But the retailer likewise had opportunities to listen to what the audience wanted and to find out what it may be doing wrong.

So if there is a modicum of money to be made in a limping economy, why aren’t today’s publishers and book retailers accounting for these realities?

Most people who are now out of work cannot afford a $30 hardcover, let alone a $400 Kindle. And yet corporate arrogance keeps these units at prices unreasonable to someone unemployed who needs a little entertainment during an economic downturn. And what is the result? Anger boils to the surface. Long-term relationships with potential customers suffer because the corporate overlords remain inflexible on price point.

So if you’re a publisher or a bookseller, consider this. If you know that people can afford a $10 hardcover (as opposed to a $30 hardcover), why in the hell aren’t you learning from these examples? Why aren’t you offering a Valve-like time window where people can walk into a bookstore and purchase a few $10 hardcovers over a weekend? And why aren’t you promoting the hell out of this? Why isn’t there a Free Book Day in which you get to introduce people to the joys of books and you get to know your customers? Why aren’t you forming intimate and personal connections with readers so that they’ll continue to buy your products? And why aren’t you considering that they really don’t have a hell of a lot of cash to throw around right now?

Are you willing to take a hit on the first spate of units, much as Valve did, if there’s the possibility that you may just hit a thundering mother lode after the initial curve? Or do you want to continue to turn off readers?

Can you truly afford to refer to the territory between the coasts as “flyover states” when there are good people there who want to enjoy books right now? If you’re an author or a publicist, can you afford to thumb your nose up at any media opportunity that isn’t the New York Times Book Review? Or are you not really all that interested in establishing relationships? If you’re a newspaper or a magazine, why aren’t you citing the blogs or providing helpful URLs to the blogs that break the stories or make the connections? Why aren’t you hiring bloggers to write the articles? Don’t you realize that online audiences might come your way if they know that a particular voice is attached? And here’s a bold concept to consider. If you took the top 10,000 bloggers on Technorati and paid each of them $40,000 a year — a livable wage that would permit them all to carry out their work, which could also include serious investigations — that’s a cost of $400 million. For $400 million a year, someone could get the top 10,000 bloggers reporting for newspapers and seamlessly integrate their content into the great whole. And the newspapers could offer copy editing and journalistic resources so that their voices might improve. (Of course, you’d have to accept their unadulterated voices. For these voices, differing from the mainstream, are what caused these bloggers to rise up in the first place.)

If today’s publishers, booksellers, and media outlets hope to answer these questions and produce results similar to the above four case studies, then bolder ideas and experiments need to be attempted and shared with transparency in mind. It is not economically feasible to sit back and wait for the magic results of the stimulus package to trickle around. The current Dow Jones declivity has demonstrated the follies of lame ducks. The previous ways of doing things may very well be at an end: possibly with some permanence. But we won’t know this for sure until those in positions of power attempt a little innovation and modify the current formulas that aren’t working. Change, it seems, was something we hoped somebody else would do. But it’s now become quite apparent that today’s real innovators are those with the courage to take hold of their own destinies.

[UPDATE: Since this post, like many of these lengthy ones, originated from thoughts and musings I expressed on Twitter, here are a few related thoughts from others on the subject. @jimmydare observes that Orbit is experimenting with the $1 ebook. @AnnKingman pointed out that Record Store Day was a huge success for her local record store. (More details on what goes on at Record Store Day here.) @thebookmaven suggests that a Free Book Day might be one way that independent bookstores can compete with ebooks, and also suggests a $5 Book of Your Choice Day.]

“Now I Understand That Frustration…”

Or does he? Has Rep. Paul Kanjorski ever known a day without a hot meal? Or a day in which he had to scrape together change from under the sofa to buy groceries so that he could feed his family? Has he ever fallen behind on rent? Utilities? The electric bill? You see, those are the facts that millions of Main Street Americans — many of them recently unemployed — are now living. Or is Kanjorski one of those types who believes that one cannot live in New York City on less than $500K a year? Rep. Kanjorski’s claim in the above clip — that the world economy would have collapsed within 24 hours had not guarantee money been granted to banks — is, to say the least, highly suspect and deserves careful and detailed scrutiny by economists. Like the supply-side schemes of the past, the money has not trickled down. And if the Democrats cannot produce tangible evidence that it will trickle down, then they must be called on the carpet. Assuming that the carpet does not fray up before a reasonable answer.

The Bat Segundo Show: Steven Greenhouse

Steven Greenhouse appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #213. He is the New York Times labor reporter and the author of The Big Squeeze. My review of the book can be found here.

Condition of the Show: Reporting upon the darker truths of America.

Author: Steven Greenhouse

Subjects Discussed: Whether economic factors of the 1970s or Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous maxim caused the current strife between corporations and workers, the social contract that came from 20th century labor negotiations, why workers settle for less, temps exploited by HP, being treated like dirt, mock memos circulated to cope with downsizing, The Office, why workers aren’t revolting, Bowling Alone, The Pursuit of Loneliness, how what we do for fun has transformed in the past few decades, the worker-friendly company policies of Patagonia, prodigious cafeteria options for workers, the shocking disparity of parental leave policies in different nations, tracking the lunch hours of workers, computers vs. martinet managers, call center workers, workers who slack off vs. a robust economy, Cooperative Home Care Associates and the benefits of workers on the board of directors, independent contractors, job security, the New York Times hiring freeze, Neutron Jack Welch, The Disposable American, companies who display “too much loyalty” to workers, workers who “get used to” hard and immoral company tactics, climbing the Wal-Mart ladder, the workplace as a cult, unrealistic American dreams, billable hours, the allure of promotion, Greenhouse’s proposed solutions, and a living minimum wage.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Look at Jennifer Miller, who is this woman who worked at HP for ten years. She didn’t have to work as a temp for that long. She could have easily cut out. She could have gone and demanded more from the HP managers. So I would argue that the workers who have allowed themselves to be placed in these particular conditions are perhaps just as responsible as these businesses and these corporations that are trying to squeeze out more profits and also trying to combat the influx of low-cost imports.

Greenhouse: Again, Ed, you ask a good question, and it’s hard to say. Jennifer Miller was a worker at HP. High school graduate. Very little college. She started as a McDonald’s worker. She became a McDonald’s manager. She got tired of that. Then she got a permanent job at HP. That job was sent overseas. So she was kind of bought out. Then a few months later, she was approached. “How would you like to return to HP as a temp?” She thought it was going to be a two-month gig. And as I explained in the book, she was there for ten years as a temp. She said that the job was good. It used a lot of advanced skills. She was often treated with respect, but she said the bad thing was she was a temp and didn’t get the same benefits as HP workers. She didn’t quite get the respect. So you ask why didn’t she quit?

Correspondent: And I should point out that she was even barred from the company parties. I mean, this is a key indicator. In my view, I would say, “Well to hell with this. I’m going to find someone who I can be on staff with.”

Greenhouse: It wasn’t just she. But all temps were barred from the company — you know, they might create a wonderful new piece of software, created a wonderful printer, and all the regular permanent employees could go to the party and celebrate and go for the two-day ski holiday to celebrate. But the temps who work alongside the regular workers in a crazy situation, they weren’t invited to the parties. So yeah, for someone like Jennifer, there was some eating humble pie there. So the question is why didn’t she quit? She said, “For me, Jennifer Miller, a mere high-school graduate living in Idaho, that was a terrific job. I was making $30 an hour. I was really using my brain. I was often working alongside terrific people. Sort of semi, somewhat treated as an equal. But on the other hand, no.” And she said, considering what else was out there, going back to McDonald’s working as a manager, which isn’t such a bad job, but she said working at HP as a temp was better. Her argument was HP was good in many ways, but there was this one big negative. That she was treated as a temp.

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New York ComicCon — Podcast

Over the course of the weekend, a number of people were interviewed by Our Young, Roving Correspondents on the floor of New York ComicCon. Thankfully, we have managed to assemble a rather strange collection of interviews into a podcast. We had no idea that we had recorded so much material. Many thanks to Eric Rosenfield for interview assistance and his laconic pal Phil for moral support and a shoulder to cry on. Scroll to the bottom to listen or download the 78 minute MP3!

1. Mike Pellerito — In this somewhat naughty conversation, Archie Comic Publications, Inc. Managing Editor Mike Pellerito offers his candid views on maintaining the purity of the Archie universe.

2. Joe Gonzalez — We venture into Podcast Arena to discuss the appropriate way of covering New York ComicCon with a fellow podcaster.

3. Aaron Goold — One of the folks behind Yo Yo Nation explains why he is a spokesman for Duncan. There is also some speculation on secret yo-yo societies in New York.

4. Jack Ringca — I am unsure what pernicious position Mr. Ringca holds within Duncan, but he seemed to have a few diabolical ideas involving Mr. Goold and conquering the universe with a yo-yo army.

5. Joseph Semling — The purchasing manager of Brian’s Toys offers a helpful explanation of the economics behind lightsabers.

6. David Williams — The co-founder of Fanlib insists that he’s flying fan fiction writers out to Hollywood. But we learn that this isn’t the case at all. He seemed especially convinced that all fans are protected from lawyers.

7. Dan Piraro — The man behind Bizarro explains the precise circumstances that help him generate ideas and reveals how some of his more daring strips end up in Scandinavia.

8. Ross Milhako — Attracted by the risque title, Our Young, Roving Correspondent questions the creator of Dead Dick — Zombie Detective upon the filthy and salacious qualities of his comic’s name.

9. Tim Fish — The Boston-based comic book writer behind Cavalcade of Boys explains precisely what he means by “cavalcade” and offers some insights on gay romance comics.

10. Patch — A gentleman who only referred to himself as “Patch” explains how Teddy Scares inverts the nature of the cute and cuddly teddy bear. There is also an ethical debate over whether zombie teddy bears can appeal to an UglyDoll audience. We dutifully pledge, per this interview, to investigate Teddy Scares in five years and determine, per Patch’s assured declarations, whether or not Teddy Scares retain their edge.

11. Kim Caltagrione, Mike McLaughlin & Steve Vincent — We talk with the New Jersey underground comics operation, Angry Drunk Grahics, about the fine line between angry and drunk and how Ms. Caltagrione ties this ontological spectrum together. Includes discussion of Mike Diana, the first artist to receive a criminal conviction for obscenity in the United States and who is published by Angry Drunk Graphics, and the Diana-drawn illustration of Jesus with a penis.

12. Brian Phillipson — The co-creator of God the Dyslexic Dog insinuates a forthcoming jihad involving canines. Or at least that’s what we’re left to conclude from this conversation that somehow manages to include nonoverlapping magisteria and dyslexic fundamentalists.

13. Chris Wozniak — Chris Wozniak insists, despite developments involving Kathy Griffin, that he is the Woz. But even though he has created bitter midgets, the Woz doesn’t have any explanation as to why his midgets are bitter.

14. Jeffrey Brown — A mention of Brown’s appearance on a Canadian sex program leads into an unexpected delineation between the real Brown vs. the invented Brown. (Partial transcript here.)

15. Kyle Baker — A conversation between Baker and McCloud is unexpectedly interrupted, but segues into issues of artistic control, television, people who don’t read comics, thwarted animation deals, families coming back in style, Special Forces, Nat Turner, the Haitian Revolution, mainstream publishers getting into graphic novels, and other assorted topics.

16. Scott McCloud — Scott McCloud reveals a future deal involving a graphic novel in New York, the present state of advocating graphic novels, the Creator’s Bill of Rights, and the failure of micropayment systems.

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