Hard times and the entertainment industry

Perhaps you remember Grafonola, who posted some worthy comments on Mish’s weblog about life during the Great Depression. Here’s another, concerning the entertainment industry.

GPB, you said:

“I keep reading on here that entertainment (type stocks) are big during a de/recession. It was in the thirties for movies and music."

Not quite true. The moving picture business did very well in 1930 and 1931. In fact it was the only real growth part of the economy. By 1932, however, attendance at the pictures was dropping, as folks’ small cash reserves dwindled towards the vanishing point. 1933 was an absolute disaster. 

As for the music industry, the Depression very nearly killed the phonograph and record business. From industry-wide sales of 150,000,000 disc records in 1928, industry-wide sales of phonograph records crashed to a low of 6,500,000 in 1932, and 8,000,000 in 1933./ Were it not for the advent of Repeal, and the ascendancy of coin phonographs (Juke-boxes) in bars and lounges it is probable that the phonograph industry would have entirely disappeared. 

The Radio industry presents a slightly different picture. Network radio was in its infancy as the Depression descended over the country. the great growth spurt of this industry happened to coincide with the worst years of the Depression. 

I suspect that this was an anomaly, though, for sales of actual radio receivers crashed at this time. The Depression forced radio manufacturers to develop ever cheaper, smaller products. Gone were the heavy chassis, generous transformers, and fine cabinetwork of the 1920’s. The only way that manufacturers survived in the 1930’s was through a continual cheapening of product, through the introduction of "midget" and "cigar-box" sets. Unit prices dropped for an average of $169.00 in 1929 to an average of $49.00 by 1936.

Of course this drive to cheapen the product did also lead to a great advancement in radio technology, as the engineering departments of the various manufacturers learned how to achieve greater performance at less cost. A $35.00 midget of 1934 vintage was a much better performer, in selectivity, sensitivity, and fidelity, than ‘most any $275.00 console of 1929. 

Despite the great technical advances of this period, however, few radio manufactures of the 1930’s were profitable. Zenith and Philco were, indeed quite profitable all through the decade. The RCA largely survived on surpluses accumulated in the salad days of the 1920’s, and on patent license fees. Most other manufacturers operated on the brink of oblivion, until the coming of war contracts with the advent of lend-lease in 1940.

Twelve books I need to read

The Deputy Headmistress has issued a Worthwhile Books Reading Challenge. She notes that quantity of books read is not a problem for her, but sometimes quality is. My problem is usually not quality—over the years I’ve settled into a pattern of choosing worthwhile books to read—but actually getting them read. Quite often the good books I put on my shelves awhile back are crowded out by newer good books. It’s not that I lose interest in the older books, but I just never get around to them because some other topic has captured my interest.

Anyway, I thought it would be good to respond to the challenge by choosing twelve books that I once was excited about but somehow never got around to reading. And I thought it would be good to make the range of topics as broad as possible, in hopes of re-awakening some old interests. I won’t commit to reading them one per month, or even to getting to them over the course of 2009, but I hope it happens anyway.

  1. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (one-volume abridgement). I have a special interest in the arc of everyday life in Russia during the 20th century. I was reminded of this by the Deputy Headmistress, who has it on her list.

  2. The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, by R.H. Tawney. I was reminded of this by the Badgermum.

  3. Arguing About Slavery, by William Lee Miller. This one was recommended by the Deputy Headmistress as a counterbalance to the Southern partisan view of The Great Unpleasantness.

  4. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, by John M. Barry. I’ve read the opening chapters of this; the hubris of the 19th century American is astonishing.

  5. The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield, by Joseph Tracy.

  6. The Lost Cause, by E.A. Pollard. A history of the Civil War from a Southern point of view, written right after the war (1866) by the editor of the Richmond newspaper.

  7. The Christian Social Manifesto, by Joseph Husslein. Contains the text of the two papal encyclicals on labor and society, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, with an extended commentary.

  8. The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson.

  9. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin.

  10. A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, by William Cobbett. Cobbet was not only a well-known 19th century agrarian, but a fiercely partisan Catholic.

  11. Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution–and What It Means for Americans Today, by Thomas DiLorenzo. No question where DiLorenzo stands! I enjoyed The Real Lincoln, and expect to enjoy this as well.

  12. The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. I need to read more poetry.

Folk economics: other people’s money

The Wall Street Journal continues to do much of the best ground-level reporting on the shifting trends in U.S. economic activity. Embedded in an article on how the current crisis is crushing small businesses is a brief description of the life and imminent death of one small business, one that exemplifies the modern credit-fueled approach.

Susan Knapp once sold yellow-pages ads to small businesses, meeting people who had turned their dreams into companies. It inspired her in the late 1990s to turn her love of making pear jelly into a side business. For years, she had collected pears from a Northern California farm, whipped up batches of jelly and passed it out at holiday time. In 2003, she quit her job and became a full-time entrepreneur, using credit cards, personal savings and an equity line against her home to get going.

By 2007, her company, A Perfect Pear, was reporting $700,000 in sales. She says she is sitting on $100,000 in orders from specialty stores and grocers who want to buy her jellies and salad dressings. On the company’s Web site, many items are on back order.

And yet Ms. Knapp can’t fill those orders: She doesn’t have the money to buy the 300 cases of vinegar and 200 cases of olive oil she needs to make the products, and she hasn’t been able to find funding.

Ms. Knapp, 56, says she has gone from making six figures to not taking an income. For the first time, she and her husband, a self-employed chiropractor, are without health insurance. In the past year-and-a-half she has nearly drained her $190,000 retirement account to pay for operations and two-part time employees.

Her biggest mistake, she says now, was not securing a line of credit before she actually needed it. Though real estate in Napa Valley, where she lives and works, is still strong, her bank won’t consider expanding her home-equity line, she says.

These days, she spends time calling "angel" groups — investors who specialize in fledgling companies — searching for funding. Some have told her they have too much money tied to real estate or the stock market; others are focused on tech. She placed ads on two peer-lending sites but has only gotten a few questionable propositions, including an "investor" who asked for a $67,000 payment before he’d turn over any financing. She uses credit cards regularly, but one of her issuers recently changed a no-limit card to a $1,200 ceiling.

Without capital, she had trouble filling orders for Christmas — her busiest time. Customers were calling her small commercial kitchen directly, she says, asking why they couldn’t order products. She explained that "we’ve run into a challenge economically."

She has applied for a $300,000 loan from the SBA, and is pinning hopes on that. "I’m a really, really positive person," she says. "I’ve got pictures of hundred-dollar bills all around my desk, for the power of positive thinking." If the loan doesn’t come through, she says, A Perfect Pear may have to close temporarily.

For all the positive thinking, Ms. Knapp hesitates when asked if she’d do it all again. "The last thing I want to do is stomp on someone’s dream," she says. But knowing how hard it’s likely to be, "I hate to see businesses trying to start right now."

In a world without business credit, your ability to grow a business is limited by your ability to generate and reinvest profits; make a little pear jelly and dressing, sell it, use the profits to buy enough ingredients to make more jelly and dressing on the next round, and so on. But when using business credit, you are selling things you don’t own, needing to sell them in time to pay the people who do own them, hoping to skim some money for yourself in the process.

There is no denying that you can do greater amounts of business sooner if you aren’t required to use your own money to create your product. Entire business strategies are built on this premise; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos summed it up as “Get Big Fast.” But the game only works as long as it works, as Susan Knapp found out. If she had taken it slower, making only as much product as she could personally afford to produce, she would have been able to supply at least some of those customers who were calling her kitchen. And, if the market for pear jelly and salad dressing suddenly evaporated, she would at worst be stuck with the latest round of inventory.

George Bailey, nice guy?

I consider Christmas Story a humble work of genius. It is the only Christmas movie we ritually gather together to watch, but that is only because I have seen my other favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, so many times that there is no need for me to be in the room while it plays. These days I sit somewhere else doing something else, and as I overhear various lines the entire scene replays in my head, in great detail.

I used to just enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, but somewhere I read an essay that pointed out that Jimmy Stewart’s greatest performances rested critically on an astonishing ability to play both to and against type—in a single movie, sometimes in a single scene, Stewart could both fully inhabit his aw-shucks persona and then add something else, something different, often something creepy. Rear Window had a touch of this, Vertigo so much of it that I can barely listen to Bernard Herrmann’s score anymore, much less watch Stewart’s performance.

The essay suggested that It’s a Wonderful Life ended up being much more than a schmaltz-fest because of the edge that Stewart adds to his portrayal of George Bailey, particularly in the stretch of story where George thinks that Uncle Billy’s mistake is going to destroy the life he has slowly and painfully built for himself in Bedford Falls. Easygoing George is suddenly not so easygoing, in fact he is angry and vindictive and hateful. It’s hard to watch as he lashes out at his wife and children before running off to beg Mr. Potter for help, then stumbles into the night to get drunk and finally kill himself. As Stewart plays him, George has suddenly lost any claim he ever had to being a nice guy.

This year I was thinking about George as a helpful example in understanding exactly how far our obligations go to those we love, especially those we love because of their relationship to us—father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. It’s hard enough to love George on that Christmas eve when he snapped, but many did and it was a large part of snapping him back. Consider, though, if George had not only snapped but stayed there. How hard would it have been to love him for a week, or a year, or the rest of his natural life? Who would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after how long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end?

I was thinking about this as the movie began in the next room. As I half-listened to the dialog, I found myself—well, somewhat irritated with George. Sure, he did good things along the way, but it seemed to be solely out of a sense of duty, not for the sake of any joy he found in doing them. He had a strong sense of what was right—saving his brother, keeping the druggist from poisoning a customer, agreeing to take over the building and loan—but time and again he seemed to just accept his lot begrudgingly rather than embracing it cheerfully. George’s real enthusiasm was reserved for his vision of finally breaking free of Bedford Falls and his obligations there, and going off to do what he wanted to do for a change.

Maybe this element of Stewart’s portrayal is obvious to the rest of the world, but I had never noticed it before. It suddenly became clear to me during the scene where George hears that Mary has come home to Bedford Falls and he goes over to visit her, sort of. All the while he is there he is incredibly rude—hilariously so, but still flat-out rude, making self-centered fun of everything that Mary holds dear, to the point where she tells him to get lost and he storms out. It was then I realized that, up to this point, I barely liked George Bailey. I certainly admired his bravery and his sense of responsibility, but I didn’t care for his cynical wise-cracking and his condescending attitude to the friends and family and traditions that surrounded him, treasures he was ready to jettison in an instant.

George comes back to retrieve his hat, and finds Mary on the phone with Sam Wainwright, another suitor (sort of). Finally he gives in to his love for Mary, but not without first saying this to her as he embraces her:

Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors! And I don’t want to get married ever to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do! And you’re… and you’re…

And of course they kiss, and he proposes, and they get married. But it was that “I want to do what I want to do!” that really got me. George is a man who has at best struck a truce with reality, who is willing to submit to circumstances but is far from being at peace with them. Next he tries to escape with Mary, but the run on the building and loan crushes that last attempt to flee, and he settles in to live a smaller life in Bedford Falls.

The fact that he has never found peace over his lot makes his later encounter with Mr. Potter especially cruel. In trying to entice George into abandoning the building and loan and come work for him, Potter describes his own view of George’s trajectory, which I think is awfully close to how George sees it in his more bitter moments:

Now, if this young man of twenty-eight was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But, George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan, almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man…the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.

Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?

Notice that George does not disagree with anything Potter says. His response is simply, “Oh, what’s your point, Mr. Potter?” Even when he ends up repudiating Potter’s offer, it isn’t because he thinks Potter has mischaracterized his life, but because he sees accepting his lot as the only way to protect others from Potter’s evil.

Once I understood that George could soldier on, being agreeable and a good husband and sacrificially helpful to others, while at the same time resenting his lot in life, it made the scene where George loses it that much more powerful to me—intolerable, really. Especially the bit when Uncle Billy tells him he has lost the money:

Where’s that money, you silly, stupid old fool?! Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison! That’s what it means. One of us is going to jail! Well, it’s not gonna be me.

Now I think we see what the darker side of George has thought all along of Uncle Billy and Bedford Falls and the whole miserable mess. The darker side is in control from this point up to where George finally prays that he might live again, and it is an uncomfortable, even scary thing to watch. It is an overwhelming relief when God grants George not only life but peace, an ability to appreciate his life and family and friends for the good and satisfying thing that it is.

I admire Jimmy Stewart for his ability to mix the light and dark sides of a conflicted character in his portrayal of George Bailey, and his willingness to do so on the screen. But I’m thinking more and more that the ending is a movie ending. There was nothing in George’s actual situation that could have resolved things happily; short of God choosing to intervene dramatically as he did, it is likely that George’s dark side would have triumphed, and he would have been cynical and bitter through and through until the day he died.

Which gets me back to my original question, the one I’m still pondering: Who among George’s friends and family would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after h
ow long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end?

Meritocracy? No, idiocracy

Calvin Trillin once wrote that he had discovered the trigger for the legendary male mid-life crisis: there inevitably comes a day in his mid-forties when a man picks up the paper and reads about the newly appointed Deputy Undersecretary of Important Governmental Stuff, who turns out to be that idiot from his high school class that no-one thought would even graduate. Suddenly realizing that the whole world is likely being run by equally stupid people, he figures he might as well divorce his wife and go buy himself a fast car.

Given the quantity of journalism that is committed on a regular basis in this country, you would figure that the relatively few journalists that have risen to the top of the heap would be the sharpest, the brightest, the best informed, the most objective, maybe even the wisest. You would be wrong, and every year the Media Research Center reminds us exactly how foolish we are to trust these folks by reprinting the most foolish things journalists said in the past twelve months.

Ridgewood Boys gospel program

Last month we performed a gospel program at Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Somerset. Our friend Joe LaMay not only arranged for the show but recorded it. The room acoustics were great, and so I asked Joe if I could have a copy of the recording. He gave me one today, and so with only a bit of editing I present, mistakes and all, the Ridgewood Boys live in concert.

Sound check

Forsaken Lover

First set

Cool Down on the Banks of Jordan
Woman at the Well
The Angels Rejoiced
Tramp on the Street
Die Easy
Walking in the King’s Highway
Better Farther On
The Family Who Prays
A Heart That Will Never Break Again
Mansions For Me
Dust on the Bible
Won’t You Come and Sing For Me

Second set

Sweet By and By
House of Gold
I’m Using My Bible For a Roadmap
Troublesome Waters
Prodigal Son
Gospel Plow
Are You Afraid to Die
We’re Living in the Last Days Now
Where the Soul of Man Never Dies
Angel Band
I’ll Fly Away

Busyness is not diligence

Much of what I write on this weblog is what I consider first draft writing; once a piece is written I can’t really justify taking additional time to rework it until I’m satisfied, and so I leave it as it stands. It makes for a good challenge—I’ve had to learn ways to get the words mostly right on the first try. But the downside is that I get very little practice at redrafting, and I know full well that when I do take the time to produce a final draft the result is always much, much better—clearer, less wordy, more to the point.

I’ve been looking over my old weblog posts, looking for any that might be worth revising, expanding, or redrafting. I’ve also been looking at the few pieces I’ve written that are in final form, polished as far as I was able at the time I wrote them. I thought it might be worth reposting some of them here, since most of my readers probably haven’t run across them.

Here’s a piece I wrote nearly five years ago. I wrote differently back then, and if I were to tackle this topic again I would probably be less clever and more generous. But taking the style as given, I think the piece accomplishes its purpose concisely.

Not many social classes are held in lower esteem than the idle rich, what Thorstein Veblen called the leisure class. Roman aristocrats, the Sun King and his courtiers, denizens of high society in the Gilded Age, modern-day jet-setters—all these are widely reviled for their dissolute preoccupations, their conspicuous consumption, their degenerate behaviors. Unaware of the sources of wealth, and unconstrained by the need to create any in order to fuel their pursuits, the leisure class are free to indulge every sinful desire, embrace every God-denying lie, inflame every shameful lust, abandon every natural relation.

Wealth is good, but unearned wealth can pose great moral dangers. Whether it comes in the form of money, power, health, or social privilege, we are tempted to forget what created the wealth—someone’s hard work—and to think of it as what is rightfully due to us because of who we are—the son of a merchant, the daughter of an aristocrat, the descendant of a white European, the child of a covenant family. As with Old Testament Israel, we tend to take unearned favor for granted, quickly becoming fat, lazy, and ungrateful. And as with Old Testament Israel, curses are sure to follow.

Since we instinctively despise the idle rich, and since the Bible speaks clearly and repeatedly about what God has in store for those who steal His glory by despising His blessings, it is must be one of the devil’s prouder accomplishments that these days we all—pagan and Christian—aspire to join the leisure class ourselves. We are all conspicuous in our consumption, and what little we produce is not to exercise dominion, but to make further consumption possible. We no longer work for God’s glory, but for the weekend.

None of us glorifies laziness, but at the same time we fail to see that we have become perhaps the laziest, most idle people on earth, because we confuse work with busyness. How can we be called lazy when our society is remarkable for its frantic activity, always in a hurry, never having enough time to complete the tasks at hand? Well, this last should be a clue. Work is not a matter of energy expended, it is a matter of tasks accomplished. No matter that it takes all the running we can do to keep in the same place—if nothing of value results from our frenzied effort, to call it other than idleness is to make a distinction without a difference.

Although our confusion is ultimately rooted in bad eschatology—we think that in the New Jerusalem we will be delivered from work itself, not merely from the thorns and thistles that currently plague our work—there is a more immediate culprit that has a vested interest in perpetuating this confusion, namely an urban industrialized economy. The lifeblood of industry is an endless stream of workers trained to behave as mindless automata, willing to exchange unquestioning obedience for a paycheck, uninterested in the results of their labors. Industry benefits when its workers see real life as having nothing to do with their work—as long as they still show up for work.

This blinding fog of busyness may be dissipating, though. More and more we are learning to quench our desire to do … well, something … by vicariously participating in much more significant endeavors. Rather than playing backyard sports with family and friends, we win national championships by cheering on our team. No time to fix that leaky faucet; master carpenter Norm Abram needs our help with a million dollar renovation. The city council is about to waste another few million of our tax dollars? Sorry, we’re tied up determining the course of an entire nation through our talking, arguing, blogging, and occasionally voting. Why bother broaching the subject of Jesus with our unbelieving friends when with our help Mel Gibson will be able to convert millions? Why bother with the hungry person at our door when, armed with our favorable opinion and our tax dollars, our government can proceed to feed and clothe the entire world?

Have you noticed, though, that the gruel is getting a little thin? When novelties were suddenly in very short supply, we sustained ourselves on nostalgia for what went before, but even with our incredibly low standards about what is worth remembering fondly—disco, anyone?—we ran out of things to be nostalgic about. To remain entertainable, we were forced to become so ironically detached that we could enjoy a television show about nothing—and we managed to use that up as well. Lately we seem to have come full circle; having exhausted the creative capacity of our disintegrating culture, we’re now expected to consume ourselves, to watch a continuing parade of reality programs featuring people just like us, engaged in lives just as unreal as our own.

The final comforting delusion, one that we’ve been asserting for quite awhile now, and lately with increasing frequency, is that things just couldn’t get any worse. Well, yes, they could, despite our inability to imagine what lies beneath. Never forget that the serpent is more crafty than any beast of the field, and it isn’t likely that his own imagination is anywhere near exhausted.

Reject this false comfort in favor of a true one—that the power of the serpent lies not in his ability to thwart us in our work, but only in his ability to distract us from it by appealing to our slothful and self-important natures. He offers us a seat at the table for the asking, but only as a substitute for the work that God has given us to do. He will encourage us to imagine that we are tending everyone else’s garden, so that we will end up neglecting our own.

To resist, we need only embrace rather than shirk our God-given responsibilities; if we submit to God in these, the devil will flee from us. Once we learn to find our joy in diligently providing for our families, sanctifying our wives, training up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—once we learn to find our joy in gardenizing the small plot of jungle that has been entrusted to us, idleness will lose all attraction for us, and we will labor eagerly and unceasingly to bring further glory to God.