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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Professional writers and the "status-income disequilibrium" 


Meghan McArdle writes about the financial pressure in the lives of most professional writers, riffing off a recent confessional in the New York Times from a well-paid reporter who found himself under a mountain of debt. Read the whole thing, including the underlying story and a sampling of the comments. It is an interesting window on affluence, and dependence on the trappings of affluence. I thought that this bit was especially on point:

Yet writers are, as a class, extraordinarily at risk. They spend their twenties, and often their thirties, living paycheck to paycheck. They are extremely well educated, and all that education is not only expensive, but builds expensive habits. You end up with a lot of friends who make much more money than you--who don't even realize that a dinner with $10 entrees and a bottle of wine is an expensive treat, not a cheap outing to catch up on old times. Our business is in crisis, and we lose jobs often. When we do, it's catastrophic.

This is what David Brooks calls "status-income disequilibrium", and unless you are among that happy breed of writers who is married to someone with a high-paying job, or who has a trust fund, you feel it keenly. Everyone you write about makes more than you. Most of the people you know make more than you. And you come to feel that shopping at the farmer's market, traveling to Europe, drinking good coffee, are minimum necessities. Your house is small, your furniture is shabby, and you can't even really afford to shop at Whole Foods. Yet you're at the top of your field, working for one of the world's top media outlets. This can't be so.

The status-income disequilibrium also burdens academics, although probably less so on account of the greater security of the university life. I also wonder the extent to which the status-income disequilibrium accounts for the political attitudes of academics and writers, which seem, at least, to skew much further to the left than they did in generations past when the disequilibrium was not so pronounced. Life must seem a lot less fair to such people today than in the past, when their incomes were much closer to those of other professionals. I wrote a post on this subject back in my first months as a blogger, and I think it holds up pretty well.

20 Comments:

By Blogger Christopher Chambers, at Sun May 17, 09:56:00 AM:

I understand your point (and agree with Meghan); you've presented this in the past indeed with personal examples of high salaries for university beginning professors (and likely writers, reporters) in the 50s and early 60s petty much on pr with beginning associates at law firms. Then things went all out of whack.

Now, I don't think that if writers of any stripe, or traditional reporters, where paid any better, we'd be more conservative. Iguess if you're a pundit you can get the big cash. But I don't consider pundits and other such animals either writers or journalists (whether you're an Olberman or a Hannity/'OReilly/Beck). The money and the ability to feed your family is a siren's song to punditry, to writing for paid blog gigs. News outlets love punditry, not professional writing, b/c it's cheaper for them to deliver product. It's info-tainment. For the writer, punditry and blogging are about self-expression/self-promo and blowhardism, pandering to demos rather than educating, exposing, conveying a sense of displacement and wonder. You don't get paid for the latter.
This ain't so good for writers. And with typical writers overstatement I'd say this ain't so good for the American collective IQ and American democracy.  

By Blogger SR, at Sun May 17, 10:04:00 AM:

I don't think the described reaction is unique to writers. They just express it more vividly because there is the facility with words.
It is a well known phenomenon that comes from a lack of familiarity with the basic economic premise that the worth of a product is defined solely by the users of that product by comparing it to its substitute. One must either produce something plentiful (literature can be duplicated an infinite number of times) that a lot of people will use , or produce something that is scarce, but in demand by a lot of people.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun May 17, 10:16:00 AM:

Extremely well educated? Is that a euphemism for "we are a lot smarter than you are"? Well boo-hoo. Cry me a river. If you are really that smart, you should be able to make a better living, be a better writer and make more money.
Consider H.L Mencken, who was largely self-educated and arguably one of the most brilliant "journalists" (though frequently wrong)of his time.

Or at least spend your money more wisely than hanging out at Whole Foods and acting like a character that just fell out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. What a vain class of pretenders.

I know and have known quite a few tenured academics, and their childish attitudes are similar. They are, of course, well informed in their field of expertise (though sometimes overly opionated), but their perspectives are very limited outside of "what they know". The "professional journalist" is the same.

Typically their knowledge of business and industry and how they work is abysmal and sophomoric. They condescend to those who have actually been financially succesful in life, smugly sure that they are better, more virtuous people. Better than me,
I'm sure (that's why I am at work on a Sunday morning, because I'm stupid). Our current President is typical of that class.

Talk about a hazard to the American collective IQ (whatever that is) and American democracy. Generations of mediocre journalism majors telling America what to think.
Gag me with a spoon.

-David  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun May 17, 10:29:00 AM:

Chris, I think your idea that pundits are not writers is, well, strange. H.L. Mencken was a pundit and a beautiful writer. When you get down to it, Ann Coulter is a pretty good writer, too, whether you agree with her or not. Now, if you want to argue that there are television and radio talking heads who happen to write something now and again and that their profession is principally not writing but being a celebrity, I would go along with that. But query how they make their money. I bet a lot of these gum-slappers go on television principally to sell books (although maybe I'm wrong).  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun May 17, 10:35:00 AM:

If I understand what disequilibrium means, there's quite a lot of it. A family practitioner who makes 120K after years and years of training, massive financial investment, and life of high liability and overhead isn't 'fair' or good long term for America. With a brain like that, why not go for higher paying jobs with lower barriers to entry? I think the answer is ... some people accept that it's not fair. I think it's absurd, but the writers who make the most write the pulpy stuff that sells lots of books. Get 'em to know your name, or want more of you and you make lots of dough. Same goes for athletes, actors/actresses, etc. ... even those who actually aren't that good.

Many people struggle with the distinction between what they want, and what they need. If being a writer doesn't pay so well, then either do it part-time, don't try to make a career of it, or choose to 'suffer for your art'.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sun May 17, 10:51:00 AM:

Extremely well educated?Narrowly educated in topics that aren't generally bankable might be a better description.

As a general statement - technically ignorant comes to mind as well. The quantity of laughers in any pieces that touch on technology is astounding.

The quantity of technical laughers in TV shows and movie scripts is flat out embarrassing. I understand dramatic license, but jeez, cant they at least keep it in the realm of what is physically possible?

Years ago when I was with IBM and the dead trees version of ZD's PC Magazine was top dog, I had a cordial back channel relationship with one of their technical editors who covered the technically deep stuff.

He'd call me to get the hard technical reality about certain pieces he was writing to make sure he wasn't going to say something that would embarrass him or the mag.

If more "highly educated" writers were willing to admit that they're not all that smart outside of putting word to page, the general quality level would improve dramatically.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun May 17, 11:27:00 AM:

I concur with the general opinion that writers are, as a class, somewhat overconfident about their worth and abilities.  

By Blogger Christopher Chambers, at Sun May 17, 11:46:00 AM:

I used to think wow--if writers are such narcissists and worthless, then why, after the immediate political/military opposition, are always the next group dumped in prison, concentration camps, "re-education" gulags, etc. following right wing coup, left wing takeover, redemption/restoration of traditional values, cultural revolution, blah blah. Upon seeing some of the comments to the post, I now know. More impetus to keep up the good work. Broke ain't fun, but if activity can chap the asses of some you douchebags, so that's compensation worth at least a sweet grin...  

By Blogger kreiz1, at Sun May 17, 11:58:00 AM:

The discussion reminds me a bit of PJ O'Rourke's suggestions for college commencement speakers:

"1. Go out and make a bunch of money!

Here we are living in the world's most prosperous country, surrounded by all the comforts, conveniences and security that money can provide. Yet no American political, intellectual or cultural leader ever says to young people, "Go out and make a bunch of money." Instead, they tell you that money can't buy happiness. Maybe, but money can rent it."  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun May 17, 12:04:00 PM:

Instead, they tell you that money can't buy happiness. Maybe, but money can rent it.Money cannot by happiness, but it can certainly make it less stressful to absorb and roll with life's mishaps and tragedies. A severe medical problem, for example, is much easier to manage if money is little or no object (and that is true to some degree even in socialist systems, because money allows you to buy higher quality care).  

By Blogger The Conservative Wahoo, at Sun May 17, 12:08:00 PM:

This story, the comments on McArdle's page, and the comments here are fascinating.

One small thing the flows from this discussion is my continuing admiration for David Brooks' social commentary. I'm less enamored with his political insight, but his ability to apply a critical lens to modern life is unmatched.  

By Anonymous Boludo Tejano, at Sun May 17, 12:13:00 PM:

CC's comment @ 11:46 AM provides support for Dawnfire82's comment @ 11:27 AM that "writers are, as a class, somewhat overconfident about their worth and abilities."

While CC would allegedly like to have people purchase his books, his insulting people on this blog provides no incentive for us to purchase his books. Even us douchebags have our standards.  

By Anonymous sirius_sir, at Sun May 17, 12:24:00 PM:

Most poets and short story writers learn soon enough the pay ain't so good. I guess that's why there are so many house painters, eh?  

By Blogger DEC, at Sun May 17, 12:26:00 PM:

I left journalism at the age of 28. In business I doubled my salary in six months.

My experience as a newspaper reporter helped me in business. A newspaperman and a business executive have several things in common. For example, both spend their workdays trying to get something from somebody.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun May 17, 12:28:00 PM:

"Extremely well educated" means...educated at a northeastern liberal private college.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sun May 17, 01:14:00 PM:

if writers are such narcissists and worthless, then why, after the immediate political/military opposition, are always the next group dumped in prison, concentration camps, "re-education" gulags, etc.The squeaky wheel always gets the grease...which doesn't preclude their being worthless or narcissistic either. Its not a mutually exclusive situation.

If it takes the circumstances of a coup to prove your worth, then I'd suggest that worth is rather narrowly applicable.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Sun May 17, 02:44:00 PM:

Rules of Life and Income to live by

1. Find something you love to do, and that people will pay you for, and you will never have to "work" a day in your life.

2. If you wind up doing a job that you only "like", save your money and keep up with the activity you love as a hobby. If an opportunity comes up to switch careers, your skills are still fresh.

3. Sometimes the thing you love to do is not something you really want to do for a living, or you will burn out on it.

4. Avoid borrowing on credit like you would avoid a rabid skunk with mange. There's a good reason banks have those great big buildings, and you have that little bitty house. Visa is not your friend, it is an enemy.

In this case, Writing is one of those "Gee I love doing it, but I'm not good enough to do it for a living and get even a fraction of the paycheck I do now." So I'm keeping it alive as a hobby. And someday when I publish my novel, I plan on...spending the buck fifty I earn from it on a can of Prune Juice :)  

By Blogger kreiz1, at Sun May 17, 04:19:00 PM:

Amen to #4, George. And don't be embarrassed about living below your means, no matter what that is. It's not a sin.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 18, 11:12:00 AM:

Plain and simple: the writer in the NYT article is bankrupt because he failed to keep his family unit together, ending in a divorce that destroyed his finances. If he were still married to his first wife he would be enjoying an upper middle-class financial existence. Instead, he is wallowing in poverty due to the financial burden of trying to provide for two households.

I don't always see eye-to-eye with the social conservative wing of the Republican party, but they are spot-on in their assertion that the most effective anti-poverty program out there is a strong federal government commitment to marriage. Divorce is a disaster.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue May 19, 10:21:00 AM:

I don't understand this? Don't writers make lots of money? I don't mean salary, I mean cash. Why are there shield laws in writers can't "sell" that economic advantage. They get cash for writing stuff that people want them to write and even more cash for not writing stuff that people don't want them to writer. Look at all the folks who wrote blather about Obama, made lots of cash and then, got government jobs (with expense accounts) and even more cash (often paid to a relative) for writing what the payers wanted them to write  

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