Monday, October 24, 2016

Piggy Banks at Parnassus, Largehearted Boy, Apt and What Social Security for Everyone Would Mean for Books

A bookseller at Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett's bookstore in Nashville, was faced with medical bills she was unable to pay on her own. In response, the store organized a fundraiser to help her and other booksellers around the country facing financial crises. They got a number of authors, including some very famous authors, to decorate piggy banks and then auctioned them off. It was a testament to the generosity and creativity of people in the book world. Soon after that, David Gutowski of largehearted boy  was faced with a sudden medical emergency and had to set up a gofundme  campaign in order to cover the costs. The goal for the campaign was $20,000 and when I last checked, more than double that had been raised. Once again, a community without a lot of spare capital came together to support one of their own. Even more recently, apt literary magazine and Aforementioned productions, a small nonprofit press and event organization, found itself in tenuous financial circumstances after the founders, who had been sustaining the venture from their own pockets, got into a car accident. They publish a great literary magazine and great books and they put on fantastic events. I have no doubt that, once again, the literary community will come together to make sure the important work of culture continues.

The usual framing of stories like these focuses on the generosity, the community, the happy ending. And that's great and all. We should celebrate generosity. We should celebrate community. We should celebrate the happy ending. But we should also ask why these people needed community generosity in the first place.

Largehearted boy isn't just some blog on the internet, it is one of the longest running, most influential, and most important lit and music blogs out there. And yet for all the readers, for all the influence, all the followers, all the interviews, all the partnerships and playlists, David did not have the financial security to weather a medical emergency. We have to wonder whether there would be a largehearted boy at all if something like this befell David five or ten years ago. And then we have to wonder how many largehearted boys, Aforementioned productions, and Parnassus bookstores we don't have because of a cancer diagnosis, a broken down car, or a lost day job.

To me, this is all part of the same problem, the same flaw in our economic system that creates poorly paid nurses, writers who can't make a living on their writing, teachers' aids who need second jobs, adjunct professors living on welfare, parents working a third job to cover the cost of childcare that allows them to go to their first two, and nearly all of the other material precariousness in our society. There are lots of different ways to solve this precariousness, but, I believe, the simplest, most efficient, and most effective way is a federally administrated guaranteed minimum income or Social Security for everybody. Sure, there would still be problems, still be poverty, still be material insecurity, but there would be far less of all three and all three would be more easier to deal with. In the book world alone, the impact would be tremendous.

Wonky Warning: This piece is going to go on for a bit, so if you don't want to sit through all of it here's an executive summary. Our system only rewards industries that focus on profits and so the vast majority of capital has been sucked to those industries. Direct redistribution is the easiest way to correct that imbalance. A guaranteed income of $30K or more a year would give a financial flexibility to the book industry that would allow people to make a decent living while keeping the final price point for books relatively low. Ultimately, the only real argument against Social Security for Everybody is the idea that some people deserve to be poor. I guess you can believe that, but you sure as fuck better not call yourself Christian while you do.

If you think about it, the fundamental idea of capitalism is kind of...odd. Basically, the free flow of capital in service to the drive for increased profits through unfettered markets will result, through competition and consumer choice, in high quality goods at fair prices and a more prosperous society. The odd thing is that what should be the goal, a more prosperous society, is actually the byproduct. Essentially, people striving for profit will inherently make a prosperous society. Seems like a pretty tenuous assumption is you ask me. And it creates a pretty significant inherent flaw: there is no way to stop destructive, dangerous, and destabilizing actions if they produce short term profits.

Of course, there has been some prosperity, some ingenuity, some advancement from previous societies, (I mean, even Marx believed capitalism was necessary) but that flaw compromises everything. It has lots of different consequences from oil companies not using their vast wealth and research infrastructures to pioneer renewable resources, to the fact that currency speculation is a thing, to companies driving around aluminum to inflate its price, to lack of paid parental leave, etc, but the one I'm focusing on now, is that those who make the most money in our system are those who either; position themselves close to money, spread the cost of their profit around so that people don't feel like they are paying them, shift some significant portion of their overhead onto some other entity, and/or have or control a resource that people need to pay for. As you'll notice, there aren't many of any of those in the book world.

So, some quick examples to explain all four. First, someone working in finance is already working with money, so it is easy to find ways (legally and ethically, legally and unethically, and illegally but uncaught) to generate profit. That's why there are plenty of mediocre or even bad investment bankers, financial planners, hedge fund managers, etc who make a shit ton more money than, say, the world's greatest nurse or the teacher's aid who lays the groundwork for people with autism to lead fulfilling adult lives. Second, Oprah is very profitable, primarily because you give her money. Of course, it doesn't feel like you do, because you give your money first to a company that advertises on her show, network, in her magazine or whatever. You could say the same for those people and organizations that find ways to diminish your awareness of payment through convenience (automatic payments a la Netflix,) or bait-and-switch style fees added on to sticker price. Third, by paying its workers so poorly, Walmart has essentially shifted a major portion of its overhead (the part that keeps its employees, you know, alive) onto federal and state relief programs. Amazon does something similar by using their size in the market to force margin cuts onto vendors and squeeze tax breaks out of cities. Of course, there are people and businesses that engage quite ethically in all three of these methods of profit maximization, but, the important fact is there is no mechanism inherent within capitalism to prevent someone like Martin Skirelli from being a total fucking asshole. If it's profitable, it's unstoppable. I don't think the fourth strategy really needs an example, but I'll just say that it can be really easy to make money if you own buildings or the patents to lifesaving drugs.

There are lots of ways to fix, or at least mitigate the consequences of, this inherent flaw and we've actually tried a lot of them with a fair amount of success; collective bargaining through trade unions, regulations on the financial market, overtime pay, meaningful minimum wage, (you know, all the stuff that Republicans claim destroys the economy but, you know, keeps the rat poison out of your sausages) but over the years (and especially after Reagan) all of those fixes have slowly eroded, leading to the situation we're in now.

So how does this all relate to books? First, books are extremely expensive to make and it is very difficult to shift any of those costs around. At the absolute theoretical minimum, a traditionally published book takes a writer, an editor, and everyone involved in the logistics of distribution from the printer to the bookseller, but more likely there will be at least two editors involved and a proofreader and a book designer and a cover designer and then all of the infrastructure that allows those editors and designers to work and all that distribution I mentioned earlier. And that's if you don't put any time/money/effort towards trying to sell the book, which will involve a whole host of other people, publicists, marketers, sales reps, etc. Which is all a long way of saying that, given the cost of production, books are actually extremely cheap. To think that you can get something that lasts roughly forever, that is the result of thousands upon thousands of hours of human effort, for $15-35 is downright miraculous.

But they don't feel cheap. With the stagnation of wages and the continued growth in the cost of necessities, Americans have far less disposable income than they once did. So a $35 hardcover or even a $17 paperback, both feel more expensive in the moment than say, a $5 cup of coffee or your monthly Netflix fee. And since you can eat books or live in them, they have to come from the luxury side of the budget. To put this another way, very few people in 2016 could afford to buy books if their cover prices reflected true cost of production. The result; writers can't make a living off their writing, the industry is buoyed by unpaid internships, and many talented, passionate people have to leave for higher paying jobs and those that stay often have to rely on partners or families to make up the gaps in their financial lives. The overhead is often dropped as low as it will go, and many people in the industry, including those who sell a lot of books, live with financial precariousness.

But what if everyone in America got $32,000 a year guaranteed from the federal government?

First, that $30 hardcover, $18 paperback doesn't look so expensive. Perhaps my least favorite part of the job is watching an excited child rush up to their parent with a book they desperately want to own and then seeing said parent's face fall when confronted with the price. Or really anybody hold a book for a moment, just fucking know they want to read it, but also just fucking know they can't justify $35 this month. That extra income would remove books from the “luxuries” or “indulgences” portion of many Americans' budgets and sales would go up.

Second, the financial lives of everyone in the industry, from the writer to the bookseller and everyone in between, is improved without having to raise the cover price of books. (I can't even begin to say how much my life would improve.) Some professionals in the industry would see their yearly incomes double (DOUBLE!) without having to pass on a cost increase to the consumer. Of course, this wouldn't solve all of publishing's problems (or all of society's problems) but it would go a long way in mitigating the impact of those problems and providing a different fundamental footing from which to address them. Passionate, talented people without rich partners or parents could stay in the industry. (And afford to buy houses and have children while they do so.) Writers could spend more time writing and less time on whatever their real source of income would be. Readers who want to buy more, could. (And, let's be honest, a lot of those new sales would come from people already in the industry who also, now have more discretionary income.) And, of course, booksellers, bloggers, and small presses, like aforementioned, largehearted boy, and the folks from Parnassus wouldn't need the generosity of their community to keep making books, writing about books, and selling books.

Capitalism concentrates wealth in certain people and certain industries. In many ways, we only have books and art and little league and Girl Scouts, because most people actually aren't capitalists and are more than happy to do the work that is important to them regardless of its relationship to profit and financial security. There are many ways to compensate for this, some complex and some simple. Some involve big administrative structures that need to be periodically updated and adapted to changing circumstances. Some are difficult. One is simple. Social Security for everybody isn't a magic bullet for all of our problems, but, it's pretty close. With one policy change and one administrative structure, the financial precariousness that afflicts so many people in the book world and American society in general would be solved.

P.S. Obviously, there are a lot of arguments against Social Security for everyone, but this post is already very long and very wonky. And I suspect most of you who read this are already relatively sympathetic to the idea. However, if you would like a more general, more in depth defense of the idea of the guaranteed income leave a comment here or somewhere in social media and if I get a few requests, I'll do a follow up post.