Figure Portrait and Animal Sculpture

Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Economics of Creation- part 1

Money and business are often scary, confusing things, that leave creatives, and people with powerful ideas feeling powerless.
To understand that world, you first need to understand your own place within it.

In 1916 the Dodge brothers, John and Horace, who owned a minority stake in Ford Motor Company, sued Henry Ford, claiming he was depriving them, as investors, of income by pricing his cars too low. Ford had plans to dramatically reinvest most of the money the company was taking in, to increase production while constantly lowering the price to boost sales. It seemed beneficial to the consumer who would be able to buy a car. It seemed beneficial to the workers who would be able to be employed and thus have the money to themselves buy cars. 
Ford had plenty of bad ideas in his time, but he was unusually good at long term, holistic economic thinking– a strategy that recognized that any business is part of a larger ecosystem.
A river can’t simply take water away from the sea and hoard it without eventually depriving itself, down the road. That’s not the way rivers flow anyway. As Ford said around 1928, “If we want the farmer to be our customer, we must find a way to be his customer.” A business the size of Ford Motor Company can’t simply maximize profit and take without giving back. Hoarded resources, like hoarded water, aren’t good for much. Rivers and rain are better than underground reservoirs. To be useful, to be worth their maximum worth, resources have to be constantly moving around.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled against Ford in that case and established the principle of shareholder primacy– the idea that among all the many people who contribute to make any business function; customers, managers, workers– the only ones that really matter are the people who put up the money. 
It’s an idea most of us accept without question today– that investors need to be protected above all other concerns, which is a shame, because it’s an incredibly stupid theory, for everyone involved.
But like most stupid, shortsighted, economic theories that benefit the powerful in the short-term, it’s extremely popular.
Common sense ought to disprove it immediately– if you’re running a small farm, you can take some of what you grow as profit, but some needs to be held back for seed for next year. Likewise, you an your workers can work hard, but not 24-7, some time needs to be held back to rest, and since we’re dealing with humans, to enjoy the fruits of your labor, otherwise, what’s the point of working? There are many factors like this, and every one of them has a balance point– a place where both profits this year, and next year, and ten years from now, are maximized. Profits are important sure, but they can never reach their full potential if they’re seen as more important than all the other, more human, less easily quantifiable, parts of any business.
That balance between profit and other factors can work in many ways, but the one way it absolutely *never* works best is to take all your food now, and save nothing for seed, to work your workers til they drop today, and have no-one left tomorrow. What never works best is to prioritize profit above all other factors.
As humans, we don’t ultimately want or need profits.
We want human things, that are rare, and harder to find.
Profits are just a way for us to eventually get to those things.
In our modern economy, these kinds of ideas only “work” because we’ve split all enterprise into multiple parts, so it’s possible to just be the guy who takes the food and eats it, and figuring out how to re-plant next year is someone else’s problem. It’s possible to just be the guy who rests and enjoys the fruits of labor, finding the energy to work more tomorrow is someone else’s problem. 
It’s possible in a world like that to just look at the guy taking profits, playing with hoarded resources, and refusing to deal with the problems of where those resources come from tomorrow, and think he must be pretty smart and powerful.
That would be wrong, he is in fact *lucky*, and only in some ways, and only in the short term, but it’s easy to think that way.
This isn’t a post about economics though.
I’m only going down this path to make a difficult point for you, as someone who creates things. It’s a tough thing for artists and creatives, entrepreneurs, to understand: money is not special. 
Money is not unique.
There are millions and millions of people with money out there, and none of them has money that is any better or worse than anyone else’s, except in their own mind. Money is a kind of power, but it’s like water. You need a source of it to survive. In a world like Ford was advocating for, a place like Michigan, water is everywhere, and always moving. In a poor, desert world like the Dodge’s and their successors today wanted, the world we got, water is horded by a few, and it’s possible for people to hold power over each other by having a cup of water, something that would be laughable in Michigan.
Money is a placeholder. No business person creates or destroys it. No business person is master of anything more than what they personally have in their hand, usually, not even in control of that much.
Money is a placeholder for things that people actually need and value, it is not valuable itself, and any person with money only has the ability to get other things that people value. Scarce things, special things, necessary things for survival. That’s it. That is their only power. They can not *make* food, or antiquities, or special, rare things. They can only ask other people to do it for them.
If one person with money doesn’t like you, you can always find others.
Money is neither rare, nor scarce, nor special. It’s just a placeholder for more valuable things.
Here’s why this matters:
As a creative, as an entrepreneur, you have the power to make special, rare, valuable things out of thin air.
You are the rare thing. You are the valuable commodity. You are the thing of value that money is just an empty symbol for. You give meaning, both to the money itself, and to the *lives* of the people who hold it. You create meaning that they absolutely *can not* create or acquire without you. They need you. Not the other way around.
Act like it.
Be worthy of it.

Why it’s hard

In your struggle to keep fighting for your place in the world you want to see,  whether you keep moving forward matters more than how you feel about it.

The preacher Chuck Swindoll once wrote “We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…”
I come from a working class family, with grandfathers on both side who worked their way out of poverty and hard labor in the 1930s and 40s into something better for themselves and their families. One worked his way off the factory floors of Detroit into an engineering degree, the other worked for a coastal DPW his whole life, plowing snow, digging canals, but rose through the ranks to eventually run the place. Like a lot of working class kids, from families like that, probably families like Chuck Swindoll’s, that idea– that you’re responsible for your own attitude, and your own fate, was rarely said out loud, but it was still the assumption that most of my view of the world was built on as a child.

Had a fight? –How could you have approached that situation better?

Didn’t get an A on an assignment? –How could you have worked harder to pass?

Got bullied and punched? — How is the bully seeing the situation, and how can you alter that?

It’s a very constructive way to look at the world, and empowering, in terms of facing facts and looking for do-it-yourself solutions. For any working-cass hero, with no options but to get through a hard shift, it’s often just a necessary way to look at your day.

I’ve spent years trying to escape this idea. It’s not enough.
On its own, it’s designed to make anyone who believes it fail.

That idea– that there’s a lot about the world you can’t change, and your on pleasure or suffering don’t matter so much as what you actually *do* in response, is just Stoicism, same as it was when old Zeno first talked about it in the 3rd century BC, same as Marcus Aurelius and his meditations, same as the Christians who read that book and carried the ideas down for the last 2000 years for Chuck Swindoll and my mom to teach me one day.

There’s a truth to modern stoicism that’s hard to argue with– the world *is* unfair, and a lot of the time, we can’t expect to have much to show, beyond what we’re willing to fight and work for without complaint. At the same time, like Swindoll’s “one string” we’re left to play, stoicism assumes that we live in a world we have almost no control over.  An ancient stoic story compares human life to being a dog tied to a cart, with no choice but to follow where the rope leads it, and make the best of the situation.

There’s a lot of hard, cold reality in those statements, and people willing to deal with hard, cold reality without whining are something we’re awfully short on these days.

The problem with this sort of stoicism is that it teaches us to not hate that rope, nor resist it, to not ever test it to see if it breaks. It leaves very little room for the human soul and its needs. It leaves very little room for unexpected things to happen. It will get you through a hard day at the factory. It might not get you to form a union and change the factory, or walk out and find something better. It teaches us to respect social order, and power, and neither of those things has ever deserved our untested respect. Yes, you need to be able to be hard, and face facts. Yes, you need to persist. You also need to rest sometimes. and sometimes, you need to fight.

I’ve been strong for a long time now. I’ve picked up stakes and moved all over the world trying to find a place to feel at home, and largely failed at that. I’ve built a working business for more than a decade as an independent artist, and built it from nothing, with no mentor, no great patron, largely based on my wits, and my nerve, and my willingness to keep walking forward, even when things look hopeless. Though I’ve largely succeeded there, any professional creative will tell you, it usually looks hopeless.
Wins or losses aside, I’m tired. 

The thing about being an artist, or an entrepreneur, or anyone who makes things from nothing, is that there are no directions.
Which city to live in?
Which thing to make next?
What hours should you work today?
What’s the missing piece that’s preventing this piece or story or product from connecting with an audience?
Will going to the party tonight lead to you meeting someone who can help your career?
Nobody knows! 

It’s all a random guess, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you or themselves. It’s damn hard. It’s exhausting. It’s impossible to communicate to anyone who lives in a world where they are told what to do every day. It will literally kill you, or drive away everyone and everything you love. Creating a successful enterprise, leaving behind a body of work, are incredibly difficult things to do. Those paths will lead you down many dead ends. They will lead you astray. They will fail even when you do everything right. You’re allowed to be angry about that. You’re allowed to hate it. You’re allowed to make mistakes, to resent your lot in life, to hate the cart that’s pulling you. You’re allowed to test that rope. You’re allowed to break the rope and knock the damn cart over. You don’t have to be positive or neutral about any of it.

You don’t know if any of that’s possible until you try. And even then, you don’t know if it’s possible next time. You are allowed to tell fate, and circumstance, and the ways things are, to go fuck themselves.

As an artist, as a creator, that is, in fact, your job.

You are here to see a better way, and show people that way.

While you’re doing that, it’s ok to hate the bully instead of understanding him, it’s ok to complain about a test that it’s impossible to win at, and complain loudly. it’s OK to simply win the fight, and walk away.

The problem is that who rises or falls in life is not decided by who complains or who maintains the high ground or who lays down in exhaustion, or who’s had enough and gives up on it all today.

It’s decided by who gets back up tomorrow.

Get up full of anger. Get up in hopelessness. Get up determined to ruin it all. Get up for your own reasons, and no-one else’s. Get up with the worst attitude on earth that day, and complain about it all, but get up, and fight your grumpy, unpleasant, hopeless fight.

You have the right to do that too.