Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«Jun 2013»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


June 29, 2013

The way we live now

Barton Swaim is a good writer and an amusing fellow. He has written a book called Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-1834. He used to write speeches for Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who told his staff that was hiking in Appalachia when he had actually flown to Brazil to see his mistress. Swaim writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement and I don't know where else. His latest entry in the Freelance column in the TLS is about race relations in the American South, where he lives, and how they are affected by commerce.
      He defines commerce "in the older sense of personal interchange for some purpose, whether economic gain or something else." He gives the specific example of a hardware or plumbing supply store which he sometimes visits, which is owned by an elderly white man, and located in a black neighborhood, and where half the customers and half the staff are black, and makes the following very good point:

The white man trying to find a good deal on lead-free brass fittings may be a bigot, but the experience of dealing with a black man who knows what he he's talking about will undermine his bigotry, if only for a time, and only a little. Commerce, in the older sense, doesn't just have the capacity to make us wealthy; it also has the capacity to civilize us. 

This is very much to the point, and his description of the store is charming, and he ends with a story about a petty bit of racial descrimination away from the store. We're not there yet, he seems to admit. But he has started out by saying that "commerce has done more to defeat racism in the South than all the rallies, campaigns and marches against racism combined." With that I must differ. Swaim is 40 years old; I'm sure he knows a lot about the civil rights era, but he is too young to have watched on live television when the history was happening, when the South was being turned upside down, complete with firehoses and police dogs. All in black-and-white of course. I would point out that before the rallies, campaigns and marches, his bigoted white plumbing contractor most likely would have been waited on by a white guy, while the black guy mutely swept the floor. 


June 29, 2013

The way we live now, two

Publishing guru Bob Sacks, in his BoSacks daily emails, recently wrote about the Tesla motor car company wishing to sell its vehicles directly to customers, doing without a structure of franchised car dealers, and about how the associations of car dealers in various states are trying to prevent that by legal means. Well, they would do that, wouldn't they, we might say, but hang on a moment. If you can go online and buy a new car and have it delivered to your door, you may save money, or Tesla may be able to sell it to you cheaper that way, but that is not all there is to it. Bob goes on the quote author Jaron Lanier: the former photography giant Kodak went out of business shortly after social media giant Facebook purchased Instagram; at its peak, Kodak employed 140,000 people.  Instagram, a very hot and buzzworthy company, employed just fourteen.

So you have to ask the question, if car dealers were replaced by direct to consumer sales either via manufacturer owned stores or the web, what would happen to the quality of life in a community? How much money would a consumer save? Would that consumer even have a job that paid enough to buy a car? How many jobs would be displaced if a local auto dealer, if all the auto dealers in a community exited the market?

Then Bob paraphrases from memory a recent conversation with an independent magazine wholesaler.

"We're robbing ourselves," he said, "That's what really pisses me the hell off about what we're doing. All this cheap shit we need to buy. We run our locals out of town, replace them with these big stores. Cool, we got great deals! Now a local owner is gone from the membership list of the Rotary or the Lions and who's going to sponsor the baseball team or send remainders to the hospital and the school library?
      And that's just the easy stuff. Think big box is going to bank with the county bank? They rolled into town lined up with a big national. Two years later the county bank can't stand it anymore and merges with some national. Then my Dad has to go and start working with some guy who doesn't really know our town or our business and he has to start all over. All the other local guys are in the same boat. And all that money that was on deposit and working here in this county is now going out of the county and out of state. Where do you think those big box profits go? When the TV store was local the money stayed here."

And magazine distribution, among many other industries, is changing profoundly under these pressures. 

"So where I used to just handle these three counties, now I'm running all over the place. Where before I had maybe 300 customers, I've now got maybe 900. How come I'm not making more money? I've got a guy in the return room. Not a great job, but not the worst. Twenty years ago, a guy in the return room could live OK if he was single. If he was married and his wife worked, they could be OK. Have a house, a car, take the kids a few places. We had okay benefits. Not great, but we're small. Now? I can't pay my staff the same scale as 20 years ago. The benefits aren't even just okay anymore..."

The magazine distributor can't even get people to work for him because he can't pay them enough.
      I would add that we hear a lot of talk about unemployment while there are a lot of jobs going begging, some of them because people can't afford to work for practically nothing, and the money's not there, while the financial industries are sitting on trillions of dollars. I don't know who or what is to blame, but we have severe dislocation on our hands.