Know when to fold ’em

move onThere lies a contradiction within us. As teachers, mentors, coaches, friends, parents, we encourage people to pursue their dreams, to strive, persevere, don’t give up. We reward and praise determination, the kid who ‘sticks with it.’ And we should – these are excellent qualities in a person, very worth fostering. But at the same time we know that there are circumstances when, in fact, the time to ‘stick with it’ is past, when the costs of continuing to strive for success, in a career path, an artistic pursuit, a relationship, vastly outweigh the potential benefits. But so conditioned are we to think of quitting as a sign of weak character, that we can stay with projects long after they should have been put on the shelf. Even we economists often have trouble grasping that our sunk costs are indeed sunk, that it is time to move on.

In today’s New York Times we hear from Bren Smith, a ‘shellfish and seaweed farmer on Long Island Sound.’ He is a former college student (as evidenced by his student debt), and is struggling to make a go of it in his farming business:

To make ends meet as a farmer over the last decade, I’ve hustled wooden crafts to tourists on the streets of New York, driven lumber trucks, and worked part time for any nonprofit that could stomach the stink of mud on my boots. Laden with college debt and only intermittently able to afford health care, my partner and I have acquired a favorite pastime in our house: dreaming about having kids. It’s cheaper than the real thing.

His solution is that the government, and his fellow farmers, ought to do something, in fact a lot of things:

It’s not the food movement’s fault that we’ve been left behind. It has turned food into one of the defining issues of our generation. But now it’s time for farmers to shape our own agenda. We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems.

He also lauds the farmers’ groups of the past who fought for ‘stabilization of crop prices’, i.e. higher food prices for the consumer. But there is another solution, one he does not want to consider, but that is held in the headline of the article (a headline he did not necessarily write, but that is the truest thing here): get out of this business. It is not a market or policy failure that it is hard to make a living as a seaweed farmer. That’s a function of how much seaweed consumers want to buy, and how much is being supplied. The returns to this enterprise are simply not there. And it is very, very hard to make the moral case that consumers ought to pay more for food, and that someone else ought to cover his student loans, so that Mr Smith can pursue his dream of being a farmer.

He is in the Times in the first place because there will be so much sympathy; the little guy against a big, impersonal economy. But he doesn’t need to be there, he has choices.

And this is where this becomes an arts story. Because it has always been that there are more young, and even not-so-young, people who dream and strive to make a living as musicians, painters, writers. And they are all encouraged to pursue their dreams. But we know that they all can’t succeed – that what people are willing to pay for records, paintings and essays is not enough to allow everyone who wants to to make a career – or even a ‘living wage’ – out of this. That’s not a function of the internet, or, or music streaming. It has always been so.

I have great empathy for those who so deeply want to succeed as an artist, who want to keep that dream alive. The plea from the editors of N+1 for publishers to treat their writers with decency is quite right. But not everyone who wants to be a writer is going to make it. And that’s not a problem for arts policy to solve, for there isn’t a policy solution to it. The living wage at being a musician or writer can’t be guaranteed, can’t be made to happen. It never could.

The good news is that there are other choices. The unemployment rate for college graduates remains very low, the long-run returns to a degree are high. There are a lot, too many, people in this country who are born into situations where the opportunities and choices are meagre. But that is not the case for people with education and a talent for writing and for art. They might not be in the jobs that were dreamt of as undergraduates. But there are many opportunities to make a difference in this world, to do people good.

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  1. says

    I agree with you to a point, Michael, but your analysis seems to assume that in both family farming and the arts there will always be jobs for those who have what it takes to make it. But if family farms aren’t economically feasible, there will be fewer opportunities for small-scale farmers, and if traditional arts institutions continue to tank, there will be fewer opportunities for artists and arts workers. And in both cases there will be fewer opportunities for the public to consume nourishing products of high quality.

    When you suggest that every individual should stay focused on economic realities and make career choices accordingly, aren’t you also suggesting that family farming and the arts should be left to the vagaries of market forces? That if things are headed south, rather than working together to turn things around, we should anticipate impending failures and move on to something more dependable before it all collapses?

    Bren Smith was making an appeal to his industry and to those who value his industry’s products to work together to preserve something that society values. Isn’t this exactly what arts advocates and arts policy wonks do? Or should every administrator in every struggling arts organization suddenly wake up, recognize what steadily diminishing audiences mean, and get a job in the real world while they still can?

    I don’t think either industry should guarantee jobs for all who want them, but I don’t think either can survive if artists and farmers who advocate for a sustainable industry (even if they write about or grow seaweed) are encouraged to bail in favor of more lucrative but less fulfilling careers.

    • says

      Trevor, Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and it inspires me to attempt to clarify.

      There are two sides to any market. For some artistic or artisan offerings, the demand side is going to be small – for esoteric styles of music or writing, for organic local produce, for crafts. Demand will not disappear, and in fact might even get stronger as time goes by. But it will be limited. The supply side, on the other hand, is different from other, humdrum goods and services in that it presents for some a very desirable way to earn a living. And in turn there are very many people who wish they could make their way with a small farm, a quality used book store, a bluegrass band, writing literary essays. But there is a mismatch between the two sides of this market, and it means that many who wish they could earn their keep following their dreams will be unable to do so, and even those who do succeed will not become materially wealthy. They will have won the competition to survive in the field, but the monetary rewards will be small.

      No public policy will be able to solve the problem that some people are going to be disappointed when they are driven to move from what was their passion to something more ordinary (although I hope they do find that there are many ways to do good – even if the dream was not to eventually become a middle-school science teacher, the world could always use more energetic, passionate middle-school science teachers). Subsidies to the sector, like forgiving their college loans, will only draw more people to wanting to try to earn their living that way. And those working in ordinary jobs will surely wonder why *their* student loans are unforgiven. Why does the seaweed farmer deserve such benefits over his fellow alumni?

      My problem with Mr Smith’s essay – and I should say here that I have more empathy for his struggles than I conveyed in the original piece – is that he has made a choice to try his hand at something he must have known was unlikely to pay off, he had other choices (he is well-educated enough to have gone to college and get an op-ed published in the New York Times!), but wants the rest of us to bail him out. There are many people in this country who do *not* have the opportunity set he does – I don’t see Sunday Times opinion pieces from the farmworkers in the Central Valley, or from the unemployed in Clay County. I care about inequality. But I would much rather our public policy devoted itself to increasing the life possibilities for the truly poor, and not for those who have many options from which to choose, even if some of them are rather ordinary.

      • says

        It’s refreshing, albeit surprising, to hear someone in this industry arguing against public support for the arts. (I suspect there are many arts advocacy professionals who have invested their careers in seeking public support for the arts who would vigorously disagree with you.)

        Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


        • says

          Ah, but I am not against all public support of the arts. My only point here is that trying to solve the problem of the number of people who want to make a living as artists being substantially greater than the number that is feasible is not an effective direction for public policy. I *do* support public funding where there is public benefit beyond the artists and their audiences. But those cases should be chosen with care, looking for where the benefits would be greatest.

  2. Josh Hofer says

    Regarding strictly the economics, I agree with your reasoning, the creation of incentives of an already difficult craft would only serve to create a larger pool of qualified, yet an unemployable candidates. It is silly for us to subsidize Bren Smith if his market will not support his endeavor of seaweed farming.

    I do however, feel the need to follow-up on:

    “It is not a market or policy failure that it is hard to make a living as a seaweed farmer.”

    I find it difficult to not diagnose the agriculture situation as policy failure. Agriculture subsidies encourage the production of goods that drive the prices below what he can raise to make a profit.. He makes the point of large NPO’s that discourage competition, a point that I may disagree with slightly, but one that he would likely point to as policy failure, again providing a pathway for goods to undercut him in the market.

    He loses his way with incentivizing young farmers, but to look at the arts and small-scale agriculture in strictly market terms is to lose terms with the hand policy had in providing this situation.

    Lack of proper Arts policy and infrastructure, as opposed to some of our European counterparts, strikes me as policy failure as well.

    I would suggest that these are in fact policy failures, that Bren Smith, while privileged and perhaps misguided in his economics, is pointing out policy failures in the system, a system that is not valuing what it should.

    If we lost “Bren Smith” to a “logical” weighing of the market, how could these things ever be addressed?

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