Friday, November 5, 2010

"Self-Interest On Overdrive"

With Major Dad – the TV series I had co-created and was running – a big hit, I was experiencing a moment of transitory importance. As a consequence of this temporary lofty standing, I was invited to participate in a panel, discussing the issue of the skyrocketing costs of making television shows.

Why did I agree to participate? I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the heavyweight status of the other participants.

Included on the panel was a network president, the president of a studio, the head of a major production company, a high-ranking “Business Affairs” executive…

And me.

Someone had uncorked a bottle of “Mr. Big Shot” and a whiff of its contents had swirled tantalizingly up my nose. That’s the only way I can explain how I found myself one morning, seated at the far end of a panel, in the company of some of the heaviest hitters in the business.

In their opening remarks, each of them, in turn, pinpointed the same reason for the out-of-control expenditures, which was this:

Agents were demanding – and, due to the competitive nature of the business, receiving – excessive financial compensation for their show running clients. Bring the talents’ demands into line, and the “soaring costs” problem would be significantly alleviated.

Finally, it was my turn to speak. I had not prepared any remarks. I’m not sure I even knew what the discussion topic would be. And that was just fine. I’m often better when I simply listen and respond. Which is precisely what I did. My response – though I’m sure not in these exact words – went something like this:

“I have listened to the other members of this panel express their views on the matter under discussion, and they all seem to agree. Which is impressive, because their unanimity brings an added credibility to their opinion.

The conclusion they have all come to is this: The soaring costs of production would be significantly lowered by cutting my salary.”

The laughter garnered by this remark reflected its air-clearing candor. The companies’ profits would go up if the amount they paid me went down. That, in their great wisdom, was what they were calling for.

Less for me. More for them.

There was no consideration of, “The talent makes the shows. Maybe they deserve what they get.” There was no suggestion, “Expenses are out of control. Let’s all take a cut.” There was no, “Despite rising costs, we are all making money. Why not leave things the way they are?” (And let the markets decide salaries. How come that’s suddenly no good?)

None of that came up. Their solution, to a man, was loud and clear:

Cut Earl’s salary.

This story comes to mind in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, where the winners (and their supporters) seem to apply the same rationale to their fellow citizens as my fellow panelists applied to me.

The solution to out-of-control deficits is to slash the benefits received by people other than ourselves. Skyrocketing budgetary expenses? Their answer:

“Reduce expenditures. For them.”

The “them” in this case, referring to the people clinging to the lowest rung of economic ladder. Runaway spending? Reduce expenditures on the people who need it the most. That’ll fix things.

Give the needy less money. Then everything will be fine.

(Note: I am not equating the situation of well-paid television writers with the neediest members of society. The proposed solution, however, seems eerily similar.)

I understand the concept of self-interest. I have written with sincere ambivalence about teaching Kindergarten children to share, when our nation’s values point squarely in the other direction, expressed, not unfairly, I believe, by the words,

“I got mine. Get your own!”

In certain cases, this is precisely the requisite approach. Jewish tradition tells us that, if you and another person are in the desert, and there’s only enough water to keep one of you alive, you are morally obligated to drink the water yourself.

There is, however, a difference between that instruction and the situation we find ourselves in today, the difference being - we’re not in a desert. Despite serious difficulties, there is plenty enough water for those with more water than they’ll ever be able to drink in a thousand lifetimes to set a little aside for the seriously thirsty.

A large segment of the electorate believes otherwise. Or so it would appear, considering how they voted.

For them, the principle of justified “self-interest” seems to have been expanded from

“When it’s life and death, it’s me over you” to

“For me, always. For you, never.”

Consider this question. Imagine there‘s a life-threatening illness, and you were asked to vote on government funding for a stepped-up research campaign to help find a cure.

Your opposition to “excessive government spending” notwithstanding, how much more likely would you be to vote for that funding if you or your loved ones were in danger than if you believed the “Killer Disease” imperiled other people but not you?

Earl’s susceptible; you’re not. Will we still get your vote?

Be a human for a second. If there’s an acknowledged crisis, and your answer to it is a crippling sacrifice by others but none by you, do I simply chalk that up to a natural exercise of personal self-interest?

Or do I shake my head, and quietly shed a tear?

I announce with sadness the recent passing of “Mike The Blogger.” I knew Mike from camp. He was a “tripper”, meaning he took campers out on canoe trips. But unlike the other “trippers”, who were traditionally rough and raw, though equally capable, Mike was sweet and kind and gentle and – and this is especially important to someone who could carry neither a canoe nor a pack, nor even the paddles – Mike was extremely patient.

I liked Mike when I knew him. And I’ll miss seeing him comments.

Happy Trails.


Gnasche said...

I think the problem is that most of the population wants all of the population to live the same way. Why can't this be handled locally? Would the generous societies thrive while the miserly societies fail? We have no idea because, as humans, we're so caught up in dictating morality.

Dictating generosity is the same as dictating who can marry whom. We must protect the sanctity of altruism!

Unfortunately, the kind of people who don't really care to tell others how to live are also the kind of people who don't really care to organize. Thus, we're stuck with the two parties who have conflicting views of how to control people's lives.

Some people are generous and some people aren't. I begrudgingly accept that the same as I begrudgingly accept the people wanting to dictate morality. They're only human.

This next bit is pure fluff to exaggerate my generosity and merit. Just yesterday I donated to the Catholic Church. I'm atheist. The reason is because they run a very efficient and helpful local soup kitchen.

diane said...

Although I would wish for more balance between the two opposing sides in politics, the current viewpoint of cutting expenditures also believes that cutting taxes for businesses will promote more jobs so that the most needy will be able to care for themselves. I do agree that there is no way to legislate morality. And I believe that it's unconstitutional to try to do that. But mostly, I had to comment because my word verification was so perfect - grafine. I share a last name with Stephie Graf (although she spells it wrong) and I'm taking the made up word grafine very literally today. I am just fine.

Anonymous said...

See ya soon, Mike.

I've finally reached the age where I can say anything I want w/out fear of hurting anyone's feelings. And today I say, I wish I cared more about today's topic. Or any topic.

My word verification - what I can read of it - begins with 'dead' - which seems way too fitting.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

As for your Killer Disease analogy, I am afrid more and more people are reaction with: "Maybe there is no disease." And although they are right you can't just be sure anymore if they ay that because they have a geuine point or f they are just looking for facts that support the protection of their wallet.