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GP16Oct: Breakdowns Don't Work

Best This Week. Seabiscuit, champion racehorse of the 1930s, already has found a place on the Global Province in our section entitled Gods, Heroes, and Legends. But we have just learned it takes a heroine to write about a hero. That is, Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the 2001 bestseller about Seabiscuit, reclaiming him for posterity, is herself a tale untold. Confined to her Washington D.C. apartment by a chronic, mysterious ailment, Ms. Hillenbrand used the computer and a network of acquaintances to research how a discarded horse seized both the national imagination and strident pre-eminence on the track. In coming weeks, we’ll have more to say about her.

Marion, the Opportunist. Hillenbrand’s own victory as an author against all odds reminds us, curiously enough, of Marion Harper, the advertising impresario. Now forgotten, he’s the chap who made advertising a big business, putting McCann Erickson into the big leagues reincarnated as a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary Interpublic (NYSE:IPG; www.interpublic.com). 

One Monday back then an agency executive came into see him, moaning, “Marion, Marion, we have terrible problems.” “There are no problems, only opportunities!” was Harper’s rejoinder. From then on, agency wags would jest, “We just had another 150 insurmountable opportunities last week.” Ms. Hillenbrand, let it be said, has mounted the insurmountable.

Harper, incidentally, was brought low by a palace coup, his close colleagues worried by his free-spending ways. As we remember, he lived out his life in obscurity with his mother back in Oklahoma, far from Madison Avenue. We cherish as well one of his very prophetic lines, “I have been captured by what I chased.” Clearly he was put out to pasture too soon.

From Disabled to Enabled. Gone he may be, but we need some of Marion’s boundless optimism now in order to build a new social contract to break out of the policy impasse that has all our political parties going nowhere. The numbers of people out of the swim--sick and disabled, the unskilled underclass, the imprisoned, retirees--have grown so huge that society is gasping under the load. Some want to offer them support; others want to cut them off. Neither is a sustainable course of action in this country or in the other advanced industrial nations, which are all creaking under similar burdens.

These liabilities must be converted to assets, resource-users turned into resource-generators. Not all can write a bestseller like Ms. Hillenbrand, but surely she has shown the way. Just like Ms. Rowley--a welfare mother before she penned Harry Potter--who climbed out of despair. Can we give such guts and willpower in other people adequate outlet?

Prematurely Retired. Right now awesome numbers of our brethren on earth are entering second childhood, otherwise known as old age. Not a day passes where we don’t have a conversation with someone who is on the shelf who shouldn’t be. Corporate CEOs in their 70s who could do a better and more strategic job now than they did 20 years ago. Technicians out of transit systems and utilities who could avert the meltdown these enterprises are experiencing today. There’s a senior circuit for professional golfers somewhat past their prime--let’s have a senior circuit for everybody.

What we have on our hands is a Social Security System that will be running dry (about 2025 or so) and a health system that is overwhelmed by the diseases of the aging. And we have not yet invented the second careers for sixty- and seventy-year olds who truly do have wisdom and discipline that can be passed on to the wet-behind-the-ears. We have enforced idleness, allowing productive people to become a drag on the body politic.

In other words, with seniors (or with prisoners, the sick, the unskilled, etc.) we can argue that we need to keep a comfortable percentage of them working until they drop or plain want to quit, probably in new kinds of jobs. But it needs to be work of a serious sort born in a legal context where employers are incentivized to hire the aged and the temporarily disadvantaged. Why should our seniors just be ushers at church on Sunday? We must view them as permanent contributors, not consignees to the dustbin of history. We must want everybody to die with their boots on. Maybe we can get retired Senator Monyihan to come back to work, since he, above all, understands the problems and opportunities that abide in our idle millions.

Obsolescence Revisited. In past weeks, we have theorized that obsolescence is no longer a valid economic strategy. As Yogi Berra might say, “Breakdowns don’t work.” Then we were talking about products, systems, and the things we build. But it applies as well to human beings. Societies that marginalize large segments of their populations, even for the most charitable of reasons, must become extraneous themselves. An ethic that salutes lethargy will surely lead to a nation that becomes comatose. If John Kennedy were re-writing Why England Slept these days, he would call it Why the West Slept.

Turning the Corner. At least in relation to oldsters, we are making some headway. For years advertisers have geared their giddy pitches to young people, not realizing that the disposable income of the young set might be shrinking and that the oldster pool was expanding. Now the old are coming into view, and not just in Viagra advertisements.

The New York Times Magazine (October 13, 2002, p. 58ff) explains “The Myth of ‘l8 to 34,’” letting us know that ad agencies and TV networks are dumb to have locked in on such a limited demographic. In a few years, we may surmise that the adpack will be flocking to Mrs. Fletcher and the like.

In other words, marketers are waking up to the pocket power of those over 50. Now, in the decade to come, we can hope that policy makers will treat seniors like adults, rather than hapless, helpless pensioners. To get anywhere, we have to overcome an “attitude problem” that treats people like a problem.

More with Less. It’s obvious, even in these United States, that there’s not enough gold around to support our defense expenditures, our health system (now 17% of GNP), and our retirement bonanza, etc. etc. It’s said that citizens will tolerate and governments can profitably use taxes that chew up about 20% of income. But the USA figure seems to have sailed up to 30% or more, a level at which waste mounts and disillusionment flourishes. That means we need to sharpen our pencils and figure out what has to go. And we will have to tap into the abilities of those sitting on the sidelines.

Black and White and Read All Over. Do you remember the riddle about what’s black and white and read all over? The answer: the newspaper.

Now newspapers have become full color and are read less by fewer people. That brings us to the Saturday New York Times. It’s thinner and better than Sunday through Friday: you will encounter there a succinct treatment of the news, provocative sketches of some interesting cultural figures such as a writer of detective fiction in Italy, and better editorial columns than run in the daily paper (especially Bill Keller, a marvelous writer who lost out in the intramural politics that are so thick at the Times). In media, at least, all the best things happen out of the limelight, almost by accident, free from the manipulations of the mandarins. Quality occurs at the margins.

This Saturday paper is one great example of a larger point. When you have to overcome obstacles like Ms. Hillenbrand or use less money and talent like the Saturday Times, great things can happen. Now then, can’t we turn our lemons into lemonade, taking people at the margin and putting them center stage, stirring up a fire in the ashes?

Businesses that can see over the horizon will sell, employ, cosset, and celebrate those who are not in the fast lane, stealing a march on politicos, policymakers, and poltroons, knowing there’s a dollar to be made where others, too blind, fear to tread. Clearly 18 to 34 is not the place to be. The real leverage in 2002 lies with our rejects.

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