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The political economy of puppetry

Joe Therrien, an OWS activist and semi-employed drama teacher, has become infamous since the Nation included him in an article on “The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street,” which began like this:

A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school. The intervening years had been brutal to the city’s school budgets—down about 14 percent on average since 2007. A virtual hiring freeze has been in place since 2009 in most subject areas, arts included, and spending on art supplies in elementary schools crashed by 73 percent between 2006 and 2009. So even though Joe’s old principal was excited to have him back, she just couldn’t afford to hire a new full-time teacher. Instead, he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”; he writes his own curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a normal teacher does. “But sub pay is about 50 percent of a full-time salaried position,” he says, “so I’m working for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad school, and I don’t have health insurance…. It’s the best-paying job I could find.”

A lot of folks think this is an absolute hoot, the thinking being “What kind of jackass goes into debt thinking an MFA in puppetry is going to pay off, and then rages against the machine when it turns out it doesn’t?” (“What kind of tone-deaf progressive editor makes this the lede to their story on the courage and righteousness of the OWS protestors?” is a better question.)

I’m tickled to see Michael Barone, nobody’s idea of a hippy-lover, standing up for the guy:

I think that in quitting a tenured job [Therrien] was giving up security and taking a risk to achieve his dream.

He presumably felt that he could be a good enough puppeteer to make a living at it and could find a job doing so. That’s the sort of thing the late Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates that they ought to do.

Therrien didn’t know that we were going to have a financial collapse in fall 2008 and that a lengthy recession would follow. Neither did most economists — including the very good ones in the Obama administration — and most people in banking and financial services.

Or perhaps Therrien didn’t understand that a lengthy recession could reduce the market demand for puppetry, as fewer people could afford tickets or make generous gifts.

I have long thought that one of the wonderful things about our affluent society is that more and more people could find jobs doing things they love.

Barone goes on:

In the America of our time a lot of people make livings as actors, musicians and, yes, as puppeteers. I think it’s a safe assumption that they get more satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from their work than they would as file clerks or factory workers with significantly higher pay.

Therrien bet $35,000 that he would be able to find work he loved, and I think well of him for it even though he has at least for the moment lost his gamble.

I’ve got a good bit of student-loan debt myself, acquired studying philosophy in grad school. And then I dropped out before finishing my Ph.D.! Well, I don’t regret it. Sometimes in grad school you’ll hear students and faculty both speak with a certain dread of “the real world.” It turns out, however, that universities aren’t actually located outside this here space-time continuum, but are part of the real world, and a pretty great part, too, if you’re lucky enough to get into it. I don’t know that when I took out student loans to help support myself that I thought I was taking some kind of “gamble.” I knew I was redistributing income from my future to my present self, and not really because I needed the money to make an investment that would payoff, but because I wanted to study philosophy and I couldn’t otherwise afford it. I was buying the rarefied leisure of grad school and knowledge of philosophy. Now I know all about philosophy, will for the rest of my live, and I love it! Did I get some remunerative skills in the bargain? I reckon I did. I certainly sharpened my analytical and argumentative abilities, which came in handy as a think-tank fellow, and come in handy now as a semi-employed blogger for The Economist and Big Think. But so what! I spent years reading and thinking about Aristotle and Kant and Quine and Rawls, which is not everyone’s idea of a holiday, but I’ll always treasure that time in my life, and I’ve got more to show for it than a scrapbook of exotic snapshots. It remade my mind.

Now, what I’m not about to do is pitch a tent on America’s lawn and complain that “the system” has done me wrong. That would be insane. I studied painting and drawing at State U on an art scholarship. I studied philosophy at two more State Us, subsidized by taxpayers the whole way, either in the form of tuition waivers (for being a graduate teaching assistant, a job that doesn’t really ask that much of you, to be honest) or in the form of cheap loans I certainly couldn’t have landed on the market. (“Please, sir: I have an art degree with a mediocre GPA, and I would like your bank to give me some money to read Roderick Chisholm. Please?”) “The system” gave me a very nice time, and helped me accumulate some rather luxurious if not exceedingly practical “human capital.” So I’m not complaining about debt-slavery or anything moronic like that.

But I also wouldn’t draw quite the ideological lesson Barone does:

What [Joe Therrien] probably doesn’t realize is that jobs in fields like puppetry aren’t generated by government but are the product of bounteous market capitalism, which enables people to buy luxury goods like puppet show tickets and subsidize puppet theaters through philanthropy.

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Government is a poor and unreliable substitute and a government that chokes private sector growth inevitably hurts the puppetry business. Sorry, Joe.

Barone is right that artists are, in one way or another, dependent on the bounty of the market. But he draws much too stark a distinction between the government and the private sector, especially when it comes to the arts. America’s world-class public university system is a creation of government made possible by taxpayers working productively in a wealth-creating market economy. I don’t know about puppetry, but many of the jobs in the arts (and almost all the jobs in philosophy) are at universities. Conservatives sometimes bitch about the National Endowment for the Arts, but they rarely bitch about the fact that State U employs a healthy handful of poets, sculptors, violists, and other artists totally extraneous to the goal of winning the economic future from the Red Chinese. For the past half-century at least, government, in the form of the public university system, has been a pretty damn reliable complement to the private sector when it comes to subsidizing artists and the arts. It’s just as accurate to say that Joe’s problem is that there’s only one puppeteering MFA program. If there were a raft of them, as there is in music, theater, dance, creative writing, and so on, then maybe he could land a gig as an assistant professor of puppeteering at some cozy State U somewhere, which sounds like a nice life to me.

Maybe Joe and me caught the tail end of the era in which America could afford to handsomely subsidize the whimsical life choices of its comfortably middle-class sons and daughters. If we could jump-start growth by, say, shuttering all the State U music departments, it’s not so clear that the market for cello teachers would thereby improve. If we’ve got to screw over all those tax-eating cello professors in order to eke out a better growth rate, we might as well tell it to them straight: your life is a luxury we can no longer afford.

If excessive public-sector spending retards growth (and it does, because that’s what “excessive” means), a lot of people who made big, life-shaping decisions in light of the incentives of the 1990s or the 2000s will get dinged hard by a move to improve growth by shrinking the public sector. There’s no way around it. Higher growth rates create a bigger economic “pie,” but that’s cold comfort to those who aimed (perfectly rationally!) to get a fat slice of a smaller pie that, it turns out, will never get baked. Free-marketeers have a bad habit of assuming that because economic growth is largely a positive-sum game, a shift to more pro-growth public policy doesn’t have losers. But it always does and always will. If some of the necessary future reduction in public-sector spending involves gutting the arts at public universities, artists as a class (as that class it currently constituted) will likely get hurt, and that could lead to some very angry Kickstarter-financed puppet shows.

[Puppet image from Shutterstock.]


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