What Muley Sykes Had That We All Should Want

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Every few weeks,
I give a lecture to a group of about 15 men and women who are taking
a month-long course on how to get and keep a job. These are inner
city adults. Some of them have never had a full-time job.

I use a teaching
tool: a print-out of a song. It is not only a good song musically,
it is a great song in terms of its message. It tells the story of
a mythical railroad porter named Muley Sykes.

Muley was one
of those rare individuals who knew what he wanted to do with his
life from an early age. He saw a train, and he wanted to be a railroad

I tell the
audience that "railroad porter" was the first lifetime
salaried profession open to the average black man. It did not require
advanced education, unlike medicine and the law. The porter’s union
was established by A. Philip Randolph in 1925, who ran it until
1968. The rule was: "No whites need apply." That would
not be legal these days.

have posted the lyrics here.

I tell students
that their occupation will put food on the table, but their calling
is the most important thing they can do in which they are most difficult
to replace. Muley’s occupation was his calling. This is exceedingly


This is getting
tough for young adults today. There is a new sociological category
for the American age group 20—30. David Brooks, author of the insightful
and hilarious book, Bobos
in Paradise
, categorizes this group as "odyssey."

There used
to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood
and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence,
odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new
ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering
that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

I am in the
fifth group: active retirement. I have planned for this ever since
adolescence. I had a head start on my peers.

My odyssey
years were no odyssey. I was in graduate school. I had two false
starts in one 18-month period: 1963—65.
I recovered rapidly. But getting through took longer than I had
planned. I was fortunate. I wrote my way through my doctoral program.
I gained a crucial skill that has proven to be the central factor
in my career. My career has had little to do with my formal training
and everything to do with my means of paying my way through.

Brooks continues:

During this
decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school.
They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and
out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Their parents
grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there’s
bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult
life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see
the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents
don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s
lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.

The key here
is delay. It is some version of "What do you want to be when
you grow up?" Delay costs these people dearly, because they
lose the crucial years of capital formation. They don’t get compound
growth on their side early.

They see
that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They’re
delaying having children. They’re delaying permanent employment.
People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain
accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially
independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960,
roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things.
By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

I am thankful
that I did not have to go through the Odyssey years. I don’t like
living without knowing what I will be doing the next day. I always
know what I will be doing. I will be sitting at a keyboard — a 1984


What we do
with the limited time available to us is important. There is a trade-off
with time that is the most severe of all trade-offs, because time,
once spent, cannot be re-gained. So, our early decisions lock us
in to lifestyle patterns that make us ever more resistant to change.
The costs of readjusting our allocation of time keep rising. Habits
and debts also make change difficult.

Initially in
life, men want independence, and this takes money. Then, when they
get a lot of money — and only about 20% do — they are tempted to
reconsider their lives. They decide that significance is more important
to them than additional money. But how can they get significance?
All they know how to do is make money.

Women face
a parallel decision, but much earlier. Married women face career
decisions that married women did not face prior to World War II.
They want to know how to balance a paycheck career and a family
career. They see that their careers as mothers have more significance
then their career as wage earners. Men tend not to see this trade-off
until the kids are grown and gone.

What makes
readjustment possible for men is mid-life crisis, when the cost
of more money in terms of lost time rises dramatically. Men’s priorities
change as a result of the shifting money-to-time ratio. Some men
respond positively by finding new areas of productivity. Others
respond negatively by finding new areas of expenditure.

For women,
the empty-nest syndrome is inescapable, so their question is how
to respond. In the past, grandmother status replaced motherhood
status, but geographical mobility has changed this. Children scatter,
taking grandchildren with them.

All of this
affects career decisions made decades earlier.

Then there
is wage competition from Asians. The American work force is facing
pressures from abroad that did not exist 40 years ago. Tariffs are
lower, transportation costs are lower, capital transfer costs are
lower, and communications costs are vastly lower. This means more
foreign trade and therefore more foreign competition.

As consumers,
Americans love this, as the country’s $750 billion a year balance
of payments deficit indicates. But, as producers, American workers
are unhappy about these developments. So, we are schizophrenic.
Congress recognizes this and tries to respond. On the whole, however,
the U.S. government moves toward more open borders and lower tariffs.
This means more competition for American laborers and manufacturers.


Ben Franklin,
in Poor
Richard’s Almanack
, put it this way: "A child thinks
that twenty dollars or twenty years can never be spent." Actually,
he said twenty pounds, which was a lot more money in 1755. But you
get the idea. Money gets spent, and so does time.

It is the relentless
ticking of the clock that should focus our attention. Franklin’s
contemporary, Samuel Johnson, quipped that there is nothing like
a sentence to be hanged in two weeks to focus a man’s attention.
But the end is just as real in 40 years as two weeks.

The more future-oriented
you are, the more attention you will pay to the ticking clock. Ludwig
von Mises called this time-preference. Future-oriented people have
low time preference. They discount the future at a lower rate of
interest. This applies to future benefits, but it also applies to
future costs.

The present-oriented
person is like the grasshopper in the story of the grasshopper and
the ants. He fiddles all summer and starves in winter. In the Disney
cartoon, he sings, "The world owes me a living." It doesn’t.

Edward Banfield’s
book, The
Unheavenly City
(1970), got him in a lot of trouble on campus
at Harvard because he wrote that inner-city men are present-oriented.
He defined lower class as present-oriented. This was politically
incorrect in 1970 . . . and probably today. His point was that inner-city
men, especially if they are single, act for the moment. They want
action. They don’t count the long-term cost of their actions. Mises
would have said that such people discount the future with a very
high rate of interest. The distant future is worth almost nothing
to them. So, it has little effect on their present actions.

When men enter
the labor force at age 18 or 21 or even 30, they are so focused
on earning a living that they do not look to the future. They do
not see that there is usually a trade-off that begins with that
first paycheck: security vs. significance. The more children, the
greater the weight a man places on security. He has got to stay
ahead of the monthly bills. That race, which is a race against time,
is no longer than 31 days. It is a sprint. But life is more a marathon
than a sprint. This, young men tend to forget.

you are not a young man. You sense that your clock’s spring is running
down. Ask not for whom the clock ticks. It ticks for you. You can
scream and you can yell, but it does no good to get ticked off.

Let me tell
you what I am personally going through — not because you get excited
hearing about me, but because you may be facing a similar set of

In February,
2006, I became a ward of the state. I lost my private medical insurance
because I became eligible for Medicare. If I had not signed up for
that gigantic welfare program, I would have been uncovered. For
most medical expenses, I don’t care. For catastrophic coverage,
I do care. I go to a physician maybe once every three years. But
what if I have a stroke?

What really
bothers me is the inexorable fate of the Medicare program. It is
going to bankrupt the government, which means that it will force
the Federal Reserve System to cover up this bankruptcy with fiat
money. That threatens me, healthy or not. It threatens the future
of this country. Similar programs threaten every Western industrial

You know all
this. I don’t need to run the numbers by you again. Someone will
get stiffed: old people, workers, or people who hold dollar-denominated
assets other than inflation-resisting commodities.

So, I am looking
to generate income that will hedge against the FED and also against
a political revolt by taxpaying workers who finally figure out that
the political system is stacked against them.


To enter a
career that offers growth in income, inflation hedging, and significance
is rare. I have been looking for such a niche market all of my life.
I have yet to enter it. I am still spending a lot of my time earning
a living by selling products that are highly time-specific. Such
products do not have much potential for influencing the world over
the long haul.

That doesn’t
mean that what I write isn’t significant for someone. But it’s like
repairing a vehicle. This can help someone get from point A to point
B. This journey may be quite significant, such as for an ambulance.
But the repairman is part of a complex process in the division of
labor. His work is readily replaceable. What he does in any specific
case usually receives little credit by the general public for making
the world go around. Few people pay any attention. While all moral
labor possesses significance and value, not much labor possesses
visible, long-lasting value.

At some point,
some people start looking for visible, long-lasting value. Maybe
most people don’t. This is because they recognize early that they
are highly replaceable and therefore insignificant. They never take
up the quest for significance because they see no future to it.
They have no self-confidence.

I think this
is a major mistake. People equate significance with fame. They think
that significance is achieved only when lots of people impute importance
to a particular piece of work or lifetime of work. But fame can
be negative. It can be imputed for reasons most of us would prefer
to avoid. Hitler is famous. Who needs this?

Every once
in a while, a TV news show or a newspaper features a story on some
obscure person who labored long and hard in the shadows, but who
positively influenced lots of people. Aged or recently deceased
teachers are candidates for such stories. Their influence came from
their having positively shaped the lives of students in their classrooms.
These students may not be famous, but they recall with favor the
efforts of some dedicated person who made their lives better for
a school term.

therefore comes from the same source as economic value does: from
imputation. Someone imputes value to a person’s output. It therefore
has value. Its value has more to do with the good judgment of the
imputer than it does from the producer’s work.

Put a different
way, the labor theory of value is incorrect. It’s not the value
of what goes into a product or service that produces value. It’s
the delight of the buyer, who decides that owning it or using it
is worth more than hanging onto money.

There was a
movie years ago called Doc
. It was a piece of fluff, but it did focus clearly
on the question of money vs. significance. Michael J. Fox plays
a hot-shot young physician ready to start his career. He plans to
become a Hollywood plastic surgeon, making a great living by making
women with money look better. On his way to Hollywood, he gets stuck
in some rural town in South Carolina. Why his route to California
took him through South Carolina was never made clear. Arkansas,
maybe. Anyway, the town’s only physician is aging. He will retire
soon. The town has not much money, but it has a real need. His choice:
Go for the money or go for the significance.

The movie centers
on this theme.


about you? Do you regard your occupation as significant? Does anyone

I tell those
inner city adults that most of us are not like Muley Sykes. We don’t
get paid for our callings. We get paid for services rendered to
consumers. Our callings are self-funded most of the time.

If you can
find a career that is also your calling, you have attained something
rare. Be thankful.

9, 2008

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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