The Best Job I Ever Had

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Recently by Gary North: Salaries: Dim Light, Long Tunnel

     

Nothing is perfect, including timing. But some things are better than others, especially good timing.

There is a time for everything under heaven, the Bible tells us. This includes unexpected opportunities. Among these unexpected opportunities is good timing.

In market competition, we call these opportunities “entrepreneurial opportunities.” They are opportunities for profit . . . and also loss.

Let me provide an example of an opportunity that arose early in my career.

THE BEST JOB I EVER HAD

In my previous report, “Salaries: Dim Light, Long Tunnel,” I discussed the causes of today’s long-term unemployment. I used the analysis provided by Murray Rothbard’s 1963 book, America’s Great Depression, to demonstrate that government is the cause of today’s unemployment. It is available here as a free download.

Here is a book written half a century ago that provides the analytical tools I needed to explain the problem of today’s unemployment. Rothbard applied Ludwig von Mises’ theory of the business cycle to Federal Reserve policy in the late 1920s and early 1930s to explain the Great Depression. He also applied price theory: the glutting effects of price and wage floors on markets. For these floors, he blamed Herbert Hoover. Almost no one in the academic community knew of that book in 1963.

I did. That was very good timing. Here’s how it happened.

I had a great summer intern job in 1963. I was paid $500 a month, which was the equivalent of $3,700, in a time in which income tax rates were low in the low-income brackets, and so were Social Security taxes. All I had to do to earn my salary was read books. It was the best job I ever had. Those were the most valuable three months in my life.

I got that job because I had attended a summer seminar for conservatives in 1962. R. J. Rushdoony spoke there. He hired me the next summer.

I almost had not attended that seminar. I had lost in a contest to go to India. I got a scholarship to attend that seminar. I regarded this as my consolation prize. It turned out to be first prize.

The organization that employed Rushdoony and me had previously put up the money to have Rothbard write the book. Then it put up the money to publish it. I therefore had my copy hot off the press. It had been out for a couple of months. It was one of the books I read that summer. I was in the right place at the right time. This was good timing.

That book shaped my thinking about business cycles. I have put it to effective use ever since.

I got into the writing field a year after I read that book. I wrote my first booklet, "Inflation: The Economics of Addiction." It is in my book, “An Introduction to Christian Economics,” which is posted for free here. Rothbard’s books have shaped my thinking on money. One was What Has Government Done to Our Money? (1964). The other was Chapter 11 of Man, Economy, and State (1962), which I also read on that summer job.

What if I had not gotten that job? I probably would have read them, but not in a focused, highly concentrated schedule. I had time to think about what I was reading. I had no distractions.

No opportunity like that job ever came again. I made good use of it. It reinforced my thinking about the free market’s operations. It gave specific content to the overall intellectual framework I had already developed. It was the right job at the right time. It shaped my future.

I had enough knowledge to put that new information to effective use. It came early in my career, so I have been able to use it for a long time. In the state of California in 1963, there were probably not half a dozen recent college graduates who had that framework: Austrian economics, revisionist history on the New Deal, and anti-Communism. I may have been the only one. Add to that my library on Greenback monetary theory, which I opposed, and I surely was the only one.

Was that good for Rushdoony? Yes. He had been influenced by the Greenbackers. I persuaded him they were not to be trusted. I wrote a report for him in 1965 on this. The Mises Institute had republished it: Gertrude Coogan’s Bluff.

That job was like an investment that makes 10% per annum after taxes. The earlier you make the investment, the greater its impact. I am still earning a positive rate of return on that 3-month investment of time, for which I was well paid at the time.

A SERENDIPITOUS ENCOUNTER

In the early spring of 1965, I had returned to graduate school at the University of California, Riverside. I had been given $1,000 by my grandmother. I used it for school. It would carry me for a few months, at best. I needed a job.

I was walking across campus. A former professor was coming in the opposite direction. I had taken a class from him in late 1961 or early 1962. I still remember writing a term paper for him comparing F. A. Hayek and the Yugoslavian Marxist philosopher, politician, and dissident, Milovan Djilas. He gave me a B on the paper and a B in the course. It was in political science, which was not my major.

He stopped me. He asked if I wanted to do research for him. It was simple: I would take notes on English-language documents relating to the Soviet Union. I took it.

Why did he choose me? He had not seen me in years. It only occurs to me now. His name was Morton Schwartz. When I first met him, I said this. “Some students are disappointed that you aren’t Harry Schwartz. I’m disappointed that you aren’t Fred Schwarz.” But who knows?

That job helped pay the bills until I got a teaching assistantship teaching Western civilization that fall. The TA position, plus writing for The Freeman, plus two fellowships, got me through grad school.

That seemingly chance meeting and job offer by that professor was probably the most crucial unplanned event in my life. I was in the right place at the right time. One minute either way, and I would have missed it. It was as close to perfect timing as any event in my life. I probably would have stayed in school if I had not had that offer, but it was nip and tuck.

A lot of people would say it was a random event. Life is full of them, they say. This was merely an oddity that stands out in retrospect. I cannot prove that it was not random, or at least inherently unpredictable, given the sequence of events. But this sort of event takes place often enough in life to remind us that our pathway in life could have gone another way without such events.

NETSCAPE

Another instance of unique timing in my life was the advent of Netscape Navigator, the Web browser. Its predecessor hit the market in late 1994. That opened up the Web in its present form. Netscape Navigator hit the market in 1995.

Netscape was the first great company of the dot-com bubble. Its initial stock offering made multimillionaires of its geek developers, who had been low-paid employees a few years before. Wikipedia reports:

Netscape made a very successful IPO on August 9, 1995. The stock was set to be offered at $14 per share. But, a last-minute decision doubled the initial offering to $28 per share. The stock’s value soared to $75 on the first day of trading, nearly a record for first-day gain, the stock closed at $58.25 meaning a market value of $2.9 billion. The company’s revenues doubled every quarter in 1995. Netscape’s success landed Andreessen, barefoot, on the cover of Time Magazine.

I thought investors would lose every dime, because Netscape had no rational business model. I knew a free product would replace it. That is what happened. Microsoft offered a free alternative immediately, bundled with Windows 95. Netscape became free in 1998, but that was too late. The product steadily disappeared, as did the hopes of investors who had bought and held.

It was a classic case of an invention that made the inventors rich, but only if they sold out their holdings to the naive investors who thought they would make a bundle. The investors lost, but the invention changed the world. The consumers won.

Netscape Navigator was great timing for the inventors. It was also great timing for me and Lew Rockwell.

Lew Rockwell started www.Mises.org in 1995. I started GaryNorth.com in 1996. We were present at the creation of the graphic browser phase of the Internet. Before that, the Internet had been the noncommercial plaything of geeks. There was an anti-commercial ethos governing the Web. Then, beginning in 1995, geeks saw that they could get fabulously rich. That ended the Web’s anti-commercial outlook. Money talks. Loudly.

Because Rockwell and I got online early, we built traffic when competition was low. Today, the estimate of 350 million separate Web sites, plus 100 million blogs, is conventional. It is not easy to get into Google’s rankings.

Timing is not everything, but it is important. Sometimes, it is crucially important.

ALERTNESS

In his scholarly but highly readable books on entrepreneurship, Austrian School economist Israel Kirzner speaks of alertness. It is an X factor possessed by successful entrepreneurs. If it were not an X-factor, it would be repeatable and teachable. Others would enter the field. The rate of return would fall.

In philosophical terms, this alertness is an aspect of what Kant called the noumenal. It is a realm outside of scientific cause and effect, yet in some way is related to the realm of causation. He never explained this connection. Kant said the noumenal is the realm of ethics, meaning choice. We are not determined. We are not billiard balls in a cosmic game of pool. But if our choices are related to causation, thereby letting us influence the future, how is it that the bridge over the moat is only one way: out? How can we cross the bridge to let us use our pool sticks across the moat, yet no one is able to cross the bridge to use his pool stick on us? Nobody wants to be the 8-ball. He does not want to hear those fateful words, “8-ball in the corner pocket.”

Kirzner’s entrepreneur is like a pool player who has a clear eye and a steady hand. He can position his shots so that the balls are in the right position after his next shot. The other players can’t do this as well.

Kirzner’s pool-shooter is dealing with people, with groups, with prices. Prices are said to change randomly, according to random-walk theory, yet some entrepreneurs can predict them and profit from them. Warren Buffett is one of these people. He has had some problems recently because of his failure to predict the direction of natural gas prices, but, on the whole, he has profited immensely. His timing is not perfect, but it is statistically way above randomness.

One of the things I have found over the years is that I become more alert to subtle changes as I get more familiar with the subject. I can “smell” something amiss, even though I cannot “lay my finger on it.” The long familiarity with a topic lets a person identify deviations when others cannot sense this. The observer cannot say exactly what is different, but he knows it. Anyway, he thinks this difference is likely.

This sense of something abnormal – this alertness – is not quantifiable. We call it intuition, but we cannot define this elusive factor in our decision-making. We use it. We do not know exactly how we use it. We surely could not write a comprehensive training manual on how to use it predictably.

Therefore. . . .

STICK TO YOUR KNITTING

When you pursue something systematically and relentlessly, you build up a body of experience that gives you an advantage over competitors. You can work faster and more accurately. You know what to do and what not to do.

The case for staying with a career for decades is that your cumulative experience gives you profit opportunities. I mean “profit” in Kirzner’s sense: a positive return on alertness. It’s not a salary. It’s not a rate of interest. It’s not rent. It is what remains after all other factors of production are paid for.

One of the problems that Americans face in the first decade of their careers is that they bounce around. They have several jobs. They do not get into a long-term career and stick to it.

If a person’s skills are technical, such as video production, and he moves from job to job doing video production, this may not be a problem. He is developing his skills. He is applying these skills to a wide range of markets. He is finding out what works and does not work in several markets.

A similar skill is writing advertising copy. A copywriter can work in several media: catalogues, direct mail, Internet, display ads for magazines, classified ads, and radio. These competing media offer the copywriter different challenges. Nevertheless, the basic skills remain the same. Time spent in each of these areas is cumulative. The opportunities for an above-market rate of return are high, because the practitioner is practicing routinely every day.

This is the peculiar aspect of entrepreneurial alertness. It is a combination of routine and unpredictable awareness. The long years of routine performance lead to an increase in profitable alertness.

We hear praise for getting a wide range of experiences. I agree, if these experiences are bounded by patterned performance. It is the framework of our work that provides the working capital for our breakthroughs in life. We recognize the familiar, so we can better assess the importance of the unfamiliar that is a product of or an intrusion into our pattern. Someone has said that the two greatest words in science are “that’s odd.” This applies to every field.

I recommend to young people that they identify their calling early. Their employment may shift, but they should stick to their knitting with respect to their calling: the most important thing they can do in which they are most difficult to replace.

I saw a movie recently about a man who identified his calling in his mid-thirties. He is an African American who worked for 35 years in a factory that made cans. But when he got home every evening, he began working in his yard. Over the years, he created a topiary garden like nothing ever seen. He used cast-off plants that were not supposed to grow in the region. His South Carolina topiary became famous. Busloads of people come from as far as New York to see it. His name is Pearl Fryar. The movie is called A Man Named Pearl. It is on Netflix.

When he dies, he will be difficult to replace. He was not difficult to replace in the can factory.

CONCLUSION

I have learned over the last half century that if you stick to your knitting, you will get very good at it. The opportunities will appear, and you will be alert to them.

Lew Rockwell and I spent decades publishing, editing, and writing. Then came the World Wide Web through Netscape Navigator. As the New York politician George Washington Plunkett said of his career in the 19th century, “I seen my opportunities, and I took ‘em.” Through the Internet, we expanded our audiences to hundreds of thousands of people. That would have been inconceivable in 1993.

Right time. Right place – the “no place” of the Internet.

It should happen to you. (That was Jack Lemmon’s first movie. A year later, Mr. Roberts made him a star. It happened to him. I saw it at age 12. It was about a self-funded billboard in New York City that made an obscure woman famous. Right time. Right place. That was my first real encounter with the logic of display advertising. I never forgot it.)

Gary 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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