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Editor's Choice

Hobby economy

Some inchoate thoughts about paid and unpaid work. One of the primary obstacles to thinking about alternatives to capitalism is the idea of money as a primary motivator. In capitalism, with its liquid labor market, money comes to seem the sole means of legitimizing effort. If you get paid for it, the effort was valuable, socially necessary, useful. If you don't, your effort was hobby work, leisure, relaxation, a distraction. With money serving as this legitimizing function at the level of individual psychology, it inevitably becomes important people to display their wealth as a means of signaling their professionalism -- expensive suits, well polished shows, big watches. These aren't mere vain ostentation, but a sign of competence and credibility, in the same way elaborate and stolid bank buildings are meant to signify stability. Thus, the barriers to professional advancement become material, and they become encrusted with cultural-capital issues of knowing what to buy, how to display it, how to attain it, and so on. Money then begins to seem like the purpose of productive activity, with the actual social product as a kind of byproduct. This may lead to irrational allocation of resources, that make, for example, the financial sector of the economy far larger in proportion to GDP than it has any business becoming.

If you accept standard economic theory, wages are supposed to be an indicator of what sort of work is socially necessary, and what sort of work needs doing -- necessary functions. But, if you accept unorthodox Marxist economics, wages are also bound up with the creation of surplus value and with the theft of workers' time. We produce value for capitalists over and above the wages we are paid, all the while performing work that is no longer socially necessary and rewarding individually (we are no longer contributing to the health of society) but work that is drudgery, that is exploitative, that produces commodities that don't fulfill existing needs but serve to stimulate new wants. (We are acclimated to this, regard these new wants, these new desires, as enlarging the possibilities of our lives. Living inside capitalism, it's hard to even have perspective to judge whether or not that is so.)

But the internet, as a relatively affordable and powerful means of production available to many noncapitalists, has perhaps started to make possible an alternative to wage legitimation of labor. Tyler Cowen, in a post from a month or so ago, responded to BusinessWeek economist Michael Mandel's theory that the alleged productivity gains from the IT boom of the past decade and a half were illusory. Cowen writes, "My take is this: there was some productivity growth but much of it fell outside of the usual cash and revenue-generating nexus. Maybe you will live until 83 rather than 81.5 and your pain reliever will work better. In the meantime you will read blogs and gaze upon beautiful people using your Facebook account. Those are gains to consumer surplus, but they don't prop until the revenue-generating sectors of the economy as one might have expected." In other words, gains in productivity derived from things like the internet aren't showing up as more money in our pockets, and they are not showing up as corporate profit, but they do exist in a kind of nascent alternative economy. The "consumer surplus" is being generated outside of capitalist structures, outside of the market, though it is still occurring within a capitalist, consumerist society. It's being made through activity that has in the past been generally dismissed as hobby behavior -- collaborative open-source projects, online content production and archiving, tagging information, sharing and organizing useful data, etc., etc. The internet amasses this effort, consolidates it, distributes the example and rewards of it, and draws more people into contributing.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point about the growth of this productive yet noncapitalistic activity:

the true essence of the “new economy” of the digital era is that there will be lots of activity going on that people enjoy and find useful, but that has very little in the way of economic value that’s captured by profit-making firms. The quintessential enterprises of this era are things like Wikipedia, which [makes] no money, or CraigsList which makes a very modest sum of money, even while they both revolutionize certain spheres of endeavor.
As a result, he argues, "the total amount of money being made off the internet is pretty small considering how ubiquitous internet use has become." Internet use, as an activity that has become both consumption and production simultaneously, produces value that for various reasons fails to become a reliable revenue stream -- it doesn't professionalize. (Nicholas Carr would probably not agree.)

When I think of all the time I spend at home in front of a screen, writing stuff that I give away fro free, I feel the truth of this. Weirdly, I feel fortunate to be able to be motivated to do all this work for free. The source of that motivation remains obscure to me, but it's clearly a product of the (perhaps imaginary) audience the internet appears to marshal for my activity. Getting paid might even discourage me. Right now, I keep writing in part because my motives are obscure. They taunt and provoke me, make me restless and frustrated with procrastinating. If there was a cash payment involved, I'd know exactly why I was doing it, and would feel much better about procrastinating and putting in only the amount of time I thought I was being paid for. I suppose there's a chance that I like not having a price attached to what I am doing here because it frees me from having to see how little it is really worth. But the more ambiguous rewards, those that the internet as a means of production allows for, seem to be more generative -- one must keep trying different things to try to secure them.

John Quiggin, writing at Crooked Timber, develops some of the potential implications of this hobby economy: "There has been a huge shift in the location of innovation, with much of it either deriving from, or dependent on, public goods produced outside the market and government sectors, which may be referred to as social production.... If monetary returns are weakly, or even negatively correlated with the value of social production, there’s no reason to expect capital markets to do a good job in allocating resources to supporting innovation." From Quiggin's perspective, the internet is yielding public goods, produced voluntarily in a way that no one can make money from them. (Not only that, but online innovation -- P2P, open source software, etc. -- is stealing away former sources of profit. It threatens to convert the entire culture industry into a hobby economy.) Since no wages are paid to produce them, and they generally don't cost anything once they are made, they are outside of the market; yet they exist, and innovation is clearly being harvested there. But the use of innovation and productivity to justify income inequality doesn't hold up -- innovation is taking place outside the income-distribution system; the winners in that system are gaming in in some other way -- through financial chicanery recently.

Quiggin derives two intriguing, somewhat hopeful conclusions from this:

* If improvements in welfare are increasingly independent of the market, it would make sense to shift resources out of market production, for example by reducing working hours. The financial crisis seems certain to produce at least a temporary drop in average hours, but the experience of the Depression and the Japanese slowdown of the 1990s suggest that the effect may be permanent.

* Creativity, broadly defined, seems likely to become more important, while markets, particularly financial markets, become less so. Firms that want to survive and prosper will have to behave quite differently from the way the did in the past. Google is an obvious example of a firm that is trying to do this, if not always succeeding.

If our social production in our spare time on the internet is where we experience the true gains in our life -- if that is where we notice marginal improvement, if that is where innovations beneficial to society are being developed more or less spontaneously (see Clay Shirky's book) -- a sensible society would permit us to spend more time doing that stuff. The market and wages don't direct us to do it, but we do it anyway. Theoretically (and this is getting pretty techno-utopian), we will be able forgo wages (work less) in favor of such social production, since the rewards we get from online participation come cheap. Whether or not employers will be so flexible is another question -- traditionally, according to Marx, employers must purchase our labor in blocks of time so as to squeeze surplus value out of us.

An important question is whether this nascent hobby economy now developing alongside the capitalist one has become symbiotic with capitalism -- is it helping to perpetuate a system that would otherwise become intolerable without the outlet that it provides, while feeding traditional capitalism with innovations to keep it dynamic?

And it's important to avoid technological determinism with regard to this as well -- the internet doesn't inherently provoke us to meaningful work anymore than it spreads democracy automatically. Even if we find it meaningful to work for nothing, that doesn't prevent some other entity from exploiting that meaningful labor and expropriating its product. In our ignorance, or in the first rush of enthusiasm we have for these new productive possibilities, we may not care about this, but eventually we could wake up to find it profoundly discouraging. This scenario is easy to imagine: All this time, we were thinking we were undermining capitalism, destroying the cash nexus, restoring human rewards to human efforts, and all that, the capitalists were drawing down our efforts to fortify themselves and retrench for a whole new round of primitive accumulation, only this time in a limitless virtual world.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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