Friday, August 23, 2013

The Tom Petty "It's Ab-So-Lute-Ly Backwards" Theory Of Economics

Not long after they had suddenly become rich and famous, around 1980 or so, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were contacted by Nike. Someone at Nike had noticed that several members of the band seemed to like to wear Nikes. The band were invited up to Nike headquarters in Seattle to take their pick of the latest Nike stuff. Not just shoes but also jackets and shirts and hats and boots and whatever. All free, of course. Nike's point of view was that these guys wearing that stuff was cheap advertising for them. Whether Nike's reasoning was economically sound or not here, Tom and his band soon had picked out so much really nice free stuff that they were starting to wonder just how best to haul it all back home. A Nike employee said not to worry, ran off and soon re-appeared with all sorts of really nice leather bags. Also free, just in case you wouldn't have assumed that.

It was about this time, as Tom was admiring how beautiful these bags were, with really soft and supple leather and linings inside which were luxurious to the touch and so forth, that he realized that, in his own words, "It's ab-so-lute-ly backwards." It had not been very long ago that the economic circumstances of the band were such that a new pair of sneakers were a purchase which had to be thought about carefully, and their shoes often got holes in them before it seemed practical to replace them. Now that they could afford to buy any new shoes they wanted, more shoes than anyone really needed, and really nice luggage to haul all those shoes around in, they didn't have to anymore. (Whether Tom and his band had been flown up to Seattle and back home again in one of Nike's corporate jets or whether they just dropped in when they were in Seattle on other business, I don't know.)

A few years after that, Stephen King, who had already earned many millions of dollars from his fiction and from movie and television screenplays and screen adaptations of his work, was making his debut as a feature-film director on Maximum Overdrive. In addition to his salaries as director and screenplay author (based on his short story "Trucks"), King got a $1000 per diem during shooting, which he never touched. King was not necessarily what you'd call obese in those days, but he wasn't missing a lot of meals either. Apparently he got all he wanted to eat from the caterers on set, then every evening he would come back to the hotel suite he wasn't paying for and toss the envelope with the tax-free $1000 per diem onto the bed he wasn't using, making a substantial pile of envelopes by the time shooting was done.

That was in the mid-80's. Surely the biggest Hollywood per diems today, for, say, George Clooney or Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg, make that $1000 seem pretty pathetic. (You know that villa on Lake Como in Ocean's Twelve where Toulour lived, where Ocean confronted Toulour? In real life that was Clooney's house -- no, excuse me: it was one of his houses. It might still be, I don't know. Maybe in the meantime he's traded up to a fancier Lake Como villa, if there is one.)

It may sound as if I'm enviously sniping at some of the rich and famous, but I'm really not. For one thing, all the people I've mentioned here are rich Democrats. Better them than the Koch brothers. Much better. All I'm saying is that I've discovered a very basic principle of economics, or, to be more precise, that principle was pointed out to me by Tom Petty: if you want to have all sorts of wealth flowing into your possession without your even having to ask for it, the surest way to achieve that is to get into a position where you don't have the slightest need for it.

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