WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SIX – Part 2 – Brokers)

Some people are invariably in over their heads

Unsurprisingly to some (including myself) the so-called “makers and takers” within society are not a uniform people who are hellbent on exploiting other people for their advantage. Oddly enough, the category of people who deal with lots of money whether it be through expensive houses, boats or the stock exchange are a multi-faceted bunch of folks can be just as easily in love with the profession or just as soon hate it and the industry it stands for.

Let’s see what I’m talking about, starting with a realty broker.

Margaret Richard (Realty Broker)

Richards is doing this job more as a choice than anything due to the inherited wealth from her late husband’s banking career.. A widower, Richards has the house mostly to herself even having two grown children So given that context it’s clear that Richards wants to do this job on some level and enjoys it, in fact, it’s one of the first things she says.

Being a realtor is something I enjoy very much. It probably has something to do with being nosy. The niftiest part is to be in on the ground floor of this decision. A house is the largest investment a family can make. They say college education has taken that over, it’s gotten so expensive.

Well, number two is to buy a house. (p. 324)

Given I barely eke by in this apartment and have very little plans for upward mobility in my life (acceptance is nice and more folks should try it) I don’t see myself needing anyone like Richards in the near-future. Perhaps my biggest weakness with this chapter will be my utter lack of things to say related to these professions.

I have little experience with houses, crashing open houses, thinking about houses in any serious ways or much else related to brokering in general. So my commentary on the industry, especially having done so much retail is going to be minimal and that’s intentional. Unless I have something poignant to say about a topic or social issue that is.

In any case, I think it’s true that college likely outpaces homes. In fact, I’ve heard people compare the sort of care you should put into your college experience to be a similar one to as if you’re buying a house.

That’s how bad things have gotten for college expenses over the years.

I found this part amusing:

Hopefully the owners of the house will not be there from one to four. It’s better for them.

That’s a hard experience for an owner—somebody walking through the door saying, “Why did she ever pick this color for the living room?” (p. 325)

I’m imagining a sitcom styled situation where someone is really insecure about their house and so they do a fake open house or a real one but spy on it and see how it goes. This way they can boost their self-esteem, confidence, whatever you want to call it, with regards to their abilities in interior decorating.

See? Super poignant already!

About twenty years ago there were many part time ladies in this field. Ladies who had lunch with friends and somebody said, “I’m looking for a house.” So you found them a house and that was your contribution and your workday. This is frowned upon and no longer condoned.

If you’re going to hold a realtor’s license, you declare this is your occupation and you don’t nothing else. I think that’s good. Men who are supporting their families doing this should not be undermined by the ladies luncheon realtor.

A woman realtor makes very good sense. Women know more about kitchens than men. (Laughs.)

(p. 326)

Holy stereotypes, Batman!

This part genuinely irked me. If people want to do realty brokering as more of a hobby, why not? You shouldn’t have to commit yourself fully to something just because everyone else does. And not to put to fine a point on it but giving into the standard that men have established is not always the wisest thing that a woman can do for herself.

It’s also disheartening that women can perpetuate these models of hierarchical knowledge whereby women are somehow confined to the kitchen. Even as a joke it seems ridiculous to me that Richards should just tacitly imply that the current gender norms are correct and they are so correct that they should be standardized into singular job industries.

There’s not much more to this interview. Lots of discussion about how the job works and how the industry relates to itself as well as some of the small pitfalls but none of it is terribly interesting to me.

Certainly not as interesting as selling yachts!

James Carson (Yacht Broker)

Carson has worked the brokering job for over forty years (41 to be exact) and is getting pretty sick of it as a result. He speaks early and often about his lack of trust in humanity. He’s got plenty of reasons to distrust people, especially working in an industry that can attract folks with a lot of money but not a lot of ethics to back it up with.

Every sale I make takes appropriately 170 hours of effort. I can show the same yacht to twenty people before I have a buyer. The average number of yachts I sell a year is twenty. I’ve sold roughly eight hundred since I’ve been in the business. (p. 327)

A distinction is made by Carson about people being dealers vs. being sellers. He gave that up after realizing it’s a sort of financial treadmill and a very precarious one at that. “All that glitters is not gold” when it comes to selling yachts.

Carson says that around eighty percent of folks likely take advantage of him. What I like about this admission is that Carson doesn’t revel in it. He doesn’t want to see people like this but he feels compelled to come to this view after most of the people he’s interacted with. I can’t blame him, his experiences are his own and I’m not surprised, frankly.

Like I said, when you work in an industry that tends to attract a lot of money, it can make folks ethics come undone bit by bit until there’s not many “good” deals left on the market for you. It’s also worth mentioning on this topic that early on Carson would feed potential customers at yacht clubs and give tours.

So this early try at giving the customers a better experience but (spoilers) very little payoff, likely tinted his now pessimistic look at what humanity (largely) has to offer.

This is an interesting part:

There’s a wide variety of people who buy yachts. He could be a carpenter, could be a doctor, any average man on the street. I’ve sold yachts to every class of workman. I’d say ninety-nine percent of our yachts are financed. (p. 328)

This was surprising to me at first but it’s like Carson says, his job isn’t much different from houses. And we all know it’s not just rich folks who are “buying” houses. Poor folks also try their luck at taking out loans from the bank and handling a mortgage for most of their life. It’s more or less the “grown up” version of college debt but sometimes even worse!

Yay adulthood!

Interestingly Carson says that small sailboats can be bought for a few hundred. That got me looking online and one of the first boats I found that was small was priced at a little bit over a $1000 and it seemed bare minimum. Then again that “few hundred” in the language of the 70s could easily be the thousands of today for all I know.

Carson is honest about what the yacht is:

Oh, the yacht is a serious status symbol. A lot of the wealthier class people live right smack against Lake Shore Drive in those high rises overlooking Belmont Harbor. … Some of the yachts aren’t even used, just kept as status symbols, pure and simple. They want to say, “I got a yacht.” (p. 329)

I appreciate this honesty. I think there’s just some part of us that has to make peace with whatever we’re selling on some level. I’m largely selling useless crap from TV and food that’s bad for people as well as literal additive poison (cigarettes and alcohol) to many folks who I’d rather not interact with.

As they say, “It’s a livin'”

Except it really isn’t living, is it?

David Reed Glover (Stockbroker)

Think I was quick on those other ones?

Watch this.

It’s quite easy to look around and say this is a parasitical business. All you’re doing is raking off your cut from the productivity of others. That is, I think, an erroneous view. Frankly, I’ve wrestled with that.

It comes down to this: the basis of this country’s strength and prosperity is the finest economic system that’s ever been devised with all its inequities and imperfections. Our system depends on a free exchange of publicly owned assets and we’re part of the picture. (p. 322)

There’s a lot wrong here:

  1. Whether it’s “easy” or not to say a given thing tells us little about the view itself. It’s easy to figure out 2+2, that the Earth isn’t at the center of the universe and that gravity is real, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong or right. It just means it’s an easy view to come by because we have good reasons to intuitively believe it.
  2. Similarly it’s a pretty easy view to think that if most of your money comes from other people’s money, their leftovers or whatever else that you are, on some level, a parasite. But even then that doesn’t mean that being a parasite is always a bad thing. Plenty of animals have mutualistic relationships with other animals or their environment (for example pollination) and while it’d be easy to think it’s parasitic, we’d be wrong.
  3. Still, a country that incarcerates people on such a high level, engages in unjust wars, perpetuates such a high degree of economic insecurity and inequality as well as spies on its own citizens (and all of this still took place as far as back as the 70s with it only differing by degrees) deserves to have its basis criticized.
  4. And that being said, where’s the “free exchange” in a corporate economy largely dominated by a handful of businesses per industry? Particularly in situations where the government is doling out special privileges based on capital, labor and land to push certain corporations far beyond small businesses and what they can do.
  5. As we’re about to learn anyways, a lot of this is a farce.

Ray Wax (Stockbroker)

Wax is perhaps the best part of this chapter, let’s start here to figure out why:

I felt even though there was money in the house, I was supposed to work. I was supposed to earn something. It was one of the things you had to do. If you did, it was supposed to make you feel good. I was a good caddy and I felt good about it. I felt that somewhere along the line someone would recognize that I had that special gleam. Horatio Alger-–which is a crock of shit. (p. 333)

Wax is perhaps the ultimate foil to Glover. He swears a lot, isn’t professional, doesn’t care about his job or think it’s very important and thinks much of the American Dream is BS. He’s the perfect counterpart to many of the so far somewhat stodgy or otherwise uninteresting interviewees. Wax knows firsthand how bad the lie of the American Dream is because he lived it. He went throughout his life working many different jobs and finding pleasure in very few.

And I want to be clear that I don’t find Wax interesting just because he disagrees with many of the tenants of the American ethos. His life story is very interesting and he as a person has interesting views, not all of them I agree with.

For example Wax eventually discovered selling imported cars in South America and began to make millions off the procedure. But Wax admits he just wasn’t a good enough salesman to seal the deals where it really mattered. From this experience Wax learned an important lessons about money, “You either demean yourself or change yourself or something happens where you become something else.” (p. 33) Wax chose becoming something else.

So he decided to get involved in hotels because they fascinated him, but this quickly failed. He moved onto land speculation but this too didn’t last long and he eventually went broke. He comments that he was doing okay until he ran out of land to make use of but in the mean time helping build houses and building them well was fulfilling.

But now:

I got lucky at some point [playing the market] and made about a hundred thousand dollars. That convinced me I could make this my way of life. I thought it would be a nice way to life. (p. 334)

Now that he’s a stockbroker and specifically The New York Stock Exchange he’s adjacent to of “one of the greatest clubs in the world” (p. 334) and yet he describes his work as “superfluous” (p. 335). In large part this is because Wax believes the market is rigged and specifically rigged to favor the very skilled, knowledgeable and especially the already-rich.

The “1066” boys as he calls them are the ones who make the money while Joe Blow is never able to get to the market and make much of a buck off of it. To add to that, the work Wax finds himself doing mostly consists of watching millions of small symbols go by which he describes as an “enormously exhausting day” (p. 335)

Here’s a great passage from Wax:

The market moves to destroy you. It says, Play it your way, sucker, buy the package. Believe in the American Dream, bu the hundred time multiple, believe in IBM, and if you doubt it, God help you.

Don’t ever question what you’re doing. (p. 335)

But due to how rigged the market is and how obviously privileged some are over many, Wax can’t help but question his profession. He constantly feels at a physical and mental loss when it comes to his job and why he keeps doing it instead of going back to helping buildings being made. Most people lose in the horse races and the way Wax talks about his own job it looks like he bet on the wrong horse by playing the stocks instead of building homes.

The way Wax copes deal with all of this cognitive dissonance is by trying to better understand his profession. He wants to make it (the hard way) through his profession and get rich through that. He doesn’t want to pull any favors with the elite and he doesn’t want to take any easy ways out, he says it’s hard work but even harder due to how it operates.

Wax reveals that the real trick to stocks is to never sell the principle and that most major companies keep their stocks and hold on to them way more than trade them. The market place, according to Wax’s experience, doesn’t rely on free public trading (I would have loved to see Terkel ask him about that quote) but rather the established rich.

This is perhaps Wax’s best quote:

“Look we’ve got eighty billion dollars worth of money floating around in Europe. It’s nonconvertible. We’ve fucked every country in the world. We’ve got every central bank in the world with dollars up to their ass. They can’t do anything with it. …[We told them] ‘Don’t blow the whistle on us, because the whole fuckin’ sky is gonna come down, Chicken Little. Maybe two, three years from now, if the spirit moves us, we may talk about the convertibility of the dollars into gold. In the meantime, Fuck ya.’

Put those dollars in our treasury notes, buy our stocks, do somethin’ with ’em. But don’t come back to me to redeem ’em because they’re worthless.’

We fucked the world.

“I’ve seen ’em do this. I buy gold, I buy silver. It’s the only thing that’s real.” (p. 337)

I didn’t take Wax to be such an enthusiast of gold, but there you have it.

Wax also talks about the lack of fairness with banks and interest rates as well as the obvious fact that money is ultimately an illusion. I think the better phrase here is “social convention” but same difference. Money is a tool and it’s a product of our desire to make more sense of the world and our ability to exchange with each other.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that gold is also an illusion. Sure, it’s value is a little more solid because gold is but at the same time the value we give gold is artificially constructed by our perceptions and how we make use of it. Gold may have some benefits over money but I’m not sure it’s the (golden) ticket Wax thinks it is.

But I’m not even sure, even if it was, it’d be enough to give Wax hope:

I really felt like I could buck this machine. When I began, I was sure I could win. I no longer have that confidence. What’s happening is so extraordinary. It’s so much bigger than I am. (p. 339)

What’s interesting moreover is that Wax doesn’t think of his job as much. He doesn’t so much carry the market in any advantageous way but has the market on his back, like a monkey. Wax wants to wake up one morning and feel like he can build houses again but instead is determined to continue with his rage against the machine.

By the end of the interview he says, “Ahhh, fuck it!”

And the funny part is I don’t know if the interview made him quit his job or give up on his dream.

Nice one, Terkel.


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