China, COVID-19, Economics, Politics, Top Stories

Viral Politics

Long after the pandemic has receded, its long-term impact on our society and political life will continue. Just as plagues past have reshaped the trajectory of cities and civilizations, sometimes with fearsome morbidity, COVID-19 is already having a profoundly disruptive impact on our political future.

Rather than uniting humanity against a common foe, the pandemic seems to be widening the internal political chasm between nations and within them. The “battle,” “war,” or “crusade” against the novel coronavirus has not to date reprised the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor, or the World Trade Center attack in 2001, during which people closed ranks, even if they thought little of their country’s leaders.

Democrats like party strategist James Carville and Speaker Nancy Pelosi insist that Trump has “blood on his hands” and one of Pelosi’s more excitable colleagues has suggested that Trump be tried in The Hague for his handling of the pandemic. On the Right, meanwhile, the pandemic has engendered, in the US and elsewhere, a predictably anti-China and nativist tone, which have sometimes drifted into overt racism, particularly in Italy. Some journalists toss around terms like “Manchurian media,” a regrettable throwback to McCarthyism.

This is no way to handle a global pandemic. Most Americans, according to a recent survey, would prefer a more collaborative approach. They have so far been disappointed. At a time when we need a rational discussion of policy alternatives and a thoughtful debate among experts, including not just epidemiologists, but also economists, psychologists, and social scientists, we are seeing an escalation of finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and character assassination from both sides.

The globalized politics of the pandemic

Throughout history, pandemics have periodically devastated great cities like Rome, Constantinople, and Cairo. Repeated exposure to sickness slowed the recovery of European cities throughout the Middle Ages and ravaged the great cities of the Renaissance. Diseases imported from the West devastated the once proud cities of Meso-America and Peru, making them more easily overcome by the Hispanic conquistadors.1 Later on, the disease-ridden slums of the industrial age helped to spark socialist insurrections almost everywhere, and in Russia, at least, to grievous political effect.

Today’s global pandemic is far less lethal, but it is rearranging global politics nonetheless, most obviously through the growing conflict between the world’s two dominant powers, China and the United States. The conservative press, President Trump, and Boris Johnson have blamed China for the pandemic. In response, Beijing claims their approach has been more successful, and demonstrates that authoritarians are able to deal with crises more efficiently than less ordered and obedient Western democracies.

We should, of course, be skeptical about any pronouncement from a totalitarian state which appears to have bungled and then concealed the origins of COVID-19. The Chinese Communist Party, after all, lied to the world about a famine that killed as many as 45 million people, a topic that remains taboo in China’s academic or media circles. The regime’s apparent attempts to suppress research on the virus origins are certainly consistent with past behavior.

In Europe and America, the dangers of ceding global leadership to the Chinese are now readily apparent. Increasingly, American, Japanese, and European firms are looking to move operations out of China. The “global framework” that emerged in recent decades is fragmenting, making it increasingly clear that henceforth the world will likely function in pieces. The pandemic seems to be accelerating a return to a bipolar balance of power, with the United States and its allies pitted against China and its vassal states, notably in the developing world.

The new regional divides

The pandemic has also widened divides within countries, particularly between the great core cities and everywhere else. Historian William Mitchell had observed that this recalls the experience of great cities like Venice during the Renaissance, which suffered far more grievously from the era’s waves of pestilence than relative backwaters in central Europe and Poland.2 Many of the things that made cities great, then and now, such as exposure to foreign trade and immigration, also tended to accelerate the spread of pandemics, particularly those coming from the East.

In this pandemic, virtually all the COVID-19 hotspots to date have been dense, urban areas. In Australia, nearly two-thirds of those hospitalized live in heavily urbanized New South Wales, notably around Sydney. Similarly, in Canada, the most severe outbreaks have occurred in the urban centers of Quebec and Ontario, while the country’s vast central and western expanses have been considerably less affected. In the United Kingdom, more than a quarter of infections, and one-third of hospitalizations, have occurred in and around London. In France, Paris and the industrial north-east represent a clear majority of cases. Half of all recorded COVID-19 cases in Spain have occurred in Madrid, while the Milan region accounts for half of all cases in Italy and almost three-fifths of the deaths.

The geographic differentials are equally stark in the United States. At the end of last week, according to the Johns Hopkins virus dashboard, New York City, a city with less than three percent of the national population, accounted for 19 percent of the country’s COVID-19 infections and 31 percent (over 5,000) of the deaths. New York is home to 80 percent of all ultra-dense neighborhoods and remains by far the most transit-dependent city in North America.

Unsurprisingly, much of the New York-based media insist that the virus will spread everywhere and that red state governors and politicians are lost in a kind of Trumpian haze. There seems to be a growing movement among some Democrats, including Joe Biden, to uniformly employ, and even expand, the present approach until June, or as Biden’s top medical advisor recently suggested, even for as long as 18 months.

This does not seem congenial to more rural states. Outside of ski resorts and Native American reservations, these states have so far managed to avoid the worst impact of the pandemics. For now at least, states like Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota have among the lowest rates of COVID-related deaths in the country, roughly one-fortieth the rate of New York. These divisions have been so stark that some states have tried to keep people from high-infection areas from entering their states.

Such regional disagreement may presage future political battles across much of the world. People in the British Midlands, the French périphérique, and the US Midwest or Mid-South, may feel justified in lifting the harshest restrictions while places like New York or New Orleans feel compelled to extend their lockdowns.

This geographic gap reflects differences between how people live and make their livelihoods. People in more rural states generally have less contact with international travelers. More people own homes and drive to work rather than living in crowded apartment buildings and using a public transit system. Many in the hinterlands work in factories, warehouses, farms, mines, and the energy sector. Workers in these industries cannot always “separate” like those who keystroke for a living. Nor are they likely to endorse policies, now espoused by some progressives, particularly the greens, designed to take advantage of the pandemic to “demobilize the economy,” essentially eliminating their jobs and crushing their own self-employment, to fight both the virus and climate change.

How the pandemic accentuates class conflict

Since classical times, pandemics have visited their worst impact on the poor. Living in crowded conditions, often with poor sanitation, the poorest inhabitants of big cities lacked country estates to which they could escape and often had less access to medical care. As the French historian Fernand Braudel noted, there was a “separate demography for the rich”; diets and survival rates varied enormously between the upper classes and everyone else. Of course, some of the mighty also died, but rates were far lower than among hoi polloi.3

These conditions persisted through the early stages of the industrial revolution, and were movingly described in Fredrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England. Mortality rates in the city were three times higher than in the surrounding countryside, making it dependent on infusions from the hinterlands and Ireland.4 As industrial growth spread, similarly appalling conditions emerged in Western Europe, North America, and eventually Russia. In many countries, the Spanish flu—which claimed 50 million lives—hit poor working class areas far more heavily than affluent ones, and eventually helped spark major reforms in sanitation throughout the urbanized world.

This history is now repeating itself. This new coronavirus originated in Wuhan, a heavily industrial city with a long history of health problems. In the early days of the pandemic, these problems were likely exacerbated, notes University of Leeds researcher Li Sun, among migrant workers who were not properly covered by health insurance. Crowded conditions, poor ventilation, a lack of sunlight—the very things described by Engels—still persist in large parts of China’s great cities and link to earlier pandemics like SARS.

Whereas it is hard to get reliable data out of China, the class implications of the pandemic are clear throughout the West. A map of infections in New York City reveals that it is not the Manhattan high-rises or “brownstones” in Brooklyn that have been hardest hit, but the dense, transit-dependent working class areas in central Queens (home to New York’s largest Chinese community), impoverished and crowded east Brooklyn (my mother’s native terroir), and the Bronx. Outside New York, the most deaths have been recorded in central cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, where the vast majority of deaths have befallen African Americans.

The lockdowns have impacted different classes differently. Among the hardest hit have been high street merchants, which were already reeling from competition from online competitors like Amazon. The rapid shift to online ordering works better for Wall Street-funded chains than for independent family businesses. According to the JP Morgan Institute, 50 percent of small businesses have a mere 15 days of cash buffer or less. If the shutdown lasts much longer, as many as three-quarters of independent restaurants simply won’t make it. This may be made worse, at least in the United States, by a recovery plan that even the Wall Street Journal admits is “putting Wall Street ahead of companies across Middle America.”

But things are even bleaker for the generally low-wage and often younger employees in shuttered retail establishments. Gig workers in Britain, notes the London School of Economics, lack sick leave or any protections against layoffs and so are particularly vulnerable. So too are their Canadian counterparts, notes the Conference Board of Canada. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, large urban populations are at greater risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 due to the prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

At the same time, working class people are far less likely than more affluent professionals to be able to work from home, and, to date, they report a far higher incidence of pay cuts and layoffs. Already almost a third of all renters in the US may not be able to make their payments this month, a trend likely to continue as long as the lock-down continues. Even those who have not lost their jobs often work in conditions susceptible to the highest risk of infection, due to unavoidable “density exposure” in factories, warehouses, and medical facilities. Fraught health conditions have led to strikes and protests by workers in the Instacart delivery service and among Amazon warehouse workers.

Some suggest these conditions could help ignite working class activism and perhaps even a revival of unionization. At the very least, the pandemic has exposed our dependence on working class people which might—and should—incentivize reform of the living conditions, salaries, and benefits of those who kept society moving through the crisis.

COVID-19 and the future of politics

In the coming months, the real political “hot potato,” in the United States and elsewhere, will be when to start re-opening the economy. This may well be a recurrent theme over the next few years, as societies, in the words of Hong Kong epidemiologist Gabriel Leung, “hit the brakes and release them” in response to shifts in the pandemic.

In Europe, the virus has widened the gap between the harder hit countries in southern Europe such as Italy, France, and Spain, and countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden which have so far been less severely hit, and some of which are already planning to relax their lockdowns. The re-appearance of borders and outbreaks of infighting testifies to the reality of an ever-weaker European Union.

Similar fights will emerge in America, where the wage protections common in Europe are not widely available, and small businesses are threatened by unrestrained Wall Street speculation. There is already rising concern among Americans about finances that could lead some governors to relax the more extreme lockdown policies. Particularly critical to Trump will be his success in rescuing small businesses, arguably his strongest support base. Such moves are fraught with risk and uncertainty, and in a situation that offers no good options, whatever state governors and the federal government decide will undoubtably be bitterly contested.

No matter what emerges, the political fallout from the virus won’t be pretty. So far, we have been unable, at the global or national level, to come together to meet this common threat. Instead, we have seen an escalation of the polarization and nastiness emblematic of this sad era, which has only made it harder to confront this most pressing of dangers.


Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, will be out from Encounter late this spring. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.


1 William McNeil, Plagues and Peoples, (Garden City, NY, 1976). pp.2, 13, 207, 208
2 Ibid. pp.181–2
3 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 97
4 Fredrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, translated by W.O. Henderson and W.H. Chaloner, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969), pp.67–71

Featured image: The White House (Flickr).


  1. Thank you very much for the interesting and above all calm and balanced analysis. The different impact on the life situation of different social groups can make it easier to understand why they differ so vehemently in their assessment of further action.

    By the way, this article is a positive example of how it is possible to mention Donald Trump and his policies without blaming him for all the evils of the world, as certain authors with pronounced Trump Derangement Syndrome™ (TDS) feel obliged to do.

    As a glance at history shows, societies are more likely to successfully overcome major threats if they are not used for petty party-political purposes. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have reached some people yet, or the crisis is not yet bad enough for this, or the temptation is simply too great.

  2. Is a virus outbreak only negative? Are diseases a negative phenomenon, or a positive one for the population (though not for all individuals of course). Why an outbreak of cholera? Simple!!, to warn people not to live too close together and not use dirty , contaminated water.
    Famous case: New Castle and other diseases among poultry. The Roman agronomist Columella knew already very well that, if you keep too many chicken together in a small housing or area, disease would break out and all fowl or almost all would die. Therefore, he strongly advised farmers not to have too many of them, and keep them on distance. Good for the chicken, good for the farmer. But men are clever, in the NLs all chicks by law have to be vaccinated against Newcastle disease (and against many other diseases as well, poor chicks). Now it is possible to keep 1000s, 10s and even 100.000s so close together that you can’t even walk in between them without trampling some of them.

    A warning , and not only for the farmers, also in general for all of us people? For city people especially? Yes we can vaccinate against some diseases, maybe in a year even against Covid. But wherever animals, fowl and men live too much packed together, this naughty small piece of living shit will come back, in slightly mutated forms, and demand its toll, to warn us? To keep us assertive? And how will politics (right and left, free and totalitarian) react and deal with these rather new situations and conditions??

    Edit : And try to imagine a world without virus and other germs, would the Europeans ever have conquered the whole world, and have put their ever lasting cultural and geopolitical marks on the globe as it is now?? China included (with their labs and laborants researching the RNA code of SARS-cov.2?)

  3. The paradox I am (also) considering is that the real change to society is likely to come from the worldwide shutdown in reaction to the pandemic rather than the pandemic itself. Consider that the 1957 and 1968 pandemics that killed a larger absolute number of people are almost completely unremembered. I have seen no news coverage about them, only 1918 seems to be talked about.

    From Wikipedia

    The 1957–58 influenza pandemic , also known as Asian flu , was a global pandemic of [influenza A virus subtype H2N2] which originated in Guizhou, China and killed at least 1 million people worldwide. … (this was also a novel virus with no human immunity to its type)

    The Hong Kong flu (also known as 1968 flu pandemic was a flu pandemic whose outbreak in 1968 and 1969 killed an estimated one million people all over the world. Despite the lethality of the 1957 Asian_Flu in China, little improvement had been made regarding the handling of such epidemics. This pandemic struck in two waves with the second wave being deadlier than the first in most places.

    It might be that what has changed since is the global Weltanschauung because of more global communications and intercourse. It seems to me that we have more expectation of controlling our environment so we are unwilling to accept the toll of a pandemic.

    What will be the outcome? I have no pretense of knowing.

  4. Generally a good article. However, I would quibble over the following statement:

    “At the very least, the pandemic has exposed our dependence on working class people which might—and should—incentivize reform of the living conditions, salaries, and benefits of those who kept society moving through the crisis.”

    It’s a misconception amongst cosmopolitan liberals to confuse business value with profits margins, in real terms. Other than with branded goods, most enterprise in the modern era operates on tight margins- less than 10% of revenue after taxes, with the real rate of return capital around 6%, once one accounts for taxes, inflation and risk. The real source of the squeeze on wages is competition, not capitalism, with the squeeze on profits even tighter than on labour, over the long run.

    So, any attempt to raise the living conditions or wages of the working classes, would also result in inflation, given the need for existing profit margins to provide a buffer against market fluctuations. The more feasible answer is to use economic transfers to bolster the living standards of the working poor, but even here this relies upon finding money from Western systems where only the top 20% of the income distribution are realistic net contributors, and where many countries have already exceeded the maximum revenue obtainable through the Laffer curve.

    The trick is to find new sources of revenue from the tax system, or reform government spending. A financial transaction tax might raise modest returns, and act as a very minor disincentive towards speculative trading, whilst a wealth tax has largely proven a net revenue drain, and thus unworkable. A much lower inheritance tax combined with more stringent enforcement of inheritance tax rules, might combine to actually raise revenue from this tax, given existing revenue from this source can best be characterised as an ineffective revenge on the rich, who mainly manage to easily sidestep paying it, with it mainly rebounding onto the propertied middle-class.

    The only other area which might raise revenues would be to tax subsidies, tax exemptions and loopholes as a taxable benefit in kind. But it’s moot point anyway, because many Western countries are already at the border of 50% of national wealth generated spent by Government, beyond which economies invariably begin to stagnate, because it kills off the wealth generating capacity of the market to allocate resources far more efficiently than Government (at least from the point of view of generating wealth)- effectively killing the golden goose.

    The only real candidate for increasing the living standards of the working class is a reform to Government public pensions, or what some refer to as Social Security. The best way to do it, would be to make a third of these sort of payments zero interest debt repayable upon death. it might even be possible to slightly raise pensions or social security given this reform. But it’s highly necessary given that the UK’s unfunded liability for its pensions is around £5 trillion, and in the US the same for social security amounts to a whopping $150 trillion.

    In the West, we have to live up the reality that we are at the absolute limit of what it is possible for Government to achieve, given its necessarily limited ability to raise revenue from the tax system, and in many countries these boundaries have been exceeded. Ironically, the Scandinavian States which cosmopolitan liberals so admire might provide one clue as to how this might be achieved- they have long since realised that in order to pay for their larger social safety nets (beyond higher taxes on the poor and middle classes), they needed to adopt a deregulatory approach to the market, in effect, turbocharging their economies.

    Another approach for some countries might well be a Planning Uplift Tax from the paper capital gains achieved in the planning process, by Government granted planning applications or rezoning. It switches the incentives in local bureaucracies by providing an easy source of revenue, and turning local government from an obstructor into a facilitator.

    It is one of the few thing the Europeans do right, in that it displaces the paltry 1% to 1.5% spent on infrastructure in countries like Britain or America paid for by the general taxation system, with a far more impressive 4% on infrastructure paid for by this specific tax, which in turn has a multiplier effect on the broader economy, effectively acting as a stimulus, paid for by the more speculative side of land development.

    In the modern era, we need smarter policies more nuanced than the reductive simplicity of tax the rich or the greedy corporations. It doesn’t work, as history has proven time and again. Western Governments need to become far leaner, more efficient and effective at managing the public purse, if we want to maintain our position in the Twenty-First century, or even prevent our economies from collapsing into a spiral of inflation.

    And given that recent economic analyses have proven that modern monetarism doesn’t work once national debt reaches 90% of annual GDP, with only 90 cents of value returned for every dollar spent (because of behavioural economics), we need to start getting smarter at the way Government allocates resources, and soon.

  5. Aside from who “they” might be and what it is that they own, assume that 50% of this property of these 5 individuals were confiscated by the government. What difference would that make to the bottom half?

    In my view inequality is effectively addressed only by raising the bottom, not cutting the top. Similarly, inequality itself is only important if it’s a result of the top suppressing the bottom. No matter what their gains are, there will by definition always be a bottom 20%, bottom half, top .1%.

  6. Actually the rich didn’t used to pay that much more:

    Corporation taxes are about competition- the countries with competitive rates of corporation tax tend to attract greater inward investment- which is probably why corporation tax rates are so low in the Scandinavian countries.

    One area where it might be advisable to change tax rates is in relation to Capital Gains Tax- although any attempt to bring Capital Gains taxes closer to income tax levels has to be weighed against the risk of people offshoring their money, and then investing back into the economy by an offshore holdings company- effectively avoiding tax altogether. This might be mitigated by using the international clearing system to levy a transaction tax on any money moving into or out of a tax haven. Whether or not this is feasible, when one considers political and moneyed interests, would be a matter for debate.

    The wealthy might be considerably more amenable to paying a portion of their wealth in tax if they didn’t feel as though they were always blamed for problems that are really caused by governments, didn’t know that Government is incredibly wasteful and could be reassured that taxation would consist of one-off payments, rather than being treated like a piggy bank by Government.

    To give you an idea of the distortions claimed by politicians, far from being a Warren Wealth Tax being a realistic solution, if one confiscated all the wealth of all the billionaires generated by America, then the wealth would only constitute one eight of the current US debt- so about one eight of all value generated in the US in one year. Of course, it would instantly also decrease the value of said wealth, given the extremely poor track record of Government at running even relatively simple resources- let alone highly complex corporate entities.

    The real reason politicians scapegoat billionaires is because it doesn’t seem fair, when, in all likelihood, only around 5% have obtained their wealth through what some would consider unethical means. Billionaires are simply a misdirection by politicians, sued to distract from the fact that most of them couldn’t run a bath.

  7. From what I’ve been observing from social media posts, is the least effected group are civil servants who don’t work in medical, or emergency, services. They carry on, watching Netflix and ordering food for delivery, their living standards unchanged. Most of them are left wing, and vehemently against any government that threatens their privileged status, and they contemptuously dismiss the concept of government debt as anything but a right wing fable. Here in Ontario, Canada, which, if it were a sovereign country, would be the most indebted country, per-capita, in the world, the countries highest paid teachers were starting off one of their regular strikes for more money (“It’s for the students sake!”) when the virus hit.

    I have every reason the believe that when the schools re-open, they will resume their strike. Also, other civil servants lead by militant unions will be in a position to strike too. These unions are wholeheartedly supported by left wing parties in Canada who have long ago turned their backs on the working class and small businesses, and now embrace identity politics instead. One thread I’ve been following states that if the government tries to move transgender surgery off the medical priority list, they’re going to “Shut the whole system down”! How the non-unionized population will respond to this I have no idea, but I suspect it won’t be very positive. We are in for more ‘interesting times’!

  8. The tax “reform” in the mid 80’s greatly increased the corporate tax rate. They used to be taxed similar to that of an individual but were increased to 30+% on the first dollar. The result was corporations that usually showed some profit stopped the practice and thus paid no taxes at all. This also cased many a small business to be under capitalized. Also if you raise taxes on larger corporations, the same income taxed at the corporate level is taxed again on the dividends by the stock holders. With higher taxes that you appear to suggest, this double taxation can approach 100% and companies will just shut their activity here and move overseas. If you want more taxes from corporations, stop the “greedy” nonsense and lower the rate.

  9. The chaotic, disorganised and on occasion peverse response of the US to the situation is clearly the result of his leadership.

    Aj, I know it’s hard to see across the Atlantic, but… impeachment hearings were underway when the WuFlu came into the picture, a total shitshow distraction based on hearsay. On top of that it’s an election year, so both sides are making hay of this. Frankly I’m surprised things aren’t worse, though they could be better, for example the Democrats could agree to push forward the bill to help small businesses, but they won’t because it would only help Trump.

    I guess another global virus is TDS.

  10. It seems to me there have been slave/peasant revolts since forever. Recall Spartacus who had a lousy attitude. But if you’re happy with the current situation that’s all the better for you Dirk. But I’m not happy with it.

    It might hypothetically go to reducing the debt.

    But since it is the bottom who create all the wealth (I know, the plutocrats say that they make it all, but you never seem to see them on the factory floor – what they call ‘producing’, I call ‘owning’). They say that worker productivity has about tripled since the 70s, but real standard of living – apart from tech gadgets – is the same or lower. It is therefore logically inescapable that someone is eating the difference. That there is inequality is not a problem in itself, but the magnitude troubles me.

    So tax imports. If you don’t want to pay tax here, neither can you earn a profit here.

    Accumulated assets are one thing, but income is the bigger question. Thus your graph shows tax rate, not income (after or before tax).

    So the billionaires say.

    How much lower? Mind, Amazon already pays zero federal tax so perhaps they should receive a subsidy? Mind, so many corporations do, so why not Amazon?

  11. Did Trump say the democrats have “blood on their hands”? That was the accusation the leading democrat made against Trump. You need to get out more to find that Trump did not invent polarization, unlike his republican predecessors, he hits back. I am not saying that he is pure or even justified, only that claims that he is largely responsible for the polarization are fatuous. Good lord, stop prompting people to defend the guy.

  12. That was a carry forward from all the years that Amazon lost money. Are you now going to say that when a company makes an investment over many years, they can’t write it off when they finally turn it around? You seriously need to get past something that you read on a bumper sticker.

  13. Well, that hearsay may have been a solid paper trail and first-hand witnesses. But if the accused is allowed to decide what papers and people are to be allowed, it’s not surprising the outcome was absurd, a “trial” with no documents or witnesses and votes entirely on party line.

    Also, WuFlu shows ignorance since coronavirus is not influenza, just a snappy name showing bias.

    Amazon pays nothing because it had losses for many decades, and the political class (corrupted as they are), preferred this sort of taxation policy that helps their donors and special interests over simpler, fairer taxation. The more complex your government solutions are, the more likely you end up with worse outcomes, as complexity serves the interests of the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless. Good old equal protection would likely get the most tax revenues with the least amount of social discord and feelings of envy.

  14. I confess, Ray, that the attitude informing the particular statement you have quoted was conceived when I was in my early twenties. My graphic arts mentor asked me one day if I wanted to follow in his footsteps as he had placed them in his youth. My answer was an unqualified “yes!” He had been an equipment service repair tech for the Adressograph Multigraph corporation, rising to a management position in charge of the factory service staff. Repairing equipment was one of the foundational aspects of the training he provided to his students. He’s been asked for referrals from among his students, by the owner of a local press and supplies distributor, and I was the one chosen to apply.

    I went to the interview, which was for an outside sales rep position. It was a perfect fit; I had, by that time, extensive experience using the products I would be selling, and was entirely confident and comfortable with the idea that I could demonstrate their efficacy on the prospect’s own equipment. It was a situation of “features and benefits” selling, and I could prove that the products would do what I claimed. Many times, I tucked my tie into my vest (waistcoat, for you commonwealth types,) rolled up my sleeves and “sold by doing.”

    Well, Ray, there were, of course, multiple territories, and I was initially assigned to regain areas that had obtained some saturation and subsequently been lost, owing to a prior rep’s reliance on theory and salesmanship; Selling the sizzle, rather than the steak. I spent interminable hours getting yelled at and scolded for the multitudinous sins of my predecessors before being allowed to prove that I sold nothing but steak, using that analogy. I slowly began to realize, however, that the moment I gained sufficient territorial saturation to obtain residual commissions, my assignment was changed to a different area, and I was compelled to start all over again.

    That sort of occupation relies on residuals for a rep to beat his draw. Nothing is more dispiriting to a salesman, that does the significant extra work to sell ethically, to continually fail at meeting his draw (or any salesman, for that matter, but the “sizzle-sellers” needn’t work the same long hours to make the same numbers.)

    One day, I’d had enough. I mentioned that I rather missed pressroom life, to a few of my customers, and the third one, upon hearing that, hired me on the spot. I went silent for my first week at my new job, then went in and resigned as rep, effective immediately. The owner expressed dismayed puzzlement, saying “but you were doing really well at it.”

    I was astonished that he could have had such a low opinion of my intelligence as to think that I would tolerate never having a permanent territorial assignment and happily suffer eternal commisiondectomies in that fashion. Had he leveled with me and either put me on salary or granted an override on residuals from the territories I’d developed (two of those territories, more than once,) I would have remained a rep, likely to this very day.

    I realize, my friend, that my penchant for digression must surely have you now wondering how the above anecdote could possibly relate to my perceived harshness of the judgement expressed in the your quotation.

    It has to do with making deals. Know your business. Canvass prospects. Make appointments. Demo the product. Above all, get the order and then fill it on time and for the agreed-on price. Set your price at what you need it to be, in order to make money. If your price is higher than some fly-by-night fleabag competitor, do the d_mn work of proving the benefits of doing business with you. Real salesmanship is far, far more than getting and filling atomized orders, it’s about building and maintaining trusting and mutually profitable business relationships.

    Trade agreements represent market distortions designed to transfer marginal costs onto the backs of taxpayers and productive workers residing in both countries that are party to such agreements. They substitute notional comparative advantages for Pareto optimality, and do so in an obscurantist fashion.

    You wanna trade? Okay, let’s see what we can do for each other, and let’s do the hard work ourownselves and without running a bunch of poor b_astards into the ground by means of subterfuges that take our profits as food from the tables of others.

    Don’t be a lying predator and don’t be a manipulative parasite, just make good deals, one at a time without making the government’s monopoly on violence your partner.

  15. Rather than uniting humanity against a common foe, the pandemic seems to be widening the internal political chasm between nations and within them.

    If anyone thought that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to induce me to stand side-by-side, holding hands with progressive socialists, radical feminists and trans activists, working together toward a brighter future for America …

    They’re an effing idiot.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

357 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum