In 1982

Photo is of Leonid Brezhnev, in trunks, and with phoneFROM SEQUENCE 3
September 2001
Later published in Choices: A Chapbook (World Voices, Web del Sol)

In 1982 I read in the Wall Street Journal a quote from an editor of a Soviet business magazine: “Our readers must be made to understand that life is a complicated thing of negatives and positives.”

At the time I was working as a fact-checker for a financial-advice magazine which was owned by a major American media conglomerate. The magazine’s business plan was to give advertisers access to American professionals by trumpeting in issue after issue that every American professional could become financially secure and thus — by definition — happy. And all this simply by following the advice on investing and consuming contained in the magazine. The United States being what it is, the champion of this plan, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, was an immigrant’s son made good who believed this assertion. He also clearly understood that there was little money to be made encouraging people to think that either money or happiness is not so simply obtained. And the editor might have argued that, in any case, he could hardly see the point of wasting people’s time telling them things that — no matter how true or interesting they might be — were not going to make them richer or happier.

First and foremost, the editor insisted that every month the cover of the magazine be dominated by a color photograph of an attractive professional or attractive married professionals who had invested their money successfully and who — therefore, it might be presumed — were smiling and looking optimistic. (One might say that this was an American version of the Soviet propaganda pictures of strong, proud, Russian peredoviki — leading workers — or of the Nazi pictures of blond, athletic, upward-gazing “Aryan” youth.)

Thus one month the cover was to feature a West Coast professional couple who were successfully building their retirement “nest egg”. But the photographer who flew out from New York to take the picture called back to say that the people were physically unattractive. He was instructed to buy them new clothes and haircuts, use all his professional skill. After taking one look at the resulting slides, however, the editor-in-chief announced that, while he had nothing against these people’s upbeat story appearing in the magazine, their faces were not going to appear on one of his covers. The magazine’s correspondents around the country were queried — were any of the other successful savers and investors they had dug up for the upcoming issue physically attractive? It fell to one of my fellow “reporters” to call the rejects on the West Coast and give them a diplomatic — i.e., deceitful — explanation of why the picture of them in their financially successful and happy new clothes and hairdos would not be appearing on the cover.

“Our readers must be made to understand that life is a complicated thing of negatives and positives.” For two decades now, the words attributed to the Soviet magazine editor have been replaying in my mind — perhaps once a month on average, at times more than once a day. “Our readers must be made to understand that life is a complicated thing of negatives and positives.”

As at dozens of similar magazines owned by wealthy corporations, at the magazine I worked for the fact-checkers were not to get involved in trying to establish — pragmatically or, heaven forbid, philosophically — which of the claims made in the articles were or were not factually accurate. Nor were fact-checkers to solicit the opinions of experts who were skeptical of the investment and consumer advice offered in magazines whose profits and very existence depended on advertisements from investment and consumer-product companies. We were not supposed to talk to any experts who had not been interviewed in the course of the preparation of the article we had been assigned.

Our job was to make sure of three things: that the experts who the writers claimed to have interviewed had indeed been interviewed; that to back up every claim made in the article there was one sufficiently titled, degree-d or well-known expert, or two in the case of taxation issues; and that any quotes or opinions attributed to a given expert indeed represented something that this person was willing to go on record as believing. We filed neat lists of the names and titles of the people we had spoken to, when we had spoken to them and via what telephone numbers, and which points they had “confirmed”. This record was kept on file in case of law suits being brought against the parent company. Should a reader, for example, become impoverished or miserable as a result of following the magazine’s advice, our files would reveal that, even if the magazine’s information had been wrong, the corporation could not be held liable. The magazine had truthfully communicated what verifiable experts believed. (The experts accepted this responsibility in return for the publicity and the pleasure of having themselves listed in the magazine as experts.)

As the editor-in-chief and other executives of the corporation must have realized in advance, in the early 1980s the “Baby Boom” generation was beginning to enter the time of life when salaries traditionally grow and money is put aside for retirement. Moreover, the American stock market was considerably undervalued. And over the next twenty years, Baby Boomers’ salaries did indeed grow, and, as these people invested their retirement savings and surplus income, the stock market began to recover. Whether those who followed the advice of this magazine made more or less money than the average investor would be impossible to determine. But certainly as more and more people saw money being made on the stock market, more and more people became enthusiastic about investing and purchased copies of this magazine and others that promoted investing. The market rose to unprecedented — some said frightening — levels, at least temporarily enriching many American professionals.

I cast my vote with those who believe that happiness is what you feel when even your unconscious is not wondering whether you are happy or not. However, this is a bit of a joke, as must be any other attempted definition of happiness. Wanting for nothing, a clean conscience, requited love, seeing your dreams come true, watching your children grow up — all this sounds most happy on paper, but proves slippery in life. The moment one wants for nothing, for example, one wants for something else. And above all one may want for something else because one is panicked by the idea of wanting for nothing.

Nonetheless, certainly at moments when the enriched American professionals focused on how their net worth was increasing — or when they saw themselves buying the cars and vacationing at the resorts featured in the glossy pages of magazines like the one I worked for — these people felt enviable, and the resulting surges of pride and satisfaction could be declared happiness. And moreover, since thanks to this magazine and so many other American publications and institutions, these professionals believed that financial success and happiness went hand-in-hand, when they thought of the size of their “nest eggs”, these people believed that they were happy — no matter how otherwise lonely, anxious, inadequate or unenviable they felt. And enjoying an illusion of happiness is one of the singular pleasures of human life.

It would be neat to be able to say that it was thanks to all this financial success and these illusions of happiness that the magazine and its editor-in-chief achieved financial success and renown. However, the matter is complicated by the fact that the magazine was part of the aforementioned media conglomerate which, it so happens, sold approximately half of all the issues of magazines sold in the United States and took in approximately half of all the magazine advertising revenues. Thus it was able to achieve what business people like to call “economies of scale”. For one example, in this case these “economies of scale” meant that the corporation could force magazine distributors to pay better rates for its financial-advice magazine and to display it more prominently than competing products.

Thanks to wealthy patrons a few non-academic magazines have been able to survive despite a lack of economies of scale and of the advertising revenues that are earned almost exclusively by magazines that publish articles that imply or state that the consumption of goods and services brings happiness. But Americans such as myself who might be interested, for instance, in reading less relentlessly sunny analyses of the effects of stock-market profits on human beings may search many a magazine stand without coming across one of these publications.

In 1982 I read in the Wall Street Journal a quote from an editor of a Soviet business magazine: “Our readers must be made to understand that life is a complicated thing of negatives and positives.” Perhaps this is the real reason the Soviet Union collapsed. In the United States we have no space for negative thinking. Most of us who engage in it are the sort of hapless, talent-less, weak-willed losers who are never able to save a cent to invest in the stock market.

Talk to any expert or journalist you want, all of the best — or all of the best-paid, anyway (and isn’t that more or less the same thing?) — they’ll all tell you how, in order to be productive, successful and happy you have to maintain a positive attitude, no matter how low your stocks may go or how advanced your cancer may be. This is what government and business leaders tell graduating college classes. This is what we were taught in kindergarten. Never mind complicated things and negatives. “Smile and the whole world smiles with you; cry and you cry alone.”

“Our readers must be made to understand that life is a complicated thing of negatives and positives.” It is also possible that in 1982 the “Era of Stagnation” had taken both an economic and psychological toll, after the rapid growth of the ’50s and ’60s the Soviet Union was now lagging behind Western economies, and the editor in question was encouraged by his superiors — or he personally felt it appropriate — to urge readers to adopt a more philosophical attitude.

Photo is of Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982.

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