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Posts Tagged ‘Agatha Christie

“The basic underlying problem does not entail misbehavior or incompetence but rather stems from the nature of the provision of labor-intensive services”*…

Agatha Christie with her daughter Rosalind in 1924 [source]

Why is it that stuff– clothing, electronics, toys– keep getting cheaper, while services– healthcare, education, child care– continue to rise on price?

Agatha Christie’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, provides a fascinating window into the economic life of middle-class Britons a century ago. The year was 1919, the Great War had just ended, and Christie’s husband Archie had just been demobilized as an officer in the British military.

The couple’s annual income was around around £700 ($50,000 in today’s dollars)—£500 ($36,000) from his salary and another £200 ($14,000) in passive income.

hey rented a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in London with four bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a “nice outlook on green.” The rent was £90 for a year ($530 per month in today’s dollars). To keep it tidy, they hired a live-in maid for £36 ($2,600) per year, which Christie described as “an enormous sum in those days.”

The couple was expecting their first child, a girl, and they hired a nurse to look after her. Still, Christie didn’t consider herself wealthy.

“Looking back, it seems to me extraordinary that we should have contemplated having both a nurse and a servant,” Christie wrote. “But they were considered essentials of life in those days, and were the last things we would have thought of dispensing with. To have committed the extravagance of a car, for instance, would never have entered our minds. Only the rich had cars.”…

By modern standards, these numbers seem totally out of whack. An American family today with a household income of $50,000 might have one or even two cars. But they definitely wouldn’t have a live-in maid or nanny. Even if it were legal today to offer someone a job that paid $2,600 per year, nobody would take it.

The price shifts Christie observed during her lifetime continued to widen after her death…

As you can see, cars aren’t the only things that get cheaper over time. In the last 30 years, clothing, children’s toys, and televisions have all gotten steadily cheaper as well—as have lots of other products not on the chart.

It’s one of the most important economic mysteries of the modern world. While the material things in life are cheaper than ever, labor-intensive services are getting more and more expensive. Middle-class Americans today have little trouble affording a car, but they struggle to afford a spot in day care. Only the rich have nannies.

Who is to blame? Some paint the government as the villain, blaming excessive regulations and poorly targeted subsidies. They aren’t entirely wrong. But the main cause is something more fundamental—and not actually sinister at all.

Back in the 1960s, the economist William Baumol observed that it took exactly as much labor to play a string quartet in 1965 as it did in 1865—in economics jargon, violinists hadn’t gotten any more productive. Yet the wages of a professional violinist in 1965 were a lot higher than in 1865.

The basic reason for this is that workers in other industries were getting more productive, and that gave musicians bargaining power. If an orchestra didn’t pay musicians in line with economy-wide norms, it would constantly lose talent as its musicians decided to become plumbers or accountants instead. So over time, the incomes of professional musicians have risen.

Today economists call this phenomenon “Baumol’s cost disease,” and they see it as one of the most important forces driving the price trends in my chart above. I think it’s unfortunate that this bit of economics jargon is framed in negative terms. From my perspective as a parent, it might be a bummer that child care costs are rising. But my daughter’s nanny probably doesn’t see it that way—the Baumol effect means her income goes up…

A thoughtful consideration of a counterintuitive phenomenon: “Why Agatha Christie could afford a maid and a nanny but not a car,” from Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) in Full Stack Economics (@fullstackecon).

From Baumol himself…

Briefly, the book’s central arguments are these:

1. Rapid productivity growth in the modern economy has led to cost trends that divide its output into two sectors, which I call “the stagnant sector” and “the progressive sector.” In this book, productivity growth is defined as a labor-saving change in a production process so that the output supplied by an hour of labor increases, presumably significantly (Chapter 2).

2. Over time, the goods and services supplied by the stagnant sector will grow increasingly unaffordable relative to those supplied by the progressive sector. The rapidly increasing cost of a hospital stay and rising college tuition fees are prime examples of persistently rising costs in two key stagnant-sector services, health care and education (Chapters 2 and 3).

3. Despite their ever increasing costs, stagnant-sector services will never become unaffordable to society. This is because the economy’s constantly growing productivity simultaneously increases the community’s overall purchasing power and makes for ever improving overall living standards (Chapter 4).

4. The other side of the coin is the increasing affordability and the declining relative costs of the products of the progressive sector, including some products we may wish were less affordable and therefore less prevalent, such as weapons of all kinds, automobiles, and other mass-manufactured products that contribute to environmental pollution (Chapter 5).

5. The declining affordability of stagnant-sector products makes them politically contentious and a source of disquiet for average citizens. But paradoxically, it is the developments in the progressive sector that pose the greater threat to the general welfare by stimulating such threatening problems as terrorism and climate change. This book will argue that some of the gravest threats to humanity’s future stem from the falling costs of these products, rather than from the rising costs of services like health care and education (Chapter 5).

The central purpose of this book is to explain why the costs of some labor-intensive services—notably health care and education—increase at persistently above-average rates. As long as productivity continues to increase, these cost increases will persist. But even more important, as the economist Joan Robinson rightly pointed out so many years ago, as productivity grows, so too will our ability to pay for all of these ever more expensive services.

William J. Baumol, from the Introduction to The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t

* William J. Baumol

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As we interrogate inflation, we might recall that it was in this date in 1933 that United Artists released the animated short “Three Little Pigs,” part of the Silly Symphonies series produced by Walt Disney (though some film historians give the date as May 25). A hit, it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In 1994 a poll of 1,000 animators voted it #11 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time.

Its song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” written by Frank Churchill, was a huge hit and was often used as an anthem during the Great Depression.

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”*…

Agatha Christie was in her mid-20s when, in 1916, she took up what seemed the improbable endeavor of penning her first detective novel. It was so unlikely, in fact, that her elder sister, Madge, with whom she had always competed, dared Agatha to accomplish the feat, certain of her sibling’s eventual failure.

At the time, Christie was married to an officer in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and working at a hospital in Torquay, England, first as a nurse and subsequently in the dispensary, preparing and providing medicines. It was in the latter job that she developed a fascination with poisons that would endure over the next six decades, supplying murderous means in many of her best-known books, including that very first one, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published 100 years ago this month.

Styles was an early and influential contribution to what’s now called the Golden Age of detective fiction, a period that stretched arguably from the 1920s through the 1940s…

Christie’s debut novel was famously rejected by a host of publishers. Many, many editions later, it’s an iconic mystery: “The Agatha Christie Centennial- 100 years of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”

* Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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As we muse on mysteries, we might send powerfully-composed birthday greetings to another prolific author, Abbott Joseph “A. J.” Liebling; he was born on this date in 1904. A journalist and essayist, he is considered a patron saint of New Journalism for his World War II coverage and work like the essays in The Sweet Science (named by Sports Illustrated, in 2002, the best sports book of all time).

His longest association (from 1935 until his death in 1963) was with the New Yorker. Current editor David Remnick writes:

Joy, pure and immediate, is a rare literary experience. Liebling provides it. And, from everything we know, joy is what he felt in the creating. No matter what else he may have been facing in his life—misery in marriage, persistent debt, the obesity and sickness that were the price of his appetites—he revelled in his work. Liebling so enjoyed himself at the offices of The New Yorker, where he worked for twenty-eight years, that he could be heard humming and snorting with laughter as he pulled the sheets from his typewriter and read them over. He knocked himself out, if he did say so himself. Reticence was not his way. Like Trollope polishing off several thousand words before leaving for his day job as surveyor general of Waltham Cross, Liebling wrote at a blinding rate, publishing hundreds of pieces, of all lengths, colors, and moods. He was occasionally seen in the magazine’s bathroom stripped to the waist, washing up after a night’s exertion at his Remington.

Reporting It All

Oh, and it was Liebling who coined the epithet “Second City” for Chicago.

source

“The covers of this book are too far apart”*…

 

010_Tom_Adams_Christie_Hollow

 

You can judge a book by its cover, it just depends on the talents of the artist and their understanding of the book they are illustrating.

Tom Adams (March 29, 1926 – December 9, 2019) was such an artist. His covers to novels by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, John Fowles, Kingsley Amis, among others added greatly to the book and made them stand out on shop shelves making them all highly desirable. Indeed many of Adams’ covers are great artworks in their own right.

Adams career started with a bet. He was working as an illustrator for Jonathan Cape in 1961, when design director Tony Colwell made a wager with Adams that he couldn’t come up with a trompe-l’oeil design for the first novel by John Fowles. Adams design for The Collector exceeded Colwell’s expectations and helped make Fowles’ dark tale of kidnapping a best-seller. Fowles described Adams design as: “the best jacket of the year, if not the entire decade”…

01_Tom_Adams_Fowles

Understandably, Adams’ design attracted considerable interest from other publishers. Patsy Cohen, the design director at Collins was greatly impressed by Adams work and commissioned him on spec to design a cover for Agatha Christie‘s novel A Murder is Announced

00_Tom_Adams_Christie_Announced1

Adams used a variety clues from Christie’s tale. He avoided the traditional tropes of the detective (or in this case Miss Marple), a dead body, or the shadow of some menacing murderer. His style owed more to the symbolists and to the surrealists, which became particularly notable on book covers for Christie’s Destination Unknown and A Caribbean Mystery. Adams said symbolism leant itself to surrealism. It opened up a whole new way of illustrating crime fiction…

His covers for Christie’s novels also impressed Lou Reed, who commissioned Adams to come up with the design for eponymous debut album in 1972…

021_Tom_Adams_Lou_Reed-1200x1166

More about Adams– and more examples of his exquisite work– at “Murder by the Book: Tom Adams’ Brilliant Agatha Christie Covers.”

* Ambrose Bierce

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As we inspect imaginative invitations, we might send pulpy birthday greetings to Frederick Schiller Faust; he was born in this date in 1892.  Much better known by his pen name, Max Brand (though he had 17 others), he was an extraordinarily prolific author– he published over 15 million words of prose.  Among his more famous creations were Destry Rides Again (probably the best know of his many Westerns) and the character of young medical intern Dr. James Kildare, who featured in a series of pulp fiction stories and then over several decades in other media, including a series of American theatrical movies by Paramount Pictures and MGM), a radio series, two television series, and comics.

Maxbrand_001 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 29, 2020 at 1:01 am

The Walking Dead…

 

From the 1990s, web sites long past relevance– but still “live”…

Click down memory lane at “17 Ancient Abandoned Websites That Still Work.”

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As we unpack the undead, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that that Agatha Christie’s mystery play The Mousetrap opened in London’s West End– where it has shown, without interruption, since.  At over 25,000 performances (and counting), it is the longest running show (of any type) in the modern era.

 source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 25, 2013 at 1:01 am

The Edge of Light…

A complement to yesterday’s missive on urbanization:  photographer Adam Ryder‘s series, “The Edge of Light“…

More of this series– and other mesmerizing work– on Adam’s site.

As we meditate on moving boundaries, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that Agatha Christie was reported in London newspapers to have said “An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have: the older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”  (In fact, the remark was attributed to her by her second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan.  Christie later insisted that she was she was quoting “a witty wife.”)

 source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 9, 2012 at 1:01 am

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