Tuesday, July 26, 2005

More Fun with Uichetelle

Earlier this month the FLUBA Committee on 180 Degrees From the Truth in NY Times Columns noted Megan McArdle catching Louis Uichetelle in a hilarious error regarding the protagonist in the 1950s best selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit:

But Tom, like most Americans in the first three decades after World War II, took a rising standard of living for granted. When he needed more income to make ends meet, he simply landed a better-paying job.

Megan pointed out that the novel actually depicts a middle class couple struggling to keep their financial heads above water, rather than what Uichetelle (and Paul Krugman) would have us believe; that today's middle class couples are much less secure than their counterparts in the immediate post WWII era.

It was well known that the author, Sloan Wilson, was writing mostly about himself and people he knew in that novel and several others that followed. What isn't so well known is that Wilson also wrote two autobiographies. And that those books even more severely undercut the Good 'ol Days nostalgia currently being peddled by left of center economists.

In What Shall We Wear to This Party, Wilson said that the most memorable aspect of life in the aftermath of the War was, the ferocity with which everyone worked, in order to provide for their growing families. That there was a, pervasive almost physical smell of fear, which was combatted by many jokes and nervouse laughter. Some of my friends at Time [magazine] openly admitted their dread of getting fired or of falling hopelesly behind in the race for promotions.

He tells of, One public relations man I knew rode the rails for over a month looking for a job. ....I was never able to make his case believable in fiction, but this mild-mannered little man eventually held up a bank in a nearby town and got away with it so easily that he tried the same crime again at the same bank a few months later. That time he was caught and sent to jail.

Later in the same chapter he relates that, Most of us worried about money, and ignoring the conventional manners of our parents, talked about it incessantly. The bills were always piling up, yet as soon as we got a raise...we either bought a bigger house, a boat, a new car or all three, if our credit could be stretched far enough.

Wilson came to financial catastrophe several times in his own life. Even after making millions of (1950s) dollars from two best selling novels that were made into movies, he found himself scrambling to raise $20,000 in 1966 to buy an old yacht that he and his second wife and their two year-old daughter could live on for five years, to save money that otherwise they would have to spend on escalating apartment rents in New York City or on a house in Connecticutt.

The major culprit in his tale of woe was the IRS. Those good 'ol days were also the times of 90% marginal tax rates, which drove him into tax sheltered investments that the IRS loved to audit and disallow. If the investments didn't go belly up the IRS eventually took most of the earnings. Even after the Kennedy-Johnson rate reductions (to a top rate of 70%), any money Wilson was able to make (and by then his days as a star popular novelist were behind him) was mostly taken away by the high marginal tax rates.

Once a millionaire, world traveller, college lecturer, best-selling writer, Wilson descended into the worst of alcoholic nightmares, unable to write and thus support his family he somehow managed to eke out an existence in an old house in Ticonderoga, NY that he purchased for $11,500 after selling his boat.

A doctor finally prescribed lithium to cure him of his need to drink, and it appeared to work He wrote a few more books that had modest success, and lived, suffering from Alzheimer's, until 2003.

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