The Long Tail Lashes Again

In statistics there is an observable distribution phenomenon known as the “long tail.”  I’ve seen different definitions of it as an economic proposition, and its implications for business and marketing have been the subject of a book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (note: this link violates one of my informal rules on this humble blog, viz. I do not link to books I have not read).  But very briefly stated, the “long tail” phenomenon as a matter of economics is the pattern whereby the total market (measured by income, or turnover, or whatever other measure of “success” you choose) is concentrated among a very small number of the population at the top, while by far the greatest portion of the population exists at much, much lower levels of whatever you’re measuring.  It’s called a “long tail” because that’s what it looks like if you graph it out.

The intriguing aspect of the long tail is that it is observable across nearly every avenue of economic activity you can name.  It’s highly visible in professional sports, where for every Peyton Manning or Tom Brady you’ll have dozens upon dozens of third-string tackles who maybe see a play or two a game and whose careers are over in three to five years, their knees shot and their brains addled from all the hits.  And those sods will never make a tenth annually what the “franchise players” make.  Factor in the endorsement income that a Peyton Manning makes and compare that to Sidney Schmo whose job in life is to be more or less a live blocking dummy for the starting offensive line, and ol’ Sid will not make in his life what Peyton makes in a year.

Or take a look at income distribution among lawyers.  Over at MarginalRevolution there are actually two graphs, one showing the 2010 distribution and the other showing the 1991 distribution.  Even in 1991 there was an observable tail, but by 2010 you had a tiny number with massive income, nearly no one in the middle, and then a huge gob way down at the bottom of the scale.  This specific pattern is not new at all.  When Daniel Webster announced an intention to quit teaching school and become a lawyer, he was warned off because the field was too crowded (too crowded?  back in the early 1800s?  seriously?) and he’d never make any money.  Webster’s reply has remained famous:  “There is always room at the top.”  Which is true enough, I suppose.

And now, from Britain, we discover than even writing is not exempt from the long tail phenomenon.  In Britain, according to a recently-released study, the top 5% of authors (measured by income) scooped up 42.3% of all income earned by all authors.  The median income — the amount separating the top 50% from the bottom 50% — was £10,432, which is apparently below minimum wage for Britain.  That bottom 50%, by the way, earned a whacking total of 7% of all the income earned.  Put differently, the top 5% of earners raked in right at six times the amount the bottom half did.  The commenters to the report of the study seem to break into two groups: (i) those who decry someone like J. K. Rowling making all that money while “artists” starve in their holes, and (ii) those who tell the first group to shut up and write something that someone wants to read.

I can see genuine merit in both viewpoints.  Much of what gets published these days really is tripe and nothing more, made to be “consumed” and tossed out to the next church fund-raiser.  It is justly galling to know oneself to be a finer craftsman than those one sees enjoying a degree of success one strongly suspects — with reason — one will never enjoy oneself.  On the other hand I really have no patience for the crowd that fancies itself “transgressive” or “engaged” or just simply cranks out thinly-veiled identity “narrative” crap, thinks itself artistic, and damns the world if we don’t agree.  If you really think that being a “creative” artist means your job is forever to épater la bourgeoisie, don’t be surprised when la bourgeoisie shows no interest at all in plonking down its hard-earned for your output.  If you want to write collections of short stories about women behaving poorly to the men in their lives and acting proud of it (this one conforms to my rule; I actually read this book many years ago . . . it was . . . well, it was precisely what you would have expected from its title), then I’ll remind you:  You just kissed off 49% of the human population as potential readers of your book.  And so forth.  Even good books, fascinating books — by which I mean to say the sort of books I link to in the course of this li’l ol’ blog — just generally don’t sell all that many copies, and the authors correspondingly tend to have what we can call “day jobs,” unless and until they hit that magic level where the writing fuels itself.

Writing — and the other creative/performing arts as well — are by no means the only self-congratulatory occupation to experience the ugly side of the long tail.  At one end, we have a tiny, tiny group of professors like Paul Krugman, who euchred the City University of New York into paying him well into six figures for doing not much at all other than pour forth his bile about conservatives in general or Republicans in particular.  And at the other end you have thousands upon thousands of part-time “adjunct” faculty who will never have tenure, will never have any employment benefits, will never have any hope of teaching a truly interesting course, or being offered a job more permanent than next year’s contract renewal.  People like Krugman make a handsome living decrying “income inequality.”

The long tail pattern holds true even in larger contexts.  Consider, if you will, how much of the aggregate wealth of the world is engrossed by the populations of the West, versus how much of the world’s population that works out to be.  Here’s a map dividing, just for illustrative purposes, the world into seven separate areas, in each of which are contained one billion people.  Notice that both American continents and Australia only make one billion, and to get the Europeans (inclusive of European Russia) up to the one billion mark you have to lump them in with all of the Middle East.  When you consider that “the West” is usually a short-hand reference to Western Europe, North America, and Australia, and then look at that linked map, you realize that “the West” accounts for maybe one-seventh — 14.3% — of the world’s entire population.  I’d have to say, just guessing, that we 14.3% of the population probably enjoy — create, in fact — something along the lines of 70% of the world’s aggregate wealth.  Now look at where that wealth is concentrated within those Western societies, and you see what the long tail looks like with spikes on it.

All of which gives, or should give, us pause when we hear politicians undertaking somehow to reverse a nearly universally observable statistical pattern.  Sure you may do something about “income inequality,” and you may also invent an anti-gravity belt.  You’ll just have to pardon me if I don’t buy a lot of shares on margin with you.

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