Working for Fun Is No Laughs in Market Capitalism


Some of my friends in the conservative blogosphere have been ridiculing a New Yorker named Joe Therrien. I want to put in a good word for him.

Therrien appears in the lead paragraph of a story in The Nation on Occupy Wall Street. He’s an example, writer Richard Kim wants us to know, of the “creative types” ingeniously protesting capitalism.

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It’s one of those no-violence-or-anti-Semitism-here-just-nifty-people articles you find not only in the avowedly leftish Nation but also in mainstream media.

Conservative bloggers and commenters have been making fun of Therrien, who quit his job as a drama teacher in New York City public schools to get a master of fine arts in puppetry at the University of Connecticut.

Now he’s saddled with $35,000 in student loans and unable to find a puppetry job. So he’s substitute teaching at half his former pay and is a member of Occupy Wall Street’s Puppetry Guild.

“Could he not see this coming if he spent $35k on a degree in puppetry?” asks cartcart on “A hopeless case.”

But actually it turns out that some Americans do make a living doing puppetry. And not just the famous ones like Burr Tillstrom of the 1950s TV show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” or Jim Henson of “The Muppets.”

Some do so working for outfits like the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, the Sandglass Center for Puppetry and Theater Research in Putney, Vt., and the Spiral Q Puppet Theater in Philadelphia.

Reason‘s Mike Riggs notes disapprovingly that these organizations got federal money from Barack Obama’s stimulus package. But they also receive money from people who buy tickets for performances and those who make larger voluntary contributions.

They look like good examples of the Tocquevillian voluntary associations that crop up all over America and benefit from the prosperity generated by market capitalism.

Therrien, according to Richard Kim, thought his master’s in puppetry would bring him “a measure of security.” But I think that in quitting a tenured job he was giving up security and taking a risk to achieve his dream.

He presumably felt that he could be a good enough puppeteer to make a living at it and could find a job doing so. That’s the sort of thing the late Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates that they ought to do.

Therrien didn’t know that we were going to have a financial collapse in fall 2008 and that a lengthy recession would follow. Neither did most economists — including the very good ones in the Obama administration — and most people in banking and financial services.

Or perhaps Therrien didn’t understand that a lengthy recession could reduce the market demand for puppetry, as fewer people could afford tickets or make generous gifts.

I have long thought that one of the wonderful things about our affluent society is that more and more people could find jobs doing things they love.

In a hunter-gatherer society, men hunt and women gather, whether they like it or not. In an agricultural society like 18th century America, practically everybody has to make a living farming even if they hate it.

In industrial America a century ago, people had jobs as factory workers or, if they were skilled and lucky, file clerks. Liberals today ooze nostalgia about how half a century ago an unskilled guy just out of high school could get a steady job on an auto assembly line.

Well, I grew up in Detroit, and I know that people hated those jobs.

In the America of our time, a lot of people make livings as actors, musicians and, yes, as puppeteers. I think it’s a safe assumption that they get more satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from their work than they would as file clerks or factory workers with significantly higher pay.

Joe Therrien bet $35,000 that he would be able to find work he loved, and I think well of him for it, even though he has at least for the moment lost his gamble.

What he probably doesn’t realize is that jobs in fields like puppetry aren’t generated by government but are the product of bounteous market capitalism, which enables people to buy luxury goods like puppet show tickets and subsidize puppet theaters through philanthropy.

Government is a poor and unreliable substitute, and a government that chokes private-sector growth inevitably hurts the puppetry business. Sorry, Joe.




  • Michael Barone

    Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics.

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