Business Musings: K-Shaped
On Saturday, November 14, I went on my usual morning run. I chose the route that took me past the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, one of the country’s top-rated high schools. When I ran past this school pre-COVID, I would often hear voices raised in song, or a particularly amazing band practice. Sometimes I saw very intense high school students have discussions about literature or music or theater, sometimes shaking a musical instrument case to make their point.
I haven’t seen a high school student in that neighborhood since the drive-by (literally) graduation in May. But on that Saturday morning, I thought I saw high school students behind the school.
Someone had set up an exhibition tent with a blue fabric cover. A group of people (kids, I thought) had gathered in the middle. High-end cars lined the parking lot and the streets nearby.
Clearly people were in their cars, and some sat on the grass outside, with grade school kids leaning against them.
I thought perhaps the Academy was taking a leaf from President-Elect Biden’s campaign book. I really believed they were going to give a performance in the back of the school parking lot that parents could attend and honk their appreciation.
Whoa, boy, was I wrong.
As I got closer, I realized that the awning over the booth had the name of a local charity organization etched along the top. Boxes were piled feet deep and more feet high toward the back of the school.
The people gathered under the tent were adults, masked and very serious. They were putting on gloves, and listening to final instructions, before they handed out the boxes, starting at 9 a.m.
Boxes of food.
I was running past a pop-up food bank, which now appear all over Las Vegas to help with the various communities.
The cars were what broke my heart. They were new or newish, none of them cheap, all of them probably on payments. Large SUVs and high-end sedans, many with baby seats in the back.
The parents on the lawn had their arms around the young kids, and no one looked happy. Everyone was well dressed. And as I passed, in my new shoes and running togs, no one would meet my eye.
This is the face of poverty in Las Vegas, Nevada in the waning weeks of 2020. The economic collapse from COVID hit Las Vegas harder than most of the cities in the United States. 35% of the Las Vegas economy is tourism-based, and tourism just ended. Billions—literally billions—of dollars have left the economy this year, as conference after conference canceled. Some moved to Texas, which has fewer COVID restrictions (and more COVID cases), but most of the conferences moved online, and none of that revenue came to the city.
Every aspect of the city has been hit hard. The loss of tens of thousands of jobs—good, upper-middle class jobs—took with them support jobs, from retail store operators to local restaurant workers. Even janitorial services took a hit because offices all over the city shut down (and many remain shut down).
The unemployment system here is miniscule, pennies on the dollar for people’s salaries, and our food banks and other supportive charities were underfunded before COVID. The state has lost millions in taxable revenue because most of our tax base come in the form of hotel and resort fees—in other words, taxes paid by tourists, not taxes paid by locals.
Without the tourists, our tax base is crumbling.
And yet…Las Vegas’s real estate market is booming. New housing is selling within 12 hours, and resales (previously owned houses) are up 11% from last October to this October. Local real estate agents are calling the hot market “insane” and “crazy,” and they don’t seem to have an explanation for it.
But there are explanations, dozens of them. People working from home want more separation inside their living spaces. This open-concept thing was nice when you spent the evening and night in your home, but when you were with your family 24/7, open-concept could be a nightmare.
Lots of people decided to move out of condos and into homes, just for the yard space. And then there are the refugees from other states, particularly California, where both the cost of living and the taxes are high. Now that most of Silicon Valley’s jobs have gone virtual, employees can live anywhere—or as it was defined by a friend of mine, “Anywhere but Silicon Valley.”
Las Vegas is urban enough and close enough to California (four hours by car or one very short [infected] plane ride) that anyone can go to an in-person meeting in California with just a little bit of planning. Plus, we are getting professional sports teams, along with their support staff. The Raiders (American football) moved here this summer. That alone brought in nearly 1,000 people looking for a place to live, at least during the playing season.
But what the housing market is really proving is that we have moved into a K-shaped economy. I’m calling it an economy instead of a recovery, because I’m not sure the people at the top of the K ever really felt the collapse. Yeah, their businesses took a bit of a hit when everything shut down, but their stocks rose insanely, and a whole bunch of people profited off the pain of others.
A K-shaped recovery, to use the business term, occurs when sectors of the economy recover from an economic hit in two different ways. Think of it this way. Initially, we were hoping for a V-shaped recovery. The V is easy to understand. The economy starts at the high end of the V, goes down to the point, and then goes right back up to where it was.
I was thinking we would have an L-shaped recovery, where the economy would go down and settle at a new low, staying there. Or maybe a series of Ls that would look like little steps going down until we hit whatever the new low would be.
That’s happening for a lot of people. I don’t have the statistics for the U.S., because honestly, my brain has been full of the election and the pandemic and the damn book I’m still struggling to finish and a whole bunch of homework for my Spanish class (which I love, except for the stupid tests).
With a quick search for numbers, I found one that scared the ever-living crap out of me. At least 25 million people in the U.S. are long-term unemployed (and the long-term unemployed are not counted in the unemployment rate). Most lost their jobs in March during the shut down and either the businesses that employed them are still shut down or have disappeared completely. As we face more shutdowns due to the uncontrolled pandemic here in the U.S., more businesses will go under and more people will lose their jobs.
What these statistics don’t say is that each of those numbers is probably more than a person. It’s usually a family. So 25 million unemployed people probably means at least 50 million people are feeling the economic impact of that.
We’re going to see—we are seeing—some nightmarish poverty here in the U.S., as exemplified by that pop-up food bank. Those people probably had very very very good jobs, and then lost them, and then the federal government failed to step up to put a safety net under them. Some jobs are coming back to Vegas, but not nearly enough to handle families who have homes (with payments) and car payments and probably credit card debt, and who are most likely receiving a few hundred dollars per week maximum.
I almost wrote that I can’t imagine this, but of course I can. I’ve been in situations with almost no money coming in, and trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Eating essentially water with a few veggies for weeks because I only had $10 for groceries, and $40 for the rest of my bills. Fortunately, back then I didn’t have children or other responsibilities. Just myself. And I wasn’t in the middle of a global pandemic with attendant job loss.
Those folks are on the downward slide of the K, which also looks like that front half of the V. I have no idea where they will bottom out, but it looks like there’s no relief until at least February, maybe beyond.
And while they’re struggling, there are people making millions, even now, and not really feeling any effects of this. I’m seeing a lot of that here too, because Las Vegas has a lot of high-end wealthy here—folks who casually spend $10 million for a second or third or fourth house. Those folks are still spending, and actually raking in more money, because there are fewer places to dump dollars right now. There’s no open high-end restaurant, no big shows. It’s harder to buy high-end stuff at the moment—at least in retail stores, although I suppose it’s possible online.
And it’s not just the mega rich who are doing well. A lot of upper-middle-class jobs still exist, and those folks—the ones buying the houses here—are swimming in cash. They’re not shelling out for the usual things, like programs for their children or new clothing or extravagant vacations. All of that money is staying inside their wallets, because there’s really nothing much outside of their homes to spend it on.
A number of members of the upper middle class saw a slight decrease in their financial fortunes in March and April (that middle mark of the K), but it might not have been all that noticeable. Their income dipped and then rose—and sometimes rose tremendously as their income dramatically outpaced their outflow. People who might have been saving little and spending a lot suddenly found themselves with an excess of dollars.
It’s a weird place to be in, and getting stranger. I’m sure the economic analysis written about this period will be fascinating, but those papers haven’t really even started yet, because we don’t know when/how this will end.
One of the unifying factors worldwide about the COVID crisis—economic as well as health—is the level of uncertainty. Usually we know when things will end. But we don’t right now. Not only that, we don’t know how this will end and what state the world and its economy will be in.
One reason the entire world watched the U.S. election so fervently was this uncertainty. The difference between the Trump philosophy of government and the Biden philosophy of government is as stark as the different directions of the second half of the letter K.
Now, we know the answer to that particular question (and yes, readers outside of the U.S., Trump will be gone by law on January 20, no matter how hard he tries to prevent his departure). So that one election injected a bit of certainty into this truly precarious world.
We all know it’s precarious right now, so why am I writing about it in a business blog for writers?
Because of some things I’ve been hearing from a lot of you. We writers write out of our subconscious, and what’s infecting us all the most right now is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear caused by the uncertainty of our future, fear of catching the virus, fear of losing our jobs or our family or what we consider to be our own personal world.
That fear translates into the writing—whether it shows up as fear of a project (I can’t do that. It’s too hard) or fear of self-publishing (No one is reading right now, so why should I publish?) or fear of putting out an expensive product or fear of offending readers or fear of…well, insert your own personal negative tape right here.
We can’t really control the outside world right now. We can control our own behavior in it. On the virus level, that’s masking up and staying inside and getting the vaccine (yay!) whenever it becomes available in your area.
We can control how we handle our writing. So let me give you some prescriptions for this fear.
First, let’s look at the fear of publishing or publishing at the pre-pandemic price points, and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all writers are in a comfortable financial situation with plenty of time on their hands. (Yes, I know, that’s rare. But for the sake of argument…)
The economy is K-shaped right now. The recovery, as it were, is K-shaped. That means there are a lot of people without means, but a lot with means, and many with more money than they had before.
It’s not your job as a writer/publisher to figure out if your audience has enough money to buy your product. It’s your job to make your product available so that someone can buy it.
So yes, keep using the price points that you used pre-pandemic. Maybe even add an upper tier for hardcore fans.
But if you’re going to add an upper tier, also make sure your books are available for libraries. As we discussed in the trainwreck posts, traditional publishers are screwing up their deliveries to libraries right now, and that’s bad on a variety of levels. The level that’s relevant to this blog post is this: there are a lot of people who need to read to escape right now, and they don’t have the income to buy books anymore. So they go to the library. Make sure your books are there (in both ebook and paper) so that those readers will have something to read.
Also provide them with some freebies. I do my Free Fiction Monday every week, and not a week goes by without an email or a comment from someone without a lot of disposable income, thanking me for the chance to read something for free.
So keep your publishing schedule, keep your writing schedule, and in your writing career, at least, act like there is no pandemic or economic downturn.
(This advice is for self-published (or as I call them indie) writers. If you’re trying to go traditional or if you are traditionally published, please see the trainwreck blog posts. I have very different advice for you.)
If you’re one of those people who is doing very well in the pandemic, then hunker down, continue to write and publish and, if you can, donate some time or money to outside places like food banks and other causes. But my writerly advice to you is the same as the one above. Just keep doing what you’re doing.
Now, let me talk to the rest of you. You’ve lost your job or your spouse has lost theirs. You’ve been ill or you’re taking care of an ill family member. Or you’re trying to homeschool your kids while dealing with reduced income levels and trying to find a dollar everywhere you can.
For godssake, take the pressure off your writing. I know many of you think you should be writing right now.
I think you should be sleeping and eating as best you can and focusing on the crisis you find yourself in. The writing will be there when you get out of this mess. Right now, you need to take care of yourself, your family, and whatever you’re dealing with, from health to money.
There are times in our lives when writing is simply not recommended. Sometimes we need to take a break and focus on the emergencies before us.
Think of it this way: what would you say to someone who is working their butt off trying to get unemployment, find a new job, school their kid, figure out how to feed the family, and sleeping only 4 hours per night (due to stress and lack of time)? Would you tell them to up their writing production or even write at all?
So cut yourself the same kind of slack, and give your life a chance to settle down before you put more pressure on yourself.
Even though we’ve all been touched by COVID, the disease’s impact on our lives has not been equal. Some of us don’t even know anyone who got ill. Some of us have done fine in the COVID economy. Some of us have lost a lot of friends and family members. Some of us have been out of work since March.
There is no one-size fits all way to deal with the world that 2020 has served up to us. So find your way. And then forgive yourself for not living up to whatever standards you had established in your head pre-pandemic.
We’re in a new world now, and it’s still changing. We don’t know what we’re going to be doing in 2024, let alone in March of 2021. We do know we’ll get there, and now that there are vaccines, we know that eventually this evil disease will no longer dominate our lives.
But until we get to that day when the disease is no longer the major news story in all the countries of the world, be kind to yourself.
And that means being kind to your writer self. If you can’t concentrate on stories right now, that’s okay. If you’re writing so much you can’t keep up on the publishing side, that’s okay too. You’ll get time eventually.
If you’re afraid of what others will think—I can tell you this right now. No one has time to worry about the little things anymore. We’re all in the middle of our own COVID emergency, even those folks who are on the upside of the K. (They can just pretend the world is still all right a little easier than the rest of us can.)
We are going through a massive change right now. That change will slow, eventually. There’s actually hope on the horizon, thanks to the vaccine news that came out in mid-November.
But it’s going to take us a while to get there.
In March, we were hoping this was going to be a short-term problem, something we could all handle quickly. A blip that we would look back on and say it was a rough few weeks.
Now we know that we’re in for some rough years. Yes, we will get the virus under control. Then we will need to work on a real recovery, one that lifts everyone up. And we’re going to need to heal from the trauma of this year-plus.
Trauma has an impact on writing. Please don’t underestimate that no matter where you fall in this economic cycle. It’s okay to take time off. It’s okay to let the writing rest.
It’s also okay to write/publish a lot and put your work out there at full price, and with an eye to the future.
Because there will be a future. It’s coming at us as each day passes. And we’re beginning to see the shape of it.
Help where you can. Do what you need to for yourself. And ask for help if you need it.
We’re going to get through this.
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“Business Musings: K-Shaped,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / scuflo8.