This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942), my favorite new-to-me opera singer.  His music is wonderfully sweet (start here and here), and his life story a lesson to us all. 

Despite his voice, Schmidt had a problem that seemingly precluded a career in opera: he was really, really short – just 4’9”.  Contemporary audiences refused to take such a small man seriously. 

Schmidt could have just found another career and spent his nights singing the blues about heightism.  If he had, we never would have heard about him.  Fortunately, he sought and found constructive ways to overcome the consumer-on-worker discrimination that was holding him back.

The general market solution to consumer-on-worker discrimination is simply to distance the consumer from the object of his distaste.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The specific market solution was technology.  Radio and recording were obvious solutions: if consumers don’t see you, they can’t easily discriminate against you.  Yet Schmidt also did well in movies: a decent camera man can easily hide an actor’s height from the audience. 

The result: 4’9” Schmidt became a world famous opera singer who virtually never sang at the opera.  Market forces did not preclude discrimination, but they heavily diluted its effect on his career.

Sadly, though, there were no comparable forces protecting Schmidt from political discrimination.  The rise of Nazism put Schmidt, a German-speaking Jew, in mortal danger.  He fled to France, tried and failed to make it to the U.S., then escaped to Switzerland.  The Swiss “interned” (i.e. imprisoned) him in a nasty refugee camp, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 38.

As every opera fan knows, life is full of tragedy.  Sometimes people laugh at you for being short.  Sometimes people hate you for being a Jew.  Tragedy, however, is more than a matter of intentions.  Markets muffle the effects of bad intentions.  Governments amplify the effects of bad intentions to their logical conclusion.  Market discrimination gave Joseph Schmidt an ugly hurdle to overcome – but with some ingenuity, he overcome it.  Government discrimination, in contrast, deliberately walled off his every option.  He tried to escape, but there was no escape.  Governments driven by prejudice stripped Joseph Schmidt of his livelihood, then took his life.