My Writing Tutor: Dan Seligman
By David Henderson
Looking over my posts in the last few years, I realized that I had promised to tell my story of dealing with the toughest editor I ever had: the legendary Dan Seligman of Fortune magazine. I’ll tell it in two parts. The first, today, is how I maneuvered to get past security in the Time/Life Building in Manhattan so I could get to his floor and meet him.
But first some context to explain why this was a big deal. Many libertarians and conservatives, when they got their copy of Fortune in the mail in the 1970s and 1980s, turned first to his “Keeping Up” column. It was entertainingly written and always insightful. Although as far as I know, Dan never took a course in economics, he had a solid understanding of economics. I’ve written about him a little here.
In August 1983, Fortune published my article “The Myth of MITI.” In it, I took on the idea that Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) (a) was a powerful planner of Japan’s economy and (b) made good decisions about Japan’s economy. At the time, industrial planning was all the rage with a certain segment in the United States and people were using MITI as Exhibit A of a successful industrial planner. My article started as follows:
Early in the 1950s, a small consumer-electronics company in Japan asked the Japanese government for permission to buy transistor-manufacturing rights from Western Electric. Permission was necessary because at the time foreign exchange was controlled by the tax and trade ministries. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry refused, arguing that the technology wasn’t impressive enough to justify the expenditure. Two years later the company persuaded MITI to reverse its decision and went on to fame and fortune with the transistor radio. Its name: Sony.
In the mid-1950s MITI exhorted a Japanese industry to develop a prototype “people’s” model of its product so MITI could designate the winning firm as the single producer. In the 1960s MITI tried to force this industry’s many firms to merge into just a few. Both times the companies rebuffed MITI, and today they’re doing very well, thank you. Their product: autos.
The article made a bit of a splash. Indeed, it won the 1984 Mencken Award for Best Investigative News Article.
I knew in the spring of 1984 that my pregnant wife and I were moving out to Monterey in the summer of 1984 so that I could be on the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School. I had bargained for a pretty decent salary for an academic but because my wife and I both wanted for her to be a full-time mom with only a little free-lance work on the side, we needed more than my salary for us to buy a house in the, even then, high-price Monterey market. So my income plans required that I make at least $10,000 a year in free-lance income. The Washington bureau chief for Fortune, Paul H. Weaver, who had given me my opportunity with “The Myth of MITI,” told me that I should consider writing book reviews for the “Books and Ideas” section of the magazine, which Dan edited. At the time, book reviews were typically about 1,500 words long, so that a reviewer could have space to really critique the book. And the author’s fee was $1,500. My plan was to do 5 or 6 of those a year.
But that required that I actually meet Dan. I’m usually better at selling myself in person. I love people, and that shows when I meet them. Less so on the phone.
In April 1984, while I was a senior economist at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, I was in New York on a Friday to give a speech. I had a few hours before heading home to D.C. and so I went into Manhattan to see Dan. When I went to the building, I learned that you had to give them the name of someone you were visiting so that they could write out a pass and you could get by the guard at the elevator. I thought it was too high risk to give them Dan’s name. David who? So I thought through the names of people I had dealt with long-distance as part of the editing process for Myth of MITI. As the woman called up each of the two people, she struck out. They were either gone or not at their desks.
Then I remembered that I had met Fortune writer Al Ehrbar in Rochester in 1976 when he, his wife, Michael Jensen, his wife, and I had gone out for dinner. Al was a star graduate of the University of Rochester’s B-school Executive MBA program and had used his degree to move up from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle to Fortune. I asked the woman at reception to call up. Al was at his desk and invited me up. We had a nice chat and I then asked where Dan’s office was. He pointed the way and I went to Dan’s office, saw his door was open, and knocked on the open door. I told him who I was. It turned out that he remembered, and liked, Myth of MITI. He warmly invited me in and we talked about the people we knew, or knew of, in common: Mike Jensen, Gene Fama, and Armen Alchian are three who come to mind.
I told him that I wanted to write book reviews for him. He asked me if I could handle reviews of books that got technical: math, econometrics, etc. I told him I could and he perked up. He said he had no one in his stable of writers who could do that. (Spoiler: Not once, in the approximately 20 reviews I wrote for him, did I ever need those skills.)
He promised to keep me in mind for book reviews. I knew to strike when the iron was hot. “Do you have anything now?” I asked. He went to a huge pile of books behind his desk and pulled out Arjo Klamer’s Conversations with Economists. I told him I would read it and tell him whether I thought it was appropriate.
To be continued.