“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.” Bill Cunningham
In the 1940s, then Congressman Lyndon Johnson wanted to hire a promising young man named John Hicks to manage his successful radio station in Austin. Meeting late at night at a restaurant, Johnson gave the eager kid the kind of pitch that most of us dream of getting at some point in our lives.
“Johnny, I want you on my team,” Johnson said. There was more than that—he was prepared to be incredibly generous.
“I’m going to lend you ten thousand dollars. And I want you to take it and buy yourself a Cadillac car. And I want you to move to a better apartment. I want you to be somebody. Furnish the apartment. Get [your wife] a fur coat. I want you to to [join some local clubs] and be somebody here in Austin.”
This was an offer to someone making $75 a week, coming from one of the most powerful Congressman in the United States. This was said in a restaurant that should have been closed but not stayed open any time Johnson wanted to eat there. Here was a rich, powerful man making an offer that couldn’t, shouldn’t be refused.
But somehow, this kid, John Hicks, said no. Why? It had a lot to do with Johnson’s next words, according to Robert Caro.
Asked how he would ever expect to be paid back, Lyndon smiled and in his charming way said “Johnny, don’t worry about that. You let me worry about that.”
It’s interesting to see the levers of Johnson’s mind work. He wasn’t just selling a kid on a job, he wasn’t just trying to put him in debt either. He was trying to put him in debt while committing him to a number of very attractive lifestyle choices that are hard to ever walk away from. No ever moves to a crappier apartment by choice, no one ever wants to go back to not being someone.
Lyndon was a notoriously horrible boss—known for working employees almost like slaves, demanding complete and total subservience, utter and unquestioning loyalty. But he was also a brilliant, manipulative reader of people. To suck people in, he knew exactly what to do and say.
Awful, yes? But is this not just a more explicit version of a pitch made a thousand times a day to promising young men and women around the world? Take out a loan and go to this college, it says sometimes. Other times it says: Here’s an important promotion but it’s going to mean giving up all your side projects. Other times it comes in the form of credit card offers or clothing stores or “investments” from VCs. There are a million iterations.
And many, many people say yes…to their eventual regret.
I remember early on in my career, when I worked for a very successful businessman, I was called to his house on the weekend. We spent the day going over ideas and working. At the end of it, as was his way, he told me that he’d like to get me a nice car.
At the time, I drove a 1997 Volvo 960 that I’d purchased for $2500. It had 160,000 miles on it. Here was an offer for something much better–for free! Tempting though it was, I felt that I should pass. I didn’t want to be someone that someone else bought a car for. I said, “Thanks for the very generous offer, but I like my car just fine.”
Only in retrospect did I realize the bullet that I dodged with this decision, just as John Hicks had. Because over the next few years, I saw that other employees showing up to work in nicer and nicer cars. I learned that they’d received similar offers—and that “get” was the operative word. These cars were leased and not purchased. Or in other cases, the cars were financed and attached to the employee’s paychecks.
There were other kinds of offers too: apartments, contingent raises, co-signed loans, greencards. Most of them generous but with a healthy side of dependence thrown in.
Not that these folks felt like they’d been manipulated. On the contrary, they were quite pleased with the bargain. Upton Sinclair calls this the “dress-suit bribe”—one that preys on the receipent being mostly unaware that any transaction has ever happened. As he observes in The Brass Check,
“When you have your shoes shined, you pay the boot-black ten cents; but can you figure out what you are paid for having your shoes shined? When you buy a new suit of clothes, you pay the dealer, say, one hundred dollars; but can you figure what you are paid for being immaculately dressed, for having just the right kind of tie, just the right kind of accent, just the right manner of asserting your own importance and securing your own place at the banquet-table of Big Business?”
The dress-suit bribe works particularly well because it doesn’t seem like a bribe. People don’t say no, because it wasn’t isn’t overt—it’s hidden in things or disguised as a gift. Think about the first nice business lunch someone took you to. This was the offer. How long did it take you to work your way back up to sitting in a chair at that same restaurant for a purely social occasion? This was when you took the bribe.
The pressure to go to college, to drive a certain kind of car, to work in a certain industry, to start a company, to buy a house….When I was younger I didn’t realize that these choices were a lot like bridges, and that there would come a time where you were pressured to cross them. And that in many cases, it wasn’t clear that you’d done so until after you were on the other side.
What Sinclair meant to show us was that benign decisions can trigger commitments much more significant than we might imagine. Buying a house is a literal, contractual commitment but accepting a car or a gift can change your life just as much. A bribe is not a gift. It’s an exchange. Eventually the person on the other end of it gets what they wanted too–and usually the better end too.
Had I accepted my bribe, I’d have made a commitment that would have made it harder for me to leave down the road, harder for me to remain an independent entity in a company that slowly began to similarly demand complete and total subservience. And when I look at my fellow employees who took what must have seemed like a harmless little benefit, I see many who ultimately went down with the ship when the company fell apart.
Austin Kleon quotes Lynda Barry “The key to eternal happiness is low overhead and no debt.” To which he adds, “Low overhead + “do what you love” = a good life.”
But we can extend the definition of overhead and debt to be more than just financial–it’s not just what you owe the bank. It’s what you owe other people, it’s the power you give them over you and your work that matters.
We can clearly see the relationship between service and payment in some cases—like getting your shoes signed. But in our own lives, it’s murkier and often deliberately obfuscated. The things we have to do as employees, as a member of a class, as a certain type of professional are tacit extracurricular duties that not only coincide with the amount in our paychecks but make us dependent on getting one every week.
The offer that Johnson gave Hicks is the one that every person thinks they want to get. Every ambitious person wants to doors of power thrown open, wants to be told—here you go, take it. That’s why so many people want mentors and apprenticeships and try to meet famous people. Because they think that’s what’s going to happen.
They just don’t realize the pitfalls inherent in this path. They don’t realize the strings that come along with it and that their freedom is the most valuable asset of all. They don’t understand what Lady Bird Johnson (Lyndon’s wife) understood did as she came to see Hicks after he rejected the offer, to let him know in so many words she “had seen other people take their ten thousand dollars and had seen what happened to them.”
At one point or another, you’ll be offered this same bit of money. I’m not saying to turn everything down or that gifts and perks are in themselves, evil and corrupting. If you can, take the money and run–plenty of cases justify it. But make sure there isn’t a line with a hook attached to it.
So look carefully. Because the last half of that Bill Cunningham quote has it right, “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive.”