Posted April 25th, 2012


by Gary North

March 28, 2002

Milton Berle died yesterday. For a brief moment, just before “The West Wing,” this message flashed on the screen:

Milton Berle, 1908-2002

There was no other comment.

I went to Drudge’s site this morning. I figured there would have to be a link to the obituary. There was. But beneath it, there was another link:

British comedian Dudley Moore dies at age 66

Milton Berle got a 5-second screen shot on NBC. Dudley Moore didn’t. Such is death.

Milton Berle was known as “Mr. Television.” This was based on his weekly TV show, which ran from 1948 to 1956.  He was the biggest star on television in the years in which TV first penetrated America. Americans bought TV sets just to watch Milton Berle. This seems inconceivable in
retrospect. The Kinescope clips from his old shows usually feature him dressed as a woman or even a pre-pubescent girl with a huge lollipop. After 1956, he pretty much faded from public view.

The man’s career is a testament to the truth that the comedy of one era rarely survives into the next. Written humor survives (Mark Twain, Will Rogers), but verbal comedy doesn’t. If your audience laughs out loud rather than smiles or chuckles, your career will probably be short. Bob Hope was an exception, but his individual jokes did not survive his show’s closing credits. Would anyone actually sit through a re-run of a Bob Hope Special? He knew it, too, which is why he toured military bases all those years. The troops would laugh at anything. He was beloved. When
he dies, flags will probably be flown at half mast. But no one remembers even one of his tens of thousands of jokes, which still sit in huge index files.

Back to Berle. I can vaguely recall one dramatic role on a weekly TV series which he impressed me — maybe on “The Defenders” — but that was probably forty years ago. I thought, “This guy can act.” But he rarely did. He spent the rest of his career doing cameos or parodies of himself.

The most information I ever read on Berle is the obituary linked from Drudge. I hadn’t known how long he had been in movies an on stage: from age 5. I didn’t know that he had been a big vaudeville performer, headlining with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936. He was so well known at the dawn of TV that he got his 5-second death notice on NBC. Dudley Moore didn’t.

I started listening to Dudley Moore/Peter Cook skits in the mid-1960’s, and I saw them on stage around 1975. “The Frog and Peach” was their big skit back then. Cook died in 1995. His most famous movie role is probably as the lisping bishop in “The Princess Bride.” Moore starred in several major movies, most notably “10” and “Arthur.” He died of a crippling disease, PSP.

These were famous men for a time, but they all died in obscurity. Two of them received obituary links on Drudge. You and I won’t.

This is an advantage, you know. Millions of readers will not think, “Why, I thought he had died years ago.” They also will not think, “I’m sure glad I’m not a has-been.” Because, honestly, that’s what I thought when I read Berle’s obituary. The alternative thought isn’t much better: “What a tragedy. He went out at the peak of his career.”

Buried in Newspaper

The obituary is a recent invention: the product of the newspaper. Millions of readers like to read obituaries of famous people. They check the obituary page daily just to see if anyone worth reading about has died. I’m not sure why. Are we comparing the deceased with ourselves? Are we
thinking, “I’m alive, and he isn’t”? Do we enjoy discovering that former giants have faded in the stretch?  After all, if a person lives long enough, he fades (exceptfor George Burns). As someone has said, “Old age is when men who were attractive to women and men who were not attractive to women become equally unattractive to women” (except for Cary Grant and Sean Connery).

I recall a former colleague of mine at the Foundation for Economic Education, an older man whose job I could never quite figure out. He read the NEW YORK TIMES’s obituary page every day. I found that I developed the same habit when I subscribed to the paper version. Now that I read it on-line, and only occasionally, I no longer read the obituary section. In fact, I rarely read them. But I do think about this artifact of modern civilization.

Really famous deceased people make it to the front page of the newspapers.

Obituaries are positive unless the person was a convicted felon. They are not quite eulogies, but the
familiar rule of etiquette, “never speak badly of the dead,” generally holds. I recall only one truly savage obituary. It began with what I regard as the classic opening line for any obituary. It was for Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, one of the era’s more flamboyant despots, noted for the teenage girls who accompanied him. He died in 1971. The obituary began with these words (I am quoting from a 31-year memory):

Yesterday, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was visited by Haiti’s last remaining democratic

Which brings me to my topic of the day: the equalizing effects of death. Or, as King Solomon put it so long ago: For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion (Ecclesiastes 9:4).

It’s About Time

The numerical disparity between rich and poor is enormous, e.g., Bill Gates vs. just about anyone. But in terms of lifestyle, there is not much difference. Gates can hire more servants that you can. He lives in a larger home. I have seen it from the water that surrounds it: I was boating with a friend. I saw it when it was being built. It looked kind of like the skeleton for a Ramada Inn. I never wanted to live in a Ramada Inn. In any case, how much time does he spend in it? Maybe his wife does,
but he built it before he got married. It’s the kind of home that is for entertaining large crowds. But who wants to entertain large crowds at home? Not I.

Gates can fly anywhere he wants to in his corporate jet. But I can get there almost as fast. Besides, I don’t want to go anywhere.

With his money, Gates can do a lot more good than you or I can, and also a lot more harm.

I live 40 minutes down Highway 540 from four of the five heirs of Sam Walton. The combined wealth of all five: $100 billion. They don’t like publicity. They rarely get written up in the local newspaper. They stay out of sight. They live in nondescript houses, as big houses go.

Cancer got Sam Walton. He could not buy another year, Just as Ralph Stanley sings. I once wrote to him about a potential cancer cure — unconventional. He wrote back, thanking me for my concern. But he stuck with conventional, expensive treatment.

The difference in life spans, you vs. Walton, or a Chinese peasant who reaches his fifth year vs. anyone else who reaches his fifth year, is minimal, compared to wealth differences. The bell-shaped curve of life expectancy is pretty tight. There aren’t many people on the far right-hand side of the curve. When it comes to standard deviation, there isn’t much deviation.

But there is some, or so the obituary notices indicate. I don’t know if we can trust the following. The examples are amazing. The final entry is the most amazing of all (scroll down). Li Chang Yun’s 1933 obituary is said to have been the inspiration for James Hilton’s novel, LOST HORIZON (1934), the story of Shangri-la. The movie’s character was played by Sam Jaffe. Unlike Gunga Din, this Jaffe character was like the Energizer Bunny. Could the following really be true?

My point is, that with a few exceptions, there is remarkable equality of the capital asset we call life expectancy. The most precious resource of all is uniformly distributed across the human race. While the distribution of other capital assets can vary widely, time is handed out pretty evenly. Pareto’s 80-20 rule does not apply to life expectancy. Twenty percent of the population does not live 80% longer than the others.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10).

Time is our only irreplaceable resource. This includes Bill Gates. It included Sam Walton.

In this one area of life — life itself — all of us have close to the same quantity of goods.

This is our great opportunity as individuals. Nobody has a significant advantage.

Yet, in terms of capital, the West is richer than the rest of the world. You and I have tremendous advantages that the typical Asian doesn’t enjoy,

This article is reprinted from Issue 127 (March 28, 2002) of Gary North’s very interesting financial email newsletter,  REALITY CHECK.