Let’s just simulate economic mobility on TV

…contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs emphasizing “rags to riches” narratives.  Using detailed Nielsen ratings data and original content analyses, I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the American media landscape over the last two decades.  In three national surveys…I find that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream; for heavy viewers this effect is as powerful as that of having immigrant parents.  In experiments conducted both online and in a lab-in-the-field setting establish that these media effects are causal, and stronger among Republicans.

That is from a new paper by Eunice Kim, via Matt Grossman.


Horatio Alger made his money in the Gilded Age - just imagine the fabulous wealth he could have accumulated if he had lived today.

Who knows, maybe one day Emergent Ventures will be able to rival this - 'The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans is a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, that was founded in 1947 to honor the achievements of outstanding Americans who have succeeded in spite of adversity and to emphasize the importance of higher education. The association is named for Horatio Alger, a 19th-century author of hundreds of dime novels in the "rags-to-riches" genre, extolling the importance of perseverance and hard work.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Alger_Association_of_Distinguished_Americans

Interesting. I'm somewhat skeptical of their experiment to demonstrate causation, though. Different TV content has a significant impact on a survey taken immediately after respondents watch the content (when they know that they are part of an experiment and the survey questions are related to the TV program they just watched). However, I'm not sure you can draw a line between that result and the long term influence of TV on viewers' beliefs.

Not that I doubt that TV has some influence on one's beliefs. But how much of the correlation might be causation is unclear, and an interesting question.

"Robin Leach, come on down!!"

Well, that was the 80s, when greed was good.

These days, we (for some value of we) find our heroes in psychopathic venture capitalists.

I doubt most people could even define venture capitalist. I still think most people think along the lines of the Beverly Hillbillies of the 70s.

And yet, many people have heard of the law suit sponsoring Peter Thiel, even if they don't know what a venture capitalist is.

Probably not that many really

Others hate-read the same blog for years because they have empty personal lives.

Actually, nostalgia - a certain style of PR at GMU seems timeless. But instead of just talking about it with a certain guardedness among other people aware of what we were doing, now I get to engage in a more public form of self-censorship, though not for a paycheck, having learned what names and associations are not allowed in the comments. As another commenter noted years ago - 'The money wheel and patronage program is more incestuous than I thought.'

Whatever gets you through the day, buck-o.

It is thought-provoking to watch "The Honeymooners" starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney and ponder whether such a program would ever be on TV today.

By the way, The Honeymooners was just so funny.

Cock Piss Partridge

@B Cole:

I suppose American sitcoms follow one of two models: The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy. In other words, they are either about the working class or about the comfortably affluent. I would say most sitcoms follow the I Love Lucy model. But All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Married with Children, and Rosanne, to name a few, are closer to The Honeymooners.

I think Cheers is an interesting case because all of its characters, whether unemployed (Norm) or professionally successful (Frasier), are all failures. It's the only US show that I know of that emphasized the personal defeats of its characters and made them their defining features. Sam, the washed-up ballplayer who lost it all because of his drinking. Diane, the unsuccessful graduate student with facial ticks. Rebecca, who wants to climb the social and corporate ladder but falls every time. Carla, the single mother who can't keep a marriage together. Cliff, a moma's boy and blowhard. Norm, perpetually unemployed. Frasier, dumped unceremoniously by the women he loves. And so, nursing their wounds, all of them sit in a bar, night after night, at various levels of inebriation. Cheers tells a story that offers no hint of an American dream. It's really quite a radical show because it's so at odds with the normally optimistic currents in American culture.

I'm struggling to find the winning characters in All in The Family, Married with Children, or Roseanne. And then there's the John Larroquette Show, whose show motto might well be "This is a dark ride."

Or Gilligan's Island or Green Acres. Comedies about losers who end each episode with success again out of reach, perpetually stuck in the sitcom's premise are pretty common, or were.

Lucy and Ricky were not "comfortably affluent" . Thry lived in a small rental apartment, exvept at the end when they moved to the suburbs. However it is true that money was almost never mentioned on the show.

I always thought the show "DuckTales" was a great analogy of interwar-period American culture

The late night show "Cucktales" ended up being eerily similar to my own life, wife, and troubles.

Propaganda works!

It's not only new social media that affects attitudes and behavior, but old media (including television) too. I've been thinking about the culture that existed at Georgetown Prep in the early 1980s when Brett Kavenaugh was a student there, and how that culture came to be. I don't read Rod Dreher, but he likely has written about this (or should have). The sexual liberation attributed to the 1960s may have revealed itself later, in the culture of Georgetown Prep in the 1980s. Whether Kavanaugh committed the acts his accusers have alleged isn't my point, but rather the culture that would so objectify and marginalize girls. Boys will be boys, including the boys of my generation (I came of age in the 1960s), but nothing compared to the behavior of the boys at Georgetown Prep. I suspect that the behavior was not limited to Georgetown Prep; indeed, the "hookup culture" that exists today is a slightly improved extension of it. How did this happen? The influence of media, including print, films, and television. Where else would boys learn such despicable behavior. Of course, the influence of media can be positive, as when media depicts people (women, immigrants, etc.) or social and economic mobility in a positive light. And even when that depiction is contrary to the facts today, it can alter the facts tomorrow.

I am reminded of the reason Cowen chose GMU over (for example) Yale for his undergraduate education. According to Cowen, it was because GMU didn't have dorms (he has stated that in interviews): Cowen didn't want the distractions of the anti-social behavior that would occur in a dorm. Cowen is a little older than Kavanaugh, but Cowen knew the culture that was the 1980s because he was part of it. I can't help but wonder if what Cowen was avoiding by attending GMU is the culture that existed at Georgetown Prep and Yale in the 1980s. An aside, compared to the anti-social culture in the 1980s, the PC culture today is tame. Indeed, one might conclude that the PC culture is in part a response to the anti-social culture of the 1980s.

I meant Cowen came of age in the 1980s and therefore was likely aware of the culture that existed at Georgetown Prep and Yale, not that he was part of that culture.

Rayward, your remarks here are completely on-target.

Though incomplete, when looking at the mentoring available at the time, particularly at Rutgers.

And one should further note that Prof. Cowen's 1987 PhD is from Harvard.

Rayward, do you believe that the words "objectify and marginalize" accurately convey what you wish to convey, or are they a kind of placeholder that we're supposed to fill in with the words that we guess to be those that most accurately signify whatever it is that you have in mind?

Remember movies like this?

And this?

yeah, that was the early 1980s.

I see thoseas two separate threads. The bad behavior has always been there, but in the 1980s people started thinking it was funny.

People are weird. Why did mainstream suburbanites love this?


It was a different time, thats for sure.

Remember when Roman Polanski could rape 13 year old girls and people just thought it was how he dealt with trauma?

In my suburban neighborhood that was a big shock, as was that he fled the country while awaiting sentencing. In fact it would be many years before I heard any defense of his behavior.

Another thought, was Raymond Chandler's Hollywood any more moral than theHollywood of today? Where the rich or frat boys in Rayman Chandler's world any more moral than those of today?

I see a lot of odd recollections about the sexual revolution. I thought it was primarily about the pill and antibiotics freeing everyone from responsibility, and then everybody who wanted sex getting it on. It was about women as freer sexual beings.

If you say that freedom led to bad behavior later, drunken frat boys etc., surely that is their own misunderstanding, or their own early incell frustration that they were getting any.

Hook up culture is a more direct descendant. People mutually wanting sex and getting it on.

Keep in mind that rayward isn't "recollecting" anything. He has no knowledge of the culture of Georgetown Prep or of Yale and never has. What he's doing is fantasizing.

Fantasizing that Prof. Cowen apparently considers on-target when applied to Prof. Cowen.

Though also not knowing anything about Georgetown Prep per se, I'm sure that many of those students in the late 70s/early 80s in the DC region had their favorite alcohol store. For many high schoolers in the Northern Virginia of that era, that would have been Dixie Liquors, on M Street right after crossing the Key Bridge - 'Dixie Liquors is like Georgetown’s Statue of Liberty for all those crossing the Key Bridge from Virginia: the first sight of Georgetown that comes into view, the flagship landmark that lets you know you’re about to cross into new territory.' http://www.dcbeer.com/venue/dixie-liquors Of course, the Marylanders of that era never needed to worry about the Commonwealth's ABC agents ruining their plans.

there is no economic mobility in real life USA.
there only is student debt, medical debt and credit card debt.

What about for those who eschew debt?

What about mortgage debt?

What about the national debt?

When I first read this blog post, I assumed "rags to riches" TV shows was referring mainly to drama/comedy shows, like Diff'rent Strokes. But a look at the paper shows it's actually talking about talent shows like The Voice, America's Got Talent, Master Chef, So You Think You Can Dance, etc. Those programs aren't really "rags to riches" as I conceive of the phrase, more like "not famous to temporarily a bit famous," and are thus less about economic mobility than the desire to become famous.

Perhaps because it is a given that fame is easily monetized these days?

And what do people want money for? Surely among the motivations is that money facilitates changing life circumstances. Winning at one of those shows does that, no?

Tom Jones, Great Expectations, etc. -- there's nothing new or uniquely American about rags to riches.

At one time Americans felt that regular church attendance would greatly increase their chances of spending eternity in Heaven rather than Hades. Fire and brimstone sermons were an example of influential media.

It's likely now that few feel that they're destined to bake in hell no matter what their religious activity or deeds may be. Becoming wealthy is something more possible than heaven or hell to current Yankees.

The impact of American TV consumption is under-studied (both the quantity and type). A couple thoughts come to mind:

1) It seems like after we discovered media violence doesn't directly cause real-world violence, we stopped seriously discussing links between (non-social-) media environment and behavior. The idea that you're shaped in some ways by the stories and characters you see even, say, on a reality TV show simply doesn't even show up as a possibility in most people's I know's minds.

2) As has been frequently remarked, the distinction between high and low culture has dissolved. In many instances this has led to better and more interesting media. However, the underlying assumption behind the distinction was that what we consume both reflects and affects who we are. There was an aspiration to fill your world with difficult, rewarding things instead of easy throwaway garbage. I think that aspiration is in danger and is worth fighting for.

It's hard not to view both of these cynically: the viewpoints that survive and proliferate are the ones that best fit the median American's economic role as an eager and non-discerning consumer of the type of media product that is easily made at scale.

I disagree. Many people (primarily women) write tiresome essays about having to overcome the "messages" they received from popular culture about how to behave. It's also common nowadays to read scare articles about how exposure to pornography is distorting young men's attitudes toward women.

The rich and the poor have always lived somewhat debauched lives, and a middle class morality held the line.

For a long time mass media was the media of middle-class morality. Up above, Hazel mentions some "raunchy" 80s movies, but remember the staple television shows of the 70s. The Partridge Family. The Nanny and the Professor. Even a remarkably chaste I Dream of Jeannie.

But then a cynicism set in.

Maybe the change was in part technological. Cable television allowed middle-class families to privately change their standards. And then mainstream television had to win those viewers back.

Actually, Trump on Howard Stern perfectly exemplified rich debauchery. And the middle class accepting it, voting for it, was a perfect example of the decline of middle class morality.

Hell (perhaps literally) Evangelical ministers to the middle class are still out there endorsing it.

Threes Company
Dukes of Hazard
Fantasy Island

I'm not really saying that it represents a decline in middle class morality or anything. Just that sexual mores were very different in the late 70s-early 80s. The AIDS epidemic put an end to the giant sex party that was the 1970s and early 80s.

Remember that the shock of Three's Company was that they actual roommates, with desires surely, but middle class morality was maintained.

Those might be transitional shows. M.A.S.H was definitely more G rated than the book.

Well, there was plenty of shenanigans involving Larry the Lounge Lizard upstairs or various people attempting to invite girlfriends/boyfriends over and getting interrupted due to the presence of roommates. Much of the film's comedy is premised on the notion that hanky panky *could* be going on - but it keeps getting interrupted because that's what happens when you have roommates and nosy landlords.

"The rich and the poor have always lived somewhat debauched lives, and a middle class morality held the line."

No, the middle class has preferred to think that the other classes lead debauched lives, while they held the line on morality. Shows and novels that depict this debauchery are just pandering to the middle class.

I don't think there is a good time series for middle-class debauchery, but how about religiosity as the inverse?


Ever hear of Horatio Alger? Tom Edison? Last 2 decades? Ever read biographies of Vanderbilt or Carnegie? Mellon? Aladdin and the magic Lamp?

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