Category: Television

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.

Television and the frequency of sex

Substitutes are indeed everywhere:

This paper examines the association between television ownership and coital frequency using data from nearly 4 million individuals in national household surveys in 80 countries from 5 continents. The results suggest that while television may not kill your sex life, it is associated with some sex life morbidity. Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity. Household wealth and reproductive health knowledge do not appear to be driving this association.

That is from a new NBER paper by Adrienne Lucas and Nicholas Wilson.

*Won’t You Be My Neighbor?*

That is the title of the new documentary on the life and career of Mister Rogers.  Are there better movies on?:

1. The roots of American greatness.

2. The importance of “will” in building a succcessful career.

3. Toleration and individualism and respect for children.

This has to go down as one of the better documentaries, and it seems Mister Rogers was a better and more important thinker than many of the intellectuals of his time.  I had not known that Rogers had been trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

On top of all that, the film is Straussian throughout.  Definitely recommended.  By the way, the documentary doesn’t mention this, but the show actually had its origins in Toronto on CBC.

Euthanasia and bargaining power within the family

Let’s say more of the world moves to a Netherlands-style euthanasia law.  While euthanasia is at first based on individual consent, it usually evolves into a “in unclear cases your spouse or guardian has the actual say.”

How will this affect bargaining power within the family?  Here are a few options:

1. Family members will be much nicer to each other, ex ante, so they will be kept around for longer if they come down sick.

1b. Because of time consistency problems, family members won’t be much nicer with each other.

1c. You fear that family members aren’t willing enough to pull the plug on you, so you become actively less nice.

2. Family members will be much more anxious with each other, because they will so often be wondering how the others will wish to dispose of them, and when.

3. Some family members will make explicit ex ante deals, such as: “You can send me to my doom when the time comes, with a clear conscience, but on Tuesday nights we’re going to watch my game shows, not your reality TV.”

4. “It stresses me out that you are stressed out over my dying, so I will apply for euthanasia right here and now, even though I still have nine months to live with my cancer.  Except I will tell you that I just don’t want to live any longer, so you don’t feel bad about why I am doing this.”

5. You have no family and given your illness you are a net revenue drain on your nursing home.  If you go back to live out your final days, you’ll end up with the worst room and less spicy food and no private TV.  You agree to euthanasia, granted that they send $20,000 to your favorite charity.  You leave this earth with a warm glow, feeling that 20k probably saved at least one life.  In reality, with p = 0.68 it subsidized someone’s overhead.

What else?

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

Lessons from “The Profit”

I’ve learned a lot about industrial organization watching The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis. In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. Lemonis doesn’t invest in a random sample of businesses nor even in a random sample of failing businesses. Nevertheless, the lessons that The Profit teaches are consistent with the new literature on management which has increased my confidence both in the show and the literature.

Image result for the profitIn the perfectly competitive model, price is equal to average cost and firms operate efficiently at minimum cost. Yet, Syverson finds that in the typical US industry a firm at the 90th percentile of the productivity distribution makes almost twice as much output with the same inputs as a firm at the 10th percentile. It’s not easy to measure inputs or outputs, of course, but even firms producing very uniform products show big productivity differences.

How can firms that use inputs so inefficiently survive? In part, competition is imperfect which gives inefficient firms a cushion because they can charge a price higher than cost even as costs are higher than necessary. Another reason is that small firms eat their costs.

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage–a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.

The correct metaphor for competition isn’t a boxing match that knocks out the inefficient firm. The correct metaphor is a slow tide. Inefficient firms must scramble for a bit of high ground but as the tide ebbs and flows they can occasionally catch a breath when their head bobs above the profit line. An inefficient firm can survive for years before it inevitably sinks.

The second lesson from The Profit is that management matters and it matters in systematic and fairly easy to replicate ways. If mis-measurement explained productivity differences, Lemonis would not be able to successfully turn firms around. But he can and does. How?

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases.

Can it be so simple? To be sure, Lemonis is a smart guy but very little of what he does takes genius. We know this because we now have robust evidence from India and Mexico that better management increases profits and productivity and that such increases can be sustained over the long run. In the studies from India and Mexico, randomly selected firms were given access to a “management intervention” and their productivity and profits improved and stayed higher for years after the intervention ended.

Moreover, what were these management interventions? Did some bright Harvard grad recommend a complicated swap-options deal? A new chemical process? A new management form? No. By and large, the interventions were simple. Just like the Lemonis interventions.

Here, for example, are some pictures of the storage systems used in the Indian textile firms which were part of the management study (from Nick Bloom’s slides). This is exactly the kind of thing one sees on the Profit and the recommendations to create an inventory control system are exactly the same. Management 101.

This is the sense in which the lessons of The Profit are consistent with the new literature on management and increase confidence in both.

Another lesson from The Profit is that firm problems are personal problems. The son who can’t step out from the shadow of the father and the father who can’t let go. The two brothers who haven’t gotten over the death of their father and the problems this creates in the firm they have inherited. The siblings who are still fighting to get their parent’s attention. If Lemonis has a genius skill it’s in keeping his temper and working through bullshit problems to get to the real festering issues that are at the root of inefficiencies.

Now, in this case, there is surely some selection going on. Personal drama makes for good television but the general point strikes me as true and correct and important. It’s difficult to run a business like a business. The analytical mindset that can separate business problems from personal problems isn’t natural. Many people cannot separate business decisions from their own preferences and emotional biases, which is one reason why great business leaders are rare.

I’ve learned a lot about IO from watching The Profit but could business people learn about running a firm by seeing more reality-TV? Robin Hanson argues:

If one can learn….from just watching the inside story of real firms over several years, that suggests a big win: record the full lives of many rising managers over several years, and show a mildly compressed and annotated selection of such recordings to aspiring managers.

I agree with Robin, Reality-TV MBAs could offer a lot of value. The Profit is a good place to start.

Solve for the China jaywalking equilibrium

Jaywalkers in China are to be named, shamed and slapped with an instant SMS fine.

And it’s all thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

In the southeastern city of Shenzhen, police have set up AI-powered boards by crossings.

If you jaywalk, a CCTV camera will scan your face and flash it up on the huge screens for all to see, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there are now plans to ping offenders’ phones with quick-fire fines as soon as they violate the grim rule.

The AI company behind the billboards, Intellifusion, is in talks with mobile phone networks and local social media platforms to enforce the new system.

To be clear, I consider this report speculative.  But not impossible.

My Conversation with Martina Navratilova

Here is the podcast and transcript, Martina was in top form and dare I say quick on her feet?  Here is part of the summary:

In their conversation, she and Tyler cover her illustrious tennis career, her experience defecting from Czechoslovakia and later becoming a dual citizen, the wage gap in tennis competition and commentary, gender stereotypes in sports, her work regimen and training schedule, technological progress in tennis, her need for speed, journaling and constant self-improvement, some of her most shocking realizations about American life, the best way to see East Africa, her struggle to get her children to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and more.

Here is one bit:

NAVRATILOVA: I just wanted to leave no stone unturned, really. The coach, obviously, was technique and tactics. The physical part was training, working very hard. I’ll give you my typical day in a minute. The eating was so that I could train hard and not get injured. So it all came together.

The typical day, then, when I really was humming was four hours of tennis, 10:00 to 2:00, two hours of drills and maybe two hours of sets. Then I would do some running drills on the court for 15, 20 minutes, sprints that if I did them now, I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.

[laughter]

NAVRATILOVA: You know, 15- to 30-second sprinting drills. Then we would eat lunch. Then I would go either play basketball full-court, two on two for an hour and a half or little man-big man. It’s two on one. I don’t know, those people that play basketball. You just run. You just run.

COWEN: Which one were you?

NAVRATILOVA: It switches. Whoever has the ball is the little man. No, whoever has the ball, it’s one against two. Then you play little man, the person plays defense, and then the big man plays center. It’s not two on one, it’s one against one and then one. Then whoever gets the ball goes the other way. It’s run, run, run.

Then I would lift weights and have dinner either before lifting weights or after. So it was a full day of training.

COWEN: What about 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.?

And this:

COWEN:Billie Jean King once suggested that you use writing in a journal every day to help you accomplish your goals. How does that work for you? What is it you do? Why do you think it works?

NAVRATILOVA: It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have. It becomes more real and more current because it narrows it down in that, “What do you need to do today?” and “Did you accomplish that goal?” You have a big goal. You break it into smaller goals, into smaller goals, until you get into, “OK, what do I do today to get to that goal?”

…Try to be honest with yourself. Be honest but also be nice to yourself. You see that with most champions. They’re perfectionists. You beat yourself up too much. I preach and I try to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

If you strive for excellence, perfection may happen. [laughs] It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.

I asked her this:

COWEN: What was it like to go skiing with Donald Trump?

My favorite part was this:

NAVRATILOVA: Tyler, you need to drink more water. You’re not hydrating at all.

Remember, above all else, sports is cognitive!  These are some of the smartest humans of our time, even if it is not always the kind of intelligence you respect most.

The Push

The Push on Netflix is a deeply disturbing replication of the Milgram Experiment. The question it asks is whether someone can quickly be convinced to commit a murder? Spoiler alert: yes. British mentalist Derren Brown and a cast of confederates create an evil version of the Truman Show. By taking an individual from one seemingly minor moral deviation–labeling meat canapes as vegetarian–to another, to another, Brown puts people in a situation where by the end of one hour they are so emotionally disoriented and stressed that they will try to commit a murder to relieve their tension.

If you had asked me yesterday whether I thought it would be ok to run the Milgram experiment again, I would have said yes, as science. Today, I am not sure. What Brown does to these people for our entertainment (?) is disgusting. I feel complicit in having watched. Yes, I know, I am writing about it. I’m not sure what to make of that either.

As far as I can tell, the experiment is real. I’d be happier if it were fake but the results are consistent with previous Milgram replications. But if it is real did we then watch attempted murder? I am reminded of Leo Katz’s, Bad Acts and Guilty Minds. If a man fires a gun aiming to kill but the gun is defective is it attempted murder? Surely, yes. If thinking it a deadly poison a man adulterates a drink with sugar is it attempted murder? What if a sincere believer in voodoo tries to kill by sticking pins in a doll?

Aside from the legal issues, what Brown does to the participants is awful. How will they live the rest of their lives? Jordan Peterson says that you cannot be a good person until you know how much evil you contain within you. Well the people Brown experiments on know the evil that they contain but will they become better people? Or will they break? Brown doesn’t seem to care.

In some sense, the subjects have consented. Months earlier they applied to be on a show but they were told that they had been rejected. Perhaps you think the participants figured it out. You will have to judge for yourself but it all happens so quickly that I don’t think that is plausible. Moreover, if you figured it out wouldn’t you want to be the hero rather than the prison guard directing the Jews to the ovens?

Does The Push have any socially redeeming value? I hope so. Phillip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment was so upset by his research that he started the Heroic Imagination Project, (I wrote about it here). The Heroic Imagination Project attempts to turn the issue around by asking what helps people to resist authority? And how can we train people under stress to draw on their heroic reserves? Netflix has shown us that the Heroic Imagination Project is sorely needed. Maybe next time Netflix can devote some of their considerable resources to helping us resist the push.

Should we censor porn?

In 1971 Irving Kristol said yes, today Ross Douthat says yes.  I am sympathetic with the notion that porn in the “I know it when I see it sense” is a net negative bad for society, even if it helps some people revitalize their sex lives (Alex differs).  That said, I cannot find an attractive way of censoring it.

Ross tweeted:

I think you start with the rules we have, and think about how they might be applied to ISPs.

Yet playing whack-a-mole with ISPs does not always go well, a truth to which a number of emotionally well-balanced MR commentators can attest.  And porn users and suppliers I think would be especially willing to find workarounds, including VPNs.  So I don’t think porn would end up all that ghettoized.  My fear is that the American internet would evolve rather rapidly toward Chinese-style institutions of control (though they would not used right now), without stopping porn very much, but leading to increasing calls to censor many other things too.

Keep in mind also that porn has been a major driver of innovation, not just for the VCR but for the internet too, including for means of payment, methods of streaming, and anti-piracy.  Might porn drive the demand to build networks of virtual reality?  So I’m not ready to ban it just yet.

My favorite things Poland

No, I am not there now, but Adam D. emails me and requests this, so here goes:

1. Novel: Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, all about identity and erotic guilt.  Next in line would be any number of Isaac Singer novels, I don’t have a favorite offhand.  Soon I will try The Family Moskat.  Gombrowicz is probably wonderful, but I don’t find that it works for me in translation.  Quo Vadis left me cold.

2. Chopin works: The Preludes, there are many fine versions, and then the Ballades.  The Etudes excite me the most, the Mazurkas and piano sonatas #2 and #3 are most likely to surprise me at current margins of listening.  I find it remarkable how I never tire of Chopin, in spite of his relatively slight output.

3. Painter: This one isn’t as easy as it ought to be.

4. Architect: Daniel Libeskind was born in Poland.  But more generally one can cite Krakow, and I suspect the older versions of Gdansk.

The wooden churches and folk art of southern Poland also deserve mention.

5. Political thinker: Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, about the capitulations of artists to communism, though subtler than just an anti-state polemic.  He once stated: ” I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself.”  I do not feel I can judge his poetry, though last year’s biography of him was a good book.

6. Astronomer and originator of the quantity theory of money: Copernicus.

7. Television show: The Decalogue, perhaps #4 is my favorite.  Here is good NPR coverage.

8. Movie: Any of the Andrzej Wajda classics would do, maybe start with Kanal or Ashes and Diamonds.  More recently I would opt for Ida.  I like Kieślowski’s TV more than his films, and prefer Hollywood Polanski to Polish Polanski.

9. Classical pianist: There are many, but I will cite Kristian Zimerman over Artur Rubinstein.  The former plays the piano better.  Josef Hofmann deserves mention, but there are dozens of picks here.

10. Jazz musician: Trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.

11. Economists: There is Kalecki, Hurwicz, the now-underrated Oskar Lange (doesn’t Singaporean health care work fine?), and Victor Zarnowitz. I had thought Mises was born in Poland, but upon checking it turned out to be Ukraine.

Overall the big puzzle is why there isn’t more prominence in painting, given Poland’s centrality in European history.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.

And:

COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.

And:

I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.

And:

COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

It seems like there won’t be another Mickey Mouse copyright extension act

…advocates of a new copyright term extension bill wouldn’t be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago. Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

“After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would fight back,” wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. “I suspect that Big Content knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push for another term extension,” Nazer added. “This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds.”

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But Rose doesn’t think that would work.

Here is the full piece, via someone in my Twitter feed sorry I forget.