A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times. I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him. In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture. An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.
Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper. Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero. Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper. In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.
Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture. And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms. The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.
It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.
My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption. The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base. Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions. You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live. And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before. Ugh, that is why I stopped going. NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor. If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.
That is the recent Israeli TV show — a dramatic comedy of sorts — about the dating lives of Modern Orthodox Jews. It is interesting to see a professionally made serial where the erotic tension of a date cannot be satisfied, or for that matter further inflamed, not even by a kiss or by a brush of one shoulder against another. It was once dubbed “No Sex in the City.” Everyone is in a hurry to do lots of dating and those who are not candidates for marriage are disposed of swiftly. Quite a bit of lying and double-dealing and rapid switching goes on, yet without sex being present in the background. There is frequent discrimination against those who are not the right shade of seriousness about their degree of adherence to Judaism. The men and women who are “just friends” seem to have the best relationships of all, although for some reason they cannot convert that into romantic capital.
You can view it here on Amazon or buy it, or it is on Hulu. Here is Wikipedia. Definitely recommended if you are looking for something different, or something interesting about social conservatism, there are many excellent scenes.
Not long ago, a group of people were sitting around a New York City Laotian restaurant and a challenge was made. The challenge was to create a list of a particular kind, drawing upon the wisdom of the groups. The producer of the dare (not myself, the person wishes to remain anonymous) put it like this:
…these are MUSTS, not “here’s something I like.” You aren’t recommending, you are obligating. That is a much larger responsibility and I urge you to use it with extreme caution. Also, adding to the list constitutes a commitment to take in the list [emphasis added by TC], with the one caveat.
There is currently no food or visual art on the list. We briefly discussed adding some food but I think it was going to get out of hand, plus Amazon can’t drone you tacos from Tyler’s favorite gas-station Mexican restaurant. If the food or visual art is in NYC and readily accessible it could be considered.
Yes, we all obliged ourselves to consume the resulting list. And what did we put on it?
[I am going to remove Upstream Color from the list. I think it’s a better movie than Primer, and I would watch it again twice back to back right now, but it’s less of a cultural touchstone. ]
The Power Broker (book)
Nature’s Metropolis, especially Chapter 3 (book)
“Blink” (episode of Dr. Who from TV)
Before Sunrise trilogy (movies)
A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (music)
The Forever War (book)
A Deepness in the Sky (book)
[Redacted and I agree that the first book, A Fire Upon the Deep, is excellent but not as good as this. All voices say the third book is a pass]
Prisoners of War (TV series, Israeli)
Loveless (music, 1991 album by My Bloody Valentine)
The Lives of Others (movie)
[there was some controversy around this one]
Thought of You (animated short)
Persona (movie, Ingmar Bergman)
The Godfather (movie)
Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132 (music)
What would you add to such a list? Of course from this list I do not endorse every pick, but I can report that I do not have “too much extra work to do.”
So says Neal Stephenson:
In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.
I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.
As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting.
…That [dystopian] environment also works well with movie stars, who make a fine impression in those surroundings and the inevitable plot complications that arise from them. Again, the AVATAR counter-example is instructive. The world was so fascinating and vivid that it tended to draw attention away from the stars.
In my MRUniversity video on the economics of bundling I argue that bundling raises total surplus and that requiring the Cable TV companies to price by the channel is unlikely to reduce most people’s cable bill (see also Does Cable TV Ripoff People Who Don’t Like Sports?). Pragmatarianism offers an excellent critique. Here is one bit from a longer post worth reading in full:
The flaw in Tabarrok’s logic is that it completely ignores the necessity of determining what the actual demand is for the individual components in the bundle. For example, when I subscribed to cable…Charter had no idea how much I valued the Discovery Channel. Neither did the Discovery Channel. But is my valuation relevant? According to Tabarrok…it really isn’t. Uh, what?
How could the Discovery Channel and Charter and Tabarrok not care what the actual demand is for the Discovery Channel? In the absence of consumer valuation…how could society’s limited resources be put to their most valuable uses?
Tabarrok is basically arguing that we don’t need accurate information in order to efficiently allocate resources. Except, does he really believe that? Let me consult my magic database…
The most valuable public goods are constantly changing, just as the most valuable private goods are constantly changing. The signal provided by prices and mobility is therefore of great importance. – Alexander Tabarrok, in The Voluntary City
Huh. Hmmm. Is the Discovery Channel a private good? Yes. Is its value constantly changing? Yes. So…according to Tabarrok…it’s of great importance that the Discovery Channel should have its own price. But this sure wasn’t what he said in his video.
An excellent point that was made most forcefully by Ronald Coase in The Marginal Cost Controversy. Coase argued that pricing goods with high fixed cost at marginal cost would generate static efficiency but at the price of dynamic efficiency because we would not be able to say with assurance that the total value of the product exceeded total cost. Similarly we lose some information with bundling, perhaps especially so because marginal cost in this case is zero. With bundling, we know that the total value of the bundle exceeds the total cost but we are less certain that the total value of each bundle component (channel) exceeds the total cost of each component.
But this cannot be the whole story because in another paper, The Nature of the Firm, Coase pointed out that sometimes we choose not to use prices. Firms, for example, are islands of central planning in a market ocean (see Yglesias for a good discussion).
A channel such as HBO is itself a bundle of dramas, comedies and documentaries. Should Girls and Game of Thrones always be priced and sold separately and not through the HBO bundle? HBO certainly learns something from individually priced downloads on iTunes and that information helps HBO to improve its service. But how much is this information worth?
In 2002 should HBO have individually priced episodes of the Sopranos and sold them through AOL? Individual pricing generates value but it also has costs. Tradeoffs are everywhere. And, to the crux of the issue, if a law had been passed in 2002 requiring HBO to sell The Sopranos on an episode by episode basis would that have resulted in better and more programming at lower prices? I think not. Similarly, I see few reasons to think that welfare would be improved by a law requiring cable TV companies to price by channel.
More generally, the price system is embedded in the larger field of the market economy which includes non-price institutions such as firms; and the market economy is embedded in the larger field of civil society which includes non-profits and non-market institutions such as the family. Economists often focus on the virtues of the price system but that should not blind us to the many virtues and many margins on which a free society operates.
The 3D-printed resin mask, made from a 3D scan of Selvaggio’s face and manufactured by ThatsMyFace.com, renders his features and skin tone with surprising realism, though the eyes peeping out from the eye holes do lend a certain creepiness to the look.
…It turns out some states have anti-mask laws. And Selvaggio [the creator of these masks] — whose earlier project You Are Me let others use his social-media profiles — says he’s considered the possibility that anyone wearing his face in public could engage in illegal activity…That being said, I have come to the conclusion that it is worth the risk if it creates public discourse around surveillance practices and how it affects us all.”
The article is here, with excellent photos of the masks.
For the pointer I thank Vic Sarjoo.
There is a new paper by Benjamin Hermalin, with the intriguing title “At the Helm, Kirk or Spock? Why Even Wholly Rational Actors May Favor and Respond to Charismatic Leaders.” The abstract runs like this:
When a leader makes a purely emotional appeal, rational followers realize she is hiding bad news. Despite such pessimism and even though not directly influenced by emotional appeals, rational followers’ efforts are nonetheless greater when an emotional appeal is made by a more rather than less charismatic leader. Further, they tend to prefer more charismatic leaders. Although organizations can do better with more charismatic leaders, charisma is a two-edged sword: more charismatic leaders will tend to substitute charm for real action, to the organization’s detriment. This helps explain the literature’s “mixed report card” on charisma.
Here is what actually drives the argument:
As shown below, a savvy leader makes an emotional appeal when “just the facts” provide followers too little incentive and, conversely, makes a rational appeal when the facts “speak for themselves.” Followers (at least rational ones) will, of course, understand this is how she behaves. In particular, the rational ones—called “sober responders”—will form pessimistic beliefs about the productivity state upon hearing an emotional appeal. But how pessimistic depends on how charismatic the leader is. Because a more charismatic leader is more inclined to make an emotional appeal ceteris paribus, sober responders are less pessimistic about the state when a more charismatic leader makes an emotional appeal than when a less charismatic leader does [emphasis added]. So, even though not directly influenced by emotional appeals, sober (rational) responders work harder in equilibrium in response to an emotional appeal from a more charismatic leader than in response to such an appeal from a less charismatic leader.
Would this same reasoning also imply we should choose intrinsically panicky leaders, because then, if we see them panic, we would think the real underlying situation isn’t so bad after all and we are simply witnessing their innate propensity to panic? Yet no one would buy that version of the argument.
I will instead suggest that we (sometimes) follow charismatic leaders because they have high social intelligence, and most of all because other people are inclined to follow them. Some of those followers of course do not have rational expectations but rather they are touched by the charisma directly. Given that, why not follow the focal leader, even if you yourself are not touched by the charisma?
A related question is to ask how many recent world leaders are in fact charismatic. Obama and Clinton yes, but how about David Cameron? How about most Prime Ministers of Japan, Abe being a possible exception? Arguably Merkel has become charismatic through a sort of extreme, cultivated anti-charisma, but I would not cite her in favor of the theory. Any Canadian since Trudeau? Helmut Kohl?
Putin? Well, he’s not charismatic to me but now we’re getting somewhere. And what does Putin have that say Prime Ministers of Japan do not? Could it be a citizenry that gets excited relatively easily by the brutish? Come to think of it, the USA has a wee bit of excitability of its own, though more about national pride and foreign policy than anything like Putin. Hint: does your theory predict that Argentina will have charismatic leaders relative to Denmark? Yes or no?
In which business sectors are the CEOs most likely to be charismatic?
For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.
Addendum: Hermalin responds here.
The editor is Joshua Hall and the subtitle is The Simpsons and Economics. The Amazon summary starts with this:
In Homer Economicus a cast of lively contributors takes a field trip to Springfield, where the Simpsons reveal that economics is everywhere. By exploring the hometown of television’s first family, this book provides readers with the economic tools and insights to guide them at work, at home, and at the ballot box.
Excellent interview with George R. R. Martin at Rolling Stone:
How did you come up with the Wall?
The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.
and some political economy:
A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.
The citation is here:
Matthew Gentzkow has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the economic forces driving the creation of media products, the changing nature and role of media in the digital environment, and the effect of media on education and civic engagement.
Matt is at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and there is much more at that link. Here is Matt at scholar.google.com. Matt’s well-known paper on ideological segregation, with Jesse Shapiro, is here (pdf). Our class on the economics of the media at MRUniversity.com considers Matt’s work, for instance see this video on ideological segregation.
An excellent choice, of course, and hearty congratulations are in order.
The bottom line seems to be this:
By using cutting-edge motion-capture technology, we have been able to precisely break down and analyse specific motion patterns in male dancing that seem to influence women’s perceptions of dance quality. We find that the variability and amplitude of movements in the central body regions (head, neck and trunk) and speed of the right knee movements are especially important in signalling dance quality. A ‘good’ dancer thus displays larger and more variable movements in relation to bending and twisting movements of their head/neck and torso, and faster bending and twisting movements of their right knee. As 80 per cent of individuals are right-footed, greater movements of the right knee in comparison with the left are perhaps to be expected. In comparative research, there is extensive literature on the signalling capacities of movement…Researchers have suggested that females prefer vigorous and skilled males; such cues are derived from male motor performance that provides a signal of his physical condition.
For failing to broadcast sufficient levels of Canadian-made pornography — and failing to close-caption said pornography properly — a trio of Toronto-based erotica channels has earned a reprimand from the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission.
Wednesday, the CRTC issued a broadcast notice saying AOV Adult Movie Channel, XXX Action Clips and the gay-oriented Maleflixxx were all failing to reach the required 35% threshold for Canadian content.
Based on a 24-hour broadcast schedule, that translates to about 8.5 hours of Canadian erotica a day.
There is more here, and for the pointer I thank TH.
The Satellite TV Providers industry is in the midst of a revolution, supplying popular family shows, news, movies, sports, documentaries and other products to a growing swarm of eager subscribers willing to pay for in-home entertainment. For example, the introduction of high-definition (HD) TV vastly improved the quality of shows and attracted subscribers even as disposable income dropped during the Great Recession. “In addition to a dramatically improved reputation for quality, new networks, channel offerings and bonus features are strengthening the industry’s appeal to consumers,” says IBISWorld industry analyst Doug Kelly. Higher spending on industry services is anticipated to result in 5.6% annualized revenue growth to $41.4 billion in the five years to 2012. This climb includes an expected 3.8% increase in 2012 as more consumers continue subscribing to satellite TV…
Over the next five years, the industry will face escalating competition from other media.
Have I mentioned Hulu TV and YouTube and Netflix, especially the non-broadband requiring discs? How about reading the internet? How about using your iPad to watch downloaded movies and TV shows? New social media for sharing? “Let them download somewhere else”? There is a reason why “cable” and “cord cutting” appear so frequently in the same sentence.
There is no big deal with Comcast acquiring Time Warner, also because the two companies serve separate districts. If anything the new consolidated entity will have stronger monopsony power over programs and can bid their prices down. (Isn’t ESPN with its sports contracts a monopoly of sorts, just as the sports leagues are?) We all know that monopolists facing lower marginal costs tend to lower price (contrary to Tim Wu), even if not by as much as we might like. Krugman worries that “This would, in turn, make it even harder for potential competitors to enter markets served by ComcastTimeWarner, strengthening its monopoly position.” A better sentence would have been “No five year period has so increased the contestability of the cable sector than the last five years in the United States.”
One might also add that if ComcastTimeWarner can bid down prices on programs, this need not keep out other competitors. Those programs are non-rivalrous in consumption, and the sellers can extend whatever price discounts they might wish to new competitors, to increase the demand for their products. The final equilibria here are complex, but in general the ability of a strong firm, in this setting, to bid down input prices is not a bad thing.
Addendum: If you wish to worry about something, it is how to get more competition within a single market, as you might for instance do through municipal wi-fi, the successor to 4G, and so on. Worrying about the horizontal spread of trading in one monopoly for another is beside the point. What I am seeing in various comments on Twitter is people with objections to cable monopolies, some of them valid objections, then objecting to possible changes in the market out of basic mood.