From Role Model to Tragic Debacle

From Role Model to Tragic Debacle

We’re not just losing a role model for women in this election, we’re preparing to hand the keys to the White House from one of our country’s greatest male role models to one of its worst.  Since before he was president, part of Obama’s legacy was not just that he was a progressive and thoughtful leader, but that he was an admirable husband, father, and man.  His achievements were a lesson for a generation of young men who valued progressive ideals and honest moral values alike.  He respected women, raising two incredible daughters with an incredible wife, while governing.  He appealed to unity and respect continually.

I don’t have to explain that Trump has none of this appeal.  His wife was first his mistress, he’s allegedly a serial-sexual-assaulter, and he seems to care very little about the effects his actions have as a role-model, dedicating his thought more to himself and how he’s perceived.  And even if you haven’t met him, he’s probably insulted you, if you’re a woman, religious or racial minority, POW, or disabled.

His history with women shows that he thinks of them more as objects and trophies than people.  If they’re attractive, they’re desirable as objects, and if they’re not, well, then they’re not really desirable as anything for Trump.  

Trump is undeniably a demagogue, but he is different from other demagogues in his utter lack of sincerity.  As an example, most demagogues who promise to jail their political opponents once elected don’t praise them as public servants during a victory speech.  Trump’s supporters clapped politely as Trump announced his thanks for Clinton’s service to her country.  The first evidence that his brash, swamp-clearing rhetoric was all circus bullshit seemed to fly right past the ears of everyone who loved chanting “lock her up” just days ago.

We have a lot of things to fear from a Trump presidency, but I don’t think a fascist dictatorship is one of them.  As Clinton viciously pointed out during their final debate, when he met President Peña Nieto after months of anti-immigrant rhetoric, he “choked,” unable to reiterate his boast that “Mexico will pay for the wall,” when he finally came face to face with the Mexican President.

Yes, Trump isn’t nearly as bold as he’d like us to believe.  He’s great at talking about people, men and women, behind their backs, in disgusting ways that he feels the need to recant when faced by them in person.  He’s not Mussolini, he’s that asshole you knew in high school who always talked about getting “pussy” but seemed really insecure when a girl walked by.  He’s the man that’s driven by every primal insecurity you can fathom.

Trump’s whole life — building skyscrapers with other people’s labor, boasting about his success, bragging about sexual conquests — seems like a caricature of male insecurity looking for validation in a high school locker room.  He could have learned something from Obama.  Something about humility, service, and integrity.  But instead of learning from Obama, he grew bitter and jealous, determined to chisel his name in a stone above Obama’s.  Now, he’s our next president.

As a white male, I feel sorry for people who don’t have my level of privilege on such an unfortunate day.  It’s the job of men everywhere to prove that Trump is not our standard-bearer.  Obama won’t be around to stand as a role model for the next generation of young men, and Trump sure as hell won’t guide anyone the right way, so it’s up to men everywhere to remember that as often as they can, and maybe offset just a little bit of the horrible that Trump’s about to bring.

Could vote trading harm Democracy?

Could vote trading harm Democracy?

A lot of voters are taking advantage of the Electoral College to trade their votes with someone in a tighter state who wants to send a message by voting for a third party candidate.  So, ostensibly, I could get someone in New Hampshire to vote for Clinton if I promise to vote for Jill Stein in exchange.  That sounds nice in theory, but it relies on the premise that votes are basically symbolic trash unless you live in a swing state.  Symbolic in that their only use is in sending a message, not getting someone elected; trash in that the swing state voters will really decide the election, not my blue home state of Illinois.

I’m not a lawyer or Constitutional scholar, but my gut tells me this is a dangerous slippery-slope.  First of all, votes aren’t a commodity and their value can’t be measured.  As an individual I can say with extreme statistical confidence that no election result will be changed based on my personal vote.  Elections aren’t won by one vote — and states don’t become red or blue because of one vote either.  So you could make an argument that my vote is “worthless,” even though the value of votes in aggregate is self-evident.  This nebulous property of votes makes them especially unfit for being traded like a commodity. 

So why do people vote if they know their singular vote won’t tip the scale? Probably in large part because members of a democracy are taught that it’s a “civic duty” to vote; to take part in an activity where the results transcend any individual action. Children are taught that in elementary school, and it’s a pretty reasonable basis for encouraging participation in democracy when the power of an individual voter is hard to see alone.  When people trade votes, especially using algorithms that can assign a relative value to their vote, they’re treating a vote as a commodity and acting not out of civic duty — which allows the aggregate value of voting to function regardless of the individual insignificance of any one vote — but out of a new model for voting rationale that splits votes into “symbolic” or “strategic” categories, and behaving in a way that would be untenable if more than a small fraction of voters adhered to this model.

Although vote trading was challenged in 2000 by attorneys as a form of electoral corruption, the only standing legal decision on the matter, Porter v. Bowen in the US Court of Appeals, found the act protected by the First Amendment. However, if you traded your vote for anything besides another vote, that would be corrupt by definition, so it’s worth thinking about how many people are doing something frighteningly close to buying and selling votes, using websites and apps that may or may not have a profit motive.

Above all, my argument against vote-trading is rooted in the unique combination of math and psychology inherent in casting votes.  There’s a reason Illinois is so blue — because most Illinois residents share more values with the Democratic coalition than the Republican coalition, so they tend to vote for the Democratic nominee in presidential elections.  My vote won’t change that one way or another, whether I choose not to vote at all, or if I vote symbolically for a third party (a “protest vote”).  But if everyone in Illinois in aggregate had the same mindset and thought of their vote that way, then Illinois wouldn’t be blue anymore.  In other words, by “trading” my vote, I’m counting on most voters in Illinois to carry my candidate for me, while I consider my personal decision without regard for how it contributes to that pool of blue voters.  In essence, I have to view my vote as separate from the bulk of the votes cast in the state, able to be deployed as a tool, safe in the assumption that other voters will do the job of voting for my candidate for me.  Any time someone sees their vote as a discrete tool and not part of an aggregate process, that seems like veering away from democratic principles that make elections work.  Vote trading is harmful to democracy because it violates a simple principle: “Don’t feel entitled to do something unless everyone could safely do it.”  So I believe in applying the same principle that motivates me to vote when I decide how to vote.

I vote even though it won’t make a difference, because even though my action has no direct consequence, it’s part of a larger phenomenon, and if everyone acted on the impulse to not vote, then democracy wouldn’t work in any recognizable way.

I vote for Hillary even though it won’t make a difference, because even though my action has no consequence, it’s part of a larger phenomenon and if everyone acted on the impulse to trade their votes, then democracy wouldn’t work in any recognizable way.

Both of those statements would be true from an individual’s perspective whether they live in a swing state or not.  Even in a swing state, one person’s vote is worthless by itself.

I mentioned a “slippery slope” earlier.  Here’s a list of ways the vote trading slippery slope could go off the rails:

  • Someone is asked to prove who they voted for.  For obvious reasons, to prevent corruption, no one can be required to prove to anyone else that they voted a certain way.  Voting marketplaces rely on an “honor system” or “pact,” to avoid that pitfall.  But do we really want any kind of “honor system” to have enough power to determine the outcome of a presidential election?  That sounds like a dangerous proposition.
  • Someone claims they felt manipulated or threatened if they didn’t vote a certain way.
  • People start trading down-ballot votes by party line.
  • Money or anything else is introduced to the voting market in any way.
  • A major figure like Trump claims the markets constitute rigging an election and challenge the election results
  • A foreign government or domestic entity hacks a private company and manipulates vote trading
  • The trend becomes so popular and unregulated that the public loses faith in the accuracy of election result margins, especially for third parties.  E.g., if Illinois shows that 5% of the electorate supported Jill Stein, one could be skeptical that the number really reflects the view of voters in Illinois and not the result of a vote trading scheme.  And that lack of faith in the accuracy of the numbers would undermine the goal of third-party proponents who want to use vote-trading to promote their candidates without tipping the election plurality to an even more despised candidate.
  • There’s a consensus that vote-trading actually flipped a US presidential election. This would be the ultimate victory for the movement, but also bring the practice under fierce scrutiny and potentially erode faith in US democracy among ordinary voters.

You can’t think of your vote in isolation, or as a commodity, because by itself it’s not going to decide anything.  But that hasn’t stopped millions of people from voting at every election — because we all understand the basic premise that even if it doesn’t count by itself, it’s “a civic duty” to vote.  Symbolic voting, protest voting, or vote-trading all undermine the “civic duty” rationale for voting, and if they became popular enough, they could threaten the foundational assumptions of democracy in an icky way.  As the Republican party deals with its new schism between Ryan-conservatives and Trump-nationalists, there will probably be more elections coming that thwart the two-party system.  And as apps make these kinds of trades easier, things like vote trading will probably become more popular, not less.  Just remember you heard it here first — don’t let your vote go rogue by trading it away to a stranger on the honor system — unless you’re comfortable with everyone in the country doing the same thing, and what that would hypothetically mean for the integrity of our election system.

What’s the media’s deal with Paul Ryan? And Where’s McConnell?

What’s the media’s deal with Paul Ryan? And Where’s McConnell?

The media of late has developed a habit of measuring Donald Trump’s establishment support heavily based on his relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan.  But considering the importance of Senate control in the aftermath of this election, particularly with regard to confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland and the SCOTUS vacancy, shouldn’t Mitch McConnell’s stance be equally, if not more important?  McConnell has managed to dodge questions on Trump, saying at a recent press conference that he won’t be discussing his party’s nominee “because I choose not to.”

In the aftermath of Trump’s bombshell tape recording capturing his braggadocios take on sexual assault, Paul Ryan has had to make a big show of distancing himself from Trump, saying he “won’t defend” the nominee, while not explicitly withdrawing an endorsement.  The news of Ryan’s pseudo-defection has made headlines everywhere, and seemed like a symbolic leadership move as troves of Republicans have withdrawn their support, often in more explicit terms.  But Reince Priebus, head of the RNC, has reaffirmed support for Trump, and it would seem like RNC support should be the ultimate measure of establishment support.  So why is Paul Ryan’s picture and name pasted all over cable news and political blogs?  Did he create this problem for himself, speaking to the press more often and offering himself as a symbolic representative of the establishment Republican view?  Or has the media created this facade for their own convenience.

Personally, I can’t tell, and feel free to clue me in.  I don’t understand why Mitch McConnell isn’t being pressed just as hard with questions on support for Trump as Ryan is, and my hunch is that this was a rather arbitrary call on behalf of the media, giving McConnell a free ride while his chamber sits on a Supreme Court hostage seat that they’re ostensibly saving for a potential Trump appointment.  Either McConnell has been playing jiu jitsu with the press to avoid drawing attention to himself while he refuses to allow a vote on Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS nomination, or the press has built its own feedback loop focused on Paul Ryan’s House Speakership at the expense of attention to the Senate leader.  Either way, it should be the responsibility of the media to hone in on McConnell and ask how his actions as Senate leader — especially with regard to Garland’s confirmation hearing — are connected to his party’s presidential nominee.  Otherwise they’re drawing big headlines about establishment support for Trump without focusing on the one man who should really be thinking hard about how a Trump presidency would affect his chamber.

Chris Matthews teaches Matt Lauer how to interview a liar by demonstrating on Rudy Giuliani

Chris Matthews teaches Matt Lauer how to interview a liar by demonstrating on Rudy Giuliani


On Wednesday, Matt Lauer caught a lot of flak for failing to fact check Donald Trump during the “Commander in Chief” forum, particularly when Trump claimed that he’d opposed the Iraq war.

Later that day, during a panel discussion, fellow NBC  host Chris Matthews criticized his performance, and the notion that journalists shouldn’t call out liars:

Well you have to call the guy a liar when you do that. That’s the problem. That’s the difficult thing for Matt Lauer to do because it sounds like an opinion. And you’re not supposed to have an opinion in this business.

Amazingly, on his very next Hardball show on Thursday, Chris Matthews got a chance to show Lauer how it’s done when he faced-off with a fact-averse Rudy Giuliani, a surrogate for the Trump campaign.  Just to get an idea of the extent to which Chris Matthews surpassed Lauer’s fact-checking, I included almost the entire transcript of the exchange, although the whole thing would be too long to type.  Maybe if journalists started treating liars with this kind of response instead of letting them get away with whatever they want to claim, Trump wouldn’t have made it this far in the first place.

Chris Matthews is in Bold, speaking to Giuliani.

When will Donald Trump will acknowledge or confirm that President Obama was born in the U.S. and is a legitimate president?

I confirm that and Donald Trump confirms that.

When did he do that?

You know, Hillary…

When did he do that?  When did he do that?

He did that two years ago!  Two years ago, three years ago!

When did he… he has now accepted that birtherism is nonsense?  When did he do that?

Look, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has… Chris, Hillary Clinton’s campaign…

He did not do that yet. I am waiting for him to do it.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the first one to bring up the fact that there was a question…

Where did they do that?  Where did they do that?

Four, five years ago…

Give me an example, you just said that Hillary… has Hillary Clinton’s campaign ever accused the President of being foreign born?

Her campaign did during the primary.

The Hillary Clinton campaign did this?


No it didn’t. There’s no evidence the Hillary campaign ever did that… I want to know whether your campaign believes that it would be succeeding a legitimate president or not.

Donald Trump believes now that he was born in the United States.

So when is he going to say it?

That issue was raised…

When is he going to say it?

That issue was raised by the Hillary campaign.

When is he going to say that this president is legitimate?  This is a fundamental question Mr. Mayor.  Is the President of the United States legitimate or not?  If you believe it, why doesn’t your candidate believe it?

He believes it, I believe it, we all believe it.

Are you speaking for him now?

And the first one…

Are you speaking for Donald Trump tonight, on live television?

He is the one who got him to finally produce the birth certificate. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the first to raise this issue.  He picked this up from Hillary Clinton.

He has subsequently said he does not accept that as the final word.

Just go back and look, he has said it already.  And the fact is…

No he hasn’t.

…that is an issue that was originally raised by…

You’re wrong on the fact here, Mr. Mayor.

Well, every once in a while I am, but I think he did…

I think you’re wrong.

.Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the first to say that…

She’s never said that.  And I’ll give you the final word, can you say authoritatively on behalf of Donald Trump that he was wrong in saying that the President was born in another country?

I believe he picked up on what Hillary’s campaign said, he pushed Obama on it, Obama finally produced the birth certificate…


… saying he was born in Hawaii.


Therefore he’s an American citizen.

As per Donald Trump? 

As per Donald Trump, as per me as per everyone…

He has told you that?  Has he ever told you this privately?

He has told me that he’s proud of the fact that he finally got Obama to produce his birth certificate… Hillary Clinton was the first to bring this up.

Let me just put it on the record…  we checked it before you came on because one of our producers thought you might say this, there is absolutely no record of Hillary Clinton or anyone in her campaign ever saying that.

Her campaign raised it…



You’re wrong.

I’m not wrong, I’m right about that.

Neither her nor anyone speaking for her has ever said that… and we’re ending this now, because we’re spending a lot of time on it, but I think it is important.  You say this president is legitimately elected, and you say your candidate agrees with you?

Hillary Clinton has lied… and instead of talking about that we’re talking about this, and it’s ridiculous.

It is ridiculous, and I’m trying to put the ridiculousness to bed.


Phew, and that, Lauer, is how it’s done.









What I got from Clinton and Kaine’s ‘Stronger Together’ manifesto released today.

What I got from Clinton and Kaine’s ‘Stronger Together’ manifesto released today.


After the New Hampshire primary on PBS News Hour, Mark Shields pointed out that Sanders had much more of a narrative to his campaign than Clinton. He could more easily answer the question, “why I want to be president?” Given Clinton’s wonkish tendencies, it’s only fitting that her answer to that question has come in the form of a “book,” ostensibly authored by Clinton and Tim Kaine, essentially providing a manifesto for their plans as President and Vice-President.
Since Clinton was Secretary of State, it doesn’t come as much surprise that almost half the book is devoted to foreign policy, but for now I decided to look at what the authors wrote about domestic policy plans, and what a lay-reader like myself can glean from this book.
Sanders wins on Trade and all progressives win on minimum wage.
Hillary had the odd distinction of running against the most liberal Senator in Washington during the primary. It’s been widely observed, especially after the primary was over, that Clinton is actually highly progressive, even relative to her Democratic peers, by objective metrics, including her voting history in the Senate. But any progressive, even one more progressive than Obama, will have to sell themselves to the left standing next to Bernie Sanders, who has the unique advantage of having been a radical progressive, even self-identifying “socialist,” for his entire life.
In Stronger Together, the authors claim they’ll stop TPP “in its tracks,” along with other rhetoric standing strong on trade. “We need to review the trade agreements we already have on the books, like NAFTA, and find ways to make them work for American workers, including by renegotiating them to better protect American jobs.” Would Clinton really support renegotiating her husband’s trade deal achievement? It seems hard to imagine that it would present itself as a priority to her, but her political history, and even personal philosophy, suggest she would be willing to go in this direction if it became a strong bipartisan desire, as this election has at least made it appear. To clarify the point on her personal philosophy, consider her stance on minimum wage: she’s pledged to raise the national minimum wage to $12 per hour indexed to inflation, a major progressive shift, but during a debate with Sanders she said that if a $15 per hour minimum wage reached her desk, she would sign it. The only question is whether she says that because she really is willing to push as far progressive as her congressional counterparts, or because she considers the possibility of getting that legislation to the President’s desk totally impossible. The difference between those mindsets could dictate how she would react to strong public desire for reexamining trade in a comprehensive way. I’m inclined to believe that she would push for as progressive an outcome as possible. She’s also proposed eliminating the “Tipping wage,” where tipped workers can be paid lower wages prior to tipping. These ambitious policy goals would face brutal opposition from the National Restaurant Association (also known as “The other NRA”) which fights any increase in minimum wage tooth and nail, and would likely redouble their efforts against removing tipping-wage exceptions.
Clinton likely values entrepreneurship genuinely
The book focuses in multiple sections on ways to improve the opportunity for entrepreneurship, both as a general economic principle and an example of a mode of opportunity not equally shared among women and some minorities, and a proposed vehicle for enhancing their upward mobility. Since small business issues seldom came up during the primary, it seems likely that Clinton will mention her focus on small business and entrepreneurship during her debate with Trump, probably in contrast to his own massive branding empire that extends from clothing to reality TV to beauty pageants to casinos to hotels. As a method for helping young people, the entrepreneurship aspect is tied into the issue of student debt, a wise policy plan for satisfying pro-business Republicans and progressive Democrats, making it a likely legislative goal if she were to be elected President.
Clinton’s education plan is progressive, but focuses on incentivization and localization to survive conservative opposition, like much of her strategy.
Clinton reiterated her promise to make sweeping changes to the way college tuition crush students, promising that 80% of families will be able to send their kids to a four-year public University “without paying a dime.” As part of the plan, she plans to use federal funds allocation to coerce states into investing more money in University programs instead of cutting funding. This fits with a larger Clinton philosophy valuing economic leverage and local focuses as a method for pushing a progressive agenda. She uses the same logic to argue for investing in communities in need, using Flint, Michigan as an example.
Clinton wants to strongly continue Obama’s legacy on the environment.
The authors say they want to produce enough renewable energy to power every American home within a decade. That would obviously be a massive progressive achievement for environmentalists, and a natural follow-up goal to Obama’s executive actions and regulations pushing for cleaner vehicle emissions. The question of how a recalcitrant Congress would find themselves okay with approving government incentives that would have a devastating impact on big oil and gas remains a valid question. But if oil lobbyists prevent progress in a Clinton administration, it would probably be by influencing members of Congress, not the president.
As promised in the primary, Clinton promises incremental improvements to healthcare.
Ever since her failed attempt at healthcare reform as First Lady, Clinton seems to have adopted her philosophy of learning from failure and has consistently focused on incrementally strengthening the social safety net, rather than radically changing things. She even emphasized this approach in her Senatorial debate with Rick Lazio in 2000. This approach is probably the most realistic given the likelihood of Congressional gridlock. Clinton draws her most unique progressive plans in this realm. She proposes cracking down on rising prescription drug prices in various ways. Her opposition to TPP and its handouts to the pharmaceutical industry stands as one example. She also proposes changing something appalling about pharmaceutical advertising — whereas most countries, and once the US, banned direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals, the US actually subsidizes these advertisements. Just watching the commercials on cable news can demonstrate how much of their revenue depends on ads for pharmaceutical products. Subsidizing advertising is a complicated economic issue, but given the health ramifications and out-of-control healthcare costs in the US, removing these subsidies is clearly a good move for consumers and the middle class she aims to represent. Clinton’s goal is to incentivize drug companies to invest in Research and Development more heavily and less heavily on “marketing and profits.” Clinton says she’ll reinvest these tax revenues in government medical research. She also aims for policies that will enhance mental health and addiction services to a level where they receive the same requirements and level of importance as “physical” ailments.
None of these proposals is on par with Sanders’s desire to build single-payer healthcare, but they are true to her incremental strategy and address real issues.
Clinton’s other unique progressive advocacy is aimed at women.
Anyone who follows the news knows that the criminal justice system and the social support system are failing on the issue of sexual assault. As it’s been said, you know someone who’s been a victim of sexual assault, even if you don’t know it. The stigma around sexual assault and the failure of the justice system to adequately deal with perpetrators of sexual violence or provide support for victims makes the issue one of the darkest and saddest the US. If Hillary can focus a true and strong eye on addressing these problems, it could improve justice for some of the country’s most traumatized victims. Based on Stronger Together, that seems to be a true goal for her, crossing issue lines from education, to justice, to healthcare.
Clinton also has goals for fixing income inequality for women, as challenging an issue as that as proven over the years. Many of her plans involve opening new opportunities for women by providing a safety net for families that need to balance childcare with work, or to encourage equal treatment through policy and economic levers.
Is Stronger Together an important and valid policy document or a political tool? That’s impossible to say, but the goals outlined in the book are consistent with Clinton’s rhetoric and stances on the issues, so it could be a good prism through which to view the narrative Clinton plans to drive during her presidency.
A follow-up post focusing on the foreign policy aspects of the book will come later.

$2: the cost of your mind for a day

$2: the cost of your mind for a day

I hate ads, but we’re treating them well, letting them buy our time too cheaply.

Full disclosure: everything below is an oversimplification.

In 2014, the ad industry spent $1.65 per capita per diem on advertising in the U.S.  Adjusting for babies and the isolated, the cost of all your free content — Television, online articles, car radio, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Dropbox, Hosted email, live online chat, video chat, etc. etc., could be paid for by $2 per active consumer per day (on average).  That would mean no advertisements, just like Hulu Plus. But our minds are already pretty well polluted with ad-world nonsense.

When I was a kid my family had a tradition where we watched Home Improvement most evenings before dinner. I observed to my mother one night, “It seems silly that so many commercials are for cars.  I mean, I understand something as basic as whether to eat at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but shouldn’t people make a car purchase based on real information?  What about the consumer reports and the objective metrics?  Do people really buy a car because it looks cool on TV?”

I had a lot to learn, clearly.  For one thing, I had little knowledge of economic theory.  By neoclassical theory, yes, we all ought to own pretty similar cars competing for price, with the exception of cars with special features that qualified them as luxury items.  But in the real world, each car has its own selling point, and indeed these are what are emphasized both informationally and emotionally in their commercials.  When Subaru presents a newly-wed family with their professorial father riding in the back passenger side, a lilting song grabs our emotions as we identify with the riders experiencing post- or pre-marital bliss, and the pride of a father who raised a daughter with such a gift for choosing good cars and music.  The commercial grabs our emotions as we relate to this family, but it also informs us of the smartphone-connectivity in the car that is really being demonstrated.  The emotional factor is reflected in the slogan: “Love; it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

If car commercials were really worthless, there:

  1. wouldn’t be so many car commercials, and
  2. we would all drive cars that look mostly alike — the most efficient, cheap cars that would take us where we want to go.

Take that logic to an art gallery and see where it takes you.  Of course, if you purchase art, it’s a decision based purely on your personal aesthetic tastes relative to the monetary price.  You would hope that no one else has the same piece, so if you purchase an original, you expect to pay out the nose, and if you pay for a limited-edition print, you expect to pay for the privilege of keeping your friends away from duplicate apartment decorations.  

People don’t have enough art to define themselves, so they’ve bought into the branding industry’s notion that functional objects can be personalized or designed with aesthetic intention to the point that their aesthetic value may far outweigh their functional value.  Such is the nature of expensive sports cars, pricey good-looking attire, fashionable smartphones, and almost every other consumption item that lasts long enough to become a point of pride for the purchaser — even functional goods with a long shelf-life, like coffee or tea, which is often subject to quite a bit of irrational brand loyalty.

Those who have read my first blog post know my curiosity about the economics of advertising, and behavioral economics in general.  Having released my own priced Android application for electronic musicians, and using a temporary ad campaign from Google AdWords, my perspective on advertising and behavior was even more sharpened.

For one thing, it’s clear that to effectively niche-advertise, you have to be able to deliver the goods.  What I mean is that many viewers of my ad probably had iOS devices or other non-compatible hardware, which explains why they subscribed to my YouTube page but haven’t purchased my application.

The other realization is just how much it takes to push a user from willing to download for free to willing to pay anything for a digital product, even the price of a McDonald’s hamburger, or less.  When iTunes transitioned music purchasing from physical to digital, they had the advantage of drawing attention to the cheaper price of a digital download compared to a physical purchase.  This means casual consumers are better served buying a cheaper digital product, and the avid aesthetic trend-setters will have to work harder to differentiate through cultural statements like buying vinyl records.

Regardless, the application market had little to build off analogously, so unlike music downloads, few app consumers have an expectation of paying for an app — and that’s particularly because in order to compete for attention, most app developers release their products for free, hoping to make a few dollars in aggregate ad revenue.  The frustrating part for a dedicated mobile developer trying to sell an app is seeing just how much more easily anyone will download even the stupidest free application than pay the cost of a lollipop for a real, interesting application.  For instance, the application “service bell,” which just rings a bell like you’d find at a small hotel in the 1950’s, and does nothing else, has thousands of downloads, while a 99 cent synthesizer app on the market with detailed functionality and commercial applications would be a lucky top-performer to hit 5,000 Android downloads at all, everything else being equal.

Also unlike music, apps vary widely in quality but lack a class of critics to tell consumers what new releases are worth their money and which aren’t.  That’s not really the fault of critics; after all, apps can span such a wide range of topics, and vary so much in their content and usefulness that critics would have a hard time making the kind of authority-based judgements that music critics are used to having to make.

Okay, so I probably will have to take a while to sell my app to a significant number of users, if I can do it all, but is that really so unfair to other people in general?  I guess not.  Advertising has operated in enough of a free market that we can expect it to have normalized in a relatively economical way.  I would love to imagine a world without advertising in theory, but only because that would be such a vastly different and confusing world that it’s thoroughly entertaining to imagine.  To keep the economy working the way it does, we’ll just have to root for consumers to make good decisions, find the secret value in things they might not normally buy, and assess the real value of staple goods they would have to choose from no matter what, without falling back on the internalized ad messages bouncing around in everyone’s skulls.  But those ads will always be there, rattling in our craniums, lining public school walls, dotting the sides of highways, lining the handles of grocery store carts, preceding trailers at a movie theater, warming our butts on a city bench, painted as commissioned graffiti in the city, inserted into a newspaper, recorded for the radio, played during a local TV spot, targeting us on facebook, reaching our mailbox with coupons, slapping us in the face with Google Ads, even posted in front of a bar urinal.  In Europe, many public restrooms charge per use, but in the U.S., urination is free, as long as we buy a cup of coffee and read about Hardee’s while we take a piss.  Advertising may be too big to fail institutionally, but that doesn’t make me feel better about the fingers in my mind when I relieve myself in the city.

Grasping in the dark: What do we know about postmodern TV and Western discontent?  (TLDR: Not enough)

Grasping in the dark: What do we know about postmodern TV and Western discontent? (TLDR: Not enough)

Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.  It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor viewers are responsible for quality.

  • David Foster Wallace


Consuming irony is like consuming a bony fish; it’s healthy, but it asks for basic effort from the consumer to keep stupid things out of their mouth.

  • Anne Moniker


It’s long been a view associated with old, desperately traditional conservatives that television would lead to the moral collapse of western society. As a young person, the notion never seemed to warrant a response.  I would say that today I still agree with what David Foster Wallace wrote in his epic dissection of television culture and its cyclical relationship with literary fiction, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, in which he dismisses “moral paranoia” or “malignancy” while acknowledging that the vast fraction of time an average human spends watching television, combined with its near-total demand for cognitive attention, certainly has the potential to affect the ways we see reality, language, and story.  As Wallace argues in his main thesis, the possibility that many people hear more words from a television set than from organic dialogue in real life forms a risk of conflating where the ultimate cultural source of an assumption lies, and is particularly dangerous to fiction writers.

Television has changed a lot since 1993, when Wallace wrote his piece.  The message difference lies in the postmodern obsessions with anti-heroes in drama and cutting satire in comedy.  Anti-heroes dominate practically all the most critically acclaimed dramas of the last decade: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Americans, House of Cards, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, etc.  Among popular dramas, Lost may be a rare standout in terms of its cultivation of characters with a level of morality we’d be comfortable with in real life.  

During the nineties, most Emmy-winning dramas were either about doctors or unambiguously heroic law enforcement.  ER, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, The Practice, and L.A. Law is almost the complete list for the decade.  These law enforcement shows are different from The Wire in terms of the moral questionability of the major characters.

The change on the comedy side is even more stark. In the eighties and nineties, sitcom writers were still abiding by the template set forth at the start of the Cold War: a sitcom is family-oriented, very “American,” and in retrospect, almost disgustingly moralizing.  On the very early end of television comedy, this is all pretty obvious and well-known: Leave it to Beaver and other fifties sitcoms set such a strict model of traditional family living that they seem like parodic mockeries of Cold War propaganda by today’s standard.  And even in the nineties, Seinfeld stands alone as a program that had no real moral agenda, and that lack of an agenda was so blatant that it basically became the program’s agenda.  Full House followed the Cold War template — someone makes a mistake, they get yelled at, and in the end, Bob Saget gives them a hug and the studio audience coos in sympathy.  In Home Improvement, there might have been a little more subversiveness, but in the end, Tim Taylor learned a lesson based on some kind of esoteric ritual from a faraway land explained by Wilson Wilson.  The moralizing was only tempered by Tim’s inability to ever understand or properly explain the lesson to his wife later, usually landing on a comedic malapropism to end the third act.  Or put another way, it kept a safe distance from what could be seen as nasty intellectualism. Yes, Home Improvement is probably the most formulaic sitcom ever to exist, so not every program can be explained in such abstract terms.  However, The Cosby Show, also popular in previous decades, was also extremely family-centric and moralizing. (A lot of these shows also rely on a formulaic construction where an intelligent, stern wife controls the husband with leverage built out of sex, a model that might have been “progressive” in the 1950’s, but also helps illustrate the contrast with similar contemporary shows like Modern Family. Especially in the case of Home improvement, there’s also an enhanced preoccupation with expectations of uber-masculinity by the men, which is usually rationalized away by making those men really dumb. Just think of Tim Taylor and his character foil Al Borland) We could add Roseanne, or pretty much as many family sitcoms as we want.  It’s worth noting for fairness that Will & Grace and Sex and the City also had moral agendas of a kind, being on the cutting edge of LGBT awareness and female liberation, respectively, relative to other TV programs of the time.  But the moralizing involved in that situation is the opposite of the Cold War model; it challenges traditional views, rather than reinforcing them.

All of this changed on the comedy side with the nudge from Seinfeld that sitcom doesn’t have to be propaganda, or even have a moral of the story.  Seinfeld and Larry David really just wanted to get laughs.  

Around the same time, writers for The Simpsons and South Park were finding networks more and more receptive to subversive satire, probably because of its huge popularity and profitability.  Family Guy, of course, carries on the tradition of subversive humor, along with plenty of other cartoon comedies.  However, Bob’s Burgers seems to stand out as a uniquely contemporary cartoon comedy that doesn’t seek out subversive jokes at all, instead combining what seems like an old fashioned degree of self-restraint with a mainstream-palatable disregard for many conservative norms on gender, family, and other social constructs that keeps it a relevant program without building comedy out of subversiveness for its own sake.

Still, even as a subversive show, the level of complexity and wit in The Simpsons earned it plenty of mainstream respect, even while the conservative fear of subversive programming hit a fever pitch.  George H.W. Bush said “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”  Maybe Bush didn’t understand parody, or simply the human condition, but regardless, his statement perfectly embodies the Cold War moralism that was expected of television comedy in such an unapologetically preachy way.

The next step for live-action television comedy came from Arrested Development, which moralized only in a postmodern way by portraying a family so laden with greed, laziness, and over-the-top dishonesty that the flawed characters become the main targets of the jokes.  Much of the style Arrested Development brought to live action comedy was already around in cartoons like The Simpsons, but not with as high a level of narrative sophistication. The effect of Arrested Development’s serial, self-referencing comedy that drew such high accolades from industry insiders (despite its struggle to build a fanbase) was to fuel the next generation of network comedies.  Based on my knowledge and taste, I usually associate that with the old Thursday night NBC lineup, with The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community. I think it’s fair to say that they all have strong elements of “social commentary,” but as with Will & Grace and other “progressively moral” programs, that social commentary was pushing for change, not enforcement of tradition.  You could almost view the changes in television over the last twenty years as a sort of shift from cultural conservatism to cultural liberalism, maybe reflecting the target audiences that evolved out of the DVD and eventually digital distribution models that favor young adults as opposed to families with children watching prime time live TV.

Finally, there’s what is probably the most toxic addition to mainstream television consumption, especially at the education level Trump targets: the reality TV built around extremely shallow, vaguely amusing people who would be horrible “role models” in any sense of the phrase. There’s neither a moral to these stories nor a source of insightful cultural commentary; only a new problem for other cultural commentators to deal with later. The presentation of such programs as “real” likely adds to the mental impact on routine viewers, and the subject of their ideological framing spans the gamut of life experience, from seeking a mate, to being hunted by a clownish bounty hunter, to trading your Rolex for a gun at a pawn shop.  When media theorists discuss the impact of excessive television consumption, these programs are probably at the forefront of their unease. Let’s not forget that without  this TV genre Trump himself would probably lack the name recognition to run for President. He is, in a very literal way,  the warning sign of a pending cultural decay borne from reality television.

All of this is bringing me to the question of whether any of this matters, and if it does, can it help us explain why so much of western culture does seem to have a complete disregard for moral critical thinking? Are the Donald Trump fans all secretly waiting for Don Draper to make his life Great Again when they watch Mad Men? I can’t think of a better way to describe the trends led by Donald Trump and Brexit than as a symptom of some nascent moral rupture in the cultural fabric of the capitalist world.  Obviously that’s a presumptuous and unscientific claim on its face, but there are ways of drawing connections from television to the kind of social frustration that pervades recent political shifts with empiricism, if not causality.  For instance, a study found that people who are “dissatisfied” with their personal lives usually spend 30 percent more time watching television than those who are “satisfied.”  And life dissatisfaction has at least been seriously suggested to have a relationship with the seismic radical shift in political views embodied by The Age of Trump.

Unfortunately, most research on television from a psychological perspective has focused either on its impact on early childhood brain development as a result of the medium itself, the “surrogate” theory that television can ease loneliness by providing an artifice of human presence, and debates about the impact of violence in television and film on childhood development and young adulthood, or the impact of sexuality in television and film on body image.  These are all important issues, obviously, but the answers remain pretty political in terms of how relevant the possible effects are, and those particular areas of study don’t focus on the impact of television narrative on moral worldviews.

There is, of course, a wide consensus on the ability of television to provide a powerful medium for propaganda, but studying that propaganda effect usually involves investigating news media, advertising, and explicitly political messaging, whereas the shift I wonder about here is in the unintentional impacts on personal outlook derived from content programming based on the moral framework of the program’s narrative.

Unfortunately for you, if you read all this, I definitely haven’t found a good answer to the question.  According to a study by TiVo, apart from cable news choices, there isn’t significant variation in viewing habits of Trump or Clinton supporters. That doesn’t mean that Trump supporters aren’t embracing morally reprehensible worldviews based on TV exposure more so than Clinton supporters, but that embrace would have to have its own cause rooted in personality or belief.

According to this study and probably others, it’s been shown that exposure to minority groups, like Muslim or Arab individuals, on television can cause a statistically significant reduction in bigoted attitudes, but that’s only a possible prescription for the future, not a conclusion about modern TV viewing.

The Family Research Council regularly attempts to keep shows that embrace cultural diversity away from primetime, including but not limited to Will & Grace, which suggests that even their own data scientists are aware of the risk that people may lose their bigoted attitudes based on what they see on television.

Regardless, I wouldn’t want to draw the conclusion that we need moralizing television shows to regulate the national temperature on ethnic tolerance, even though, as discussed earlier, it was standard practice from the end of World War II to the 1990’s.  I think we can only hope that people with disoriented moral compasses can be pressured to adopt altered attitudes with a significant saturation of pro-acceptance ideology in the citizenry, but that goal probably belongs on a long-run list.

Discussions about moral identification with peers is even more complicated in the social media world, since, unlike in 1993 when DFW analyzed TV viewing wordcount versus real-life listening, conversation about social issues has become more and more relegated to facebook posts, where pushy ideological trendsetters can decide how much they want to promote their agenda in print, and people who disagree can just as easily decide how much they won’t pay attention.

In any case, it’s not too late for media and psychology researchers to increase their investigations on the impact of ideological messaging in fictional TV content, and I’m comfortable for now to let them handle that job while I continue to enjoy the TV Golden Age aftershocks guilt-free.


If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read DFW’s essay here: