Wednesday, November 25, 2009

S-S-Something from the Comments: Smallville Edition

Recently, I wrote a short blurb about a tremendously stupid speech on "advanced" economics given by the character Lionel Luthor on TV's "Smallville".

Last night a buddy of mine, Monte, commented on my post and I feel like his response is worth sharing, and responding to. What Monte said was this:
"Sean, I really don't think that anyone ever watched Smallville for Lex [sic] Luthor's speech on economics. Getting pissed about that is really kind of silly. People watch it to be entertained, not to learn about economic theory, which I agree, can be a problem. But I don't think that "think tanks" are any better for intelligent decisions. They are every bit as cut off from reality as you claim University professors are. They are every bit ensconced in echo chambers and same sided opinions and shut off from dissent as any other group. I like academic settings, but realize that there are egos and group think even there. All of my experience and contact with think tanks is much much more one sided and shut off from the rest of the world. that is part of where I get so annoyed with the majority of the links you site.

Yes, so Hollywood is filled with stupid people, but they make what sells, and capitalism says that what sells is best for humanity. How do you plan to fix it?"
Monte's right; people don't watch Smallville for lessons on economic theory, they watch to be entertained, but ultimately I think he's missing the point.

It's *precisely* because people watch Smallville to be entertained that it's such a concern.
  • Consider that most people will not actually take the time to learn any decent economics or read any books on the topic.
  • Consider also, that most people will never take a class on the subject outside of perhaps one semester in high school.
  • Consider as well that in total, most people will spend only a few hours of their lives thinking about these things critically - and in a setting that, let's face it, doesn't really hold any particularly high standards for even doing that.
Now realize that most people watch on average 5 hours of TV A DAY. And that 99% of the American populace owns at least 1 TV, with over 70% owning more than one.. People are influenced by those attitudes and ideas they are exposed to most often and most consistently.

This is why choosing the right friends is so important - the people you spend time with make a big difference in the kind of person you become.

If it was only Smallville that did this crap, I'd laugh at it - in fact, we all might just laugh at it - and not think anything of it. But it's not. It's virtually *ALL* of scripted television that fails like this. As a result, it is a subtle way in which the average person is constantly hearing a set of ideas - in a non-critical environment, no less - that are simply wrong. This doesn't just apply to economics either - it applies across the board; with shows on psychics, computers & internet issues, genetics (where do you think the whole "frankenfoods" concept really comes from?), and a dozen other fields.

I have struggled for many many years to convince people like Monte that it is a real problem, because most intelligent people write it off as just being "TV"... For a person like Monte, the TV isn't that big of an influence, because he does actually read books, papers, and study topics like this. But Monte is not in the majority...

As for Think Tanks - I agree wholeheartedly!

Many think tanks and academic settings do wind up being filled with group-think and turn into echo chambers. And I have commented on that innumerable times over the years. It's one of the biggest frustrations I have with the whole education establishment.

The difference, however, is that when people read an article from a think tank or from a political advocacy organization, they do so very critically. Especially if it doesn't fit their preexisting views on government or history (which tend to be the majority of papers I ever point to for most of my "audience").

This means that people are actually more likely, in general, to engage their brains when reading these kinds of things in ways that they simply do not do when watching television.

Granted, there's a lot of potential for confirmation bias as well, but speaking broadly, those kinds of papers tend to spark debate which can effectively counter bad reasoning - whereas the ignorance perpetuated by narrative television goes unnoticed. For a prime time show that's relatively successful, ratings of 12-15 million viewers per episode are common, compare that with 3-5 million viewers of news on any given night (and most TV news certainly isn't much better intellectually anyway).

My point is that a large percentage of people obtain their beliefs about business, economics, science and even many of their operating philosophies & moral values from years of uncritical television viewing. This has given the writers of television an immense amount of influence over the attitudes & views of the nation over the decades. And if you think I'm wrong about that, then ponder for a minute that Barack Obama has had vastly more TV time than any politician in US history and has done so deliberately.

Think also, way back to the 1960 presidential election with John F. Kennedy & Richard Nixon... Those who only heard their televised debate thought Nixon clearly won on the issues - but those who saw them on TV (roughly 80 million people!), preferred JFK and thought that he was the winner.

Politicians know that this stuff matters.

They try to use it to their advantage. This is why the smart ones hire people from my industry to do their promotional work. They don't hire political people, campaigners & speechwriters to produce their media, they hire entertainment people... Because they know that we are the experts in moving people emotionally and are the ones capable of actually influencing the hearts and minds of potential voters. Just ask Will.I.Am how that works.

It's also not true, in my opinion, that TV writers are just responding to market demand for dumb ideas. There is a market for being entertained. In the context of that Smallville episode, Lionel Luthor could have easily said something sane about economics - and the average viewer would have been just as happy, and the plot just as easily advanced. So while Monte is right that capitalism provides the people with what they want, he's not necessarily right that people's wants in television are so specific (or specifically known to television producers) as to demand to hear economic idiocy in throw-away scenes. What people want out of a show like Smallville is a teenage soap-opera about superheroes, messy relationships, mysteries & lies, and all with some decent special effects and explosions thrown in for fun. The underlying subtext is up to the writers and moral lessons being expressed is something typically left up to the writers.

(See? It's Soap-opera Superman!)

And what do you know, the writers tend to beat their views into their audience with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer...

Strangely, you only see the villains with their general purpose international conglomerate "LuthorCorp" and "LexCorp" businesses making deals, and earning those nasty "profits" by illegal means. Clark Kent's father, Jonathan, however is just your average salt-of-the-earth family farmer who is constantly broke because, as we all know, farmers never make any money. I mean, my god... The USDA estimates that the average farmer is going to be making a meager income of only $76,065 for 2009, how could anyone in rural America live on such a pittance!? And of course, unlike the billionaire crowd, farmers and the farming industry don't have any connection with the political elite - that's why the US political primaries don't begin with a farming heavy state like Iowa or anything like that! Naturally, being rich means you cheat, and being broke means you are honest. Only honest people are poor, and only thieves & murderers are rich... It's a false dichotomy that leads many people to supporting remarkably stupid ideas purely because they've been conditioned to emotionally respond to this type of paradigm.

The funny thing is, I'm not even going to just blame it on writers' ignorance of economics (which is no doubt a major aspect of this issue) so much as it is actually a product of writer laziness.

All stories need heroes & villains. Underdogs make for sympathetic heroes, and what better underdog are you going find than a poor, well-meaning farmer (David) vs. a billionaire corporate tycoon (Goliath) with all the resources in the world? So... I mean... I get it. It's easy, and when you only have a couple weeks to write an episode of a nationally broadcast television show, sometimes you have no better option than resorting to the basics. However, it's both obnoxious and intellectually damaging for such a poorly-constructed world-view to find its way into the homes of millions of people night after night after night.

Finally; responding to the "What are you going to do about it?" question: I'm going to do exactly what I've been doing the last two months!

I'm going to keep trying to explain what I've written above to organizations who promote better ideas to get them in the game - and consulting with them to help them step up their media presence and to actually recognize that they're losing the intellectual battle not because of bad ideas, but because of bad presentation. I'm also going to keep producing and working on that type of media production as I have done. And, lastly, I'm going to keep writing and exposing these ideas to whatever audience I might have. I can only hope that that's enough.

Note: "Capitalism" doesn't actually say anything at all about what sells being "best for humanity". Capitalists don't either. What we actually say is that the free enterprise, laissez-faire, version of capitalism provides people with what they want and need. Success in that system comes from effectively providing for your customers with the things that they place in highest value - and doing so more effectively than anyone else. I've explained this at length in previous blogs; i.e. The Profit "Motive", ObamaCare & Corporatism, A Tale of Two Burgers, People Actually Still Believe in the Labor Theory of Value!? and others... So I don't really need to do it again, but the term "best" is always and entirely dependent on one's values. Value is subjective and differs from individual to individual, and thus there is no "best" for the whole of humanity.

At any rate, the "market" is just the term we use to describe the exchange of goods within human populations, much like the way we use the term "society" to describe people living & communicating with each other under shared geography or culture. These are just concepts with no ability to have an independent consciousness or will of their own and which most certainly cannot make moral judgments or select levels of value for different things - only individual people can do that. It's just a morality-neutral platform for people to engage in mutually beneficial trade while peacefully respecting each others' right to property.

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