Friday, February 08, 2008

It's a Shame They Couldn't Both Lose

That's what Henry Kissinger supposedly said about the Iran-Iraq war, and it is how I feel about the Hollywood writer's strike, which is apparently about to be settled. Both the writers and the execs (along, of course, with the customer who buy their products) are partners in the crime of the degradation of our culture. Fortunately, we have weapons that we didn't have before; more on that in a minute.

Culture -- here meaning the notions of what is expected and what is prohibited, reinforced (or not) by the media and the family and most of the institutions of society -- is an unusual sort of good in economic thinking. And the products of our vast culture industry are clearly very appealing to people in the US and around the world, especially young people. But this kind of culture -- movies, music, and to a lesser extent of books -- often thrives on breaking barriers. When Elvis Presley went on the Ed Sullivan show, he simply had to shake his hips provocatively. That CBS refused to show him below the waist was no help at all; that made him even more for bitter fruit. Unfortunately, the musician came after Elvis had to do something even more outrageous. So too with every other kind of popular entertainment; within the span of 20 or 30 years, the culture looks shocking or revolting to parents who may have themselves been fans of culture that their parents warned them against.

Because of the power of modern communications technology -- pop culture is very easy to produce and access -- centuries worth of socially constructed guides to good behavior can be torn down in just a few years. This is a very toxic form of negative externality. Junk culture has many of its primary damaging effects on subsequent generations, even as it is targeted to the younger current generations as sweet rebellion. In addition, the modern entertainment industry has proven astonishingly effective at crossing the protective membranes that parents used to be able to establish between their children and the toxic influences from outside the family.

I do not mean to come across as some sort of hopeless prude; I am not proud of a lot of the things I did when I was a teenager, and am adamant that my children never consider doing them, but I suppose, mostly thanks to my parents’ diligence, that I turned out okay. But we are not talking about individuals, but about averages. And on average, I suspect that because of the appeal of rebellion among the young, the producers in the entertainment industry are pushing the culture downwards as much is being pushed downward by it. Anti-globalization activists make much of the so-called "race to the bottom," in which countries are forced to eviscerate wages and working conditions to attract multinational factories. I debunk this claim with the data in my book, but the peculiar economics of the culture industry described above suggest that a cultural "race to the bottom" is more than reasonable.

But we are not without defenses. The ability to secede from the culture through private and homeschooling and taking advantage of the much greater cultural variety made possible by digital technology (Elvis was the only thing on TV back in the day, but attentive parents can now select cultural reinforcements much more to their liking, because so many more cultural types are available) are ways in which a free society allows those most concerned about the culture to protect those they love from it. (Not to mention the ability provided by the power to just say no. A colleague recently asked me if I'd seen the Democratic presidential debate the previous night on one of the cable stations, and I told them that I hadn't because I don't have cable TV. He looked at me as if I had told him that I didn't have running water.)

But if the model I sketched above is accurate, it is the inattentive parents that we have to worry about.



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