In what would surely be the most amazing troll posted to a serious web site in recent memory if it didn’t seem to be perfectly earnest, columnist, author, and apparently completely shameless toady to the ruling class Virginia Postrel has argued on Bloomberg View that ordinary people are better off economically today than we typically reckon - because the quality of TV has improved. I’m not even slightly kidding about the impossibly stupid thing I just told you.
On a flight across the country, you watch the playoff game on live television, listen to some favorite playlists as you catch up on work, then relax with some video poker. Arriving home, you delete the game from your DVR and consider your options. Too tired for an intense cable drama—which you prefer to experience in immersive weekend marathons of at least three episodes each—you stream a first-season episode of “Duck Dynasty” from Amazon.com, then run last week’s “Elementary” from your DVR queue. While watching, you check IMDB.com to see where you’ve seen that familiar-looking guest star before, then you jump to your Facebook and Twitter feeds. You finish the evening with “SportsCenter,” recorded just far enough ahead that you can skip most of the commercials.
Little of this customized entertainment would have been possible a decade ago—and almost none of it shows up in the income and productivity statistics that dominate our understanding of the economy. A form of progress that large numbers of people experience every day, the increase in entertainment variety and convenience represents a challenge to the increasingly conventional wisdom that American living standards have stagnated, at least for the middle class.
Hear that, middle class? Standard of living, schmandard of living, you people have TIVOS!
Now, I suspect that viewings of Duck Dynasty and SportsCenter don’t show up in income stats because TV shows aren’t income. But what do I know? I’m not the former editor of Reason. Or a shockingly tone-deaf, overprivileged asshole.
After all, it’s not as though no one has noticed the improvements. Critics often opine on whether the proliferation has produced a “new golden age of television,” while media companies and advertising agencies live in fear of what all that competition means for future profits. From the mobile-phone business to social media—not to mention movies, games, music and sports—an enormous amount of innovative talent goes into developing new entertainment goods and services.
Yet in the economic statistics that measure living standards, this real-life value goes largely ignored. For the very reason that entertainment is so cheap, the enjoyment people derive from having a better chance of finding exactly what they want, when and where they want it, doesn’t count for much. Giving consumers new features for little or no additional money increases well-being but doesn’t do much for productivity statistics.
I would venture a guess that the proliferation of the entertainment industry into every nook and cranny of American life doesn’t find its way into productivity statistics because sitting on your ass watching So You Think You Can Fart Your Life Away is the opposite of productivity. But of course, I’m just a humble pop culture scribe for Dangerous Minds, not a respected, Ivy League-educated columnist for The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times and Forbes. Or a self-satisfied, grotesquely over-rewarded libertarian tool.
But let’s skip to the money shot, huh? Does she or doesn’t she tell us to watch cake?
“Too many people presume that what the poor want from the Internet are the crucial necessities of life. In reality, the enchantment of the Internet is that it’s a lot of fun,” the Indian journalist Manu Joseph observed in a September New York Times essay. “And fun, even in poor countries, is a profound human need. Quality of life is as much an assortment of happy frivolities as it is the bare essentials of survival.”
Holy free market, she actually managed to outsource her “Let them eat cake” line to India. Got that, poor people? Quit hogging those public library Internet terminals for your stupid job searches and bill payments! There’s fun to be had - ENCHANTMENT, even!
So let’s recap - time wasted is income! We can fairly extrapolate from this that the unemployed are the wealthiest people in America - so long as they watch assloads of TV. Thinking of goosing your budget by canceling that cable subscription and using the savings for unproductive mundanities like heat and food? Not so fast! Grey’s Anatomy is health care! The Apprentice is a national jobs program! BY GOD, THE SYSTEM WORKS.
Virginia Postrel, totally down with the commoners—the kind of Libertarian you can have a beer with!