Saturday, November 10, 2018

What If We Banned Marketing?

This is going to be a quick post as the idea is much more pipe dream than analysis.  I first want to get out a list of examples of pernicious marketing, the ones that seem to be facilitated by technology.  In no order of importance my list is:

1. Robocalls
2. Social media, where the user is not the customer.  The user is the product.  Advertisers are the customers.
3. Fake News
4. Email where vendors automatically subscribe you and then offer an unsubscribe link.
5. Free Web sites that are ad-supported, with ads that fit your profile from Google use.

Perhaps the list can be made longer.  It's enough for now.  The question to ask is whether you indirectly benefit, by using services that you don't pay for, more than it costs you, by being exposed to all this virtual snake oil selling, or if you would be better off without any of this sort of marketing at all, and paid for the services you want.  I don't know the answer to this question, especially as it applies to the population as a whole, but I'm beginning to suspect that for me only I would be better off if the marketing entirely disappeared and I had to fork up more bucks for my online use.  (Of course, this depends on how much I would have to pay.)

Now a bit about the economics to sharpen what I have in mind and also to argue more about why the marketing is so pernicious.

Content on the Web is essentially a public good.  By this I mean that the marginal cost of getting somebody else to access the content is essentially zero.  Paying a very small amount per each access is not the right way to price such a public good, as it will drive use down well below the efficient level.  At present, there are subscription models, such as with the digital New York Times, that still comes with some ads and that enable a limited amount of free use for non-subscribers, and that co-exists with the full ad-supported model.  The Times, of course, has a long history that pre-dates the Internet.  New entrants among the providers are apt to simply rely on the ads.

The thing is, the ad-supported model impacts how the news is presented, from an incentive point of view for the provider.  The more eyeballs that see the ad, the more the provider can charge the advertiser for running the ad.  So the provider looks to ways that can generate a large audience.   Producing shrill content then wins out over producing more level content.  Users are attracted to the sensational and repeat use is habit forming.  This is likely unhealthy for the user but is surely profitable for the provider.

One might hope to engineer human beings so they have a preference for more level content.  In the absence of that, however, one needs a different solution.

So the alternative I have in mind is where there were several buying consortia, and each consortium, in turn, would contract with multiple providers for unlimited access that was ad free, made available to all consortium members.  One type of consortium might be state or local government, that used taxes of residents in lieu of consortium fees.  Consortium members would need to have some affinity for one another, so the providers that the consortium did contract with would have broad appeal with the membership. Geography might be one source of affinity.  It that proved correct, then a government as a consortium makes sense.  If, in contrast, affinity was driven by having similar interests in things, then private consortia would be better.  I made a post a while back about this, thinking that the real function that the consortia would deliver is protecting members with regard to their use data and policing providers so they don't misappropriate such data.

Now let me switch to phone calls and email.  Individual calls or messages are not public goods.  With phone calls, the real issue is that the caller doesn't pay if the the call isn't picked up on the other end.  And with email, the sender doesn't pay, whether the receiver reads the email or not.  This gives senders an incentive to market with these forms of communication, since it is zero marginal cost to them. Conceptually, at least, each receiver could have a safe sender list.  People on the safe sender list wouldn't pay by initiating a call to the receiver.  Everyone else would pay, a small but significant amount each time they send.   That fee would limit the marketing.

I don't know what we'd have to do to set up billing like this for phone calls and email, but what seems clear is the the market won't do this on its own. 

In effect, Facebook friends are safe senders, though Facebook has the issue of friends of a friend might not be your friend, so on a comment thread it may not be completely safe.   What I'm getting at is that it might really be that we're not so enamored with social networking, but we really are enamored with interacting only with safe senders. I don't know.  I'd love a way to test this out.

Let me close here by noting that I've focused on marketing for profit and have ignored marketing to achieve political ends.   That was to make the economics part easier to consider.   I don't know if my economic analysis has much to say about the political use, other than to note that if phone and email got rid of the spam through some pricing arrangement for senders, then people who have been turned off by these means of communication might rely on them more.  In turn, that would offer alternatives to Facebook, which would weaken it's monopoly power. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

America in Its Addled Essence

Teenagers go through a troubled phase.  Part of that, of course, is the hormones raging through their systems, creating then new feelings for them which can't easily be addressed. Most people think of adolescence that way.  But there is something else going on as well.  The teenage years give a preview of what being an adult means.  It is discovered that the safety of childhood was apparently based on certain myths.  Continuing to maintain those myths starts to look like workshop of false idols.  When this realization occurs there is apt to be disillusionment, perhaps also a lot of anger. The teenager then has the task of how to deal with the situation.

Some might repress the realization, apparently willing to play by the rules, perhaps for the rest of their lives, or at least until they live away from their parents and can exercise more direct control.  For those who go this route, the anger builds underneath.  The teenager is seething but is also frightened about overt display of those feelings.  Inwardly, such kids are very unhappy.  William Deresiewicz writes about the very good students who fall into this category in his book Excellent Sheep.  Others might not repress it.  They get overtly moody and rebellious.  Defying authority becomes an act of self-expression and a way to reclaim oneself.  This route requires identifying areas where the authority clearly made poor judgment and then lied about it, so is deserving of blame.  For kids of my generation, the Vietnam War served this role.  But there were far more personal areas where authority fell short as well.  Kids challenged their parents, the long hair most of us wore one overt reminder of this.

Still others might get depressed and then do a variety of seemingly odd things as a consequence.  In my case, I learned to mumble, particularly at dinner time.  I had a need to express my point of view (as I still have).  But I was pretty sure that making myself heard would create one more episode of conflict.  I must have intuited this rather than reason it through as I seem to be doing now.  Mumbling, particularly at home, became a part of how I was able to cope.  I'm guessing that other kids found their own idiosyncratic ways to deal with it.

School was one place that propagated myth, both in the teaching of social studies/history and in the rituals we went through.  It may have been elsewhere as well, but I will contain my examples to those two.  Before getting to those, I want to observe something about my independent reading, especially in elementary school (probably starting in 3rd grade, but my memory is not good enough to be sure of that).  I would go on a jag and read many books in the same theme.  Then I would move onto something else and go on another jag.

Pretty early on, that was mythology itself.  First, I got into the Norse myths and became enamored with those stories.  Then I did a repeat with the Greek myths and maybe the Roman myths too (which seemed mainly the same as the Greek myths, though the gods had different names.)  After that, I moved onto biography of figures well known in American history.  What I'm asking myself now is whether that sequence is normal in a child's development and, if so, whether for that reason or something quite different it made sense to depict real historical figures in a somewhat mythical light, just as a matter of holding the child reader's interest.  In any event, I think it fair to say that each of these biographies gave a romanticized telling of the person's life, as books for children are apt to do.  Several of the biographies I read at the time were authored by Clara Ingram Judson.

Sometime later, probably in junior high school, I read The American, by Howard Fast. It is considered historical fiction.  (Incidentally, we have an Altgeld Hall on campus, named after John Peter Altgeld, the main character of the story.)  I don't know how they draw the line between works of non-fiction and novels about real people.  That is not the issue for me.  Some myths are delightful and benign - George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, for example.  Indeed, I think we come to learn about many important historical figures through such fiction.  For example, I came to know something about Vincent Van Gogh from reading Lust for Life, by Irving Stone.  However, other myths develop to hide painful truths.  It is the latter that is my interest here.

Debunking is what happens when the more painful truth comes to light.  If school is the source of the myth, then the debunking must happen elsewhere.  It's also possible, perhaps even more likely, for a competing narrative to emerge later where neither has evident claim to be called the truth.  The stories then coexist until much later, when subsequent events shed light on which of the competing stories is more likely true.

The first one of these myths is about New York City directly, then about about America as a whole, indirectly, mostly by the implication that New York City was representative of the entire country.  I attended elementary school in Queens, P.S. 203.  We spent one grade, I believe, on the history of New York City.  In that we were taught that New York City was a "melting pot" and the melting pot story was indeed omnipresent.  Immigrants came into New York City, spoke the language of the mother country, and lived in communities with the other immigrants from the same country.  The children were Americanized, by school primarily, also by listening to the radio, going to the movies, and other acculturating activities.  Once Americanized, the background of the kid's parents faded in importance.

Like most myths, the story is partially true.  I should note here that when I was a kid the story was applied mainly to people of European extraction.  The heterogeneity of these people was very real when I was a kid (and maybe it still is).  It makes me question the practice used today in the label White, which implies within group homogeneity.

My belief is that public school is actually pretty good at being a melting pot, at least that was true for P.S. 203 when I attended.  The problem is that not every kid went to public school.  Indeed, I lived two blocks from St. Robert Bellarmine Roman Catholic Church, which we all called St. Roberts.  It had a school the Catholic kids went to as an alternative to going to public school, I believe for grades K-8.  I had a variety of experiences with some of those kids that I would describe now as mild antisemitism.   I should point out that diagonally across the street from us on 212th Street was an Italian family that we got friendly with and stayed friends with even after they moved to Manhasset. The daughters all went to St. Roberts but never showed anything but friendliness to us.

My interpretation of this is that for some the large society was itself sufficient to be a melting pot and whatever prior prejudices there were did indeed fade away.  But for others, those prior prejudices were much stronger and in the absence of greater efforts at melting away those prejudices, by attending the same school for example, the prejudices would persist, even if in certain circumstances they remained unarticulated.  I should also note that JFK became President just as I started elementary school.  I was too young to read the newspaper then, but I became aware that he was the first Catholic President and that his religion created some tension with him and Protestant voters. Whether similar animus between Protestants and Catholics exists today, I can't say based on direct experience.  What I can say is that to the extent that such feelings are still present it gives the lie to America as the melting pot.

The melting pot is a story I would like to be true.  In my own interactions, it is a story I try to live by.  And for some part of the population, I believe the story works for them as well.  But it clearly doesn't work for other parts of the population.  Let me briefly cover what I learned about this while in college.

I took a course on American Politics and we read pieces by many authors, including Nathan Glazer, though not the full book Beyond The Melting Pot.   It was evident then that even the imperfect melting pot didn't work in New York City when it came to Puerto Ricans and Blacks.  As difficult as religious differences are to overcome, racial differences are harder and perhaps too hard to expect the melting pot approach to work.  That same year when I started elementary school, the movie version of West Side Story came out.  The music is fantastic and the romantic story that is Romeo and Juliet like is entertaining.  But underlying the story is that rival gangs, one white ethnic, the other Puerto Rican, fought for turf and in that way the old divisions were sustained rather than overcome.  This same message was given in a much later movie, Gangs of New York.

And when I was a kid Harlem was considered a ghetto for Black people.  But Harlem was in Manhattan, which seemed like a different world when I was in P.S. 203.  I can't recall whether P.S. 203 had any Black students or not.  Junior high school was otherwise.  The Civil Rights act of 1965 either mandated busing for integration or New York City interpreted it that way.  I'm not sure which.  I started junior high in 1966, so the school was integrated then.  But the integration was partial, at best.  There was tracking and I was in SP (special progress) classes.  Those classes must have inadvertently created a sense of meritocracy among the students. (Perceived meritocracy is a different counterforce to the melting pot story.  It encourages elitism if not outright snobbery.)   I don't believe there were any Black kids in SP when I went to junior high.  We took some non-academic classes then, shop and band.  Those may have been integrated, though I can't remember.  The academic classes were not.  In such a setting the melting pot really didn't have a chance to work.  The regular academic classes (non-SP) were integrated.  Did they serve as a melting pot?  I don't know, but I doubt it.

The integration by busing experiment was undone by a variety of factors, the biggest being White flight to the suburbs.  But the school within a school phenomenon, via tracking, which for me persisted into high school, is another reason it was undone.  Really, it never started.  Gym was integrated in high school and, as I've written elsewhere, I found gym terrifying.  There were tough kids in gym, White and Black.  There weren't tough kids in the honors classes.   A melting pot of tough kids and middle class kids from homes where academic study was encouraged would indeed be very interesting, but for me that was a pipe dream, not a reality.

I've belabored this discussion about America as a melting pot because it is still quite relevant now.  It is a story where aspiration and reality don't coincide.  Yet our rhetoric seems to choose only one of those and then deny the other, rather than acknowledge both.   

The other examples are for me non-experiential, so I will go through them only briefly.  Each of them features that our ancestors were always seemingly on the right side of history, so the bad guys were always alien.  We never had to confront in our history that we ourselves were the bad guys, except in very isolated cases; Benedict Arnold comes to mind here.

The first one of these that I remember is about the Crusades.  In the history we learned in public school these were glorious quests.  But I also attended Yiddish school on Saturdays.  The instruction there was broken into three parts - learning Yiddish as a language, learning Jewish folk songs where we sang them ensemble, and learning Jewish history.  I must have been 11 then.  I remember a chapter from the Jewish history book called, The Horrible Crusades. This clearly contradicted what we were taught in public school.  It meant to do just that, as a way to get our attention.  It was no big deal for me at the time, but it did serve as kind of canary in the coal mine for other such stories that competed with what we were taught in school.

This next one is about American "Indians."  Just about everyone I knew as a kid played Cowboys and Indians.  The Cowboys were the good guys while the Indians were the bad guys.  Of course, that was make believe and TV shows.  In school we were taught that Peter Minuet "purchased" Manhattan Island for the equivalent of $24.  And we were taught that the Indians were present at the first Thanksgiving, which was a peaceful affair.  But later there was trouble, lots of it.  We were taught about Custer's Last Stand and how his troops fought bravely though terribly outnumbered.  Then, either in 10th or 11th grade I saw Little Big Man with some friends.  It cast the Indians in an entirely different light and Custer in a different light as well.  The movies were a big debunking device around that time.  MASH came out the same year.  Irreverence had its day during this time, part of the mood against the Vietnam War.  It was hip to be irreverent.  School did not prepare you for that.

The last one I will mention I believe was from American history in junior high, but we may have talked about it in high school too.  We were taught manifest destiny, as the truth about 19th century America.  The way west was inevitable.  America would expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  All the land in between was rightfully American, even if that was far from true at the start of the century.  The doctrine allowed Americans to view the way west without contradicting Washington's advice in his farewell address - avoid foreign entanglements.  The reality at the time, which we were not taught, is that the doctrine was far from universally held.  Teaching it as if it was the truth made the students not consider America as an imperial nation at all in 19th century, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War notwithstanding.  Indeed, by not taking a more critical approach to the U.S. in school (here by critical I mean multiple perspectives, I don't mean criticizing) students were entirely unprepared (at least by school) for the protests against the Vietnam War.  It was as if the Vietnam War put us in a separate parallel universe that we had never entered before.

Let me turn to the rituals we had in elementary school, for reasons that we should speculate on as we consider them.  Two of these should suffice.  The first one is kind of odd, shelter drills.  They go under a different name now, duck and cover.  Shelter drills, like fire drills which did make sense to do, were done repeatedly so everyone would know how to proceed when necessary.  Fire drills were for when the building caught fire and the fire alarm went off.  This is a low probability event, but still a realistic possibility.  Getting everyone out of the building in an orderly manner, without panic, is the right thing to do in that circumstance.  Shelter drills were an entirely different matter.  You were taught to crawl under your desk and hide.  This was to happen in the event of a nuclear bomb going off in the vicinity.  This is a preposterous solution to a totally devastating situation.  So we might consider, why go through this rigamarole, since it made no sense at all for its intended purpose.

To give some context consider the following.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was in October 1962.  I believe it terrified every American adult, for it made the possibility of nuclear war seem real.  And in the world of fiction, there was a cottage industry about the possibility.  Nevil Shute's On the Beach has a 1957 copyright.  Fail-Safe has a 1962 copyright.  And the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove, came out in 1963.  Such plentiful offering of entertainment in this area could only happen if many people were worried about nuclear war.  This was an adult worry.  My conjecture about shelter drills is that they offered a way to share that worry with kids, not to protect them if they were too close to the blast sight, but so there was a story that might be told to them that they'd understand, in the event they survived a nuclear detonation when many others did not.  This seems the most plausible reason to me for the shelter drills.  So this was part myth and part misdirection.  Maybe it actually was a good use of myth, of that I'm not sure.  Would it have been better for the kids not to know the worry at all? 

The other ritual is the flag ceremony.  Every day in class we said the Pledge of Allegiance while standing up, with our right hands held over our hearts.  After that, still standing, we sang My Country, 'Tis of Thee.   Let me offer a bit of an aside before I continue.  I'm not very big on ceremonial stuff.  For example, I didn't attend the graduation ceremony for high school, college, or PhD.  Nevertheless, I can see some point in a repeated ceremony about the flag to instill in kids some patriotism.   And while some people have objected to the pledge because of the line, under God, I actually like the line, and to the Republic for which it stands.  The flag is a symbol.  Our true allegiance is to the Republic.  What that means, however, was never explained in elementary school.  I will get back to that point in a bit.

I went to sleep away camp for 6 years, and it was quite long, a full 8 weeks.  At sleep away camp we also honored the flag, but in a different way.  The camp relied on bugle calls played over the loudspeaker in the HQ building from a vinyl recording.   For flag raising, we heard To The Colors.  (I can't recall whether we stood at attention or at ease.)  For flag lowering, we heard Retreat.  As I noted in the post that I wrote about the bugle calls, I found them somewhat comforting.  Even now, I like to hear them.  But if there is some larger message they should be connected to, that eluded me then and it eludes me now.

In neither case did we hear or perform the national anthem.  Indeed, when I was 11 and in Bunk 13, one of my counselors told us that they should really change the national anthem to America The Beautiful, simply because it was a better song to honor America.

Now let me turn to the performing of the Star Spangled Banner, which happened at big time sports events. I have no sense of why this was the case, but the practice existed before I went to elementary school.  (Google provides a ready answer.)  I find it odd now to use sporting events as a way to connect those in attendance with their patriotism.  Indeed, in 1970, the Knicks won the NBA Championship and I recall going to games that season and/or watching the games on TV.  The fans would never finish the singing of the song.  Instead of "and the home of the brave" everyone in attendance would have burst into a very loud cheer.  In other settings, you might take that as being disrespectful about the anthem.  What it really showed, however, was that the fans were pumped up and getting ready for the game to start.  The fans weren't trying to show any disrespect. It's just that there full attention was on the basketball game.

It is now worth asking whether the grade school instruction about honoring the flag really taught us something fundamental about patriotism, or if it really was mere window dressing, done because some muckety-mucks thought otherwise.  To the extent that it conveyed honoring the flag was sufficient and that one did not need to show allegiance to the Republic is other ways, I think that myth.  It is especially troublesome to me now, seeing the controversy about kneeling during the performing of the anthem, and with sporting events so often linking the performance of the anthem to paying respect to veterans, that these things get a lot of attention, while that there are homeless veterans, many of them, gets far less less attention.  Something is wrong with that picture.

* * * * *

When I started to write this piece I had in mind the punchline - I had a tough adolescence, but I got through it.  American can do the same.  Now, having written this, I want to end in a different way, so I'd like to ask two things.

As adults, I don't believe we entirely abandon myth.  Instead, I think we may replace our childhood myths with others that we're not willing to let go of.  Can we have a discussion about the myths we hold, whether Democrat or Republican?  Would getting those myths out there be helpful, if both sides could agree that one side holds particular myths?

The other thing is about the times in which we live.  Part of my reason for going through the exercise of the politics during my teen years is to note that we never lived in a world where we were always told the unvarnished truth, by our teachers and by our political leaders.  Does that make what is happening now more of the same, if at an accelerated pace as compared to the 1960s?  Or is it fundamentally different now?  I can't answer that other than by observing how it feels to me.  Even during Vietnam and Watergate, I didn't feel as if we had gone over a cliff, unable to return.  I thought things were very bad, but we might still right the ship.  Now I'm much less sure of that.

This is how I prepare for hearing about the election results on Tuesday.   I wonder what others do in preparation.