Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reaching the Levers of Power: Money and the Media after the Election

Economics always felt a little to me like watching Mulholland Drive – the closer you look, the more things aren’t what they seem.

So inequality’s a tricky topic, because it is a matter of definition, while trying to avoid the superficiality of semantics.  If one person has $1 billion and another has $50,000 but both effectively live the same lives consumption-wise, there’s inequality of resources but not inequality of behavior.  And is the world harmed by the wealthier one if he or she invests it in projects that advance various fields?

I’m from an industry that’s at once a huge beneficiary of inequality and a particular victim of inequality.  Book of Mormon never would have happened if not for a few checks from some vastly wealthy individuals – there’s really no world where a government program could have funded a piece poking fun at a religion (and plenty of other taboo topics beyond that).  I’ve seen, time and time again, the more democratic a producing process becomes, the harder it is to do anything audacious.  Mormon would have been severely watered down and lost the very attributes that made it amazing.  We need people willing to throw large chunks of money around, able to afford the risk of losing, and deep-pocketed and unobtrusive enough to stay out of the kitchen when there’s already expert cooks in there.

On the flip side, inequality bars many others from realizing their potential in the arts.  Starting out as a writer, actor, musician, director, or in plenty of other artistic roles, is simply a career choice that feels too financially risky to even attempt in the first place.  And the chasm between the remuneration of Jennifer Lawrence and the pennies picked up by a moderately successful poet is extreme indeed (a reason Hollywood celebrities often appear hypocritical when bemoaning inequality).  Even for the investing side of the business, who’s to say there aren’t many others out there who would do a better job of enabling truly bold and worthwhile projects?

Many people don’t have trouble looking at a given one of said Hollywood mega-celebrities and saying, do they really deserve to earn 400 times what the average American nets in a single year?  For being charming and emotional on screen?

But I work for a television studio now, so I don’t think I’ll stick my toe in that one, not just yet.

There’s a complicated mix, some might say mess, of incentives and distortions, efficiencies and perversions, that underpin the artistic economy specifically and the broader economy generally.  And in an American society where different classes and groups are intermingling and communicating so little that tens of millions were scratching their heads on November 9, economic inequality is also a key component of a broader cultural imbalance.  How can the haves rectify the needs of the have nots if the former aren’t even listening to hear what the latter find meaningful and valuable?  Money is a starting point and something that can be better distributed, but where to start?

I’m not presumptuous enough to start to catalogue these ills, but I can start with a plea for the beneficiaries of the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth – I think some of the very best and most innovative art and entertainment are not being made now, because no one’s giving them the resources.

But in return, those who are given the privileged access to control the levers of resource distribution in a field as resource-intensive as major media need to do a far better job of giving respectful and genuine space for the voices that are not being heard, including those with whom they disagree politically and culturally.  Hollywood celebrities came out in force with denunciations this year, and even the minority conservatives in the major media outlets seemed broadly unified against Trump – ironically a man whose TV show sat atop this competitive industry.  At the same time, Trump saw stupendous grassroots support and donations – his supporters may not have had much money to give, but they gave it with a passion and a dedication that perhaps no other politician elicited from them in this generation.

Trump was not irrational in saying that the cameras never (well, rarely) pulled back to show the huge crowds of the faces behind these donations.  Before the “elites” can rectify economic inequality, they need to start with rectifying the communication inequality that is now eating away at the bonds that are supposed to bind the country together.  For if those bonds become completely broken, any effort to fix the other aspects of inequality will likely fail to redistribute the resources where they are truly needed.

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