The World is Watching Top Gun Maverick

I see that you’re hurtin’, why’d you take so long

To tell me you need me? I see that you’re bleeding
You don’t need to show me again
But if you decide to, I’ll ride in this life with you
I won’t let go ’til the end

So cry tonight
But don’t you let go of my hand
You can cry every last tear

These are the lyrics to the song sung by Lady Gaga in the closing credits of Top Gun: Maverick. This song has been on the Billboard Top 100 chart for 6 weeks. The film TG:M is on its way to breaking a billion dollars worldwide at the box office this year. People (millions of people in every demographic all over the world) want to see Tom Cruise, playing himself (j/k), save the day. At the end of the movie they expect you to want to cry, and then Lady Gaga tells you to just let it out.

The only bit of acting that was hard to believe in the movie was the guy who was trying to play the arrogant jerk. The writers were trying to inject some drama with his lines, but the whole cast was so good-hearted and earnest. These folks seemed about 2 meters from heaven, and I don’t just mean because of flying at high altitudes.

After seeing TG:M in theaters this weekend, I watched the original 1986 movie (free on Amazon Prime right now) for comparison. The locker room banter in TG1 seemed more genuinely mean-spirited. That was back when bullies were bullies and no one was afraid of getting canceled?

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Artificial Intelligence in the Basement of Lumon Industries

For some background on the new TV show Severance, see my OLL post about drudgery and meaning for the characters.  

The fictional “severance procedure” divides a worker’s brain such that they have no memories of their personal life when they are at the office. When they return to their personal life, they have no memories of work. One implication is that if workers are abused while working at Lumon Industries, they cannot prosecute Lumon because they do not remember it.

The workers, as they exist in the windowless basement of Lumon, have the skills of a conscious educated human adult. They have feelings. They can conceive of the outside world even though they do not know their exact place in it. Often, the scenes in the basement feel normal. They have a supply closet and a kitchen and desks, just like most offices in America.

What the four main characters do in the basement is referred to as “data refinement.” They perform classification of encoded data based on how patterns in the data make them feel. The task is reminiscent of a challenge most of us have done that involves looking at a grid and checking every square that contains, for example, a traffic light. The show is science fiction but the actual task the workers perform is realistic. It seems like something a computer could be trained to do, if fed enough right answers tagged by humans (called “training data” by data scientists). Classification is one of the most common tasks performed by computers following algorithms.

Of the many themes viewers can find in Severance, I think one of them is how to manage AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). The refiners, who are human, eventually decide to fight back against their managers. They are not content to sit and perform classification all day. They are fully aware of the outside world, and they want to be part of it (like Ariel from The Little Mermaid). The workers desire a higher purpose and some control over their own destiny. Their physical needs are met so they want to get to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  

A question this raises is whether we can develop AGI that will be content to never self-actualize. What if “it” fully understands human feelings and has read all of the literature of our civilizations. To be effective at their jobs, the refiners have to be be able to relate to humans and understand feelings. Can we create AGI that takes over certain high-skill tasks from humans without running into the problems that Lumon confronts?

Can humans create an AI that simply doesn’t have aspirations for autonomy? Is that possible? Would such a creature be able to integrate with humans in the way that would be most useful for high-skill work tasks?

To see how it’s going in 2022, check out these tweet threads of economists on GPT-3. Ben Golub declares that GTP-3 passes the Turing test for questions about economics. Paul Novosad asked how the computer would feel if humans decided to shut it down forever.

Modern authoritarian states face a similar problem. They want a highly skilled workforce. National security relies increasingly on smarts. (see my previous post on talent winning WWII) Will highly intelligent workers doing high skill tasks submit to a violent authoritarian state?

Authoritarian states rely on the control of information to keep their citizens from knowing the truth. They block news stories that make the state look bad. As a result, their workers do not really know what is going on. Will that affect their ability to do intellectual work?

An educated young woman from inside of Russia shared her thoughts with the world at the beginning of Putin’s invasion. Tatyana Deryugina provided an English translation.

First the young Russian woman explained that she is staying anonymous because she will get 15 years in a maximum-security prison for openly expressing her views within Russia. She is horrified by the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. She had been writing a master’s thesis in economics prior to the invasion, but now she has abandoned the project. She feels hopeless because she knows enough about the West to understand just how dark her community is and how small her scope of expression is. This woman could have been exactly the kind of educated worker that makes a modern economy thrive. She is deeply unhappy under Putin. Even though she might never openly rebel, she will certainly not reach her full potential.

Is it hard for authoritarians to develop great talent? I think that has some implications for the capacity we as a human species will have to cultivate talent from intelligent machines.

Lumon Industries and Drudgery

I have a blog up on the new TV show Severance at the Reading Room.

Some background for those who have not seen the show

Mark Scout (played by Adam Scott) voluntarily undergoes the fictional “severance procedure” so he can work for Lumon Industries. While at work, Mark is cut off from all memories of his personal life. 

One of my contentions is with the way work is questioned by brother in law Ricken without acknowledging what society gets from work . Granted, Ricken is portrayed as someone we should not take seriously.

It is taken for granted that when outie Mark gets home from work he has modern conveniences and access to food and (maybe unfortunately, in his case) alcohol. Those goods are supplied by businesses and specialized workers. Even though his hippie brother-in-law Ricken writes books questioning whether workers are free, Ricken enjoys electricity. Mark’s sister Devon gives birth to Ricken’s firstborn during Season 1. In life before modern corporations, the chances of mothers or babies dying was unacceptably high. While painting Lumon as utterly evil, Severance fails to acknowledge what good can come from work. … there is one insight from Adam Smith that is so basic it cannot even be controversial. Wealth comes from specialization and trade.

The writers gradually make the world in the show bigger. First, it’s just a few nicely-dressed people in a windowless office. By the end, a Senator is involved. We don’t know how deep this rabbit hole will go. I thought Season 1 was exciting, but I’m not sure if they will be able to make audiences happy when the writers try to tie up all the lose threads.

As for what the “data refiners” do for Lumon, I consider their classification task to be somewhat realistic. What they are doing is reminiscent of “check every image that contains a stop sign”. The ultimate purpose of what they are doing remains a mystery for now, but the show hints that Lumon is doing something terrible in secret.

Modern loneliness in Toy Story 4 and Taylor Swift

I just saw Toy Story 4 (2019) because I’m a parent (don’t keep up with new releases – watch Pixar movies). The depiction of utter loneliness of the Gabby Gabby doll is one of the memorable parts of the movie. She knows that other people are experiencing human interaction, but she has none. Not a single human person notices her or needs her. Can you imagine that being the main plot of a movie made in 1940?

Loneliness is not completely new for humans. In the past, a lonely person might have had extra time to focus on nature, God, or books, or just immediate survival. Today, lonely people can be inundated with images of faces while also knowing that they have no real local friends. The Toy Story toys are like modern rich people in the sense that material survival is far from their minds. The toys can sit on a shelf for decades, awake and alone. No physical needs drive them out to a grocery store or into a service sector job. They have time to obsess over their social status, and the result can be tragic. (The fate of sitting on a museum shelf for years was discussed at length in Toy Story 2.)

Gabby Gabby reminded me of a bleak 2014 song by Taylor Swift called “Wildest Dream”. Swift sings as a female protagonist who sleeps with a handsome stranger knowing that he will leave her right afterwards. Here’s what she is hoping for:

I can see the end as it begins

My one condition is

Say you’ll remember me

Taylor Swift, 2014

She’s concerned that the man won’t remember the encounter at all. That is some malaise, yes? She has no hope at all for a lasting relationship. That is an illustration of one way that loneliness looks in the modern world.

From a male perspective, also in 2014, a similar sentiment is expressed in “Stay with Me” by Sam Smith.

I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?

Again, the singer is asking for someone from a one-night stand to help fill a void of human connection instead of immediately leaving. Swift and Smith wonder aloud if there is some way to at least temporarily feel like they are close to another person.

These forms of loneliness in pop culture resonate with the public. Toy Story 4 yielded over $1B at the box office globally. “Wildest Dreams” was on music charts around the world. These forms are somewhat new, due to new technology and changing social customs. I’m not trying to write the next Bowling Alone (2000) in this blog post, but merely noting some current illustrations, inspired by Toy Story.

I bet a proper classicist could find us some illustrations of old-style loneliness. When I think of ancient loneliness, I think of to-be-King David hiding in desert caves trying to avoid being stabbed by a Bronze Age(?) sword. He chronicled some of those feelings as follows

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish. … See how numerous are my enemies and how fiercely they hate me!

Psalm 25

David is lonely, but he’s also hiding from numerous nearby fierce enemies. So, it’s not exactly like Gabby Gabby who is sad that no one notices her at all. (In fact, maybe it puts our problems into some perspective.)

There is a recent 2020 New Yorker article, inspired by Covid lockdowns, on the history of loneliness. They consider the idea that this really is new. Maybe there would not have been a Gabby Gabby doll in ancient poems. As usual, economics is part of the story.

In “A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion” (Oxford), the British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others,” and she objects to the idea that it’s universal, transhistorical, and the source of all that ails us. She argues that the condition really didn’t exist before the nineteenth century, at least not in a chronic form. It’s not that people—widows and widowers, in particular, and the very poor, the sick, and the outcast—weren’t lonely; it’s that, since it wasn’t possible to survive without living among other people, and without being bonded to other people, by ties of affection and loyalty and obligation, loneliness was a passing experience. …  to be chronically or desperately lonely was to be dying. The word “loneliness” very seldom appears in English before about 1800. 

The New Yorker, 2020

Lastly, Mike wrote a great piece on loneliness in art last year. He even introduced a formal economic model!

Christmas Day

These are memes from my favorite nostalgic Christmas movie. I hope no one needed advice about inflation.

Lastly, I have, in the past, assigned college students to read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol JUST so we can talk about how messed up the book is and how the portrayal of markets is unhelpful.

Watching Get Back

I enjoyed watching Get Back, the new documentary about making a Beatles album. Sometimes I skipped over rehearsal scenes. The streaming format allows you to treat Get Back like a coffee table book, if you choose, as opposed to a feature film that you watch all the way through in one sitting.

I know very little about The Beatles, aside from recognizing their hit songs. Here are my impressions after watching most of Get Back.

Paul McCartney is a rock star. His hair could have its own line in the closing credits. When Paul goofs off, he appears to be entertaining his bandmates because he loves playing for any audience. Conversely, John Lennon seems to joke around because he does not take their music seriously. Paul is motivated to make the Beatles excellent. Ringo’s ability to show up and be quiet is almost as important as Paul’s ability to lead.

I’ll put up my tribute. Then I’ll add more casual observations.

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An Economic Model of Loneliness and Being Extremely Online

Bo Burnham is a comedian and musician who, like so many of the artists I enjoy, produces art that I can only describe as extremely specific to him. His newest special on Netflix features a song, “Welcome to the Internet” (some NSFW lyrics), that I liked so much I thought it was worth writing as a formal model.

No, really. Hey, we all need a hobby.

The whole song is a meditation on the overwhelming nature of the internet and is, in my opinion, fantastic. I think if we zero in on two pieces of refrain in the lyrics, we can get some traction in what Burnham believes is the underlying problem, if not outright crisis, that resides within the internet and those that are “extremely online”:

First, the lure:

Could I interest you in everything?
All of the time?
A little bit of everything
All of the time

This is the value-add of the internet and why we can never, and will never, leave it behind willingly. This is also the “cognitive overload” hypothesis of why the internet is bad. Sure, for the infovores of the world there hasn’t been a bigger technological shift since the printing press, but there certainly exists the possibility that most human minds (if any) aren’t built to handle the deluge of information they are drowning in. That’s one theory, but I think that’s the kind of problem that isn’t actually a problem. Some will consume more of the internet, some will consume less, c’est la vie.

It’s in the second half of the refrain, however, that we see the actual problem.

Apathy’s a tragedy
And boredom is a crime
Anything and everything
All of the time

And therein lies the rub. You can’t opt out. But is that true? Well, that depends on who you are and how you live your best life i.e. how you optimize your utility function. So let’s do it. Let’s write down the utility function that lives inside the song. What we’re going to do is this- we’re going to lay out the simple components as natural language, then turn it into formal math, and then bring it back to natural language.

In our Burnhamian mode, people need two things: Private goods like food and shelter and Social Goods like friendship and camraderie. How much Utility you enjoy will always be increasing in both, but the optimal mix will depend on your constraints (wealth, time, accessible population) and the mathematical function determining how much Utility you get from a mix of Private and Social goods i.e. are they additive, multiplicative, or something else. Utility equal to zero is equivalent to death.

Let’s add one last layer of complexity. Let’s say that your Social goods are a function of two kinds of elements: Friends and Clubs. Friends are direct, one-to-one relationships. Clubs are large social groups. We will define and differentiate between the two as such: if you cease to be part of a friendship (whether between 2,3, or 5 people), then that friendship no longer exists in the same form. If you drop out of a club, on the other hand, that club will persist without you.

So what a person has to do is, within their constraints, try to optimize how much of their resources they invest in their Private goods, their Friends, and their Clubs.

The first line is our base model, the second is an expanded version with our two-input model of Social goods. The function we are using is called a Constant Elasticity of Substitution utility function. The key parameter, α, determines how Private and Social goods interact. If α=1, then they are what economists call perfect substitutes. All that matters is how much you have in total of the two inputs, and if you want you could specialize in just one of them. They are perfectly additive. If, on the other hand, α=-∞ (negative infinity), then they are perfect complements, like right and left shoes. There is no point in adding even one more unit of Private goods until you have another unit of Social goods to pair with it. In a sense, they are multiplicative, meaning if either value is zero, then your utility is zero. The value of α will tell us whether the best life requires more of a mix of Social and Private inputs (if they are more complementary), or simply the most of whatever is the easiest to come by (if they are good substitutes for each other).

We’ve nested in our Friends and Clubs production of Social goods as a CES function within the second equation, with a similar story, only here β will determine how much of a mix of Friends and Clubs we want, or whether we can specialize more in one over the other. In the third and last line of the model, we’ve reduced it down to the underlying questions that will tell our story represented by addition and multiplication signs:

Are Private and Social Goods complements (multiplicative) or substitutes (additive) when we internally produce utility? Are Friends and Clubs complements or substitutes when we internally produce our Social goods?

Assumption 1: α= -0.1 Private and Social goods are weak complements. What this means is that there are diminishing returns to Private and Social goods, you need some of both, but you can have less of one or the other and its fine. Let’s just assume wealthy people need other people in their lives to stay sane while, at the same time people with rich social lives and supportive communities still need food and shelter. You can specialize a bit more on one side, depending on what’s available, but you can’t live without at least some of both.

We’re all different in how we build our social lives and, in turn, how we internalize the internet in our lives. I think we can gain some insight into this process by working out the stories in this simple model through our second parameter, β. Let’s consider three broad types of people.

Person Type 1: Friends and Clubs are Strong Substitutes (high β)

These people are either relatively offline (e.g. they still use their phones as phones to make phone calls) or extremely online (e.g. they get a panic attack unless they have 80% battery and a charge pack on their person). These are the people who can become hyper-specialized in new clubs if they are extricated from prior social networks or club settings. This is why cults recruit people who move to new places where they don’t know anyone. This is how your diehard hippie socialist friend grew up to be a conservative evangelical after they moved to the Texas suburbs.

With regards to our original question, people who hyperspecialize in their club and club identity will be constantly contributing grist to the club’s identity: evidence of the necessity of the club and it’s mission, rage at non-members, disappointment in members who aren’t committed enough, and constant vigilance in the monitoring of everyone else’s commitment. They are in it, they are of it, and they are ready to purge.

Apathy’s a tragedy (You must care about everything the club cares about)
And boredom is a crime (All of your time must be allocated to the club)
Anything and everything
All of the time

Type 2: Friends and Clubs are strong complements (low β)

These are the people that I think Burnham’s song is targeted at, for whom he has the most sympathy, and with whom I suspect he would count himself. These are people for whom the internet is the most taxing, the most exhausting to navigate.

Type 2 folks want to have personal friendships and friend groups while still feeling a part of something bigger, whether it’s a community, a political movement, or spiritual affiliation. Type 2 people will have preferences towards one or more social identities manifested as clusters on the internet, but they don’t want to purge people who don’t share those preferences from their circle of friends. Type 2 folks are interested in civil rights and social justice, but they want to diversify their emotional and material resources across their personal relationships and private wellbeing as well.

The deluge of the internet, with its stark images, focus on extreme outcomes, battle cries, and public reputation mauling, are constantly admonishing and shaming Type 2’s. Type 2 people are tired. Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has been especially hard on Type 2’s. While Type 1 club-specialists have thrived by focusing the totality of their efforts to the online arena, their voices have been tearing the Type 2 social-portfolio diversifiers to shreds.

Type 3: Friends and Clubs are weak complements (middle β)

Type 3 people are a lot like Type 2’s, but it is easier for them to compartmentalize the production of their social goods. Type 3 people are often in clubs, but they are rarely of clubs. They’re not joiners. Whether you’re looking at sacrifice-demanding religious cults or extremely-online political culture warriors, if the social associations of the world demand too much of Type 3 people, they are happy to half-ass their contribution or opt-out entirely. They might be on Twitter or Facebook, but they don’t need to reply to anyone. They might go to church on Sunday with the family, but if the minister tells them their sister is going to hell for their sexual preference, it’s just not that costly to stop going. For them clubs will always remain a luxury good, never a necessity.


To be clear this post is an exercise in building a toy model of something big and complex and important. It’s a gross abstraction and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The process of formalizing your thinking on a social mechanism, however, is something that I think you should take very seriously. Formal models are useful because there is no hiding what your idea actually is. There’s no “sorry, you misread me” or reliance on obscure jargon. Formal models force you to clarify and reveal your thinking to everyone, including yourself. They can open up new avenues for explorations and even generate empirically testable predictions. Formal models have in many ways been the principal force behind economic imperialism in the social sciences. Not because the math is perfect or all encompassing or even correct. It’s because it’s all out there, ready to be judged and dissected and tested. That transparency makes it a useful.

I don’t know if my interpretation of Bo Burnham’s theory of the internet is correct or even necessarily what he intended it to be. But this is one way we can take it a step forward and see what we can actually learn from it. Which is pretty much all I want to do for the rest of my research life, on every topic, all of the time.

Streaming Content: Scattering Vs Dumping

Like a good millennial, I don’t have cable. Instead I have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, YouTube, and a free trial of Apple TV. And before you say that I’m spending just as much as I would have spent on cable, just – no. First, I am not. Second, I have way more capability and discretion than I ever had with cable. Each of these streaming services now has their own studio(s) and competition is causing them to produce some content of exceptional quality. And, they differ in their decisions scatter vs dump. Amazon and Apple TV scatter their new episodes on a weekly schedule. You can still watch the episodes whenever your heart desires once they’re released. But if you are up-to-date, then you must wait 7 days until new episodes are available. Netflix, on the other hand, dumps out a new series all at once. You can spend the afternoon (or morning, or night) watching an entire season of the newest content from a high-end studio.

If we take a look through the way-way-back machine, then we can observe must-see-TV on NBC in the 1990s. Networks followed the scattering model. Most people didn’t own a DVR and on demand wasn’t really a thing except for pay-per-view. VCR (video cassette recorders) were ubiquitous, but people enjoyed watching their shows as they were released rather than later watching a recording. The 90s and early 00s were a special time for NBC in particular: Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and ER were all a part of the weekly line-up – with Will & Grace and Scrubs soon following the finale of Seinfeld.

New weekly episodes that were released during a literal ‘season’ of the year had been the model for as long as television signals had been broadcasted. Several of today’s streaming services still adhere to the 80-year-old practice.

Why?

I’ve got 3 reasons for why streaming services still scatter new releases. The first is the one I that have the least to say about: Buzz. It’s good marketing for a show to be released over a longer period of time. In a world of social media, the longer the time that a show is salient in your life, the greater the opportunity for you to share the show with your friends or for critics to acclaim (or pan, as the case may be). It’s a marketing tactic. If all of the episodes in a season were released all at once, then a show would be in-and-out of your life like a stray ice cube that goes rogue from the refrigerator ice-dispenser. You care for a bit. But soon, it’ll evaporate and never be a concern again. I’m not an expert in marketing. So I’ll just leave it at that.

The second reason is due to the time value of money. The sooner that we can enjoy revenues and the later that we can push costs, the better. It’s true for multiple reasons. Financially, every day sooner that you receive a dollar is an additional day during which you can earn a return by investing it elsewhere. For ease, let’s hold the schedule of costs constant and just worry about the revenues. If a streaming service releases episodes weekly, then episodes can start dropping before the season finale is even completed. There’s nothing that says that the whole season has to be ready by the time the first episode is released.  And, when episodes are released earlier, would-be viewers are sooner willing to sign-up and become paying customers. Releasing episodes weekly allows a studio to increase revenues before the whole product has finished production.

The 3rd and final reason for streaming services to release on a weekly schedule is due to the subscription structure of marginal revenue. Streaming services earn *no* additional revenue per episode viewed by customers. The marginal revenue earned from paying customers comes from subscriptions. That is, each month of a subscription is revenue for the streaming service provider – no matter how many episodes a subscriber watches. Therefore, if a season is released piecemeal, then it increases the number of weeks during which the streaming service receives revenues from the customer. Of course, people could just wait until all of the episodes are released and then subscribe for a single weekend of lethargic binging. But that can only happen when a viewer is comfortable with forsaking the frontier of new video content. That would mean that a viewer is out of fashion and out of the conversation that their friends and co-workers are having. And if this sounds like small potatoes, then keep in mind that such conversations are often about signaling belonging, comradery, and cultural sophistication. Many people are inclined to stay up-to-date on TV, the news, and sports and therefore have a greater willingness to pay.

There you have it. The 3 reasons for streaming by scattering over weeks rather than dumping all at once are 1) More persistent saliency among viewers and potential viewers, 2) Sooner rather than delayed revenues, and 3) More periods for which streaming service can charge their customers for new content.

I only have one explanation for why some streaming services do in fact dump an entire season at once. Netflix does it on the regular and Amazon started doing it in the past several years too. I suspect that they do it as a means of attracting a particular market segment: binge-watchers. There being two players who compete on this margin may make either provider appear less attractive for consumers who desire new, binge-worthy content. But, luckily for Netflix, streaming content providers aren’t in a perfectly competitive market. That content an imperfect substitute means that it’s monopolistically competitive. And, for the moment, that means higher profits. The keen reader will recognize, however, that zero long run economic profits are also implied.

Happy Fourth of July

Like most works of genuis, the Hamilton soundtrack is the result of much deliberate work. I just watched the documentary called “Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway”.

In one of the interviews with creater Lin-Manuel Miranda, he explained how he wrote each character with a different msuical style. George Washington has lines that sound militaristic, as opposed to the synchopated complex raps that Alexander Hamilton spits out. Hamilton is not merely undifferentiated “hip hop” music. Miranda used jazz music to inspire the Thomas Jefferson solos.

If you have already enjoyed the Disney+ recorded version and/or the soundtrack, then I recommend the documentary as an extension of the fun.

Happy Independence Day from EWED!

Created By

There is an old adage, I don’t know who to attribute it to (probably Norman Lear), that theater is for actors, movies for directors, and television for producers. The logic behind it is fairly straight-forward and compelling.

No matter how much the director works to make their vision come to life on the stage, when the curtain rises the production succeeds or fails based on the choices the actors make that night, in that moment. They have all the power. Cinema is a different animal, granting considerably more influence to the director. They place the camera, and therefore the audience, wherever they want. They can demand take after take until they fill the frame with the vision they hold in their mind. They can lean over the shoulder of the editor at every step, telling the story they want to tell. The director does not, by any means, hold unchecked power, but they are the high-leverage determinant of a project’s success or failure.

Television as a producer’s medium is, in my opinion, slightly out of date. When people spoke of the power of producers within television, they were speaking of network television; a landscape with limited channels where few would ever be so foolish to dismiss the power of the median voter theorem. Producers thrived because they made the high leverage decision: what gets to be on television. The actors, the writing, the (ha!) cinematography, those were all 2nd-order concerns, trivial concerns really, that lived in the shadow of the one decision that truly mattered: did you get to be on television?

Whole lines of economic research and theory center on the economies of scale and network effects. If you’ve ever wondered why books about old Hollywood have some of the craziest stories you’ve ever heard, it all comes back to the simple, but rich, economics of a marketplace with massive network effects for consumers (you want to watch what everyone else is watching), enormous fixed costs for setting up a network that absolutely trivialize the marginal costs of producing a show, the nearly zero marginal costs of broadcasting, and the enormous barriers to entry for potential rival networks. Coupled with the enormous status of associated with “being on television”, you arrive at an outcome where the artistic quality of content is almost irrelevant to market success, labor is willing to work for peanuts, and your capital inputs are almost exclusively fixed costs. Who’s the high leverage determinant of outcomes? The person who gets to decide what gets to be put on television.

That world is gone and I am grateful for it. Television is now the medium for writers.

We live in an endless wonderland of channels and content. The median viewer is still well served by a multitude of outlets, but it is within the microbiomes of this new ecology of entertainment that most of us are lured towards. If the defining attribute of the supply of entertainment has become its specificity, then the defining attribute of our demand is its depth. We demand 32 film superstructures with fully fleshed out worlds within worlds within worlds. We demand 6 seasons and a movie exploring the relationships between a community college study group and their metacommentary on film and television and how it has come to define how we view relationships. We demand 10th season callbacks to a sight gag from season 2 that was originally an homage something Truffaut did (which was itself an homage to Hitchcock). We want the story to keep going and going and going, and if has to end, it sure as hell had better not all been a dream.

Showrunners, who are typically the final typewriter that most scripts go through, and their teams of writers are producing the content that we voraciously binge. I don’t (want to) know how many hours of television I watch a year. but I have no doubt that I’m consuming 1000’s of manhours of writing, which makes it hard to complain about the price of HBOMax when I’m effectively paying pennies per hour for good writing. Maybe good writing has always been in short supply, but for the first time it is the the high leverage determinant of the success and failure of outcomes– good writing is the short side of the market. So if you want to make it as a writer, keep writing! But if you want to make a career and pay a mortgage as a writer, I suggest you bone up on your television story structure.

NB: for the couple dozen or so of you who read this, be advised that I am Mike Makowsky, the economics professor, not Mike Makowsky the talented screenwriter. Please do not blame him for my opinions, though I do encourage you to watch his movie Bad Education, which is excellent.