Thursday, March 03, 2005

Market populism vs. informed opinion

Yesterday I complained about audience-vote-driven entertainment on the grounds that it invalidates the substance of the art being voted on and supplants it with the audience's self-regard, so that it all becomes about the power the audience feels, testaments to their sovereignty in the marketplace. It turns out that Thomas Frank has discussed such phenomena in great detail in One Market Under God, his critique of the propaganda of the "New Economy" and the Washington consensus in favor of free markets, globalization, and deregulation. Prefiguring his argument in What's the Matter with Kansas, Frank argues that this patently unfair laissez-faire economy is sold to the people it exploits as a kind of anti-elitism, and the market is trumpeted as a faultless mechanism for communicating the will of the People against various eggheads and their snobbish prescriptions. Only with in the marketplace is any endeavor legitimate, for only there can it be "voted on" via the People's dollars. Any one operating outside the marketplace is certainly a lunatic and probably dangerous, and likely receiving their marching orders from Marxist professors polical correctness Nazis, eco-terrorists, or treehugging utopian daydreamers. Finding your niche market is the only authentic way to be non-conformist. Frank calls all this "market populism," an ideology that asserts that the free market expresses the will of the People, and thus any interference with free markets is an attempt to silence them and abridge their rights. Only treasonous skepticism about markets cause its perfect mechanisms to fail.

Of course that's absurd. The commodity is not a flexible enough tool for discourse, not a sufficiently sophisticated language to allow people to express political ideas, or ideas of any sort. The market isn't democratic because people with more money to spend have far more influence within it, and the poor have no influence at all. And there are a wealth of market externalities that actually constitute the sources of human well-being -- sociality, meaningful work, autonomy and so on. Making consumer choices is much different than exercising power or control over one's own life. As Frank explains, markets don't express anything; they are tools for concentrating capital - in the hands of ever fewer people if they operate unchecked by labor unions and interventionist government.

But that's clearly not happening. Plutocrats have continued to succeed in confounding cultural issues with economic ones and keep themselves in power. And call-in TV shows have extended the market-populism concept further: like the many pointless instant Web polls and focus groups, these proffer the illusion of franchise but more often just supply marketers with more useful data. The essence of these call-in shows and polls is their anti-intellectualism. Because market populism views all dissent and criticism as by definition counter-productive, it seeks to stifle that impulse by offering meaningless occasions to make one's voice heard. And the underlying message, the guiding principle of these occasions is that you don't need any expertise to weigh in on them. USA Today asks poll questions like: "Should the Federal Reserve Bank raise interest rates?" or "What action should the US take against Iran" as if their moronic readership has a grasp of even a fractional percentage of the information necessary to have an informed opinion. But what these polls, and American Idol, etc., are out to suggest is that the very notion of an "informed opinion" is outdated, possibly pernicious. No one should even try to be informed, because so-called experts muddle what New Yorker columnist James Suriowiecki calls "the wisdom of crowds." (I wonder if his book has a chapter on lynch mobs.) The world is better served if we let the market aggregate the collective opinion of the ill-informed (pretending for a moment that markets even do this) because this will some how add up to a more complete and more accurate picture of reality. And thus "reality" can happily sink to the level of the lowest common denominator, which is the place where profits are most easily collected.

The more uninformed opinions we can be goaded into offering, the more drowned out the voice of informed opinion becomes, and the less likely informed dissent can ever surface. When I express an attitude on something I know nothing about, like the politics in Lebanon or Azerbaijan, I make it clear that I'm not especiallly interested in the attitudes of people who do know, or finding out any actual information about these places. I'm only interested in having an opinion and making other people hear it. (Why do you think I have a blog?)

Next time you have your cell-phone out ready to text a response to an instapoll, or you are ready to express your pleasure at the singing of some hack on American Idol, or are ready to post another rant about political ineptitude to your blog, please think about how you are helping me kill the Enlightenment.


  1. Who stands to benefit from encouraging uninformed opinion and discouraging critical thought? People who offer binary choices in the guise of outreach and then play both sides. I just want to know how I can get in on the action. Maybe I'll start an insta-poll company.

  2. Some investment analysts subscribe to "efficient market theory", which holds that a stock is always fairly valued because all stocks trade at a price that the market is willing to pay, regardless of what that price is. Following this logic, of course, one would invariably hesitate to buy stock since every stock is always at full price. The opposite of this is "technical analysis", which is an odd combination of statistics and tea-leaf reading, but can be summed up like this: If a stock or commodity has been going up for a while, it will most likely continue to go up. Until the stock starts going down, of course, in which case a host of factors are rolled out to explain the unforeseen decline. Then it will most likely go down unless it starts going up again. All of which validates the genius of the markets.

  3. It's like one of my favorite sections in the Journal, the roundup of how stocks performed, where a price move is reported and a bland, blithely confident one-sentence explanation for the move is offered, as if the market is always hyperrational, always explicable. This is like the two-word details in the racing form annotating a horse's performance. "Didn't fire." "Boxed-in." "Tired early."