Bill Watterson and Newspaper Entrepreneurship

Reading David’s post and talking it over with him before and afterwards, I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s speech “The Cheapening of Comics.”

Why am I talking about comics in a thread about print news? There are a few important overlaps between David’s points and Watterson’s. First, they’re both about print media—Watterson is talking specifically about newspaper comics. Second, they both are about a time of relatively few options in the media landscape.

Third, they both have a sense of mass media being maintained by a social contract which long ago was breached. See David:

For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum.

Now see Watterson:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

And most crucially, in both of them is a clear belief that things did not need to be this way. Watterson was writing about his present, and David about his past, but both of them are making a claim that a stable equilibrium was not made inevitable by economic and technological realities.

The economist’s argument to both is that if printed news and newspaper comics appear in some way deficient to David and Watterson, the audiences are to blame, not the people in the industry. The market supplies what people want. Even when it was subsidized by classified and had far fewer close substitutes, print was a trial and error information processing bloodbath. Very, very low margins, and a lot of churn. It seems as though if there was another stable equilibrium, this information processing machine would have found it.

On the other hand, it is the very drive to find a better way that brought us to where we are today. Elsewhere I have remarked on how Watterson, despite his anti-commercial rhetoric, displays some remarkable bourgeois virtues.

The cause of death for the still-warm body of print news may have ultimately been the bomb planted by tinkering technologists, but who is to say that, if the digital and Internet revolutions had not come, things would have stayed the same? The niche magazine market was already expanding rather drastically at the time, who knows how that would have played out in itself. And perhaps some gutsy entrepreneurs would have found a way to make mass media work without treating their audiences like a single bland mass. Who knows?

The Joy of Storytelling

The local bar was one they had all started coming to quite recently, but soon they found they couldn’t get away from it. They came not for the brews but for the conversation. No one knew who was the first regular at the place, but slowly a group had formed. They were not entirely like-minded, and certainly not all of the same background or age. But there was something that each of them found in each of the other that kept them coming back; the conversations born of the group were just so much better than any pair of them could have produced.

Francis began to speak, and they hushed up from their various side conversations. For this was their strange habit; they talked all together sometimes, and more often in smaller subgroups, but every so often one would speak up and the rest would listen for a spell.

“Arguments and essays are storytelling, no different in kind than novels or comic books.”

“I think we’ve heard this one before,” Black noted with a grin.

“But you’re taking it kind of far this time,” Ham protested, “storytelling is storytelling, but there are consequences. Some stories help us find truth. Some are responsible for real, material progress.”

“There are all kinds of truth,” Francis continued, “and material progress is stumbled on in a lot of different ways. Engineers playing around with creating the laser just thought they were doing something cool, and now it fixes eyes. Botox was made purely for the purposes of vanity, and now is used to treat chronic migraines.”

“That’s all well and good, but no one ever cured migraines with a comic book,” Van replied.

“Are you going to let him say his piece?” Will chastised.

“Careful about indulging my desire for a captive audience,” Francis said by way of thanks, “different sorts of stories serve different purposes, I’ll grant you all. But most of the time we tell them for the same reasons; because we love stories, we love to explore their structure, play with different ways of telling them, find different endings. It’s the same with philosophy and science. Don’t you find ideas kind of beautiful? Once you really get into them? Isn’t argument really about feeling that your cherished ideas have been tarnished in some way by other people’s?”

“OK, we get it,” Marc jumped in, “ideas are fun. Novels are fun. They’re all stories. We’ve heard this all before, you’ve told this story maybe one time too many. Where are you going with this?”

“You sure are an impatient lot,” Francis replied, “but you’re the biggest addicts of all! None of you are specialists in the areas we tell stories about, yet none of you can cease talking about this stuff, coming up with notions, ideas more or less baked, throwing the spaghetti to see what sticks.”

“That’s what everyone’s getting at dude,” Ron said, “you’re preaching to the choir. We get it. Move on.”

“The best stories never get old,” Francis murmured, and they laughed, and moved on to to less well-worn ground. As the hours stretched out, they peeled off in ones and twos, eventually all returning back to their homes and their families.

Duke and Francis were the last to leave. “I think you’re muscling in on my turf with this approach,” Duke said.

“It’s not polite to break the fourth wall,” Francis replied as they walked out. Duke thought the term came from theater, not prose, but he decided to let it be.

A True Friend Helps You Move A Body

A true friend not only helps you move your old dormitory couch out of the basement man-cave because your wife complained about the smell even though you don’t smell anything amiss–but she does, and you know what it is she’s smelling, and whom–not only does a true friend help you move aromatic furniture, he also helps you move a body. As the bard proclaims: Ne’er is friendship made more sure than ‘neath the docks/ In darkness for the poor deceased creating concrete socks (Now the song is stuck in your head, isn’t it?)

In civil society, we generally wait for the body to assume room temperature, even refrigerator temperature, before we hire men to dig the hole or stoke the furnace. Moreover, we ask for information regarding death: what kind of sickness? What manner of death? Next of kin? On the other hand, when a friend is required in order to perform a burial, we’re no longer in civil society, and the body is still warm. Most importantly, no questions are asked, not even, “Remember that thing we did?” And whenever someone asks, “What ever happened to Johnny Two Shoes?” the answer is along the lines of “He did seem kind of heavy the last time I saw him.” “Yeah, like he had a kind of sinking feeling about him.”

Many are nostalgic for print media, but we haven’t even buried print media yet. Basic questions have yet to be answered: what killed print media? Was it self-inflicted morbid living (lowest common denominator marketing)? Or was it old age (ineluctability of new technology)? Could the cause of death actually have been suicide (shooting its own customer base in the head repeatedly)?

It was this sentence fragment in Clay Shirky’s “Nostalgia and Newspapers” post which aggravated me (I thought the post was otherwise commendable), concerning print media: “…an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry…” That’s like saying Johnny Two Shoes loved gambling when in fact Johnny Two Shoes loved running a fixed and illegal roulette game in the Miami Beach area. For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum. But when Drudge Report, a digital media source, broke the news that Newsweek had declined to pursue the Monica Lewinsky story, the general public abandoned the print media casino. That was it. Too many of us had seen too much violence done to truth, virtue, honesty, integrity, etc., to look the other way any longer; our secondary benefits had been tainted by an arrogant culture of liars and power mongers. News media is not supposed to be terribly objective, but neither are they to be so crass in their power influencing.

The Drudge/Lewinsky example might be too fraught as an example (I’m feeling bombastic), but I repeat for emphasis: it wasn’t the Monica Lewinsky story, it was that Newsweek declined to do its job. Thus, the nascent digital media, which could have died in the birth canal, was delivered, and print media was no longer. Digital was a favorable alternative for many reasons, but not ineluctable, and it didn’t have to mean the demise of print; it still doesn’t.

These quick and easy eulogies of print media seem to me to be disposing of a warm body.


of Scarcity and Abundance

Abundance does not eliminate scarcity. Until we’ve licked the problem of scarce attention and limited time, each of us is bound by the hard constraints imposed by our wee mortal existences. 

Whether sacred, profane, or both, cultivating virtue is costly. The technology of rhetoric is to reduce these costs to the consumer. Aesop was the original Amazon, making virtue as easy as dozing off in mommy’s lap with a cautionary tale in your ear. Tale-weavers today continue in this tradition, mining storytelling tropes to sell modern rectitude, endlessly recycling pre-fab bits of cultural organs and connective tissue, all the while passing on hints about what the audience should avoid or aspire to.

“Do we need a new eudaimonia” is, I think, the wrong question to ask. A better question is, “what can we do as storytellers to help our audience make virtue less expensive?” I don’t think this cheapens virtue in a particularly perverse way, but I do acknowledge that this electronic abundance sure changes the relative prices. 

Permissionless innovate your way to #phronesis. Be the #thinkfluence you want to see in the world.

Epicurus on Coping with Abundance

Sam argues that our historically unprecedented levels of wealth changes the equation for virtue and vice. Humanity has for nearly all of its existence lived on the knife-edge of starvation, and it only makes sense that norms and instincts developed under those circumstances would not necessarily set us up for success in a wealthier world.

Virtue and vice as Aristotle understood the terms were preserved to the present thanks to Christian scholars who continued to write within the tradition. The Christian version, however, like Christianity itself, was meant for everyone; Nietzsche famously referred to Christainity as a “slave religion”; Deirdre McCloskey, a Christian herself, spoke of Christian virtues being “peasant virtues”.

Originally, however, the Hellenistic schools that developed a eudaimonistic concept of virtue were comprised primarily of the well-to-do (McCloskey thus refers to their continued influence on us in the form of “aristocratic virtues”).  While their wealth was nowhere near ours, they did experience genuine affluence, and developed their ethical theories in that environment.

Consider Epicurus, who history remembers as a hedonist. Epicureanism, unlike the moderns who inappropriately use the label, was not so very far from Stoicism in a number of regards, a fact recognized by later Stoics such as Seneca. While Epicurus made pleasure synonymous with the good life, he also radically redefined the word “pleasure”—to the point where the Cyrenaics, who were actual hedonists, referred to Epicureanism as “the philosophy of a corpse.”

Why consider Epicurus in the context raised by Sam? Epicurus was fixated on what we might call long term thinking. Boredom was not his enemy as much as pleasures that we might indulge in today that could hurt us later. Thus, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in eating delicious food—unless we become dependent upon having such culinary quality in order to be happy. Since humans, in general, do tend to develop expectations in line with our typical day, an Epicurean approach to food is perfectly consistent with eating mostly bland things in order to avoid being disappointed in the long run.

It may seem ironic given the popular perception of Epicureanism, but the ataraxia of Epicurus may be one of the best guides for moderns seeking to cope with abundance.

Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement. 


To Tell or Not To Tell

Reasonable people might say that Shakespeare wrote his Richard II with reference (perhaps allusion) to Elizabeth’s childlessness in her old age. In fact, reasonable historians believe that the play itself was an added inspiration for the revolt of the Earl of Essex, which ended in a rather ugly fashion. The trick, of course, is that reasonable people can disagree most vehemently, and, thereby, keep their heads attached to their necks.

AB is on to something with his corrective post, namely that wisdom bears in telling stories. All stories can be told. All stories are told in context. Contexts change. Contexts can be manipulated. Stories can be manipulated. People can be manipulated.

When you get into the  business of people-manipulating, it helps to have the power to do so with impunity. A wise storyteller uses ambiguity as a defensive weapon, that is, winks and nods encoded in the text, the decoding of which, naturally, becomes the playground for mischievous persons. Shakespeare, as history bears out, endures much foolishness, but as all wise men do, he speaks not, and in not speaking, he asserts power, much power, over the reader, over history, over society, informing our hearts with virtue.

Likewise Homer, and a few others.

The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer. 

The one way ratchet of responding to children (and cats).

Adam found a great study that might indicate that kids’ “stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior.”

There’s a cynical way to look at this. First, three things about my perspective: 1) The mode of thinking I’m about describe came from my time as a preschool teacher, 2) I don’t have kids, 3) The technique does, however, seem to work on my cat.

It’s possible that kids (and perhaps cats) merely crave attention and feedback. The stories of punishment are stories of a behavior that received attention (fame as being the boy/girl that got eaten by wild animals or the boy/girl that had a freakish nose-talent and was made of wood!?). The lesson a kid could take from those stories of punishment might be merely that lying makes you the object of attention. The Washington story on the other hand teaches the same lesson but with a virtuous trigger behavior, x behavior—being a sap that hates trees but can’t bark a fib—earns you attention (even, gasp, the presidency!).

So what we end up with is a one way ratchet. Give child attention, behavior at time of attention will be amplified. Reward negative behavior with punishment-attention and you get more negative behavior; reward positive behavior with praise-attention and you get more positive behavior.

But wait, you are saying dear reader, Peter, your cynicism and cat manipulation have blinded you to the actual results of the study! The punishment stories did not encourage lying… punishment stories simply had no effect on behavior. I submit further cynicism in my defense. Perhaps the baseline (the control of no stories) that most kids operate on is that lying will gain you attention. And perhaps they’ve already been so saturated with this world-view that a couple of punishment stories won’t change much. The virtue story on the other hand is something new for these kids, and it momentarily spurs a change in the child’s understanding of what behavior will lead to the researcher rewarding them with attention.

My conclusion would be the same as Adam’s, we need more stories about virtue. But the reasons for that conclusion are a bit more Pavlovian. Now I’m going back to my cat-training (she “prays” like this on command):



And now for something completely different

I hope this isn’t a gauche error on my part, but I’m just going to take a break from our stand-up-philosopher act and draw our attention to some recent science reporting. It’s not often I see actual science on rhetoric and virtue.

A clever experiment by researchers at the University of Toronto and Brock University (which sounds like an excellent school) read four different stories to children, and then tested them for honesty. Here’s what they found-

The surprising finding was that only about a third of the peekers who heard the “The Tortoise and the Hare” story, the Pinocchio story and the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story confessed that they had cheated. Apparently, hearing about the dire consequences of lying such as having a wolf feast on a lying boy did not increase the likelihood of telling the truth. However, the kids who had heard the George Washington story had a significantly higher rate of truth-telling: Roughly half of the kids admitted to peeking at the toy while the experimenter had left the room!

A follow-up experiment with multiple versions of the George Washington story seems to confirm the finding that stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior. 

This seems to be useful and heartening. It’s heartening to know that rhetoric isn’t wasted effort, and that people can be inspired to improve. And it’s useful to know which types of rhetoric are more likely to produce an effect.