Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Kevin Smith uses podcasts, Twitter to prosper in the age of niche marketing

I’ve never really been a Kevin Smith fan.

Kevin Smith is a director, responsible for some of the most influential films from my youth. “Clerks“,”Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” – his Jay and Silent Bob characters are cultural icons, but I never really drank the Kool-Aid.

Smith is a stoner icon, and while I’m cheerfully libertarian on paper, I’m incredibly conservative in my private life. I was born a 50-year-old man, so now that I’m 40, I feel like I’m finally growing into my age.

So yeah, I’m not his target audience, but I’ve heard Kevin on a couple podcasts lately, and I can’t help but admire his honesty.

Kevin Smith has no illusions about who he is or what he’s here for. He makes no apologies and wears no masks. He’s been incredibly forthright about his successes and failures, and he doesn’t hide from his mistakes.

He wears his mistakes like NASCAR racing endorsements, plastered in plain sight, as if he’s daring the world to notice them.

I admire this because Smith is not your standard bulletproof celebrity, divinely aloof from all criticism. He’s naturally touchy and oversensitive, but he confronts critics head-on, effectively leading with his chin.

He’s got one of the most popular Twitter feeds on the Internet – 1.8 million followers at the moment – and he posts to it constantly, presiding over an army of rabid fans.

Smith made news last year when a major airline declared him “too fat to fly” and forced him off a plane after he was (comfortably) in place with his seatbelt on.

Smith told the story on Marc Maron’s podcast back in January. He got bumped from the plane and begged the airline management for help. When they were condescending and unhelpful, he basically said, “This is your last chance to do the right thing. If I walk away now, in 30 minutes you’re gonna come looking for me.”

Smith was already a “Twitter millionaire” by that time, and he decided to put his fans to good use. He began tweeting like a madman from the airport waiting area, liberally copying messages to the airline’s public relations address.

Thirty minutes later, the manager tracked him down and offered him anything in the airline’s power to give, if he would just stop tweeting.

Don’t you wish you had 1 million Twitter followers?

A cautionary tale about customer service in the Internet age, but there’s a bigger point here, too. When the entertainment press turned on Smith for “bullying” the airline, he realized that a man with a million Twitter followers doesn’t really need the entertainment press anymore.

These days Kevin Smith is truly a “citizen of the Internet.” He’s on tour now, promoting his film “Red State,” but the core of his business is the close relationship he’s built with his fans.

He’s never going to make a Michael Bay blockbuster, but he’s not trying to. I think Kevin Smith is the first of many artists who are going to triumph in the age of niche marketing.

Kevin Smith isn’t making films for “everybody.” He’s found a core audience of fans who love his work and they generate enough revenue to keep him working. In 20 years the whole industry will be like this.

We’ll always have blockbusters, but increasingly, the Internet and alternative media will allow artists to create things cheaply and distribute them directly, bypassing traditional gatekeepers — forcing distributors to come chasing after them.

You don’t need a contract. You don’t need an agent. Just start throwing stuff on YouTube and see what sticks. You won’t get rich overnight, but you’ll be working. You’ll be making art for people who “get you” and that audience will grow every day.

Kevin Smith is exactly the kind of artist who will succeed in the new model. He’s brash with critics and humble with fans. He’s working on a personal level, telling stories that come from his life. He’s a one-man marketing machine who engages with his fans on a level that would terrify a traditional director.

But there’s one more thing that makes Kevin Smith special. Since 1994, he’s been working with Jason Mewes, a self-confessed drug addict who’s using the power of podcasts and public confession to stay sober.

Mewes works with Smith on the podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old,” where he regales the audience with hilarious (and harrowing) tales of drug abuse and recovery. Oversharing as rehab? Not a treatment for the shy or faint of heart, but it’s working, and when you’re playing on the edge like this, results are all that matter.

I’ll never be a Kevin Smith fan, but I think he’s a good person, and the Internet rewards people who tell the truth and play it straight. I think Kevin Smith has stumbled onto a business model for the new millennium, and that a thousand directors will follow in his wake.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 24, 2011 at 05:24

Posted in Movies, Podcasts, Twitter

Once upon a time in the Bandit Kingdoms…

Many years ago, there was a giant Dungeons and Dragons campaign called Living Greyhawk, where the organizers carved up this giant fictional world and matched them up with states and countries in the real world.

Each state in the union (and quite a few foreign provinces) were matched up with countries in the world of Greyhawk.

Texas was given the Bandit Kingdoms, a group of lawless frontier kingdoms full of thieves and criminals.

Then, as part of the overall plot development in the world, an evil king named Iuz moved in next door and started turning everybody into undead slaves.

Each region in the Living Greyhawk campaign had a web site to keep their particular group organized. The Bandit Kingdoms site was my favorite. It featured a list of t-shirt slogans that I regard as a masterpiece of dark humor and game geekery.

If you ever played Dungeons and Dragons, if you ever rolled a character in Greyhawk, this list should be good for a smile at least.

=====
T-shirt design debate

Being co-ordinated by Pat.

List gathered by Marcia: Please thank her.
Wanted, Demonslayers with HP’s, AC’s, GMW’s and a better healer.
“We came. We fought. He kicked our asses!”
“You can serve me just as well dead as alive!”
“We keep planting the paladins but the population never seems to grow.”
A friend in need is just another opportunity for profit.
According to the campaign rules, you can play any non-evil alignment, so you can choose anything neutral or suicidal.
All our heroes work in Hallorn.
All you need for speak with dead is the head, right?
An average of 2 lost characters per player and growing.
Anything that is not nailed down is mine. Anything I can pry loose is NOT nailed down.
Anything that is not nailed down is ours. Anything we can pry loose is NOT nailed down.
As a matter of fact I DO detect as evil
Bandit Kingdoms Underground – Resistance or Death!
Bandit Kingdoms: Good is only skin deep. Evil goes all the way to the bone.
Bandit Kingdoms: The Original Rogue State
Bandit Kingdoms: Where the plot hook rarely catches you in the mouth.
Bandits R’ Us
Been there, done that, got the whip scars.
Brains, its what makes a body good.
Can someone give me a hand with the paladin? He tried to detect evil again.
Can’t we all just get along?
Children go hungry, demons walk the streets, and an evil demi-god rules over the land…looks like everything is back to normal.
Conga line of death starts here.
Dead adventurers are the biggest portion of our economy.
Death: it does a body good
Dishonor before death.
Don’t antagonize the Demon. He’s dating your sister.
Don’t antagonize the Demons! They run the tax office.
Don’t cut off their heads it ruins the resale value!
Don’t get excited — it’s just another demon.
Don’t oppress me, I get plenty of that back home.
Everything’s worth something to somebody.
Evil schmeevil
Free Lords Forever! (Time to kick Iuz’s butt)
Free Lords Forever, viva la Revolution!
Give me every thing you got. Yes even the boots.
GM: “You hear screaming at the end of the hall.” PC (40′ from the end of the hall): “I take 10 searching the square in front of me.”
Greyhawk the bodies!
How many evil acts does it take to be removed from the campaign?
How much do you think we can get for this?
I *AM* the lesser evil.
I came, I saw, I lost some levels!
I don’t have to outrun HIM; I just have to outrun YOU!
I exemplify all the BK virtues: Jaded, cynical, and amoral.
I gave my soul to Neroth and all I got was this stinking T-Shirt
I kill him and take his shoes.
If the bounty gets high enough, I’ll turn myself in!
If you’re reading this, RUN! The forces of IUZ are right behind me!
I’m not touching that.
I’m right behind you.
In the BK no one can hear you scream.
In the BK we don’t believe in evil, we believe in opportunities.
It’s a dead body; let’s just shoot it from here.
It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye… then it’s down right hilarious!
It’s no use killing the city watch. They’re already undead.
It’s not an evil act if it hurts Iuz in any way.
It’s not theft if he’s dead.
Its only meta-gaming if you haven’t actually encountered Osyluth’s and Cornugon’s before.
IUZ is offering 500gp for my head… I wonder how much he’d give for the rest of me?
Iuz’s Conscription Center: We Want You Dead or Alive
I’ve been to the Old One’s silver mines, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.
I’ve got your back.
Jaded, cynical, amoral, but not bitter. Never bitter. No.
Just say ‘No’ to Paladins.
Looting and pillaging contribute over 66% of our GDP.
Mercy is for the weak.
Morality may be relative, but all my relatives have moved to Furyondy.
Must be nice to have ruler who doesn’t eat human flesh.
My region can kick your region’s butt!
Never surrender; never give up
Never trust a doublin.
Nice kingdom you’ve got here. Be a real shame if something were to ‘happen’ to it…
No mission too dangerous, no fee too high!
Of course we get to keep anything we find. Now, let’s discuss our *fee*.
One man’s medusa victim is another man’s lawn art.
Our cops are demons and undead. Our ruler eats souls for breakfast.
Our Zombies could kick your Zombies’ asses.
Over 10 billion souls reaped.
Paladin. It’s what’s for dinner.
Pick a direction and let’s go kill something.
Possession is 10 tenths of the law.
Providing charitable services at reasonable prices since CY 591.
Relax, they just drain levels.
Remember the Steelbone Meadows
Resistance is futile
Scream once for ‘Run away’, twice for ‘Help’.
Selling out our grandmothers since CY 591.
Serving the lesser god of evil since CY 591.
So, we get to keep *anything* we find in the mine other than the gems, right? Great. We’re gonna need a few mules.
Somebody tell that Lawful Good Bozo to keep his mouth shut!”
Soul, I don’t need no steenking soul!
Squeeze the little gnomes and watch their heads pop off.
The Bandit Kingdoms – Home of the Good, the Bad, and Old Ugly
The Bandit Kingdoms – Resistance even if Dead
The Bandit Kingdoms – Where every step may be your last!
The Bandit Kingdoms – Where the only ones you CAN trust are the bandits!
The Bandit Kingdoms – You’ll be screaming for your mommy.
The few, the proud, the Bonehearts!
The few, the proud, the undead
The Good, the Bad, and Old Ugly
The Good, the Bad, and the BK
The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
The Old One – out of sight, but never out of mind!
The Quick and the Dead
The Quick and the Undead.
The reward’s too low and they didn’t spell my name right.
The town has been destroyed by fire? We search the place for any valuables that might have survived.
There is no lesser evil. There is no greater evil. There is only Iuz.
Trust me.
Uncle Iuz wants YOU in the Bonehearts!
Undead, Demons, and Betrayal. It’s nice to be home!
Under the heel of the Old One
Wanted by Assassins of the Temple Grimacing
Wanted for Questioning by the Forces of Iuz
We BK the bodies.
We didn’t start out like this
We need more paladins! It’s almost lunchtime!
We strip-search the corpses and take everything with us.
Welcome to the BK. While you’re reading this, my partner has picked your pocket. Thank you.
We’ve got two kinds of heroes: the dead ones and… Never mind. It’s just one kind of hero.
What are YOU looking at?
What are you talking about? We *are* the wrong hands.
What the heck is a doubling?
What’s in it for me?
Where the good men are dead and the smart ones don’t eat jerky
Where ya get that huge frickin badger?
Who cares about thing that go bump in the night. I care about the ones that go wooooohooooo!
Yeah, I’ll hold that for ya.
Yeah, show’em your holy symbol, that will go over REAL big!”
Yes, that IS brimstone you smell.
You go first.
You may HATE him, but WE have to live with him!
You’ll want to choose me. I’m the lesser evil.
Your money or your life? What kind of pansy bandit are you, giving people a choice?
You’ve got three options: quick, smart, and dead. Choose two.
“The Bandit Kingdoms: Where the good men are dead, and the smart ones don’t eat the jerky”.
The Bandit Kingdoms… where ALL (live) bards have fighter or barbarian levels….

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 20, 2011 at 08:18

Posted in Games, Humor

Is America still good enough for Superman?

D.C. Comics stirred up controversy all over the Net last week when Superman promised to renounce his American citizenship.

It happened in Action Comics #900, in a story written by David S. Goyer. In it, Superman joins a group of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, creating an international incident. Iran claims he’s acting as an official representative of the U.S. government and calls it an act of war.

The story opens with Superman getting scolded by the president’s National Security Advisor. Superman accepts the rebuke and says he can no longer tolerate having his actions associated with the U.S. government. He declares his intention to appear before the U.N. and renounce his citizenship.

Superman reminds us that he’s an alien and should therefore look at the “bigger picture.” He says, “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy.”

This story can be interpreted in two ways. The first (most charitable) interpretation is that Superman is giving up his citizenship for our own good. He wants to protect America from the consequences of his actions. Viewed in this light, renouncing his citizenship can be seen as Superman acting in America’s best interests.

But most comic readers, and most people who hear the news, are not going to interpret it that way.

There is a very ugly subtext in this story. Superman is essentially “getting in trouble” for doing the right thing. The U.S. is ready to declare him an enemy of the state. When he first lands at Camp David, a Marine sniper is pointing a Kryptonite bullet at his head.

Kryptonite bullets aimed at Superman's head

This is not a pro-America story. People are reacting to it emotionally because Superman is a powerful symbol – a distinctly American symbol, carried forward into another time.

There are a lot of cultural forces in conflict here. I’m fascinated by this story because it’s a great example of how our culture has changed since Superman was introduced.

There are two big trends driving this story. First, my generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world. Comic book films are a billion-dollar industry, and modern comic books aren’t really aimed at kids anymore.

Superman vs. HitlerThe second trend is more cultural. Superman is a Modern Age hero, but we’re living in a postmodern century. Superman came from a world of sharp contrasts and clear lines, when good was good and evil was evil – a four-color hero making black and white choices.

But that world is long gone. Even in childhood, our national fairy tales have been replaced by lessons about moral ambiguity. Our kids are trained to accept all cultures equally, to consider all perspectives and feel sympathy for underdogs.

Our parents and grandparents were taught to worship America. Modern kids are trained to question America – to look for chinks in our national armor and focus on America’s mistakes.

But Superman wasn’t made for this world. He was made for an older, simpler world where America was always right and its enemies were always wrong.

Modern storytellers have done amazing work, redefining old-fashioned heroes for a postmodern world. The shelves are full of outstanding books based on this contrast, from Mark Waid’s “Kingdom Come” to Brad Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis.”

But Goyer’s story doesn’t strike the same note with me. It feels ham-handed and coarse – turning Superman into a political creature in a way he was never meant to be.

Goyer’s presentation of Superman as an alien isn’t just a postmodern conceit, it’s a betrayal of the character. Superman’s story is an immigrant’s story – an old-fashioned immigrant story lifted straight from the ’20s and ’30s.

He came to America as a child and adopted our values. In those days, that’s what America was – a set of values that anyone could adopt. It didn’t matter where you came from; if you were willing to work hard, play fair and deal honorably with your fellow man, you could wear the label “American” and be part of something that was bigger than any national identity.

Superman was the ultimate symbol of this transformation, proof that anyone could come from tragedy and ascend to greatness. But now America has changed. Our perception of America has changed.

Modern children don’t see America as a set of values anymore. Today America is just another nation on the map — no better, and often much worse, than the others. Superman is an unambiguous symbol of good, and a good hero can’t represent an evil country.

That’s the statement I think Goyer is making in Action Comics 900. America isn’t good enough for Superman anymore. How can he stand for “Truth, justice and the American Way” when we can’t even define what the American Way is?

The concept of an American Way has been swept aside, replaced by a postmodern muddle of guilt and shame. I understand the temptation to throw stones at DC Comics, but I would rather use this as the springboard for a larger discussion.

Does superhero morality really belong in the adult world? Can we see America in context and still be proud of it? Can we admit our mistakes and still celebrate our virtues? Is patriotism a feeling we must “grow out of” as we study history?

I think there’s still room for an American Way in the 21st century. I think we can celebrate America without ignoring history, and I think there’s still room for patriotism in the American heart – not the blind, childish patriotism of our youth, but a mature, adult patriotism that keeps America in context and takes honest pride in what we’ve done.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 6, 2011 at 19:32

Posted in Best Of, Comics, Politics

Meet Scott Johnson, the Orson Welles of Podcasting

Scott Johnson (Podcaster)So, how do I describe Scott Johnson to people who aren’t already listening to his podcasts?

Is he the Nick Denton of podcasting? The Henry Ford of podcasting? I think history will remember him as the Orson Welles of podcasting. Right now Scott is in his Mercury Theatre phase – testing the waters, inventing new techniques, trying a hundred little experiments as he refines his style and learns what audiences want.

Even now Scott produces more podcasts in a week than most people have time to listen to. With strong support from advertisers, FrogPants Studios has been Scott’s full-time job since 2009. The FrogPants network produces podcasts on a wide range of geek-friendly topics — from The Instance, a show about the World of Warcraft to Coverville, a music podcast dedicated to weird and wonderful covers of popular songs, FrogPants Studios produces shows on a dozen niche topics, all done in a format that sounds like your favorite morning show.

I started out as an Instance fan and have recently branched out, following Scott’s projects as he started The Creep, a podcast about Starcraft II, and The Morning Stream, a true morning show format where Scott and his co-host Brian Ibbott riff about politics, news and pop culture.

Of all these projects, The Morning Stream is Scott’s baby now.

“I feel like everything that I have done over the years has led up to The Morning Stream,” Scott said. “I am SOOO happy with [that] show so far, and it’s only a couple of months old. It just feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work, trial and error, and experience with this stuff for the last 5 or 6 years. It is something that I wish I would have done sooner, and the listeners seem to agree.”

Scott casts such a wide net, producing so many podcasts on so many topics, it’s hard to describe them all. If you’re looking for something fun and free to load on your iPod, Google “frog pants” and check out Scott’s master list of podcasts.

I subscribed to the FrogPants Ultra Feed and found a couple hidden gems – a couple great podcasts that don’t get as much attention as Scott’s big three. I particularly enjoyed the FourCast, basically a group of geeks predicting the future – not just riffing about what the next iPad will look like, but a discussion about what the human race will look like, once technology gives us the power to redefine what “human” means.

Heavy stuff, but still handled with humor and wit, perfect for fans of Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks.

I’ve noticed a pattern in these podcasts. Scott acts as moderator and provocateur, throwing out questions when things get slow, but slipping quietly into the background when his guests are on a roll. I think it’s that producer mentality, that lack of ego that has allowed Scott to succeed when so many others have faded.

I saw it first on The Instance, when Scott brought in Randy Jordan to provide some much-needed crunch and attention to detail. Scott became the jester to Randy’s straight man, keeping the tone light while Randy dug into the nuts and bolts of the game. Their chemistry took the show to a whole new level, turning it into one of the indispensable geek podcasts, even for people who are tired of the game.

Randy recently left the podcast, citing a conflict of interest with his mysterious new dream job. It could have been the end of the show, but Scott brought in a couple of fast-talking guild mates and turned the whole thing around.

Scott is rocking the house with his new co-hosts Turpster and Dills and the tone of the show has completely changed. Nothing could replace the chemistry of Scott and Randy, so they didn’t try.

The Instance is a completely new show now, and I was struck by how quickly Scott himself was able to switch gears. He doesn’t have to be the funniest guy in the room anymore, so he’s content to step back and let the others take center stage.

It’s this quality more than anything else that makes me take Scott seriously. It’s the same quality that put Nick Denton on top of a worldwide blog empire – the same quality that all great producers and directors have. These guys provide the creative juice and push things forward, but ultimately it’s not “about” them. It’s about finding the best talent for the job and getting out of their way.

Scott was modest when I asked him about it. I don’t think he spends a lot of time thinking about his role in all this. When I asked him to share his advice for new podcasters, he made it sound easy.

Scott said, “Simple: Start making shows, don’t worry about selling shirts the first day, be consistent, and do it because you love it. All of that will add up to greater things later.”

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 16, 2011 at 20:02

Posted in Podcasts

A Timely Quote from The Diamond Age

One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a
research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually
turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood.
Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few
weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once
again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from
the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some
bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned
during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles
riots of the previous year provided a vivid counterexample. Finkle-
McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political
views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically
different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be,
and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not
a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some
cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view
implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never
voiced.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 12, 2011 at 13:52

Posted in Books, Culture

Charlie Sheen’s UStream Adventure

Charlie Sheen’s inaugural vidcast may be the most effective anti-drug promotion ever filmed. Now we know the real reason Bree Olson bailed. She apparently saw the script in advance.

This video is an object lesson in celebrity failure, a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to follow Sheen into fame and fortune.

I don’t know where stardom starts, but it ends in Sheen’s Korner.

This is what it looks like when your family has abandoned you, all your real friends are gone, and there’s no one left to give you a reality check. You end up behind a desk in a seedy home office with nothing but your producer, your drug dealer, and your spare girlfriend to keep you company.

Everyone in that room was paid to be there. Watch the way they laugh at his jokes — the microsecond pause before each laugh — too loud, too long and too clear for the joke that preceded it. Watch the random, disconnected way everyone behaves, like they’ve been in Sheen’s orbit so long they don’t even have free will — stuck waiting for the next bit of random wordplay, as if the last one to laugh is going to have their allowance cut off.

This is what the end of the road looks like. This is the new face of #despair.

Sheen’s debut is particularly poignant because PUA philosopher Roissy had just finished anointing Sheen as the super-alpha, the gold standard by which all lesser men should be judged.

There’s no doubt that Sheen handled that interview like an alpha. But now, scriptless, directionless, surrounded by sycophants, all that manic energy is gone.

Sheen’s previous performance was a kind of combat, a kind of verbal judo, fought against an intimidated reporter who never stood a chance. But now, with no opponent in front of him, with no challenge to rise to, Sheen looks like what he is — a lonely old drug addict, sliding into middle age.

The sponsors will RUN, not walk away from him now, and his career is effectively over. He may still have an Ozzie-style comeback left in him, but that’s many years away, after he spends a long, painful stretch #winning rehab.

@charliesheen needs to send his next tweet from a hospital, and that gap-toothed enabler on his left needs to be in jail.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 5, 2011 at 22:54

Posted in Gossip

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

Tax cuts won’t solve the problem

Republicans are celebrating (prematurely) now that Obama seems to be on board with preserving the Bush tax cuts.

I believe that tax cuts are always good, but doing something good for the economy is not the same as fixing the economy.

A friend of mine said recently that Keynesianism is a religion. Paul Krugman is using an unfalsifiable argument when he defends money printing and government stimulus. Sure, our predictions were wrong and unemployment is getting worse instead of better, but imagine how bad it would have been if we had done nothing.

Now Republicans are in exactly the same boat with tax cuts. Obama has called their bluff. They got what they wanted and preserved tax cuts for the “rich,” but what if the economy doesn’t improve?

What will the Republicans say? “Well sure, our predictions were wrong and unemployment is getting worse, but imagine how bad it would have been if we had let those tax cuts expire.”

Same unfalsifiable argument, same blind faith.

Tax cuts are really just another kind of stimulus. You can argue that private stimulus is more effective than government stimulus but even if we grant that, it misses the point.

The economy is not struggling because we lack “liquidity.” Demand for credit is going down, not up. There’s no monetary “shortage” out there. The problem is malinvestment. The succession of bubbles we’ve had in tech stocks, real estate, and bond markets have shifted the focus of the economy to things that cannot produce sustainable profits.

We have too many construction workers, too many bureaucrats and far, far too many real estate and finance professionals performing jobs that do not generate real wealth.

We have to regroup, refocus and retrain. Trillions in bad debt needs to be recognized, restructured and discharged. Hundreds of banks need to fail, thousands of mortgages need to be discharged and hundreds of executives on Wall Street need to go to jail.

Tax cuts are great, but tax cuts can not fix the fundamental problems with this economy.

Picture the economy as a big bucket with a small hole in the bottom. You’ve got a water hose that represents cash — money, liquidity, stimulus, tax cuts, whatever. Good investment stays in the bucket and raises the water level, bad investment leaks out of the hole.

You notice the water level in your bucket going down and you panic. You grab the hose and sure enough, the water level rises again, as long as you keep pouring water/cash into the bucket. But this action does nothing to patch the hole. You’re still leaking money out the bottom. In fact, when you add money into the system, velocity increases and the leak gets worse.

Congress comes along and has to make a choice. Are we going to let these tax cuts expire and reduce the flow of water into the bucket, or are we going to let things continue as they are?

Expiring the tax cuts would hurt the economy, i.e. reduce the total amount of water in the bucket, but they would also reduce the amount of bad investment leaking out the bottom. Allowing the tax cuts to continue will preserve the current rate of flow into the economy, but will do nothing to fix the fundamental problem.

Somebody needs to stand up and shout, “Hey! You’ve got a hole in that bucket!” and find a way to patch it. (In real life, this person is Ron Paul.)

But instead of listening to these people, politicians are arguing amongst themselves. Republicans say, “We need to cut taxes and pour hot water into the economy!” Democrats say, “The government needs to spend more and pour cold water into the economy!”

The only time they agree is when they get together on TV to shout, “Shut up, you idiots! The bucket’s fine! We’re just not getting enough water from the hose!”

This is the basic premise of the Austrian Business Cycle. Our efforts to patch the bucket may disrupt things and lower the total water level for a time, but the whole system will be healthier when we’re done. The repairs will be messy, but the repaired bucket will hold more water in the long run.

So no, I’m not expecting tax cuts to fix the economy. Honestly, I was hoping the Democrats would repeal them. This would serve two purposes. First, it would cause a surge in unemployment and provide evidence that tax cuts for the rich finance jobs for the poor. And second, they would force a lot of marginal companies to go bankrupt and help deflate the stock bubble on Wall Street.

We’re at the point where we must abandon our current tasks so we can focus our attention on better ones. Cutting interest rates and preserving the tax cuts encourages people to stick with the (failed) course they’re currently on.

A tax increase could provide a much-needed reality check to people who are currently addicted to easy money, reducing the “water level” so much, ordinary voters might even notice the hole in the bucket.

It’s a uniquely perverse way of looking at tax policy, but this is the world we live in.

So what should we do? Increase interest rates and stop the crazy flow of money that is making this problem worse. Free money from the Fed is encouraging all kinds of distortions in the market, to the point of rewarding blatant corruption. It must be stopped before things can get better.

The question is, will we stop it voluntarily, or will we have sanity imposed upon us, by a bond market that doesn’t believe our promises anymore?

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 11, 2010 at 00:00

Posted in Politics

links for 2010-12-10

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 10, 2010 at 23:21

Posted in Uncategorized

links for 2010-12-09

  • Presents Austrian economics to high school students using "mainstream" language that will prepare them for college.
  • Operation Payback is facing a little payback of its own. First Twitter closed the pro-Wikileaks hacker movement's account. And now we hear the Feds are shutting down some online discussion of Operation Payback attacks.
  • "The last time my father left, for real this time, the legal document that came to define our relationship decreed that I had to go there every other weekend. I'm not especially good at being told what to do, by anybody, and neither is he, so when I'd go to the trailer he lived in to angrily serve out my sentence he was rarely ever there. I did what any eighteen year old would do in this situation: I took advantage of his deep roster of top shelf liquor, perused his library of intense VHS erotica, and played darts. I would also take huge stacks of his CDs home to pawn. At the time, I felt like we were more or less coming out even. The upshot of all this, aside from the fact that it makes such a heartwarming Christmas tale, is that I learned Darts is actually a really good game."

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 9, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized