Bryan Caplan  

Jersey Shore, Emily Whitehurst, and Merit

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I've repeatedly argued that economic success and merit are moderately positively correlated.  In plain English: Talented people who work hard usually enjoy considerably higher income and status.  I hasten to add that in a free market, this correlation would be far stronger.  Still, few actually existing governments are awful enough to make the correlation between economic success and merit disappear.  Merit will out.

If you're a pessimist, you'll remind me that "moderately positive correlated" means "far less than perfectly correlated."  Fair enough.  There are many successful people bereft of merit. Take the cast of Jersey Shore.  Yes, I've actually watched the show, and I can't imagine defending the stars as "meritorious."  While they clearly produce a lot of economic value, they're slow-witted, lazy, impulsive drunks.  Slow-witted, lazy, impulsive, drunk millionaires.
 
At the other extreme, take Emily Whitehurst, my favorite underappreciated artist.  She's been the lead singer and song-writer for Tsunami Bomb, the Action Design, and now Survival Guide.  What singing!  What songs!  When I saw her live, she poured her whole soul into her performance.  Yet over a decade into her musical career, she remains obscure. 

I don't know Whitehurst's economic philosophy.  But if she responded to my claims about meritocracy with, "How come Snooki's big and I'm not?," I'd blush with embarrassment.  I'd like to the blame the government, but that's silly.  Immigration restrictions force employers to discriminate against meritorious foreigners.  Progressive taxes and redistribution force the industrious to support the indolent.  However, if there are regulations on the books that heavily favor drunken exhibitionists over sublime singer-songwriters, I haven't heard of them.

So what's the least-bad answer to the "How come Snooki's big and I'm not" challenge?  Probably: "Because the masses aren't good enough for you."  Millions want to watch eight idiots get drunk in a hot tub.  Only tens of thousands want to watch Emily Whitehurst sing.  The market gives people what they want, not what deserves to be wanted.

Then why not take from Snooki and give to Emily?  I could offer a public choice objection: "If markets ignore you, democracy will too."  Yet that's not true.  Look at opera, supported by tax-paying philistines around the world.  My honest answer is just a libertarian truism: People have a right to be wrong with their own money.  While I don't respect the consumer choices that make Snooki outshine Emily, we're obliged to accept them.  Oh well.  At least Emily enjoys one big consolation: being awesome.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Eric Falkenstein writes:

A modern Mahler would be oblivious unless he rewrote his work for the pop format, but this gets into a different issue: Snuki, Matt Lauer and even politicians are popular in part because they are common enough. Not overplaying your hand seems very important.

In the long run, no one cares about the Snuki of 320 BC, but we do read Plato, and this is what they are thinking about. The future is really not that far away, when you think about how Joe Namath or Farrah Fawcett turned out to be pathetic losers in old age though in 1975 they were in the 99.9th percentile of the 'most admired' circuit.

John Smith writes:

How about the view that Emily is without merit because the entertainment she offers is in fact judged to be not very entertaining by the audience at huge?

I.e. the Jersey Shore cast may be without merit, having simply won the "lottery" to appear on reality TV. But so is your Emily without merit to a huge extent.

Robinson writes:
How about the view that Emily is without merit because the entertainment she offers is in fact judged to be not very entertaining by the audience at huge?

John Smith: If you say "Merit is that which the market rewards," then Bryan's original point, that the free market rewards merit, is tautological.

Brandon Berg writes:

I think the term "meritocracy" is a bit misleading. The market doesn't reward personal merit as such, nor should it. The purpose of a market is to optimize the economy for producing what consumers want. That the market rewards stuff that you and I don't particularly want is beside the point--other people do enjoy and value those things.

A market economy is a meritocracy in that the ability to giving consumers what they want is meritorious, but it doesn't reward merit in a more general sense.

allen writes:

Yup, success in the market consists of giving the customers what we want.

If that's "Jersey Shore" it points to a fairly low standard on the part of the public but there's nothing unusual about that; low standards have always had a wide appeal. I believe, with pinkie finger extended, I'll view that observation as confirmation of what a refined fellow I am since I've never watched "Jersey Short".

Beyond the appeal to the least common denominator though there's the element of luck.

We're not just a species with generally low standards, we're also fickle. Had "Jersey Shore" aired at the wrong time it would have disappeared without leaving a ripple but by a dint of perseverance, there being no dearth of supply of awful TV shows, one manages just the right combination of timing, dopes, hotties and stupid pranks to catch the attention of the public.

Longer term merit will out but in the shorter term stupid diversions can do quite well.

Zach writes:

All art is entertainment, not all entertainment is art. Emily Whitehurst may be an excellent artist, and she is being rewarded accordingly. She is not much of an entertainer and the market for art is smaller than the market for entertainment.

Scott writes:

You also have to take into account the luck factor.

In the pop/rock music business there are thousands of bands that are very good that don't make it. Conversely there are bands that are slightly below average but who do end up making it because they are lucky enough and/or good enough at negotiating to get a promoter and/or record company to take a chance on them. Just check out this interview with harmonica virtuoso Jason Ricci: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xe9IOVBcTvw

At 2:26

"It's the only business I know of in the entire world where hard work, perseverance and raw talent guarantee you absolutely nothing... because I know a lot of people better than me not this far a long and a lot of people not half as good as me that are a lot further."

Clay writes:

This post is filled with value judgements that have no basis beyond subjective personal opinion.

How do you justify praising a punk rock singer and comic books and role playing games, while looking down on opera and reality tv?

Bryan's least bad explanation is that the masses aren't good enough. Isn't that like a failed student saying the school isn't good enough? Or a failed worker saying that the employers aren't good enough?

chipotle writes:
Progressive taxes and redistribution force the industrious to support the indolent.

...so says government employee Bryan Caplan. Waitresses and taxicab drivers all over Virginia and the United States work hard every day so that Bryan Caplan can get a taxpayer-funded paycheck.

Surely Caplan could find a private sector job if he tried. Isn't there a Stop-and-Shop that needs a bagger? Or a Cheesecake Factory that needs a short-order cook? Or--heaven forbid!--a private university that could pay Caplan out of the voluntarily collected tuition payments (and voluntarily contributed endowment) of its students?

Dr. Caplan, Heal Thyself!

Tom West writes:

In any power-law cultural popularity contest, luck plays a *huge* factor in distinguishing the .01% (who get rich) from the 0.1% (who manage make a living at it).

There was a fascinating experiment that I read about a few years ago. Good size bunch of unknown bands exposed to a few thousand participants. Lots of talking among the participants, a few taste leaders, etc. In the end, the board pretty much universally understood there was one band head and shoulders above the others, a number of others that were pretty decent, and the rest.

Then they ran the experiment again. Same bands, different people. And of course, a different band (although in the top 10 or so last time) was head and shoulders above the others. The top 10-20 mostly shuffled.

In other words, at least in the arts, having the "right stuff" only buys you a ticket for big success. After that, it's in the hands of the butterfly on the other side of the globe.

Neeraj Krishnan writes:

Well, having played that Youtube video you link to.. there might have been better examples to illustrate your point?

Glen Smith writes:

In my experience, talented people who don't work hard are much more likely to have economic success in a free market than those who are not talented but work hard. Often, even the output of those who are talented and/or is very similar to what they'd be doing anyway happens to be highly valued by the rest of society. This is NOT merit. A thing is of merit only when the individual's opportunity cost exceed any returns.

mark writes:

Jersey Shore beats the heck out of Emily in marketing. Reading the names of the bands she has been involved with and I have no idea what kind of music I would be hearing. Now if you have a lead character called JWoww, I would at least be interested in seeing such a person and if they deserve that moniker. Similarly, when Jay Leno does a joke about Snooki people laugh, in part, because the name itself is funny. Jersey Shore relies on sex appeal and you should have added that to your description of the show. Names matter, looks matter and luck matters and give someone on the Shore credit for realizing that. That is why they are in the Situation they are in.

ThomasL writes:

@Neeraj Krishnan

That was well worded... I wondered the same thing.

Rather than restricting the set to the tiny fraction of mankind happens to be alive at the moment, I think the question is on firmer footing asking something like, "Why will people spend more time this year listening to Ke$ha than to Josquin Desprez?"

Is that a fair comparison? Not really, but it illustrates the point better than Whitehurst and Snooki, even if it is fair to ask why Snooki is more famous than Whitehurst.

I can take a stab at answering, but I am not sure if Bryan will like my answers.

Bryan's question only makes sense if we acknowledge the objectivity of beauty. Like truth, we can dispute over it. I can argue that X is more beautiful than Y, and present you my justifications. You can argue your case for the reverse. The very fact we are arguing and presenting our justifications acknowledges we are making an objective claim. If beauty is subjective, then the argument that Whitehurst is better or worse than Snooki is nonsense. It is equivalent to one party saying, "I like Snooki better," and the other responding, "No, you don't."

Once we acknowledge the objectivity of the claims, then the question as to why people prefer the worse to the better becomes the question of whether everyone possesses equal discernment (we talk now of discerning, rather than deciding, because it *is* beautiful or ugly, regardless of my judgment of it) of the beautiful from the ugly. The answer to that is plainly no. Taste is a skill, and it has to be taught and learned like any other. If you want someone to know how to do their sums, you need to teach them math. If you want someone to tell a good song from a bad, you need to teach them music and aesthetics.

If, instead, you teach them that beauty is subjective, the word chosen to express a certain sensation within themselves, you cannot be surprised when what is regarded as pleasing by the largest number tends towards the sensational.

*PS* For some excellent, underrated living song writers I would recommend Bill Mallonee, David Ford, John Fullbright, Jason Molina, Timothy Dick, Mack Starks, Mick Flannery, and too many to list.

ThomasL writes:

This is kind of an aside, but of the songs that Bryan posted, I preferred the first to the second by a good margin.

I can supply reasons, but I was mainly curious to which one Bryan preferred. Bryan, do you have a preference between the two?

*PS*
Reading over my previous post, there are a couple of terms that should be replaced for consistency:

s/Taste is a skill/Discernment is a skill/
s/regarded as pleasing/regarded as beautiful/
s/For some excellent, underrated/For some other underrated/

A writes:

I'll defend Jersey Shore!

Those kids aren't academic whizzes, but they're quite socially astute. Put them and the average American young adult in 100 social situations, and in many it would be the Jersey Shore cast that would come out being the more dominant (getting their way, being seen to be the cooler people to be associated with, winning the favor of the group).

Now one might say that one would never be interested in participating in or winning that kind of contest, but that often sounds as hollow as the loser in Monopoly declaring that he never really liked the game, anyway.

Social savvy is a skill, and those kids have it. Jersey Shore packaged their skill and showcased it to us, just as other producers had done with, say, Survivor previously. Many people watch both shows educationally.

Paul writes:

I don't know Bryan, perhaps Whitehurst is getting her just deserts...her voice isn't all that distinctive. Sleater Kinney(Corin Tucker) on the other hand were the real deal. http://www.warr.org/sleaterkinney.html

John Fast writes:

My condolences to you, Bryan, and to Ms. Whitehurst. And congratulations on your favorite television show, Dexter, being renewed for not one but two more seasons.

You say that you would like to blame the government, but you don't know of any "regulations on the books that heavily favor drunken exhibitionists over sublime singer-songwriters."

Yet you just mentioned that "Progressive taxes and redistribution force the industrious to support the indolent." Maybe you need to re-read Losing Ground again, specifically the part about how economic incentives affect status. In a word where being slow-witted, lazy, impulsive and drunk was stigmatized, people wouldn't pay any more attention to the cast of Jersey Shore than they do to pinheads at a freak show or winos in the gutter.

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