The 99% are watching four to five hours of TV a day, and other tales from the present

I’m reading “Streaming Dreams: YouTube turns pro” and noticed this:

But there is one category in which YouTube has made little progress. The average ’Tuber spends only fifteen minutes a day on the site—a paltry showing when compared with the four or five hours the average American spends in front of the TV each day.

Emphasis added; the quote is from The New Yorker; Nielsen, who does the most TV tracking, agrees with the four hours number. In all of the contemporary reports and newspaper accounts and blog posts about income equality, I’ve never seen TV consumption mentioned. To me TV consumption is astonishing and might also be linked to Americans’ larger economic problems—I can’t imagine that most successful, people who earn a lot of money watch anything like four hours of TV a day, because where would they get the time? I also doubt TV probably isn’t imparting the skills and knowledge that future high earners need to be high earners. It could be that I’m succumbing to the availability bias and assuming that the high earners I know are representative, but the fact itself still amazes.

This also reminded me of Bryan Caplan’s post “Kahneman, Greed and Success,” in which Caplan says: “Kahneman highlights an important, neglected reason why some people are rich and others are poor: some people care about money more than the rest of us. People who want to be rich make the choices and sacrifices conducive to that end – and on average they succeed.” The key words there are “on average,” but that’s probably true of most things people want: the ones who really strive to achieve something are on average more likely to get it, though no one foresees the future and even those who strive to do everything right may still fail. Those of us who spend four hours a day watching TV, however, are probably not trying—which means it shouldn’t surprise us when we fail to earn as much as we otherwise could. And, to me, skipping TV doesn’t even look like much of a “sacrifice,” because so much of it is boring.

I’m reminded too of friends and acquaintances who mention their artistic aspirations in writing, movies, or music. When they say they want to make movies, write, or record music, I ask to read, see, or hear their work. Very few of them have any to show, or blogs, YouTube shorts, or albums online, and when I express surprise, they seem disconnected from the art they claim they want to make. Which makes me think their ambitions aren’t real ambitions: they’re conversational pieces, or status poses. Or the holders of false artistic ambitions are stuck in antiquity, waiting for someone to give them permission or degrees or deadlines. Whatever the case, I’ve learned to be very skeptical of the people who claim they want to be artists but aren’t actively being artists. Given the proliferation and low cost of the tools necessary to make art, the only thing standing between people and being artists is themselves.

Income doesn’t work quite that way, but the people who really want to make money are taking proactive steps to make money. The people who say they want to earn more but instead watch four or five hours of TV a day are posing, or complaining without taking action, like my would-be artist friends and acquaintances. The obsessives are the ones who succeed as artists. They also appear to be the ones who succeed as startup founders. It looks increasingly like the complaints about income inequality are really based on resentment—not just of those with wealth, but resentment of the complainer’s earlier consumption and time choices, and it comes from people who haven’t chosen professions based on income—like journalism, teaching, or professing. It comes from people who made trade-offs away from earning more and toward consuming more (like TV), but who eventually find that they don’t like the trade-offs they made.

Some might also not realize they’re making choices; I’m reminded of John Scalzi in “Being Poor,” where he says “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.” But that probably applies to a minority of people, not a majority, and it would be stupid and misleading to compare the median to the genuinely poor.*

A lot of us probably aren’t, as Caplan points out, “racing for the same finish line: material success” (and, as we’ve been exhorted numerous times, maybe we shouldn’t be). If you race for that materialistic or monetary line and not some other, it’s hard to imagine “normal” behavior more detrimental to getting there than watching four hours of TV a day. The people who are making the money are the ones building YouTube, not watching YouTube and TV. I suppose four hours of TV is an improvement on, say, four hours staring at a wall. But very few people are really building what economists call “human capital” when they watch TV. They’re instead regressing to the mean, in income and in so many other fields.

Read too Scalzi’s later essay, “Why Not Feeling Rich is Not Being Poor, and Other Things Financial,” where he cautions people again the mistake of using “Being Poor” as a stick to beat the wealthy—even those wealthy whose comparison groups make them think they’re not wealthy. One thing that might make us all feel wealthier is simple: not comparing ourselves to our wealthiest neighbors or the people on TV, especially since the extravagance depicted on many TV shows is so astonishing compared to what normal people have. Such a principle doesn’t apply solely to wealth, either: subconsciously assuming that the people you date or marry should be as hot and witty as TV stars is as unwise as using such people for financial comparisons.

EDIT: William Gibson in Distrust That Particular Flavor: “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”

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