Why don’t I do more writer interviews?

A reader wrote to ask why I don’t do more writer interviews. Good question. To do an interview with a writer, a bunch of things have to align:

1) I have to like their book.

2) So far I’ve only done face-to-face interviews, which means the writer and I have to occupy the same geographic space. Since I live in Tucson, this usually means “Arizona.” Since Tucson is a literary dead zone, this effectively means “Phoenix,” which is itself hardly a mecca for the written word; Phoenix is a cesspool of reality TV stars and those who aspire to be reality TV stars, people still stuck after the get-rich-quick real-estate atmosphere of the ’00s, and hard-core Republicans. And ASU students. None of those demographic groups are noted for their literary proclivity. There is a very nice bookstore named Changing Hands, however, which does attract a lot of writers, but Phoenix is still the sort of place touring writers maybe go to, as opposed to somewhere like Seattle or New York, where pretty much all of them go.

3) I have know they will be in Arizona, or wherever I am. This is harder than it sounds; booktour.com closed, and I don’t have the energy to track every living author I admire.

4) The writer has to have time for the interview, and their publisher has to be cooperative. For example, last Wednesday John Green of The Fault in Our Stars was in Phoenix, but Dutton Juvenile, his publisher, ignored the calls and e-mails I sent. This is pretty curious, since from what I can tell Green is on a publicity tour, but I also can’t control what publishers do.

(By the way: The Fault in Our Stars is good. Stick with it; the characters are slightly annoying over the first 30 or 40 pages, but they find their groove.)

5) My schedule has to work out. No one pays me to do interviews. If something else is going on—especially if that something else involves someone giving me money—I can’t do the interview even if I’d like to. This week I’ve been doing lots of paid consulting, trying to escape academic purgatory, teaching, and finishing query letters. Along with all the other stuff normal people do, like food, sex, and beer, which are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

6) As a corollary to four, I do take a lot of time preparing for interviews: reading their book(s), trying to think up decent questions, reading other interviews so I don’t ask the same dumbass questions they’ve already been asked a million times, and so forth. So if I find a book kind of okay but not really interesting, I don’t seek the interview, which means there aren’t a huge number of opportunities at any given time.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier — Edward Glaeser

When I lived in Seattle, I was driving a friend home when she said she didn’t like all the new buildings because they pushed poor people out of the city. I was confused by her argument and that building more housing units will make it easier for poor people—any people, really—to afford to live in the city, but she argued that wasn’t true because the existing buildings were “worse.” But that doesn’t matter much: if a given parcel of land goes from having four units on it to four hundred, that’s vastly more supply. The conversation’s already low level of intellectual content degenerated, but I thought of it as I read Triumph of the City, which gathers a lot of useful information about cities and what they offer in one place. Yes, the title is overwrought, but the content is useful, and I especially noticed this, about Jane Jacobs:

Because she saw that older, shorter buildings were cheaper, she incorrectly believed that restricting heights and preserving old neighborhoods would ensure affordability. That’s not how supply and demand work. When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.

It’s basic supply and demand, but, from what I can tell, relatively few cities actually discuss supply, demand, and housing costs—which is unfortunate given the extreme costs of many desirable cities that offer intensive knowledge spillover effects. If how we live affects what we think and how we think, we should pay a lot of attention to how we live. Yet few of us do, though more of us should. Triumph of the City is the kind of book unmoored young people and people contemplating career changes need to read, because where you live affects so much of how you live. This part speaks to a dilemma I’m facing:

In the year 2000, people were willing to accept lower real wages to live in New York, which means that they were coming to New York despite the fact that higher prices more than erased higher wages. It’s not that New York had become less productive; the city’s nominal wages, which reflect productivity, were higher than ever. But housing prices, fueled by the robust demand to live and play in the city, had risen even more than nominal earnings. If housing prices rise enough relative to nominal incomes, as they do when cities become more pleasant, then real incomes can actually fall during a period of great urban success. Manhattan had changed from a battlefield to an urban playground, and people were willing to pay, in the form of lower wages, for the privilege of living there.

I’m likely to move to New York and live for at least two years. Which raises questions: am I willing to “accept lower real wages” because of the housing cost increases? How valuable is “an urban playground?” Perhaps not valuable enough to keep me there. I love New York and just wish I could live there. L.A. has similar problems, and I have some friends who want to leave Tucson—for which I blame them not at all—and are contemplating where to go; based on their disposition and temperaments, Seattle or Portland would be obvious choices. They’re much less expensive, and moving to either will probably result in an increase of 10 – 20% in real income terms, as Virginia Postrel shows in “A Tale of Two Town Houses.” (Glaeser speaks to L.A., too, however indirectly: “Cities grow by building up, or out, and when a city doesn’t build, people are prevented from experiencing the magic of urban proximity.” L.A. has replaced proximity with traffic.)

And there tend to be clusters of artists and other creative types in cities that offer dense environments, not totally dysfunctional politics, and cheap housing. The 1920s Paris immortalized by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and recently recreated in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was such a place; today, as Glaeser says, “Restrictions on new construction have ensured that Paris—once famously hospitable to starving artists—is now affordable only to the wealthy.” It’s a useful reminder that you can’t beat economics with raw policy alone, and so many articles about rising rent prices or changing demographics utterly fail to connect housing costs with the needs of the poor outsiders who will one day start startups or be artists (for a recent, positive example, see Megan McArdle’s post “Empty Apartments, Stupid Laws“).

Artists simply can’t afford Paris anymore, and New York is becoming expensive too.

The really famous, important parts of the world—New York, London, Tokyo, Beijing—are important because of what large networks of hundreds of millions of people have done with and to them. They’re not intrinsically important because of the land they occupy. Cities that want to emulate their example and distinguish themselves from surrounding suburbs and rural lands need to build up, not out (or not at all). New York’s housing prices are so high because lots of people want to live there—because it’s awesome. As Glaeser shows, we should want them to be able to live there, too. But we often can’t.

This doesn’t just hurt us as individuals, or economies composed of people who can’t live in spaces where they connect with one another: it also hurts the environment because: “Traditional cities have fewer carbon emissions because they don’t require vast amounts of driving. [. . .] Department of Energy data confirms that New York State’s per capita energy consumption is next to last in the country, which largely reflects public transit use in New York.” And:

Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means that we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones, and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emissions-reducing urban growth.

But I think he misses something here: for a lot of people, environmentalism is just a pose, a way to show they care—provided it doesn’t harm or affect their life in some immediate, substantial way (those of you firing up your e-mail clients to send me angry missives should hold off: this applies to lots of other subjects too, like religion). So the people who claim to be environmentalists are really claiming that they want you to think they care about the environment, and that’s a cheap stance until people start to complain about construction noise, or loss of a neighborhood’s dubious “character,” or whatever other excuse comes up. As Alex Tabarrok says in Launching The Innovation Renaissance, one major, underappreciated problem the U.S. faces is the sheer number of veto players who can affect any building project at any scale. Glaeser is in effect pointing to a single facet of this general principle.

In essence, there’s too much regulation of what happens in most cities. For example, take parking policies: if people (especially those who claim to be environmentalist) want good public transportation, one useful strategy is to raise the real cost of cars, which is an especially good idea because Free Parking Comes at a Price. And that price is innumerable underutilized parking spaces. I see this price every day in Tucson, where miles and miles of land are given over to hideous parking lots that make walking virtually anywhere impossible.

One interesting missing piece: a concrete theory of why cities offer the advantages they do. We have lots of indirect information showing the advantage of cities, combined with some theories about why they offer the things they do, but little else. Steven Berlin Johnson is similarly indirect in Where Good Ideas Come From; like Triumph of the City, it’s a fascinating book (and he speaks to cities as innovative environments in it), but it also has this gap that I don’t know how to fill. Perhaps no one can at current levels of technology and understanding.

A lot of the prose in Triumph of the City is uninspired, and occasionally garbled, like this: “Urban proximity enables cross-cultural connection by reducing the curse of communicating complexity, the fact that a garbled message increases the amount of information that is being transferred.” But the density of ideas makes up for the weakness of the language, and Glaeser is also a native economist, rather than a writer.

Here’s Slate’s (positive) review. I don’t think I’ve read any negative reviews; if you’ve seen any, post a comment.

Links: Shit sorority girls say, health care, the beach, the writing life, grammar

* Shit sorority girls say; this is depressingly accurate.

* “The average health care insurance premium today is over $15,000 and by 2021 it may be headed to $32,000 or so (admittedly that estimate is based on extrapolation);” that’s from “The median wage figure and the health care costs figure.”

* Related? “How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.”

* Why the video pros are moving away from Apple. And I can’t blame them, given Apple’s behavior.

* On the Beach:

I wrote, a couple of months ago, about the ways that being exposed to the free market as a professional writer has helped bring into focus some of the injustices at work in academia: the dishonesty, the cronyism, the hidden agendas. What I didn’t say is that they also treat you like an equal in the market. It isn’t just an endless series of hazing rituals. You’re a potential partner, and there are always other people you can work with. But in academia you are forever trembling, like a figure out of Kafka, before the next tribunal: graduate admissions, graduate courses, orals, chapter conferences, dissertation committee, hiring committees, peer reviews for publications and grants, promotion reviews, tenure review, more peer reviews and promotion reviews. And because it’s always up or out—you can’t just muddle along at the same level, the way you can in other occupations—everything is always on the line; every test is existential.

* Are the grammar books all right about alright?

* Counterintuitive advice for literary critics: don’t read other critics before you write your review or criticism.

* How Amazon is killing publishers.

* The Internet won the Congressional battle again censorship. This time.

* Preservation Push in Bohemian Home Stirs Fear of Hardship; bizarrely, there is no mention of supply, demand, or city-wide housing costs:

The East Village is arguably America’s bohemian capital, home to the major countercultural waves of the second half of the 20th century [. . .]

New York City is trying to honor the neighborhood’s legacy and preserve it, as well as the signposts of earlier generations that housed and entertained the immigrants, artists and political radicals who peopled the coarse-edged streets.

This is another way of saying, “The housing will be so expensive that 21st century artists and political radicals won’t be able to afford the East Village.” Which they already can’t. See further my review of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

* How Big-Time Sports Ate College Life recapitulates Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. College sports should start by paying players, since it’s obvious that players are big football and basketball programs are professionals.

* What you (really) need to know; see also Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation.

* Key to productivity: Choose phone calls [and interviews] carefully. When I interview someone, I try to be the exact opposite of this Michael Zenn guy.

Product Review: Guildhall Pocket Notebook

This is part of a series of pocket notebook reviews that I began after Moleskine’s quality control problems and from reading Rands’ notebook discussion.

The Guildhall Pocket Notebook’s great strength and weakness is its flexibility: it has a softer cover than most pocket notebooks and stitching that allows the notebook to easily lie flat. But its cover also bends out of shape over time, like a cardboard insert or cereal box, and the pages bend with it. Still, this is a minor problem in a largely successful notebook—one that’s better than Moleskines but not quite as good or readily available as Rhodia Webbies.

The “loose” quality to the Guildhall’s binding is pleasing—insert joke here—and the notebook is much easier to flip through than the Design.Y Record 216, which I haven’t really used because my current notebook still has space (and the Design.Y’s cost precludes it from being compared with $5 – $20 notebooks). A sewn binding means the Guildhall is unlikely to fall apart over the short to medium term; though it doesn’t feel as sturdy as a Rhodia Webbie, the Guildhall did survive many months in pockets, backpacks, suitcases, and assorted other gear without corner tears.

Mine arrived smelling like fish, although I attribute that to shipping from England rather than an inherent property of the notebook. I sent them back to UKGE for a new pair, only to have UKGE send them back to me, still smelling of fish, though not nearly as badly.

The pages had narrow lines that allow more writing per page without being cramped; there are an extra two to three lines per sheet over Rhodia’s Webbie, though the lines didn’t quite extend to the page’s edge. The cover has a pleasant feel and stitching around it; I can’t tell if the stitching is decoration or essential to holding the cover in place. The paper feels good under a pen, and there’s very little bleed through (in the picture with writing, above, the back page is covered with fountain pen ink). It’s very easy to flip through the Guildhall.

Unfortunately, most of this doesn’t matter: Exaclair, the American distributor for Guildhall, isn’t producing them any longer. Christine Nusse, who works for Exaclair, sent me an e-mail saying that “the Guildhall journals are no longer available for export in the US because they were redundant with the Quo Vadis’ Habanas [. . .] and Clairefontaine’s notebooks.” To me, the Habana is quite different, but the issue is moot anyway: she also said “My understanding is that they are discontinued.” That understanding may have changed, but if it hasn’t, the notebook is gone. Some places online still list Guildhall notebooks, like The Dyslexia Shop in the U.K., but I don’t know if those retailers are getting new stock or depleting what inventory remains.

In the realm of “normal” notebooks, this is the best or second best I’ve tried, the best being the Rhodia, which I prefer only because I don’t like the cover bend. The Guildhall seems like a natural fit for the U.S., and that Exaclair chooses not to distribute it is puzzling, given its superiority over the market-leading behemoth.

Brief product review: The Quo Vadis Habana

This is part of a series of pocket notebook reviews that I began after Moleskine’s quality control problems, and in reading Rands’ notebook discussion.

The Habana’s big problem is simple: it’s not quite a pocket notebook. It’s also not quite a full-sized notebook, either, at 4″ x 6″, it’s uncomfortably in between, too large to carry around and too small for classrooms. Instead of being in the pleasant middle, they’re in the awkward middle. These shots compare it to a Moleskine and Guildhall notebook, both of which are 3.5″ x 5.5″:

The Habana is still wrapped, and that’s because of its size: too large to be portable. If it doesn’t fit in reasonably slender pockets, it might as well be a laptop or tablet. There isn’t further discussion of the paper quality or construction because the Habana has already been disqualified from competition. Which is unfortunate, because there aren’t a huge number of high-quality, appropriately sized notebooks around.

I want it to be right. It just isn’t.

EDIT: The Rhodia Webnotebook is better, although its pages obnoxiously don’t extend to the edge of each page.

Commenting, community deterioration, and Hacker News

The people who most need to read and understand this post are the ones least likely to. Nonetheless, I’m going to post because the topic is important yet neglected topic restraint when speaking and writing. In real life, the problem isn’t nearly as acute as it is on the Internet: few people will ignore social cues that say, “You’re being a jerk,” but on the Internet there are few or no social cues, especially in the comments sections of websites. I try to comment when I have useful, unique, original, or non-standard things to say. That isn’t so often, but it’s often enough that I leave a reasonably large number of comments; some of them are the first drafts of blog posts (and some of those blog posts may eventually find their way into books, a topic that I’ve been thinking about more and more lately).

And when I don’t have something useful, unique, original, or non-standard to say (or ask), I just shut up. But Internet comments tend to degrade as a website grows; it attracts more people who just comment, often in ways that aren’t negative enough to silence through moderation but still annoying enough to lower the quality of the conversation. This, it seems to me, is a problem separate from trolls: the commenters who are leaving thoughtless comments aren’t necessarily doing so for attention, and they may not realize what they’re doing. And we can’t just state it in the negative: don’t don’t this. We should state it in the positive: do add substance. Hacker News tries to solve this problem with its Guidelines and through culture, but the site has been growing faster, it seems, than its culture.

There may not be anything that can be done about this problem; it appears to take a certain and unusual mind to appreciate long-form discussion, be courteous, not feed or respond to trolls, and contribute only things of substance. The early (or earlier) readers of Hacker News, and other big news sites, appear to have understood this. The more recent readers don’t, or a critical mass of people is developing who don’t work to contribute substantive material. I hadn’t really thought about the issue until about a month ago, in this comment thread, where I pointed out that single-function devices can still have utility. A poster named Dextorious replied: “Yeah. So on top of owning an iPhone, you are also a hipster with a (trendy but useless, considering the iPhone also tells the time) watch and a notebook (it’s even a Moleskine). Way to prove the parent poster’s point.”

Argh. I replied:

1) I don’t know what you mean by a “hipster,” or what a “hipster” is, other than that you’re using the term as a slur: http://paulgraham.com/disagree.html . I also don’t know what “hipster culture” means or is.

2) The original poster who I’m responding to said, “the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone [. . .],” so I’m not sure how one can be simultaneously “trendy” and part of a declining trend (that is, watch-wearing).

3) If you’d read the link, you’d know that I don’t use Moleskine notebooks any more because their quality variability appears to have increased over time.

But I bet my reply took way longer than Dextorious’s comment, and by the time I was done replying I felt like I’d wasted my time. I wanted to add another part:

4) I worry that this level of stupidity, and repeated stupidity, is becoming more normal; it’s very hard to wade through that stupidity as an individual. Dextorious has a lot of problems with reason; he tends to post things like “Thanks for the “democratic” downvoting.”

I looked through his comment history; there are many one-line, two-sentence comments like this one, which led to a pointless flame war. He calls Facebook “hyper-valued web crap,” but not in the context of providing real insight. Likewise, consider this comment. Others tell him that he’s not being very nice, as in a comment where Dinkumthinkum says, “You’re missing the point.” But how do you tell someone who chronically misses the point that they’re missing the point? In another thread, talmand says, “Wow, overreact much?” Yes, he does; but you can’t tell from looking a single comment what dextorious is doing, and most people aren’t going to look for a pattern of useless behavior in a poster’s comment history. I only did to make a point.

And I’m not doing this to pick on Dextorious; he’s one guy, but he’s symptomatic of similar threads I’ve seen. The latest happened today, in which jacquesm said:

The thread because this is one of the most hateful and ugly threads I’ve ever seen on HN. A thread like this would be literally unthinkable a year or more ago, and now I’m not even surprised it is here.

I’m not surprised either, and I’m not sure what to do with it in the face of cultural change. I’m not sure there’s a good algorithmic way of dealing with weak comments; one might have a Dunning-Kruger effect at work: the people who are least likely to provide valuable and non-jerky comments are also least likely to realize they’re not doing it. Most of the time, when you’re thinking about writing a comment, you should stop and ask: Is this important? Is it important enough to give it its own post? Is it cruel? Most people don’t do this. I suppose Hacker News could solve this problem by appointing super users or something like that, but such a solution doesn’t scale and has the problem of borderline-useful comments, like many of Dextorious’s. And sometimes it is genuinely hard to separate people telling difficult truths and people being jerks. Self-policing works much better but is imperfect, and its imperfection grows faster than the number of users.

This post is an effort towards cultural change, not only on Hacker News but elsewhere on the Internet. I’ve discussed the problem before and doubt it’s going to go away. I’m still going to try to help people write better comments and think better, but I worry that it’s a losing battle in most circumstances.

Links: Peter Norvig, Coders at Work, Tucson tedium, bookselling, teachers, Tolkien

* Peter Norvig in Coders at Work: “Certainly I would do things because they were fun. Especially when I was a grad student and I was less beholden to schedules. I’d say, ‘Oh, here’s an interesting problem. Let’s see if I can solve that.’ Not because it’s progress on my thesis, but just because it was fun.”

This is basically my problem, if that’s the correct term, in grad school: I find something interesting and want to write about that, instead of whatever’s immediately applicable in seminars or for my dissertation. In the short term it’s a problem, though in the long term I’d like to think of it as an asset.

* “The secret lives of feral dogs: A Pennsylvania city instructs police to shoot strays, opening a sad window on animal care in the age of austerity.”

* Now that I live in Tucson, AZ, I totally understand this comment; emphasis added:

In Zoellner’s riskiest chapter, he remembers Tucson as a rotten place to grow up. “My skateboard was no good on those new asphalt streets. … I would sometimes steal into an unfinished house in the late afternoons to smash out the windows with rocks.” He’s not excusing Loughner, just describing what an isolated lifestyle in Arizona can do to people. The state ranks 48th among places where “people trade favors with neighbors” and 45th among places where people eat dinner with their families.

In my case the university ameliorates some of the loneliness, but the “city” of Tucson is laid out so poorly and so widely that it promotes isolation.

* Good Writing Isn’t Enough: How to Sell a Book in the Digital Age.

* The value of teachers; see also “Should teachers be paid more or less? The answer is: both.”  Which comes to a very similar conclusion as my own post, “Are teachers underpaid? It depends.

* See too Jason Fisher’s reply to my last post.

* Yet another reason I don’t pay attention to literary prizes, this one regarding Tolkien.

* “The fragile teenage brain: An in-depth look at concussions in high school football.” After reading about the many football concussion studies, I’ve learned that a lot of the brain damage football causes isn’t from single big hits—it’s from many small hits that accrue in practice and elsewhere. There is no way I’d let my kid play football.

* A friend who read The Hunger Games didn’t especially like the novel and neither did I, despite three-quarters of America having read the novel and its sequels. I mostly thought the writing flat; my friend Heather simply said, “The metaphors are bad.” Perhaps I can get her to yield some examples soon.

Thoughts on the movies “Shame” and “Sleeping Beauty”

1) Both movies substituted sex for plot; this might’ve kind of worked in an era before Internet porn and HBO (and both also show why HBO’s original shows are successful), but these days people who want to see naked people are only a click away.

2) I mostly agree with Dan Kois in “Shame should be ashamed of itself,” especially when he compares it to The Social Network, which didn’t seem to have inherently riveting material—it’s a movie about a bunch of guys who type for a living—but is riveting. Notice this paragraph:

Shame [. . .] feels fraudulent in every way, from its gleaming surfaces to its laughably overblown soundtrack to the perfect teardrop rolling over Michael Fassbender’s perfect cheekbone in that perfect lounge where, in real life, no one would ever let Carey Mulligan sing a shoe-gaze “New York, New York.” Oh and what about the scene where he jogs to classical music? Or the part where his addiction drags him so deep into hell that he (gasp) gets a blowjob from a dude in a dimly-lit sex club? (As the writer Bryan Safi noted on Twitter, “I’d love to see a movie where a strung-out gay guy sinks so low and degrades himself so much for his addiction, he hooks up with a woman.”)

Shame has nothing to do with actual addiction, or the actual New York, or even actual human beings.

Yet Shame has gotten decent reviews, for reasons not obvious to me. Ditto for Sleeping Beauty. Are critics merely happy to have something other than blowing-shit-up-and-punching-bad-guys movies? To be fair, this is part of what inspired me to see them.

3) There’s no particular reason the movies had to be plotless; they look more like examples of giving up.

4) I’m reminded of my own process when I’m starting a novel and writing down ideas, premises, and characters—but long before I’m starting to link and weave those ideas, premises, and characters. Unfortunately, the people behind shame appear to have stopped at the first step. They were more like shorts than features, which is a problem I’m too aware of in novels, where the short-story-writers-cum-novelists sometimes don’t know where to go with 70,000 – 90,000 words.

5) For an example of movies like these (nudity, psychological tension, internal turmoil manifested in external ways) but better, try Swimming Pool.

6) Music is a complement to, not a substitute for, character development.

7) Is it a comedy and we are missing the joke?

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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