Popularity is Overrated

My love of The Flamingo Kid may seem misplaced in view of its meager 6.2 IMDB score—with a mere 3900 ratings—its lack of a Blu-ray edition, and unavailability on Netflix or Amazon Instant Videos. But this is not an unfamiliar thing for me, and probably for a lot of people. Actually, TFK is just one of several movies I love and have watched more times than it would be seemly to admit—not art movies (though there are those too), but Hollywood features with A-list stars—but which languish in obscurity and neglect. Why is this? Is my taste so idiosyncratic? Or bad? I want to suggest that the most popular movies—or songs, or novels, or whatever—are not as much better than others as their popularity would seem to imply. Sometimes they may be no better. By the same token, relatively neglected works are not so inferior and may be not at all inferior.

If popularity is determined by recognizable quality, why can’t hits be predicted in advance? You might think they could be, since once a hit is established, its quality seems evident, and people always say the reason they love a hit song or whatever is because it’s “so awesome.” But evidently not. Studies like this one of the book, music, and movie business and this one of the television business note the inability of industry professionals to predict which products will be hits—despite strong financial incentives to do so—and examine their strategies for coping with the problem. (The second article quotes the president of CBS to the effect that, “All hits are flukes.”) And it seems obvious, really, that these businesses would be managed quite differently from the way they are if the sales differentials could be predicted.

Yet hits generate massive sales, vastly outselling the songs/movies/books/etc. that they couldn’t be distinguished from ahead of time. Sting makes $2000 every day from “Every Breath You Take.” That one song generates over a quarter of all Sting’s music publishing income (see here for details). J. K. Rowling is another obvious example. The best selling book series in history has the usual story of early rejection. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript of the first Harry Potter book before Bloomsbury finally picked it up. The editor who bought it advised Rowling to get a day job, since there was little chance the book would sell. Rowling would go on to become the first person ever to make a billion dollars by writing books (though not a billionaire, apparently, thanks to Britain’s highly progressive tax code). Examples like this couldn’t happen (or would be exceedingly rare) if stellar sales implied stellar quality.

Here is an interesting study of the phenomenon, focusing on the music business. The authors created their own music download website populated with indie songs from obscure indie bands unknown to the study participants. It was a large study, with over 14,000 participants. Participants were invited to listen to songs, rate them, and download them if they wished. There were two basic conditions: one in which the participants had knowledge of how many times a song had been downloaded, and one in which they didn’t. In the knowledge condition, outcomes were more extreme (i.e., there were higher peaks and lower valleys in numbers of downloads between songs) and less predictable from independent ratings of song quality. In the knowledge condition, songs that were independently rated highly almost never did terrible and songs that were rated terrible almost never made it to the top, but for all other songs, the popularity outcome was completely unpredictable: they could wind up at the top, the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. This was not true of the no-knowledge condition.

Thus, mere widespread knowledge of the preferences of others is enough to generate the phenomenon of the “awesomeness” of cultural products that couldn’t be differentiated from their competitors ahead of time even by seasoned professionals. Apparently a “contagion effect” causes chance initial success to snowball and catapult a work or artist to the stratosphere. The works thus left behind, therefore, are not necessarily inferior—or much inferior—to those lucky few that become “awesome,” any more than those few are necessarily superior—or much superior. So if there’s a movie or other work you love that doesn’t seem to have the popularity it deserves, don’t feel bad. Popularity is overrated.

The Flamingo Kid

The best Garry Marshall (1934–2016) movie you never heard of is a little gem called The Flamingo Kid (1984). If you want to watch something in memory of him, I highly recommend it. Starring Matt Dillon, Janet Jones, Richard Crenna (in a brilliant performance), Jessica Walter, and Hector Elizondo (and look for John Turturro and Marisa Tomei in bit parts), it is a coming-of-age comedy-drama with, as one review said, “more on its mind that stale sex jokes.” In Brooklyn, 1963, the summer after Jeffrey Willis (Dillon) graduated from high school, he chances to land a job parking cars at the swanky El Flamingo Beach Club (the real life Silver Gull Beach Club of Queens, which still exists looking much as it did in 1963; it is being featured in a series of New York Times articles this summer). There he is dazzled by the resort atmosphere, the girls, and the relative opulence. He falls under the sway of one of the club’s most well-to-do members, Phil Brody (Crenna), owner of a chain of high performance sports car dealerships (Ferraris, etc.). Brody is friendly, approachable, and evidently determined to be the best at whatever he undertakes. Significantly, he has no son of his own. He is called “The King” because of his prowess at gin rummy, the obsession of all the male club members. Jeffrey also excels at gin; this is how he happened to be invited to the club in the first scene. Brody is impressed by Jeffrey’s brains and card sense, and takes him under his wing. Brody’s charm and obvious success put Jeffrey’s blue collar father (Elizondo) in the shade, with predictable consequences when Jeffrey decides to follow Brody into car sales instead of going to college in the fall. The theme, obviously, is values. It all comes to a climax in a showdown over—what else?—gin rummy.

Dialogue excerpt that will show all readers of this blog why they must watch this movie:

[Jeffrey and Brody are riding in one of Brody’s dealership Ferraris, which Brody is letting Jeffrey test drive.]

Brody: You going to school?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Brody: Where are you going?

Jeffrey: I’m probably going to be studying at Columbia.

Brody: Good for you! That’s great!

Jeffrey: Did you go to college, Mr. Brody?

Brody: Yeah, well, I mean, I didn’t… You know, I didn’t go to college. My older brother used all the money, so there was nothing left for me. I went to night school. I graduated, NYU. Took a lot of business courses. Let me give you some advice. You can forget that literature, religion… music, philosophy, things like that. I mean, it’s okay, but… What are you going to do with philosophy? You’ve never seen a philosopher making fifty grand a year. You’ve never seen a philosopher driving a car like this.

Jeffrey: No.

Brody: Remember what I’m telling you. Socrates rode around on the back of a donkey.

Jeffrey: That’s a good one, Mr. Brody.

 

Haidt, The Righteous Mind, chs. 3 & 4

In chapters 3 & 4, Haidt elaborates his basic dual process model of the mind, which he represents metaphorically as a (rational, conscious, deliberative) rider on an (intuitive, unconscious, automatized) elephant. This sort of dual process theory is in a fair way to becoming orthodoxy in contemporary psychology. (Though it’s not there yet. See this symposium in Perspectives on Psychological Science, kicked off by this target article by Keith Stanovich and Jonathan St. B. T. Evans. The best single account of the dual process theory that I know of is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.) In Haidt’s version, emotions are emphasized in the elephant, and the rider is treated as subordinate and even subservient to the elephant. Thus, his view has more than a whiff of Platonic dualism about it, with the twist that the Platonic charioteer can’t control his team of horses. At best, the charioteer urges and remonstrates with the team. For the most part, the charioteer’s role is to persuade others that the team is going the right way, whatever the appearances may be.

This adversarial view of the relationship between elephant and rider doesn’t sit particularly well with me, much less the treatment of reason as mere post hoc rationalization. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 11. Aristotelianism, Part 3—Conclusion

Here at last is the final chunk of the argument, in which all problems are resolved. To return to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The social excellences that I have suggested can be derived by considering the effective functioning of a free society make a conventionally appealing set: respect for others’ rights, candor, probity, patience, nonlitigiousness, loyalty, and reliability. But it should not be thought that every widespread intuition—“prevailing ethical belief”—about social ethics is thereby confirmed, or even most of them. A couple of examples of prevailing ethical beliefs that are contradicted by the argument from the needs of a well-functioning free society will help make clear the sort of social ethics that is implied by this line of thought. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 10. Aristotelianism, Part 2—Economic Analysis Can Reveal Natural, Social Human Functions

Here is the tenth chunk of the argument. To return to the ninth chunk, click here. To advance to the eleventh and final chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


When it comes to the social arena—an important one for ethics, obviously—I suggest that insights from economics can provide guidance concerning human functioning. I have in mind especially North’s (1990) analysis, mentioned earlier, of economic functioning in terms of institutions and their effects on transactions costs. That analysis showed that economic growth and prosperity depend on social institutions that reduce so-called transactions costs; i.e., costs associated with trade. In general, any established practice that makes human interactions more predictable and transparent will tend to reduce transactions costs. Simple examples are the convention of driving on the right side of the road and a uniform system of weights and measures. In the latter case, think of the difficulty of putting together a trade of, say, a certain quantity of cloth in return for a certain quantity of corn, without a mutually understood, reliable means of assessing the quantity and quality of these goods. The trade might still be made, of course, but the gains to the parties will be reduced by the additional time and effort required to assess the goods.

More interestingly from the point of view of ethics, transactions costs are reduced when property rights are scrupulously observed, and more, when economic agents are candid about the characteristics of their goods and services and are forthcoming with economic information generally, when their honesty can be trusted implicitly, when they are forbearing of others’ faults and of perceived injuries, when they are not litigious, when they are faithful to long term agreements, when they are reliable. Observance of such principles, where it is widespread, is a sort of institution or set of institutions, the social mores. It seems that we can learn from economic analysis which social mores are most important for producing a prosperous society in which desire satisfaction is optimized for everyone through voluntary arrangements. This is an instance of the strategy I mentioned at the outset, and which we noticed in Hayek, of taking the superiority of the free society for granted and asking what moral principles are required to sustain it. The strategy is powerful, inasmuch as history demonstrates pretty clearly that free social arrangements promote human social functioning at its best. Where free social arrangements have prevailed, there wealth has grown—for all, but perhaps for the poorest most of all—personal dignity has been respected, and humanity has flourished. Moreover, arguably any alternative social arrangement must depend on the principle of coercion, which—theoretical reasons and historical evidence seem to show—is incapable of producing a prosperous society of flourishing individuals. To the degree that all this is true, we have good reason to think that effective social functioning depends on the social mores that create and promote a free society. And this would seem to be an application of the Aristotelian functional approach to discerning proper ethical principles for the social realm. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically

Here is the ninth chunk of the argument. To return to the eighth chunk, click here. To advance to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The basic tenets of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics are, I think, familiar. Therefore, I shall just provide a basic sketch of the sort of view I have in mind without dwelling overmuch on the details. The aim is to show how an Aristotelian ethics might resolve the difficulties that have been identified for any moral view that hopes to provide a moral vision for a free society. Those difficulties, to repeat, are: first, to provide a reason why agents operating within a free market should care about observing (a) the rules that create the free market (basically, individual rights to one’s own person and property) and ideally also (b) additional principles that reduce transactions costs, such as candor, loyalty, reliability, zeal for just punishment, and fair-mindedness; and second, to reconcile this reason to care about maintaining the free market with the sort of motives and behavior that are appropriate within the free market.

I take the fundamental claim of an Aristotelian ethics to be that the highest value for any organism is to be a good organism of its kind. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 8. Ayn Rand

Here is the eighth chunk of the argument. To return to the seventh chunk, click here. To advance to the ninth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Ayn Rand claimed that her system of ethics “is the moral base needed by…Capitalism” (1961, 33, all citation emphases original). Her moral defense of a free society can be stated very briefly as follows. Human beings must live by reason. Other animals may be able to get by on instinct, but the human animal cannot. This point is made particularly clear by considering economic activity since the industrial revolution. The exponential growth in quality of life by essentially every indicator—from life expectancy to population to nutrition to health to education to comfort and leisure opportunities to you-name-it—since the industrial revolution has been made possible not only by the application of scientific and technological knowledge but by innovation and entrepreneurship. These are the achievements of a rational animal and only a rational animal. But the achievements of advanced economies are only the most dramatic demonstration. In every aspect of life, at any level of civilization, we can and must employ reason to determine our interests, goals, and actions, if we want to be successful in the game of life.

Now, reason is a faculty of individuals. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection

Apropos of Hayek’s claim that the mores needed to sustain the extended order (namely, several property and personal responsibility) evolved by a process of cultural group selection, I want to add a note about the origin of the prosocial attitudes (or values, behaviors, etc) needed to support the operation of the free market. To return to part 6 (on Hayek), click here. To advance to the next chunk of the main argument, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Bowles and Gintis, in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011), provide a helpful chart of the different theories of how prosocial behavior might have evolved (page 53). The main division is between some form of genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Genetic evolutionary theories basically depend either on some sort of kin selection mechanism (organisms are benevolent toward family members because they share their genes) or on group selection (prosocial traits like honesty spread because groups of honest individuals out-compete groups of dishonest individuals). Cultural evolutionary theories generally depend on some sort of mechanism of reciprocity, either direct (tit-for-tat) or indirect (benefits of having a good reputation).

None of these provides a good explanation of how the sort of virtuous behavior that brings the free market into existence could have evolved, especially in large scale societies. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 7. Frank

Here is the seventh chunk of the argument. To return to the sixth chunk, click here. To advance to the eighth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Robert Frank (1988) could hardly be accused of attempting to provide a moral vision for a free society, but he makes a case for one way of resolving the moral contradiction of the free society. He attempts to show how a seemingly selfless adherence to the moral principles that support the efficient operation of the free market might ultimately be justified in egoistic terms after all. The basic strategy is to reap the long term benefits of playing by free market rules by foregoing the short term gains that can be made by breaking them. Of course, this depends on finding other agents who also obey the free market rules—and enabling them to find you. Otherwise, as Frank shows, the strategy will be undercut and ultimately defeated by rule breakers.

How this strategy works can be illustrated by the case of honesty. Honest behavior is economically selfless on those occasions when one could gain by dishonesty (for example, perhaps by not paying the bill of a supplier who is about to go bankrupt or the bill of a small contractor who can’t afford to sue). Now, suppose you committed yourself to a policy of strict honesty. If others knew this, they would have reason to prefer doing business with you over others, to give you easier credit, etc. For, they could be confident that you would not rip them off; i.e., impose costs on them through dishonesty. In North’s terms, doing business with you would lower their transactions costs. Thus, by foregoing the occasional rip off, you reap the rewards of doing more business on better terms. And notice, by the way, that even if other people adopt the same honesty strategy, thereby undercutting your “market edge,” your terms of doing business will still be better. Transactions costs are still lowered, even if everybody becomes completely honest (indeed, they are lowered even more).

Of course, this works only if people know you are completely honest. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek

Here is the sixth chunk of the argument. To return to the fifth chunk, click here. To advance to the seventh chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here. An Addendum to the present chunk, on cultural group selection theory, is posted here.


Nozick’s is a split view. There is the morality of the side constraints, and there is the egoistic morality of the market, and they have essentially nothing to do with each other. From the perspective of either, there is no intrinsic reason to care about the other. A similar critique ultimately applies to Hayek’s otherwise very interesting take on a moral vision for a free society in The Fatal Conceit (1988).

Hayek believes human behavior is structured in three tiers. The lowest tier is instinctual and includes genetically supported behavioral patterns and impulses that evolved over the thousands of years of our hunter-gatherer prehistory. The second tier is that of culture. Cultural customs, traditions, mores, and practices are transmitted through social learning. They evolved through a blind, quasi-Darwinian process of relatively random variation and selection through the success or failure of those who adopt them. They are not the product of reason. Reason itself, which is the third tier, is a late product of this process of cultural evolution. It enables us to consciously and critically evaluate evidence, hypotheses, and proposals. It is the only self-aware capacity of the three, but it is a very weak instrument. It is almost entirely incapable of grasping the reasons or justification or purposes of our actions or of predicting their effects. Hayek believes reason across the board is highly overrated. It serves mostly as a source of post hoc rationalizations of our behavior. One should not trust reason, whether theoretical or practical, very far at all. (The hostility to reason betrayed in this book is stunning. But further discussion of this point is a topic for another time.)

The different tiers are the source of different and sometimes conflicting behavioral imperatives, particularly “moral” imperatives. Continue reading