Thursday , March 4 2021
Home / S. Sumner: Money Illusion / Understanding middlebrow

Understanding middlebrow

Summary:
I’ll get to the NYT eventually, but first let’s look at the middlebrow sector of the film industry. And by the way, middlebrow is not the middle of the population, it’s roughly the 90th to the 99th percentile. Highbrow is the top 1%. And then there’s rest—Kardashians, professional wrestling, etc. This is from American Splendor: Mattress Guy 1: So how smart is she?Mattress Guy 2: I don’t know. I guess she’s about average.Mattress Guy 1: Average? Average is dumb!” [BTW, nothing wrong with being dumb. I’m not dumb about movies, but I’m dumb about plenty of other things. I used to get Cs in French class—do you know how hard that was to do in the 1960s? And then there’s my “computer skills”.] I often check out middlebrow TV entertainment on Netflix, and almost

Topics:
Scott Sumner considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

Tyler Cowen writes Sins of omission vs sins of commission

Tyler Cowen writes Wednesday assorted links

Tyler Cowen writes Ola Malm on the future and industrial organization of chess

Tyler Cowen writes Causes of the sex drought

I’ll get to the NYT eventually, but first let’s look at the middlebrow sector of the film industry. And by the way, middlebrow is not the middle of the population, it’s roughly the 90th to the 99th percentile. Highbrow is the top 1%. And then there’s rest—Kardashians, professional wrestling, etc.

This is from American Splendor:

Mattress Guy 1: So how smart is she?
Mattress Guy 2: I don’t know. I guess she’s about average.
Mattress Guy 1: Average? Average is dumb!”

[BTW, nothing wrong with being dumb. I’m not dumb about movies, but I’m dumb about plenty of other things. I used to get Cs in French class—do you know how hard that was to do in the 1960s? And then there’s my “computer skills”

I often check out middlebrow TV entertainment on Netflix, and almost always give up after a few episodes. Last year it was The Queen’s Gambit and Borgen, but there are 100s of other examples one could cite. These series are generally not bad—they often have decent acting and OK screenplay’s—but no one would say they are works of art. No one will re-watch them in the 22nd century, the way we now re-watch classic films from the 1920s and 1930s.

One possibility is that middlebrow meets two appetites, the thirst for stories and the itch to be exposed to something new, such as the world of chess or European parliamentary politics. The soap opera aspects are sort of like sugar to help the medicine go down.

There’s no point in bemoaning the fact that Netflix offerings are uninspired or that the Academy Awards usually ignores the best films. That’s not their audience! That’s not to say there haven’t been great films with wide appeal, but the whole point of the Academy Awards is to reward the picture with the biggest appeal to the 90% to 99% audience, not the bottom 90% or the top 1%. (And no, Parasite winning last year doesn’t prove me wrong—Burning winning would have proved me wrong.)

A company like Netflix can’t become big and rich by appealing to the audience that likes films directed by Tarkovsky and Hou Hsiao-shien. And do you really expect the Academy to give out Best Picture awards in a way that implicitly acknowledges that most Hollywood directors are not in fact “artists”, and the makes the TV viewers at home feel dumb?

The NYT has 7.5 million subscribers, mostly progressives in the 90-99% range. These people feel very smart, and they are in fact smarter than 90% of the population. So there’s no point bemoaning the fact that the NYT is not about to tell it’s readers that, “Actually, we provide middlebrow news analysis, and if you want brilliant inspired analysis you need to read blogs like SlateStarCodex.”

Yes, the NYT story is awful in all the ways that are currently being discussed by its critics, but the fundamental problem is inescapable. Any time a powerful middlebrow entity (which wrongly thinks it’s highbrow) evaluates an actual highbrow entity, you will end up with a mixture of resentment and incomprehension. This case is no different. It’s just how things work.

Scott Alexander should view this story as a badge of honor. “My insights are so subtle that even the NYT was in over its head trying to figure me out.” I have no doubt that if the NYT tried to evaluate my blog they’d get it right. My stuff is not over their heads. My posts are relentlessly middlebrow in everything other than monetary policy.

But at least I know highbrow when I read it.

PS. Off topic:

Number of Trump impeachments: 2

All other presidents: 2

Senators from his own party that voted to convict: 8

All other presidents: zero


Tags:

 
 
 
Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *