Why Star Trek is fiction

There apparently has been an online debate about the sociology of Star Trek, summarized in the Otherwhere Gazette:

David Gerrold has responded to William Lehman’s article “Destroy the myth, destroy the culture.” by pointing out that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future within the Star Trek was far more sociological than technological. He should know, he was there. In meetings with the creative staff of Star Trek, Roddenberry spoke of a future where all people had equal opportunity and access to resources. This vision is glorious in its scope and ambition. Such a world would be amazing. It is also as fictional as the Star Trek series that envisioned it.

Go to the Lehman link, and you’ll read his piece and counterarguments, including Gerrold’s, about Roddenberry’s views of social justice incorporated into, according to Gerrold, most episodes of the first (and best) Star Trek. We, however, resume course:

Many of the social ideas Gene Roddenberry envisioned have severe problems. Roddenberry thought of a world where people (and aliens) would all work together for the common good. Great in theory but who decides what the common good is? This shouldn’t be a problem except for two factors: available resources and the people themselves. For example: Party A wants to build a bridge to facilitate trade and party B wants to build a hospital to facilitate health. Both projects will require two cranes apiece but only three are available for both projects. Party A’s bridge will mean more resources coming to the area and an increase in the number and quality of jobs available thereby increasing the standard of living in the area. Party B’s hospital will bring more medical services to the area which will help people when they are hurt or sick. Which project takes priority? There are not enough resources to do both projects at the same time so the secondary project will at least be delayed and might possibly be canceled as other projects are put forward. Who decides which is more important? This is a problem even with human resources. Increasing the availability of education sounds very good in theory but where do you get the professors to teach the larger number of students? Also, how do you distribute this among the disciplines? The emphasis on a college education has meant we have a glut of lawyers but a dearth of welders. This is despite the fact a starting welder makes more than a starting lawyer and most lawyers don’t work at the law firms portrayed on “LA Law” or “Boston Legal”. There will never be enough resources for everything everybody wants so this part of Roddenberry’s social vision fails.

And now is where we bring people into it. Roddenberry saw people being better than they are. He envisioned a world where people worked together to achieve their goals and the organization that facilitated this, the bureaucrats of the Federation of Planets, were all competent and did the best they could at their jobs. As far as I can recall, the Enterprise never had a supply issue (“Mudd’s Women” could be argued but I think that was more of a compensation issue). They always had enough toilet paper and spare parts. Talk about fiction! In the real world there is a rule of thumb: 20% of your workers, regardless of your profession, will be awesome, 60% will be simply do their job and go home, and the last 20% will have the other 80% asking how they got hired in the first place and why they are still around. Throw in Dr. Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Rule of Bureaucracy and you’re lucky the Federation can get a starship into orbit, much less explore strange new worlds. And never forget self-interest. Whether the bridge or hospital is built is just as likely to be decided by who the bridge is named after or who gets a job on the hospital’s board of directors as by merit.

Ambition plays a role as well. Generally speaking, most people want tomorrow to be slightly better than yesterday. Ambition and greed are not necessarily bad. However, when an individual’s calculations have them thinking, right or wrong, that the use of force is more efficient and/or more likely to have them achieve their goals this creates a problem. You cannot take aggression away from humanity without taking away its ambition. Even Star Trek showed this in the episode “The Enemy Within”. Leaving it in means you will always have somebody who makes decisions from self-interest rather than the greater good. Take ambition away and you get the planet Miranda from “Serenity” rather than the United Federation of Planets. Make rules to mitigate the effect of ambition and you stifle the good aspects along with the bad. And, sooner or later, you’ll discover that, rather than rules eliminating aggressive behavior from people, you’ll find they have simply disguised it. People don’t “Progress” they adapt.

In summary, we praise the technology of Star Trek because it works and gives us something to strive for. With the right combination of wires and elements we can make the technology of Star Trek a reality. Roddenberry envisioned a future society in which everybody had the ability to fulfill all their goals. However, it only works on television and we generally don’t praise things that don’t work in reality. The unfortunate truth is that we cannot fulfill Roddenberry’s vision because people are people. We must accept that people are individuals with their own wants and needs and always will be. And the individual is where Roddenberry’s social vision fails.

Roddenberry evidently could have been from the Progressive Era, which was based on the belief that man could be perfected with the assistance of activist government and the “experts” in higher education, government and elsewhere. The irony here is that the least competent bureaucrat in the Federation was Gerrold’s own creation, Nilz Baris, the undersecretary of agricultural affairs, who blamed Kirk for the tribbles and the Klingons’ presence on Space Station K-7. (Followed by the commissioner who was fine with leaving senior Enterprise officers marooned on Murasaki 312 in “The Galileo Seven,” and the ambassador who nearly got himself and the Enterprise crew killed in “A Taste of Armageddon.”)

The comment debate-thread included:

Even [Star Trek: The Next Generation] covered the aggression/ambition issue with the [episode] that saw Q send Picard back in time to avoid getting stabbed. The resulting Picard was a milquetoast nobody, pigeonholed as an unhappy botanist or something equally unmemorable…

There were a couple of things that the whole foundation relied on: cheap, unlimited energy and the ability (requiring said unlimited cheap energy) to manipulate matter (transporters and replicators). So, the bridge vs hospital problem would never really have to be addressed because they appeared as if by magic. Neither the toilet paper generally — I guess you might still run out in the stall.

The very first lecture in “Introduction to Microeconomics” back in college had the line “wants are unlimited while resources are limited.” This really is the first law or economics. So far nobody has come up with a realistic way to change that. It remains pure hand-wavey magic whenever it’s used in fiction, less “real” than the magic of fantasy fiction.

And just like magic in fantasy, it can be really useful in a story to look at something besides the limited resources thing.
See also, “why RPGs don’t have you sitting there watching your character sleep for a third of the game.”

The original Star Trek also was willing to give opposite sides of an issue a hearing: a deconstruction of “remote control” “painless” war (a stand-in for the proxy wars of the Cold War) in A Taste of Armageddon on one hand and an argument for why when your enemy arms one side in a “proxy war” you are justified in arming the other if only to restore the “balance of power” and leave the “proxy” some semblance of self-determination) in A Private Little War.

One other thought, the social causes have changed as our society has changed. And so has the terminology. The folks that worked hard in the 60’s on our social causes of the times are not today’s Social Justice Warriors. The modern SJWs {a tag they took on their own} are on the left, but that is all the resemblence they have to the social heroes of the sixties.
In fact, if we look to Star Trek again for inspiration, the modern SJW’s would be the Borg. Their whole existence is predicated into slotting everyone into a hole, whether you fit or not. And they absolutely lose it if you oppose them or disagree.
What is it our heroes in Star Trek do when they run into rampaging Borg? Why they fight and work to protect individual freedom.

“Roddenberry saw people being better than they are.”
Sure. He saw technology better than it is too. He saw them both AS THEY COULD BE. Tech has moved faster than he envisioned, but people are getting better. Give the vision time.

People are the same. People still murder, rape, abuse and all other manner of evil things. People will continue to do this.
The only way to stop people from harming one another is to engineer humans to where they are no longer humans. The only way to stop humans from hating one another is to engineer them so that they are no longer humans.
You have good people, but you have bad people as well. You always will, as long as humans are humans.
Unless you do want to go the Miranda path and try to engineer humans to be something that they are not.

Great article, but I need a clarification on what you mean by “progress” more specifically the idea that progress is limited by human capacity. 100 years ago, no country had universal suffrage. Slavery was common until about 200 years ago. Times changed. Now, the idea of regressing back to those once societal norms seems abhorrent, if not impossible. Clearly regression is possible (for example ISIS) but it’s also hard. Is progress just the product of cultural norms? If so, we see to have created some norms that are pretty enduring and pretty positive. There is a tone to this article that feels very postmodern in its thinking, that denies any real progress. I think progress is very clearly real, and not just technical progress and an endless progression or ever more clever gadgets, but real social progress. I’m not in any way however, a “progressive” as that modern term is used, but consider myself a classic liberal. Thing is, I have no idea what is possible for the future society of humanity. We are already working and collaborating today on levels that people just a century ago would have thought impossible. A lot of this is communitarian, some free market, but it is happening. Is a Star Trek future impossible? Well, it might seem so to us, but them universal suffrage was once considered just as impossible. Don’t count Roddenberry entirely out just yet. He may be right after all.

Gerrold added:

These are all good points. And probably much more grounded in reality than Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.
But Star Trek as a vision wasn’t meant to be a prediction, nor was it meant to be accurate sociology either — but it was intended as a set of moral thought experiments, and perhaps even a goal to aim for, that human beings might someday learn to resolve our differences without laying hands on one another.
As prediction, all SF stumbles. But as an ideal, Star Trek still works. That’s why it maintains its iconic status.
Remember that line from Robert Browning’s poem, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” That’s Star Trek too.

The dubious economics of Star Trek got mentioned too:

The Economics of Star Trek I always found ludicrous. By TNG it’s pointed out that man has evolved into some kind of glorious socialist, anti-materialist future. (Picard tells someone from the past that we have evolved beyond commerce and the need for money or some such). They apparently don’t use money, and let’s stop to think that things like food replicators and the holodeck, essentially solve the basic economic problem, of scarce resources and unlimited wants, if you can literally transmute matter to make a steak you have no need to explore space. Also the holodeck. My God, you guys go off and explore space, I’ll spent my entire life in my holodeck with Jessica Alba, Marilyn Monroe and the 20 year old Sofia Loren, thank you. Progress would grind to a complete halt.

More succinctly, Roddenberry either never heard of or outright rejected Adam Smith.

Well, yes. Several thousand years, at least, of recorded human history (merely going back to the Bible) should be enough proof that, no, mankind cannot be improved as the progressives believe. The very presence of a Federation and Starfleet proves that. One assumes that Roddenberry (who was a Los Angeles police officer before going Hollywood) would have not approved of a culture that condoned, for instance, murder; well, how do you enforce that prohibition?

This subject came up because of a post by author Frank J. Fleming:

When you think of a future government, probably the first thing that pops into your mind is the Federation in Star Trek. Another might be the Empire from Star Wars, but I said we’re talking about government in the future, and the Empire is from a long time ago. Anyway, the Federation is a more left-wing, highly organized type of government. And what do all the ships in the Federation have? Phasers and proton torpedos — because if you’re going to go around the galaxy telling people what to do, you’re going to need them.

The Federation reflects a problem with our current model of government and why it might not last into the future. That’s because it’s still based on a rather primitive notion: I’m bigger than you, so you have to do what I say. The first government was probably the largest guy in the tribe ruthlessly enforcing the rule that no one could make fun of his fancy leader hat, and then things escalated from there.  In a way, government is a more civilized way of putting a gun to someone’s head to make them do something — whether those edicts come from a democratically elected government or a single guy with a fancy leader hat. The reason most people obey laws — even really asinine ones — is that they know the government is big and can hurt them if they don’t. …

So that’s what I see: Government just won’t work in the future. Eventually the scope of humanity (and perhaps alien-ity) will get so big that governments will either become irrelevant or will have to become extremely ruthless to keep enforcing their will. And, anyway, is our vision of the future really that the only way people can live together is if we have this big entity threatening us with fines and imprisonment over millions and millions of different things? Instead I think our future — at least the one we should aim for — is using our advances in technology and our knowledge to find more ways people can work together voluntarily. We’ll always need punishments for theft and violence, but perhaps we can find ways to work together and provide for the poor and needy without all the threats over non-violent actions, such as how we choose to run our own lives or our own businesses. It does seem like a nicer, more peaceful future than our current arc.

As far as I know, Roddenberry was not libertarian. Fleming, meanwhile, did not write “The Way to Eden,” the third-season episode with 23rd-century hippies.

The punchline of not just Star Trek, but every piece of entertainment is, however, in this comment:

Beyond what you said is the fact that even though ST had a message of social justice, the primary reason it succeeded as a franchise is because it told entertaining stories. Browbeat me with a message without telling me a story that keeps my attention and I’ll walk away. Make the story interesting enough for me to hang around and the message will get distributed to a wide audience.

Fortunately for Roddenberry.

The Badgerbund

Just in time for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, Adidas has given UW new basketball uniforms:

Together with Adidas, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team unveiled the new Made in March uniform system on Thursday. The Badgers will wear the new uniform during the 2015 NCAA basketball postseason.

Designed with adidas’ most innovative and advanced apparel and footwear technology, the uniform system is designed to help athletes play at their highest levels during college basketball’s biggest moments.

The new uniforms feature enlarged team logos on the short and an extended waistband that allows players to display their school colors even when wearing home whites. Evoking a throwback feel, the asymmetrical leg trim on the shorts is inspired by the teams’ retro uniform styles.

Jerseys were designed with the same lightweight, sweat-wicking technology used in the NBA and targeted ventilation zones on the chest, back and side to keep players cool even in the most intense moments of the game. A perforated pattern on the short maximizes comfort and breathability as the game heats up.

The Badgers will lace-up the latest adidas basketball footwear including new colorways of the D Lillard 1, J Wall 1 and D Rose Boost 5 signature shoes from NBA All-Stars Damian Lillard, John Wall and Derrick Rose.

From the bottom up: Basketball shoes should be white, and only white. So this is good.

The horizontal stripe, which as a friend of mine pointed out looks just like a tuxedo cummerbund (hence his suggestion for the headline) … well, it’s a good thing there are no fat basketball players, because you may notice a trend …

… among the eight schools whose uniforms Adidas is redesigning for March Madness 2015.

The non-white stripes look better on the road uniforms than they do on the home uniforms. The white on the Badger road uniforms looks awful, so let’s hope Wisconsin gets a number one seed and can wear the home unis to the Final Four.

Not that Bo Ryan or anyone else cares, but Ryan might recognize my favorite Badger basketball uniform design …

… because that’s Ryan in the middle, between Joe Chrnelich (on the left) and Robert Jenkins. Ryan obviously has ditched the glasses, and, one assumes, the white belt and this particular polyester shirt.


The history of Right to Work

Mike Nichols of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute was a union member when he was a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter:

In an effort to determine whether Wisconsin should consider right-to-work legislation, WPRI decided last fall to undertake two different lines of research: a poll of public opinion and an analysis of potential economic impacts.

We released the 2015 WPRI Poll of Public Opinion in January, and it included numerous questions regarding right-to-work. The survey of 600 Wisconsinites determined that approximately twice as many citizens of this state would vote in favor of right-to-work legislation as would vote against it (62% to 32%). Over three-quarters of respondents (77%), meanwhile, said they think no American should be required to join any private organization, such as a labor union, against his or her will.

In addition, a plurality of the 600 respondents, said they believe a right-to-work law will be economically beneficial for the state. Four in 10 (40%) said such laws will “improve economic growth in Wisconsin,” 29% said they believe the laws “will not affect economic growth” and 27% said such laws will “reduce economic growth.”

Our second line of inquiry – the paper in front of you titled “The Economic Impact of a Right-to-work Law on Wisconsin” – concludes that what a plurality of state residents intuitively believes is backed up by statistical analysis. Right-to-work laws are economically beneficial.

WPRI commissioned this paper by one of America’s foremost experts on right-to-work, Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, months ago. Dr. Vedder and his colleagues, Joe Hartge and Christopher Denhart, happened to be finishing it up just when legislative leaders decided to bring a right-to-work bill to the floor this week. While they did not see the bill prior to conducting this analysis, right-to-work is a straightforward concept that varies little from state to state. As a result, we believe this paper – by comparing economic growth in states that have had right-to-work to those that have not and calculating the potential impact in Wisconsin – provides the best, most nuanced, most objective and most accurate analysis that has been done in the Badger State.

The essential finding is clear:

Over the last 30 years, states with right-to-work (RTW) legislation have experienced greater per capita personal income growth than other states. And that positive correlation between right-to-work and higher incomes remains true even after controlling for other important variables (such as tax rates in various states) that might have had a simultaneous impact.

The statistical results suggest that, in fact, the presence of a RTW law added about six percentage points to the growth rate of RTW states from 1983 to 2013. With such a law, Wisconsin’s per capita personal income growth of 53% over those years would have been, instead, about 59%. Wisconsin would have gone from having economic growth below the national average over those three decades to having slightly above average growth – enough above average that it would have erased the current per capita income deficit between Wisconsin and the nation as a whole.

We think this is extremely significant because, as the report points out, Wisconsin truly has fallen behind economically in recent decades.

In 1950, well over $22 of every $1,000 in personal income generated in the United States was earned by Wisconsin residents. That figure has steadily fallen to only $17.55 in 2013 – a decline of well over 20%. Most of this reflects relatively slow population growth. But income growth for residents over the 1950-2013 period was below the national average. In 1950, per capita income was 1.63% below the national average; in 2013, the income deficit was more than double that.

Wisconsin’s per capita personal income received from all sources in 2013 was $43,244, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis – $1,521 less than the national average of $44,765.

The regression analysis suggests that had Wisconsin adopted a RTW law in 1983, per capita income would have been $1,683 higher in 2013 than it actually was – and would have brought the state slightly over the national per capita personal income average.

There are some caveats that apply to all such analysis. Although the results are strong, the authors – as all good economists would – urge some caution in using the precise estimation. Comparing states with right-to-work to those without is a complex undertaking. Some possible determinants of economic growth are very difficult or impossible to measure, such as the extent of statewide environmental regulations, and there may be a significant “omitted variable bias” in this simple regression model. At the same time, it is unlikely the inclusion of other variables would materially alter the estimations with respect to RTW.

In addition, it is important to note that this is an analysis of the past – the 1980s through 2013. Labor unions today have a smaller presence than they used to, so the effects of a RTW law might reasonably be expected to have a somewhat smaller impact in the future – especially in Wisconsin where Act 10 is already having an economic impact.

That said, it is a fact that Wisconsin has fallen behind. As this study indicates, Wisconsin’s role in the national economy has shrunk with the passage of time. The analysis suggests that passage of a RTW law likely would slow and possibly reverse this trend. Right-to-work laws in sum are economically beneficial and would help Wisconsin catch up to other states with which it competes economically.

As importantly, we at WPRI see this as a fundamental issue of individual freedom – and it is clear that Wisconsinites of all political persuasions agree. A majority of self-identified Republicans, independents and Democrats say they would vote in favor of right-to-work legislation.

The right to work (without union dues)

A Facebook Friend invited me to share this:

I have a really good question here, in regards to the Right to Work Law that is being passed in Wisconsin:

Are the unions and the government responsible for protecting the workers from what they see as their shortsightedness? Or are the workers responsible for their own free choices?

In the end it’s about freedom and personal liberty. Let’s not curtail them.

Politicians are infamous for doing what they think is better for you the ignorant voter, as opposed to what voters want, of course. Gov. Scott Walker has tried to dance away from right-to-work legislation because of how divisive the Act 10 debate was. But he’s going to get it with the Senate scheduled to vote on the bill today.

I feel slightly different about the right-to-work issue (which is, let’s face it, a euphemism like the two sides of the abortion rights argument using “pro-choice” and “pro-life”) from public-sector unions only because, unlike with government unions, consumers can choose to buy products or services from businesses based on, if they choose, their union affiliation, or lack thereof.

However, it’s perfectly obvious, just like with public sector unions’ inability to stop Act 10 from becoming law, followed by their inability to punish those who got Act 10 into law, that private-sector unions have worn out their welcome with the American voter. Driving General Motors into bankruptcy (with a big assist from GM’s inept management), rampant corruption (one word: Teamsters), being more interested in increasing union officials’ salaries than with members, failing to grasp that businesses need to be profitable first and foremost, and diverting union dues into campaign contributions for politicians and candidates not necessarily supported by union members — it’s obvious that the problems with unions are the unions’ fault and no one else’s.

Four years ago during the Act 10 controversies unions tried to claim responsibility for every supposed worker benefit from coffee breaks to vacations. Which is laughable when you consider the number of people who contribute more to society than clock-punching union workers — they’re called “business owners,” who don’t get nights or weekends or holidays off.

The Act 10 debate also demonstrated some uncomfortable truths about unions, ranging from their managements’ six-figure salaries when their members are making considerably less, to the fact that in many small communities government workers are making more money than the people whose salaries pay their taxes. (For instance: The average Wisconsin teacher makes more money than the median Wisconsin family income.)

Regardless of that, there is one fundamental flaw with unions. They are essentially socialist in the concept that everyone should be treated equally, whether or not one employee works harder than others, or whether one employee needs different benefits than others. I want to have the ability to negotiate my own pay and benefits, because I know better than the union rep what I need in my own life. Most people seem to feel that way, based on declining union membership numbers.

The concept of needing to be in a union to have a job is a reprehensible violation of our First Amendment right of free association. No one who claims to value freedom can support the closed shop. (Which is why it was amusing to read someone replace “right to work” with “freedom” in the quotes of various Democrats who oppose right-to-work.)

Republicans have been accused of seeking political revenge by pushing right-to-work legislation through the Legislature. What a crazy thought — politicians vote for things their supporters support and vote against things their supporters oppose! (Although Barack Obama’s veto yesterday of the Keystone XL pipeline, when construction thereof would provide union jobs, is harder to understand.)

The best way for employees to get better salaries and working conditions is through competition for employees. In the 1990s jobs that required minimum-wage skills paid better than minimum wage because there was demand for those workers. If you don’t like how you’re treated at work, you leave.

I made a passing reference earlier today to how liberals hate markets. It’s hardly surprising because my guess is that giving employees a choice to join a union, or not, will result in employees’ not joining unions, similar to what has happened in Wisconsin since Act 10 became law.



Charles C.W. Cooke:

It was announced [Feb. 19] that MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, once the sparkle-eyed wunderkind who would lead the network into broad, sunlit uplands, will be stripped of his show. His time there, it turns out, was a waste of everyone’s time. …

Also removed from the airwaves was insipid afternoon host Joy Ann Reid, whose particular brand of racially charged progressive orthodoxy apparently appealed to few more viewers than did Farrow. If the Daily Beast is to be believed, this will not be the end of the shake. In addition, the Beast’s Lloyd Grove suggests, Al Sharpton “could eventually be moved from his weeknight 6 p.m. gig” and placed in a weekend graveyard slot, and Chris Hayes may be replaced by Rachel Maddow — who, in turn, would be dislodged by new talent. Thus, Politico’s Dylan Byers proposes, does MSNBC hope to “stem its cataclysmic ratings declines and waning relevance.” The potential implosion of the nation’s most openly progressive television station will undoubtedly provoke conservatives into cheap, if comprehensible, schadenfreude. But for the Right to cackle quietly would be rather to miss the point. Ten years ago, as the backlash against George W. Bush approached its fevered zenith, MSNBC took steps to ensure that it would crest and float happily upon the coming wave. For a time, Keith Olbermann was transformed into the voix de la résistance — serving not only as the go-to commentator on the collapse of the Republican majority, but as the much-loved narrator of all the Left’s halcyon days. Olbermann was there when the Democratic party recaptured the House and the Senate; he was there when Wall Street crashed and Barack Obama emerged as a savior; and he was there when Obamacare was rushed through in the dead of night. Yesterday, the model that he built started to show its most worrying cracks yet. We may well be marking the end of an era. In self-professedly “non-partisan” circles, it is common to hear it said that MSNBC is essentially just a leftward-leaning version of Fox News. This appraisal, I think, is wide of the mark. Contrary to its favored claim, Fox is not in fact “Fair and Balanced” but is a rightward-leaning station with an ideologically driven owner, a clear target audience, and an obvious and pronounced set of political biases. Or, as one wag has put it, Fox is designed to appeal to “a niche market called half the country.” This being so the problem is less that Fox is “extreme” or that it is “out of touch,” and more  that it is geared rather unsubtly toward serving one of America’s two philosophical poles. As one can open the New York Times and still easily recognize the country one is discussing, to dive into Fox’s world is to be exposed to a familiar but slanted impression of America and its people. Should viewers seek out a second opinion? Absolutely. Should they automatically discount the one they heard on Fox? No, of course not.  In this regard Fox is a little different from MSNBC, which, by unlovely contrast, does not aim at a broad swath of the United States at all, but is instead focused on a fascinating alternative universe to which few would-be viewers have ever been. Its handful of rather ordinary news anchors to one side, MSNBC’s hosts do not so much exist to represent a popular viewpoint as they are put on air to play a set of dramatic roles in what has become a vast and monomaniacal piece of conspiratorial performance art, of the sort that one might see composed by the theater department at Oberlin. When Deadline Hollywood’s Lisa de Moraes records that “today’s buzz word at MSNBC is ‘news-focused,’” she is not suggesting that the channel hopes slightly to tweak its balance between the straight-up reporting of facts and the offering of unabashed opinion; she is conceding that the station’s long experiment with esoteric faculty-lounge silliness is coming, at long last, to a crashing and ignominious end. “The goal,” an anonymous source told the Daily Beast yesterday, “is to move away from left-wing TV” and to give up on the hope of a return to the “glory days during George W. Bush’s administration.” Thus did Air America’s visual counterpart meet its own inevitable end. Popular as it is as a theory, the contention that explicitly left-wing media fails because left-wingers are “too smart” is brutally over-simplistic and invariably self-serving. Open them up on the subject and left-leaning types will explain smugly that, being bombastic and rudimentary and Manichean in nature, conservatism lends itself especially keenly to talk radio and to cable news. The problem for the Joy Reids and Ronan Farrows of the world, this assessment concludes, is that the subtlety and honesty of left-leaning figures renders their offerings lifeless and makes for dull — even bad — television. Disappointed that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly rake in the cash while Chris Hayes and Current TV are reduced to mere punch lines? Don’t be, say the apologists. One is for the mass market; the other is for the discerning shopper, like you. Undoubtedly, there are indeed structural differences at play. Unlike Rush Limbaugh and Fox News — whose audiences flock in droves to hear a point of view that they will not hear anywhere else — MSNBC has found itself in direct competition with more subtly left-leaning outlets such as NPR, CNN, HLN, and the majority of the country’s national newspapers. This has naturally put it at a disadvantage from which the handful of conservative channels are immune. But that MSNBC has also been so sorely lacking in both talent and sanity has been the real fatal blow. It really is no accident that the channel has been at its most popular when its main attractions were likable and competent and when its output was tolerable to viewers who have more than politics in their lives. At present, it is the winsome Rachel Maddow who dominates the ratings. Back in the day, it was the talented and surprisingly likable Keith Olbermann who brought in the eyeballs. The rest of the charisma-free cast, however, viewers can clearly take or leave. This is no accident. Similarly, too, it should not come as a surprise that MSNBC “regularly attracted a million viewers” during the period in which its hosts aimed their fire at people who actually held power, or that this audience disappeared when they consciously retreated into advocacy. During the Bush years, a significant number of Americans became desperate to hear views that differed sharply from the prevailing political wisdom of the age, and they turned to Olbermann and Co. to find them. Since that time, however, the government has changed, and with it the center of political gravity. Unfortunately for its architects, MSNBC’s business model was built upon the presumption that transient anti-Bush sentiment would translate neatly into viable amounts of permanent anti-conservative outrage, and that the same people who disliked the previous administration on the merits would be keenly interested in watching a bunch of nearsighted know-nothings rail against invisible bogeymen, abstract nouns, and the omnipotent, omnipresent Koch brothers. As we are beginning to see, this simply did not happen. Nor, I would venture, is it going to. That MSNBC is beginning earnestly to inspect the lifeboats indicates that its higher-ups are aware of the problem. But, unless they are resolved to turn their ship around rather dramatically, they will soon be joining Farrow in the water.

MSNBC pretty obviously should not have let Olbermann go, as much of a head case as he is. (That is a reference to his checkered employment history, most recently including a suspension from ESPN for inappropriate social media, not his politics.) Maddow’s show is the only show that attracts viewers, apparently. (Which drives liberals into paroxysms of Fox Derangement Syndrome, given that liberals appear unable to grasp that Fox News viewers might be able to discern the difference between news and commentary.)


The problem with being a news channel with an ideological brand would seem that you end up having to defend the status quo (see Obama, Barack) when it shouldn’t be defended. I also wouldn’t want to try to bridge the gap between blue-collar Democrats (presumably Ed Schultz’s demographic) and limousine liberals.

So MSNBC is stuck between a programming model that isn’t working, as demonstrated by ratings (a demonstration of why liberals hate markets), and the lack of guarantee that MSNBC will have any credibility at all as a more-news-than-commentary channel.