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War of Attention
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War of Attention

When people are distracted by a zillion different things, the most reliable way to get them to look your way is to say crazy stuff.

Dear Reader (Including all the politicians afraid to publicly come out of the closet of normalcy), 

Since it’s Labor Day weekend, let’s talk a bit about labor.

One of my favorite scenes in Game of Thrones is also one of the best explanations of Marx’s labor theory of value ever offered in popular culture.

The context doesn’t matter much, so I’ll offer little. Jonathan Pryce plays a mild-mannered religious zealot who goes by the title “the High Sparrow.” He divulges his origin story to his prisoner, Queen Margaery:

High Sparrow: My father was a cobbler. He died when I was young and I took over his shop. He was a simple man and he made simple shoes. But I found that the more work I put into my shoes, the more people wanted them. Fine leather, ornamentation, detailing, and time. Time most of all. Dozens of hours spent on a single pair.

Margaery: Quality takes time.

High Sparrow: Yes. I imagine you’ve worn a year of someone’s life on your back. The highborn liked to cover their feet with my time and they paid well for the privilege. I used their money to buy a taste of their lives for myself. Each time I indulged, I felt myself ascending to something better.

He goes on to explain that he became disgusted by the ostentatiousness and crapulence of the elites for whom he worked and whose ranks he sought to join. He resolved to reject worldliness entirely, even including the wearing of shoes.

What I like about this little sermon is that it captures both the economic fallacy embedded within it and the powerful cultural and psychological appeal of that fallacy.

Now, I’m going to try a little experiment. Rather than spending the next 750 words explaining what’s wrong economically with the labor theory of value, I’m going to create a little sidebar with my synopsis and put it in a separate post you can reach by clicking here.

For most of human history, the currency of life—not just economics—was time. And prices were very high. Consider my favorite example: light. If there’s any “product” we take for granted more than artificial light, I can’t think of what it might be. My friends at Human Progress have been all over this point for a long, uh, time.

In premodern times, you’d need to collect and chop wood for 10 hours a day, six days straight just to produce 1,000 lumen hours of light. That’s equal to a single conventional light bulb shining for 54 minutes. And if you’ve ever tried to read—not a problem in prehistoric times, I concede—you know that campfires have drawbacks light bulbs do not.

“The light bulb changed everything,” write the folks at Human Progress:

“By 1900, 60 hours of work could provide 10 days of light. The light bulbs would burn 100 times as bright as a candle, steadily, and inodorously. By 1920, 60 hours of work could already pay for 5 months of stable light. By 1990, that increased to 10 years of light. Today? 52 years. 

And progress has not stopped yet. LED lights continue to become cheaper and cheaper. 

The amount of labor that once bought 54 minutes of light now buys 52 years of light. The cost has fallen by a factor of 500,000 and the quality of that light has transformed from unstable and risky to clean, safe, and controllable.” 

All of the folks who crap on the Enlightenment from a great height take such things for granted as they pound their sledgehammers into the soapboxes they rant from. No, they’re not anti-light. But they often make it sound like all of the benefits that flow from the Enlightenment are a given, while the alleged costs are the product of bad decisions we should have avoided. 

The idea that, if Western societies had simply been ruled by priests and philosophers who knew with invincible certitude how to define the highest good, we’d still have all the good stuff in modern life—antibiotics, automobiles, airplanes, and even stuff that doesn’t begin with “A”—and none of the bad just strikes me as ahistorical, sophomoric philosophical thumbsuckery. When, exactly, should innovation in science, technology, and our social lives have frozen in place? When should we have drawn the line? Should we have listened to the Luddites and stopped economic progress around 1815? Should we have said, “That’s enough change” in the 1950s, the era in which many socialists and nationalists alike would like to live (or at least work)? And how, exactly, would you have stifled innovation?

But this is all familiar terrain if you’ve been reading me for the last few years. So let’s talk about George Jetson. If you’re a certain age you remember the cartoon, with it’s outsized gory violence and shocking sex scenes that laid the groundwork for the most depraved anime to emerge from the Japanese dark web. Just kidding. I’m trying to make the pop culture of my youth more attractive to younger readers.

George Jetson worked at Spacely Sprockets, and his workweek consisted of pushing a single button for an hour a day, two days a week. When I was a kid, I thought that was stupid even for a cartoon. But if you start from, say, the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, or even the Industrial Revolution, we’re heading towards a Jetson-y future.

We’re working less and less every generation. The first thing to understand is that the biggest gains in the decline of work are hard to measure in economic statistics because they manifest themselves outside the traditional workplace. For instance, technology liberated women more than the women’s liberation movement did. Indeed, were it not for things like the washing machine, feminism may not have become a mass movement. It’s worth recalling that many of the early suffragist-feminist types tended to be drawn from the ranks of the affluent or bourgeois (though in fairness that’s generally true of all revolutionaries and activists). They had the “leisure” time to dedicate to politics.

The division of labor between men and women that marked most of human history was complicated, but it was hardly the case that women did less work than men.

According to some estimates, it took some 60 hours of labor to run a typical household in 1930. If you read what a typical day was like for most women in traditional societies, 60 hours seemed almost leisurely. In her wonderful book The Fabric of Civilization, Virginia Postrel chronicles how weaving—making thread, rope, yarn, etc. into essential goods—consumed huge swaths of time. Using the traditional techniques of Papua New Guinea, it took between 60 and 80 hours to make enough cord for a looped bag. It took another month of labor to make the bag itself. “Preindustrial women spun constantly because cloth, whether for taxes, sale, or household use, required a huge amount of thread,” Postrel writes.

But even according to the much narrower—and extremely unfair—definition of work, the amount of time we work has been steadily declining. “In 1830,” writes Marian Tupy, “the workweek in the industrializing West averaged about 70 hours or, Sundays excluded, 11.6 hours of work per day. By 1890 that fell to 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. Thirty years later, the workweek in advanced societies stood at 50 hours or 8.3 hours per day. Today, people in advanced societies work less than 40 hours per week. That still amounts to roughly 8 hours per day, because workers typically don’t work on Saturdays. The ‘weekend’ was born.”

We’re obviously a long way off from The Jetsons’ economy, and I think it’s pretty obvious we’ll never fully get there—nor should we want to. Also, we should acknowledge that there are plenty of people who still do a lot of hard, often backbreaking labor in the traditional workforce and the traditional home. But something new is emerging as well: The attention economy.

The number of things you can do with your free time has expanded exponentially, even though the amount of time we have is finite. A lot has been written about the attention economy, even before we had the term. YouTube competes with Netflix which competes with the NFL which competes with Call of Duty which competes with the New York Times which competes with the latest Remnant podcast and a billion other things.

I didn’t know until I got to writing this paragraph that the phrase “attention theory of value” had already been coined—though I don’t much like how the coiner uses it, so I’ll avoid his definition. I don’t quite have my own definition either, but what’s clear is that if you can create anything that grabs our attention, you can make money from it.

I don’t think the attention economy is an unalloyed good thing, far from it. Neil Postman saw some of its downsides long before we had a word for it. But I think it’s worth noting in the space I have left how much it’s infecting and corrupting our politics.

There’s no reason to dwell on the obvious bits. The incentive to get noticed is the threshold imperative to behaving like a jackass. When people are distracted by a zillion different things—many of them designed to prey on our lizard brains—the most reliable way to get them to look your way is to say crazy stuff. You want to make the people in your customer base angry at the people not in your customer base—and feel good about their anger. This appears to be the sum total of the social media strategy of Ohio Senate candidates like J.D. Vance and Josh Mandel.

But here’s a somewhat less obvious problem with the attention economy of politics. The more you call attention to a policy initiative or political project, the less likely it is to succeed. If one side really wants X, the more likely it is that the other side will rally around not-X. There are exceptions, but nearly all of them—Obamacare, Trump’s domestic agenda, the American Rescue Plan—passed entirely or almost entirely on partisan lines.  

In general, the only way to pass a bipartisan policy is to make sure it’s under the radar of the political attention economy. Talk to any serious senator or congressman and they’ll tell you the only way to have a productive hearing on any serious, or at least controversial,  issue is to do it away from television cameras. One of the reasons the Supreme Court—and the courts in general—have retained a good amount of institutional integrity is they are, by design, outside of or immunized against the attention economy.

I’m no fetishizer of bipartisanship. That’s really not my point (though this dynamic is a really idiotic way to run a country). Instead, I have a theory: Most people don’t like politics. And who can blame them when there’s so much entertaining stuff on Hulu and Netflix? The majority—or at least the loud minority—of people who do like politics like it for its entertainment value, and the only entertaining form of politics for the vast majority of them is us-versus-them combat. That’s what drives primary voters and small donors. So the moment a political issue gets a lot of attention it immediately becomes zero sum: If they win, we lose. This, in turn, gives politicians and activists all the psychological permission they need to frame things in apocalyptic terms. Getting rid of drive-through voting equals the return of Jim Crow. Raising taxes is now socialism. 

Now, when I say “entertainment value,” that minimizes the problem, because referring to politics as “entertainment” implies that the entertained recognize it as entertainment. The problem is that some people don’t. Think of it this way: Football is purely a form of entertainment. But I’m sure you know people—hey, you might even be one of them—who take it way more seriously than a movie or a TV show. They see it as a huge part of their identity. And while that’s not my bag, it’s a generally harmless obsession. You can even argue that football is a healthy outlet for our belligerent instincts.

For some people, finding meaning is a form of entertainment. I have no problem with people who like to dress up like Klingons or Civil War troops and spend their weekends play-acting. But some of the people swept up in the bogusness (bogiosity?) of politics these days don’t understand that they’re the marks; their passion is being monetized and exploited for narrow political gain. It was all fun and games until they stormed the Capitol or shot up a congressional baseball practice. I have no idea if Madison Cawthorn was serious about taking up arms against other Americans over the made-up claim of a stolen election. The only reason I’m reluctant to form an opinion on that is I think he’s stupid enough to potentially believe his own bulls**t. Sometimes the best conmen are the ones too dumb to realize they’re conmen.  

But what I do know is that this is a far more dangerous situation than the demagogues appreciate.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So this morning we had a guy come in to fix a problem with our kitchen sink. He had to work in the cabinet underneath. There was only one problem: Pippa loved him and was very interested in what he was doing. She kept trying to get in the cabinet with him and “help.” He was good-natured about it, but Pippa was very disappointed that she was denied the ability to share her love retail. Alas, she’ll be more disappointed tomorrow morning, because we’re taking her to the vet (her front right wrist is bothering her again). I’ll let you know how that goes. 

We’re also taking Gracie, but the funny thing about Gracie is that she kind of likes going to the vet. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t fight getting in the carrier (the way Ralph did, turning into a Tasmanian devil the moment he heard us take it down from the shelf). Other than that, the dogs are good. They hated the thunder, but they love the weather Ida left in her wake. We even had treat time outside this morning (in part because I didn’t think anyone wanted to see the workman’s butt in the background). Zoe, by the way, says, “Hello.”


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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.