Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mad Men Economics (or, Why We Have a Depression and the Sixties Didn't)

cross-posted from Dagblog

The New York Times takes a look at the contract disputes that have been delaying production of Mad Men. (Although Deadline Hollywood suggests that the show is now a go, even though the fight with series creator Matt Weiner is not over.)

What's enlightening is the nature of the dispute. The network is ready to make Weiner very, very rich. But they demand that he turn in a slightly shittier product. From the Times:

AMC, which has showcased “Mad Men” for the last four summers and has benefited mightily from it, has offered Mr. Weiner a three-season deal that would be worth $30 million, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations. But Mr. Weiner is bristling at the channel’s proposal to shorten each episode by two minutes (to add commercial time) and to cut the cast budget (to save money). He says the changes would fundamentally make “Mad Men” a “different show.”

Some sources report that the cuts to the cast involve eliminating two regular characters, but it seems the key demand is that the show cut $1.5 million from the acting budget. That might make things more cost-effective, but there is no way that a show that's two minutes shorter and has $1.5 million less to spend paying performers is going to be better because of that. Those cuts will show up in the quality of the product and the enjoyment of the viewers, whether or not they can put their finger on why. (AMC apparently also demands more product placement, which all too many viewers can put their finger on.)

Meanwhile, they're kicking Weiner's already-extravagant $4.5 million a season (his last contract was $9 million for two seasons, rich by any TV standards but totally off the scale for a basic cable show) to a ludicrously lucrative $10 million a season. So the plan is to pay the head writer an extra five and a half million, but stiff the actors for one and a half. Third grade math suggests that this makes the show more expensive for the network while it makes the product shoddier.

This is bizarre and irrational. It's also typical of the way American business now thinks. It seems totally normal to large corporations that a major deal should make a single executive obscenely wealthy but "control costs" by putting out a lower-quality product. This is not how business, or capitalism, or rational self-interest, is supposed to work. The point, unless it is on top of your head, is to make sure the money you actually spend on your product maximizes the product's value. That way, you can sell your product to more people for a higher price. Also you can "build your brand" and "enhance word-of-mouth" and do all the other tertiary things that sound so smart and important in business school, but which are only refinements on the basic sell more product at higher prices game plan. Low cost products should be as high-quality as you can make them. High cost products should really, really be as high-quality as you can make them. There is no point to spending millions of extra dollars to put out things that your customers will like less.

This only makes sense in our current parody of capitalism, where the point of business is to create massive piles of individual capital, rather than to actually run a business well. This is fundamentally irrational behavior, but it can be seen throughout our society. People at the top of large enterprises make much, much more than ever before, even while workers in those enterprises make less and less and customers get crappier and crappier goods and services. To the people making the decisions, who identify with the bazillionaire head honcho, this seems right, just, and natural. Instead of putting the money into the business and building customer loyalty, the goal is to take money out of your business by heaping large piles of it on one or two star upper managers. This is how our huge banks now work. This is how our large corporations work. It makes no sense as business. It only makes sense on the levels of myth, ideology and dream.

But myths, ideologies, and dreams are what's running our economy, which explains why it's so terrible. The people making important decisions imagine the point of capitalism as the accumulation of vast personal fortunes, and so a system that's broken but makes a very few people very, very rich does not seem broken to them. A national economy that's fueled by consumer purchases but also progressively weakens average consumers' buying power sounds like a paradise. Even obviously stupid business decisions look reasonable, as long as they're foolishly enriching a multi-millionaire.

This particular example of American business's consensual folly is especially jarring because it deals with a television program set in the economic boom times of the early 1960s. What created that economic boom? High taxes, high wages, strong unions, and a generally equitable distribution of wealth which allowed the middle classes especially to grow rich as fast as the rich did. In other words, Ayn Rand's dystopian nightmare. It worked great. It is absolutely the opposite of the way economies are supposed to work, according to the Very Serious People who are now in charge. One of the things that interests me about Mad Men is the way that the show portrays a Golden Age (and it is committed to its era's nostalgic glamor) that contradicts our current economic wisdom, and the way the show equivocates between giving Alan Greenspan the lie and pretending that actually, the 1960s was the deregulated market-libertarian paradise of Greenspan's fever dreams.

It's also clear to me that Made Men operates as a fantasy about work ... a fantasy of being able to rise through one's own talents (as Don and Peggy do), in a way that no longer seems easy or even possible. Mad Men focuses on the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson years as the last good years of the creative middle class, who could grow affluent through their own gifts and labor. Sterling Cooper was a place where a talented hustler could come in off the street and become a partner, a place where a secretary with a flair for writing might (might) actually get a chance at the upper-middle class. But AMC does not believe in that world. It believes in a world where one guy gets all the money, and where highly-skilled, highly-paid workers (such as television actors) get shown the door. It's a bad day when the bean-counters' fantasies are less rational and sustainable than the fantasies being put on screen.

No comments: