Dynamist Blog

Why Do People Watch the Oscars?

My latest WSJ column takes up a perennial question. Here's the opening:

Cate Blanchett holding Oscar 77AA_T4554a

The Academy Awards show is ridiculous. Guests arrive in broad daylight wearing the most formal of evening gowns. Presenters, including some of the world's most accomplished performers, read their lines with the studied cadence of high-school commencement speakers.

In contrast to the Super Bowl, a beauty pageant or "American Idol," nothing happens on stage that affects the outcome of the competition. The production numbers are just padding. And, of course, the speeches are boring, the show is too long, and comedies never have a chance.

Yet the Oscar ceremony somehow manages to be compelling. In a good year like 2010, its U.S. audience tops 40 million, according to Nielsen Co. In a bad year like 2008, it tops 30 million. By contrast, the recent Grammy ceremony, which offers far better musical numbers, won its week with only 26.7 million viewers.

The Oscar show's appeal can't just be the fun of water-cooler criticism. You can get all the information you need for that from Twitter or the next day's newspaper. You don't need to sit through the awards ceremony.

Virginia holding Oscar In fact, as the marketing efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suggest, the glamour of the Oscars lies not in the movies the show ostensibly celebrates, but in the "Oscar moment." Watching the Oscars gives viewers the chance to imagine being singled out before the whole world as special, beloved and really good at their jobs.

To promote the show, the Academy is giving fans in New York City two different chances to pose holding Oscars, either virtual statues or, at Grand Central Terminal, real ones. There, "the big payoff is that you get to go on stage and have your Oscar moment," says Janet Weiss, the Academy's director of marketing. Some people, she says, even show up in gowns and tuxes.

Read the rest here. That's my photo to the right, taken on Friday in Grand Central.

[Cate Blanchett photo courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences]

Where To Find Me

As you've no doubt noticed, I don't post much here any more. I do a lot of quick, bloggy posting on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@vpostrel and @deepglamour, depending on subject matter). And I still edit a group blog at DeepGlamour.net, which usually has two or three new posts a week.

I write every two weeks in the WSJ's Saturday "Review" section. To receive links to my articles via email send an email to [email protected].

Progress at the Frontier: The Next Big Thing Is a Lot of Little Things

The hardest economic question is, What comes next? What, in other words, are the new sources of economic value? How can businesses grow and our standard of living rise?

Sometimes the answer is simply more of the same. Growth comes from rolling out existing goods and services to new markets, until there's a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. This kind of progress may be hard to achieve, but you at least start with a clear notion of what it would look like.

That's why catch-up economies like China today or South Korea in the past can grow so fast. Their businesses don't have to figure out what to make or sell. They know what's possible by looking abroad, and have a reasonable idea of what consumers, local or international, want to buy. Refrigerators and air conditioning are popular; so are shampoo and disposable diapers.

At the economic frontier, the hardest question gets much harder. You no longer have a clear vision of the future. You know neither what's possible nor what people want. You can only guess. Starbucks or FedEx may sound obvious in retrospect, but they were once crazy ideas.

This challenge makes it harder for advanced economies like the U.S. to grow. It also explains a strange cultural phenomenon: our nostalgia for the future.

A half century ago, "the future" seemed specific and tangible. Progress meant either big increases in what we already had—houses, cars and appliances for everybody—or exciting new ways to provide the same broadly defined goods—jet packs, flying cars and superhighways for transportation, nuclear power for electricity, videophones for communication. Either way, progress was something you could easily visualize. Nowadays those mid-century illustrations representing "the future" generate a mixture of amusement and longing, even in people too young to remember the original context.

We still tend to equate progress with engineering projects providing familiar, easily visualized goods. All those new highways, railroads and skyscrapers in China mimic our past, but we see them as the future. Or witness the State of the Union address, in which the president invoked the space race and interstate highway system—the futurism of the mid-20th century—to promote their contemporary equivalents: clean energy, electric cars and high-speed rail. That's progress you can picture.

But at the economic frontier, the big advances rarely look like that. There are occasional headline grabbers, of course, like the Web browser and all the disruptive enterprises that followed from it. Even these are surprises. The president could extol Google and Facebook as examples of American innovation only because they're already everyday experiences. Nobody saw them coming. The same is true of Starbucks and FedEx, hip-hop and Nike, Wal-Mart and Pixar. They aren't the future we imagined.

Read the rest here.

Changing Kidney Donation Norms

People who oppose changing the law to permit financial compensation for kidney donors sometimes argue that introducing money might change the social norms that now encourage donation and actually reduce donations.

On Dec. 23, Ronald Herrick gave a kidney to his twin brother. On Dec. 27, he died — 56 years later.

Mr. Herrick, who was 79 when he died last month of heart ailments, was the world's first kidney donor. Despite the experimental nature of the surgery, he recovered fully. His remaining organ expanded to do the work of two.

Back in 1954, a kidney transplant was only conceivable between identical twins like the Herricks. Today, thanks to immunosuppressant drugs, donors and recipients require little more than compatible blood types. With laparoscopic techniques, the largest incision required is just a couple of inches long, allowing a hospital stay of only two or three days.

But cultural norms haven't kept up with medical advances. "People have called me crazy and looked at me like I have two heads," says Diane Zocchia, who gave her cousin a kidney five years ago and works for the National Kidney Registry, a nonprofit group that facilitates living-kidney donation. "When they find out there is no financial gain," says Ms. Zocchia, "they really think you're nuts."

More than 87,000 people are on the national waiting list for kidneys from deceased donors, a number that is growing steadily. In Los Angeles County, the average wait is now more than 10 years. Only living donors can make up the difference, and that requires changing attitudes.

Read the rest here.

Federal Regulation vs. Artisanal Industries

This is a story about artisanal cheese and hand-polished wooden toys, organic spinach and exquisitely smocked baby dresses — the burgeoning small-scale economy so beloved by members of the "creative class." But it's also about another, much-discussed growth industry: the production of political cynicism among formerly idealistic Americans.

The story begins in 2007, an unusually good year for Peapods Natural Toys and Baby Care, in St. Paul, Minn., and many similar mom-and-pop businesses. Frightened by news that toys made in China contained unsafe levels of lead, customers were looking for alternatives to the usual big-box offerings. Just as organic farmers gain market share whenever there's a food-safety panic, the lead scare boosted sales of artisanal children's goods. "People wanted made-in-USA products, and we were the only place in town that had them," says Dan Marshall, the owner of Peapods. Vendors offering organic materials and a personal touch seemed poised to prosper. But the short-term boon soon turned into a long-term disaster. In response to the lead panic, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, or CPSIA, by an overwhelming majority. The law mandates third-party testing and detailed labels not only for toys but for every single product aimed at children 12 and under.

"It's everything from shoes to hair bows, Boy Scout patches and bicycles — it's everything," says Mr. Marshall. But few people producing or selling artisanal kids' products even realized that the CPSIA applied to them until months after President George W. Bush had signed it. By then it was too late.

Read the rest here.

Three Thoughts on Glamour and Politics

Soviet poster Powerful Transport the Basis for Defense Capability of the Country 1931 Swann Galleries The new issue of Reason carries a short item I wrote about politics and glamour. A regular Reason feature, the assignment was to come up with a short, three-item list. It's not online yet, and the published version was a bit truncated for reasons of space, but here's what I originally wrote, complete with links not available on paper.

1. Glamorous political figures are rare. Unlike charisma, glamour isn't a personal quality a politician can possess. It's a product of imagination that requires mystery and distance, which are hard to maintain in a political environment that prizes familiarity and full disclosure. Glamour also tends to dissipate once you're in office and have to take specific positions, thereby disillusioning some of your supporters. See Barack Obama.

2. Glamorous policies are common. As a nonverbal form of rhetoric, glamour is one of the most common ways of selling policies, from single-payer health care to the abolition of the income tax — not to mention countless military actions, perhaps the oldest use of glamour in politics. My favorite recent examples, because of the alluring imagery involved, are high-speed rail and wind energy.

3. Political glamour is most seductive when it's selling systems that promise an escape from complexity and compromise. Whether expressed in full-blown communism, Western European socialism, or American technocracy, the glamour of top-down planning shaped 20th-century politics. F.A. Hayek lamented classical liberalism's lack of similar Utopian inspiration but, in fact, Ayn Rand was masterful in her use of glamour. She knew not only how to tell a romantic story of struggle and triumph but how to create glamorous snapshots that focused her audience's yearning for freedom and fellowship. Hence the persistent, if illusory, appeal of recreating Galt's Gulch in the real world.

[Soviet propaganda poster "POWERFUL TRANSPORT - THE BASIS FOR DEFENSE CAPABILITY OF THE COUNTRY," 1931, on auction at Swann Galleries February 8, image courtesy of Swann.]

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