Planks First, Then Platform?

I suppose this post is a follow-up to this one from January, about the Democratic National Committee’s survey of party members. In line with the DNC’s cautious approach to political change, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias writes:

A new Marist poll testing the popularity of a bunch of progressive ideas leads to a slightly tedious truth: Some are popular and some are not popular, and there’s not much of a pattern determining which are which.

The latest progressive activist fad on immigration policy, changing unauthorized entry from a criminal to a civil offense, for example, is badly underwater. But the old progressive standby of offering a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents of the United States polls very well. Massive investment in clean energy polls very well, but taxing dirty energy is much less popular. Free college is in between.

Yglesias’s summarizes his recommendation in the title of his article: “Democrats should run on the popular progressive ideas, but not the unpopular ones.”

I’m pretty small-minded, inasmuch as I regard this sort of inconsistency to be decidedly hobgoblinesque. Arguably my doctrinaire intolerance is an inconsistency on my part, since in many other regards I’m more swayed by the pattern of empirical findings than by logical coherence. Yglesias promotes a pragmatic, moderately progressive political strategy based on the popularity data:

There’s just a bunch of stuff, some of which is popular and some of which isn’t. And to the extent that issues matter at all in politics — a modest, but non-zero extent according to most accounts — the smart thing is just to pick the popular stuff.

Maybe so, but first it’s worth looking at the Marist numbers more closely. Take the “Medicare for all” policy — a national program that would cover all Americans, eliminating private health insurance. 41% of Americans think Medicare for all  is a good idea, while 54% regard it as a bad idea — an underwater policy that the Democrats would be smart to set aside, at least for now. However, breaking out results based on political orientation, 64% of Democrats think that Medicare for all is a good idea, while only 14% of Republicans think so. Republicans aren’t going to switch their presidential vote based on this one issue, since according to this same poll 90% of Republicans think that Trump is doing a good job and 89% will definitely vote for his re-election. What about unaffiliated voters, who might be swayed one way or the other based on policy? In the Marist poll, 55% of self-reported moderates regard Medicare-for-all as a good idea, while 40% think it’s a bad idea. So should the Democratic strategists court the 55% of moderates who support universal healthcare — a policy strongly endorsed — or should they scrap this popular progressive plank in hopes of wooing the 40% of moderates who dislike this policy? If you’re going with the numbers, it would make more pragmatic sense to lean into the policy that’s more popular with the moderate swing voters — Medicare for all.

On the other had, if you ask whether Medicare should be made available for all who want it, keeping open the choice of private health insurance, support from moderates goes up from 55% to 91% — empirical support for Yglesias’s more moderate pragmatism. But on this issue of Medicare choice the Republicans are about equally split. What’s to keep the Republicans from endorsing Medicare as an option? They’d retain their base partisan support but maybe tip more moderates their way, or at least neutralize the pragmatically progressive policy of the Democrats.

The same pattern holds up on nearly every progressive policy addressed in the survey: moderates are quite closely aligned with Democrats in supporting these policies. The progressive lean among moderates holds true for free public college tuition and carbon tax — policies that Yglesias flagged as possibly too progressive for the average American voter to get behind. Two notable exceptions are decriminalization of illegal border crossings and a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 per month, but even the average Democrat regards those two progressive policies as bad ideas. The only two policies on which moderates disagree with Democrats are the elimination of the death penalty and reparations for slavery: a majority of Democrats think those are good ideas, while most moderates disagree.

The empirical evidence supports the idea that most moderates are leaning Democratic for the next election. Moderates agree with most of the progressive policies. Only 31% of moderates think that Trump is doing a good job, which is much more closely aligned to the nearly unanimous Democratic renunciation of Trump than to the Republicans’ continued adulation. 89% of Republicans say they will definitely vote for Trump’s re-election; among moderates, 64% say they will definitely vote against Trump.

So if you’re the Democratic brain trust, why wouldn’t you lean strongly into the progressive agenda this time around? Converge on a reasonably appealing candidate and give it your best shot.

 

Googling the Random Short Fictions

I’ve written only 3 posts here since April, so it’s not surprising that there haven’t been many visitors to Ficticities. Still, I do get a hit here and there,  now and then. Today for instance someone came to look at this post — one of a series of fourteen posts from almost exactly a year ago, in which I interacted textually with short stories I selected at random from online literary magazines.

These occasional Ficticities visitors got me to wondering about hit rates. If I were to google the author and the title of each of the 14 stories on which I wrote a post last year, how high in the stack of google results would my posts appear? And how does each of my posts about these stories stack up popularity-wise compared with the original story itself, or the author’s website referencing their story, or the litmag’s tweet announcing publication of the story, or others’ reviews or comments on the story?

Well, let’s find out, shall we? I’ll google the stories in chronological order, using this search format: author’s name “title of story”:

“Cockatoo Tears” by Daniella Levy — the Ficticities post is the first result listed; the story itself comes in fifth.

“Pity and Shame” by Ursula LeGuin — Ficticities post comes in third, following the story and an interview with the author.

“Breadcrumb 398” by Olivia Hardwig — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye” by Richard Spilman — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Christmas Lights” by Demian Entrekin — story first, Ficticities post third.

“A Legend is Born” by Calvin Celebuski — Ficticities post first, story third.

“The Singing Tree” by Shawn Goldberg — Ficticities post first, story fifth.

“Rattle and Spin” by Jeannette Sheppard — story first, Ficticities post second.

“The Wallaby & the Python” by Alexis Kale — Ficticities post first, story second.

“A Deceptively Simple Word Problem” by Samuel Rafael Barber — story first, Ficticities post third.

“Pop” by Carlo Gallegos — Ficticities post first, story not at all.

“Death for Serafina” by Rayji de Guia — story first, Ficticities post second.

“Big G Little G” by Kelsie Donaldson — Ficticities post first, story third.

“Entry 038::After Ash Wednesday>>Moon Quincunx Pluto” by Sade Lanay — story first, Ficticities post second.

So, for this random sample of 14 cases, the Ficticities post is the top google result for 8 stories, while the story itself gets top position for the other 6. That might be exciting for me, if I didn’t know how few hits these posts have received during their year of online existence. Still, on average these 14 story-based intertextual pieces fared better than other Ficticities posts I wrote that were original content, untethered from other published texts — which I find a bit disheartening.

I might find it even more disheartening if I were the author of one of these short stories. Why, I’d ask, should some random guy’s blog post about my story generate more Internet traffic than my actual story? To be fair, the stories might well have been read by a lot of people like me who happened upon the story while looking through the latest issue of the litmag in which the story was published. But still…

So:

  1. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for the stories themselves.
  2. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for my independently inspired posts.

Gossip? Do people want to hear what other people are saying about other people, rather than finding out what they have to say on their own behalf?

My takeaway, in the context of this website’s larger agenda, is this: If you’re a literary magazine, try to get other people to write something — anything — about the stories you publish, in order to draw greater attention to the authors and their work. If your magazine happens to be the work of a writers’ syndicate, then get one or more of the other authors whose work has previously been published in the litmag to write something about each of the newly published stories.

The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.

 

 

The Power of No

no
– So far this one-word tweet on @dril, dated 15 Sept 2008, has generated 55,675 retweets and 90,837 likes.

Eileen Chou summarizes her key research findings in the title of her 2018 journal article: “Naysaying and Negativity Promote Initial Power Establishment and Leadership Endorsement.” The rationale:

Humans evolved as social animals, reliant on power hierarchies to preserve order. Power is a means of influencing others through the control of rewards and punishments. Therefore it’s adaptive for humans to be attuned to cues that signal power; e.g. expansive posture, height, the tendency to spring into action. Naysaying seems to be another signifier of power. Why? For one thing, powerful people are perceived as primarily concerned with getting things done, so they focus more on identifying and correcting mistakes that hinder success than on making people feel good. Two, powerful people are regarded as less constrained by conventional norms that serve to preserve group solidarity through mutual agreeableness, in part because powerful people can reshape group norms.

Do people view naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders? The participants in Chou’s experiments did. In the multivariate structural model derived from her empirical findings, people regard others’ negative judgments as indicative of their being free agents, able to express their true opinions unconstrained by social expectations. The free exercise of agency in turn implies the ability to wield social power over those whom they criticize. Consequently, people expect a naysayer to be a more effective leader than a cheerleader, even when the naysayer isn’t perceived as being more competent. People voluntarily follow the naysayers’ leadership, even if that means subjecting themselves to the naysayer’s negative judgment of themselves.

Chou’s experiments support the idea that people perceive naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders. What about the naysayers themselves: do they feel more powerful? Chou conducted some additional studies in which participants were asked to invent arguments for or against some proposition about which they held no a priori opinions; e.g., positive or negative reviews for an imaginary restaurant. Afterward, the negative reviewers reported feeling more powerful than did the positive reviewers.

A positive feedback loop is activated here: Expressing a negative judgment not only makes you feel more powerful; it also causes other people to regard you as more powerful. Once you’ve been rewarded for your negativity, you’re more likely to repeat your performance, becoming a chronic naysayer and rising in the social power hierarchy.

Trump. Disagreeable workers who get higher-income and higher-status positions than their equally competent but more agreeable counterparts (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012). Publishers that reject 99% of submitted manuscripts without explanation, acknowledged as elite cultural tastemakers by the rejectees themselves…

Open-Access Scholarly E-Journals

Academic publishing is moving toward a major overhaul.

Traditionally, scholars have submitted their manuscripts to journals. Submissions are evaluated for rigor, excellence, and potential impact; only those manuscripts that pass muster are published in the journals. Universities and other institutions subscribe to the journals, thereby purchasing access to the journals’ contents for anyone affiliated with the institution.

In the paper-and-ink era the academic publishers were saddled with the expenses of printing and warehousing and distributing the journals. By now though the printed journal has been rendered all but obsolete by online publication. Distribution is now nearly free and instantaneous. Access too: instead of traipsing to the library and poring through the archives hoping to find the volume you’re looking for, now you can read articles online from anywhere, any time.

The publishers don’t create journal content: that’s the work of the scholars, who get paid by the institutions with which they’re affiliated and by the granting agencies supporting their projects. The publishers don’t vet the submitted manuscripts either: that’s done by peer reviewers, who aren’t paid for their efforts. So: if variable costs are absorbed by the scholars, and if fixed costs are eliminated by e-publishing, and if reader access is no longer constrained by physical access to the printed journal, why not just make journals open-access, free for any and all to read regardless of institutional affiliation?

The publishers still incur some costs: they have to wrangle the talent, format and copy-edit the texts, and ensure that the online interfaces are working smoothly. But why pass those costs on to the readers? Authors of published articles don’t benefit from restricting access — the wider the distribution net, the the greater the potential readership, impact, recognition, reward. Equipped with online publishing tools, the authors already shoulder most of the editing and formatting load. Open-access journals are already changing the publishing ecologies of scholarly disciplines. to varying degrees — why not fully shift to that model, cutting out the added expenses and distribution bottlenecks imposed by for-profit publishing companies? Or, even more quickly and efficiently, why not have the authors self-publish their articles, submitting them to an independent peer review board whose findings are likewise published and open to public discussion? Whatever remaining administrative expenses are incurred in publishing and distributing online open access research can be covered by the institutions financing the authors’ work, which also benefit from widespread distribution.

**Here’s an article that came out today spotlighting some of the efforts that academic institutions and scholars (collectively and individually) are taking to circumvent the access paywalls and bottlenecks imposed by the academic publishing industry.**

So that’s the trajectory in scholarly publishing. Are there implications for the publication of fictional texts? Not surprisingly, I’ve got some thoughts… next time.

Race to the Bottom

Before launching this website I wrote five “Postcapitalist Fiction” pamphlets, establishing a framing context for what I’d hoped would become a writers’ collaborative experiment in anarcho-collectivist publishing. In November 2017, as part of this website’s second-ever post, I quoted from the first pamphlet, called “Writing Precariously”:

I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. [The median is around $6K: half the writers make less than that per published novel, half make more.]

Those findings came from a survey of writers conducted in 2009 by The Authors Guild. A new survey just came out, updating the numbers. Over that ten-year span, authors’ annual median income from book revenues has dropped from $6K to $3K. The decline is especially steep for literary fiction. Self-published revenues have doubled over the past ten years; still, the median is under $2K per year. What about other writing-related sources of revenue — teaching, editing, speaking engagements, book reviews? That revenue stream too generates around $3K per year median income — also a decline from ten years ago

“Among the factors contributing to the pressure on authorship, the Guild cited the growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty. The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers is also certainly a factor.”

The Guild’s report notes dire consequences not just for writers but for society at large. Some specific proposals for turning things around are offered, though no doubt the Guild made recommendations ten years ago when the situation, already desperate, was twice as good as it is today.

MFA as Luxury Resort

Since 2011, enrollment in US universities has dropped 10 percent, and the decline is expected to accelerate. It’s not because fewer high school graduates are attending college, or because fewer college students stick around long enough to graduate. It’s because the pool of potential applicants is slowly draining.

The overall US population continues to rise, but that’s due almost entirely to an increasing average lifespan, resulting in a decreasing death rate. The birthrate, by contrast, has been declining for a decade. The replacement fertility rate for keeping the long-term population on an even keel is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2017 the US fertility rate was 1.76, accelerating the downward trend that began ten years earlier.

Enrollment in MFA programs is also dropping. What’s the replacement fertility rate for MFA faculty, where they’re spawning new hires at a rate that equals their retirement rate? I don’t have the data, so I’ll estimate. Let’s say that on average a professor spends 30 years on the job. As long as the average MFA professor reproduces one MFA teaching candidate over the course of his or her career, staffing equilibrium is maintained.

Pretty clearly MFA programs are vastly exceeding the professorial replacement rate. Let’s guess that a typical MFA program has a faculty-student ratio of 4 to 1, which would mean that each MFA faculty member produces 4 MFA graduates per year. Over the course of a career that’s 4 x 30 = 120 MFA grads. What percentage of those graduates would want to teach in an MFA program? Practically nobody is able to make a living solely from writing or painting or acting, so teaching is a good fall-back career move. Let’s be conservative and say 20 percent of MFA grads would want to teach in an MFA program: so that’s 120 x .2 = 24 potential replacements spawned by each MFA prof over a career — 24 times the replacement fertility rate. So only 1 in 24 = 4% of MFA graduates who want to teach in an MFA program will get hired to do so. Wait till next year? Oh wait, enrollments are declining, so fewer of the retirees will need to be replaced. Teach undergrad? Same problem. High school?

While the overall US economy has been growing at around a 2 percent rate annually, the global luxury sector is growing at around 5 percent per year, as a consequence of increasing income and wealth stratification. Is the MFA a luxury spend? It’s expensive, and most graduates won’t recoup the expenditure via lifetime earnings. It’s a consumer good, like a BMW SUV. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Or maybe enrolling in an MFA program is more like a long-term stay at a luxury resort, the guests serviced by a horde of lackeys making minimum wage or less.

This line of thinking is where I began Ficticities. And now here it comes back around, the return of the repressed, the line curving into a circle.