2014-03-03

The Last Psychiatrist May Have Just Killed My Blog

Let's Start With The Punchline
Over the weekend, my favorite blogger (so, I guess that's a thing...) delivered another fine post. Of course I'm talking about The Last Psychiatrist, and of course I'm talking about his latest send-up of pop culture analysis.

It would be tempting to write this blog post as follows: I provide excerpts, each one followed by my own thoughts. Then I pretend that I have added value. But if I'm being honest with myself and with you, the reader, then all I really need to do is link to that post and ask you to read it. As a fan of that blog post, I'd like to ask you visit the author's blog and consider his thoughts. That's the only real value I can add here. So please do - as they say in the "blogosphere" - read the whole thing.

What Do I Mean, "Killed My Blog?"
One of recurring themes from that blog is the phrase, "If you read it [or watch it, or listen to it, or download it, etc.] then it's for you." Most recently, he writes this in reference to psychology studies "in the New York Times," but it's an aphorism he's coined for media consumption in general. The idea is that even things that seem confusing, or jarring, or stupid, or infuriating are things that were designed for people like us. So, if you find your forehead vein is starting to bulge over something Paul Krugman wrote, then you should be careful how you react. The fact that you read it - even though you hate it - suggests that you're the target demo.

Not coincidentally, I stopped reading Paul Krugman's blog posts and articles a long time ago. Does that make me "better than you?" No. It only means that I'm not Paul Krugman's target demo. On the other hand, I look forward to reading EconLog every single day; coincidence? No. Nor is it any coincidence that I also look forward to reading Marginal Revolution, or Less Wrong, or indeed even The Last Psychiatrist.

At this point, it's tempting to throw it all out with the bathwater, reasoning that I only read these things to allow myself the fantasy of doing good economics, and thinking carefully about current events, and becoming a more rational thinker, but without having to do any of the actual work necessary to credibly stake a claim to those things. That's the ultimate conclusion I'm working toward. But there is also the more obvious element that I simply enjoy reading the thoughts of intelligent people with whom I agree. A large part of it is the fact that they put words to things I haven't been able to articulate for myself. That's the power of a good writer; or a good hero. There's nothing to criticize in that.

Nevertheless, it all just begs the question. If you read Stationary Waves, then it's for you; who reads Stationary Waves?

I have web analytics to back this up, so pay attention: The answer to that question is, "Not very many people at all, really." I do get a surprisingly large number of hits every day, but I have reason to believe that the majority of those hits are spam-bots, computer algorithms that have been developed to visit random blogs on the internet because they know I will look at my web analytics and say, "Holy gee! I got twelve hits from something called credit-info.rsgad.com this month! They must have linked to me!" And at that point, the assumption is that I will click on the link to see my name in print, only to discover that it is an advertisement for something.

Please note: that URL I just gave you is a real one, from my real web analytics back-end, and I have no idea what's on the other side of it. Click at your own risk.

All this is to say that the internet has rigged the game to make me believe that I am getting a lot of hits on my popular blog - but I'm not. They rig the game so that I will keep blogging, so that I will keep clicking, so that eventually I will click on something I like, so that eventually I will click on something that I will buy. But this kind of tactic doesn't work on me, so the robots are out of luck.

As for my readers, I'm not actually trying to sell you anything. I've toyed with the idea in my mind, of course, but it never quite makes sense. What do I have to offer? I give you my music for free, and my thoughts do not have any real value for anyone other than myself.

So I bring a small level of low-cost entertainment into your life, and I hope you appreciate it for what it is: modest, local entertainment. I'm down-scaling from the political themes of the past and focusing on thoughts that, ultimately, mean more to me than they do to the readers of my blog. This is, perhaps, why my hit count has been gradually decreasing.

Even the spam-bots are figuring out that there isn't much value-added here.

Value, As Opposed To The Fetish Of Value
So The Last Psychiatrist writes, "You hold a fetish of value and not actual value." He wasn't writing about me, but I'm not wrong that the statement resonates with me. Furthermore, I think this statement is accurate of a great many people who dream bigger than they live.

I was in Walmart recently, and saw a married couple talking. They were both about the same age as I am, but they had obviously lived a lot harder than I have. They had certainly consumed a lot more alcohol and tobacco than I have over the course of their lives, and probably much more. Tattoos, low incomes, low intelligence, the whole kit-and-kaboodle.

I was surprised by their behavior as they spoke. They spoke as though they were the two smartest people in the world, and everyone else were idiots. I'm talking about their mannerisms and attitudes; what they were talking about was something totally mundane. I don't talk that way about mundane things - but if we widen the net to catch other areas of life, I sure do! I like to think that if I were running "the show" (whatever it is) differently, things would be a lot better. Elsewhere in Walmart, someone must have been looking at me, thinking to himself, "How curious - he sounds just like me, but he talks about stupid things like work."

That guy is probably the real deal. That guy has real value. He's probably designing a better jet engine or something - something of actual value. But enough about him, I'm talking about me.

At this point, it should be glaringly obvious:

  • I like to read and comment on economics blogs because I like to feel like an economist without having to go through all the work of, you know, earning a PhD in economics and then working my tail off to publish in high-quality journals
  • I like to read Less Wrong to pretend I am honing my critical thinking skills without having to go through all the work of, you know, doing math problems and logic puzzles that actually will improve my critical thinking skills.
Wait, wait - it gets worse. That's only two bullet points, but think about the others. This runs pretty deep. I like to record and post videos on YouTube because I like to think that my music is reaching a wide audience, even though I've never recorded, printed, and released an actual album. My live performances tend to gather a good crowd, but I haven't delivered one of those in a long time.

In fact, when you think about it, live music as a commercial enterprise hasn't been profitable on the smaller-scale since the early 1990s. As soon as clubs figured out that they could simply broadcast pre-recorded music over the sound system and people would still buy drinks, they stopped paying for musicians. Why bother, when a DJ works cheaper? Especially when the DJ is an MP3 player set to "auto-shuffle."

Since the early 90s, then, live music in clubs has been a commercial endeavor primarily aimed at making money from the band and the band's friends, not at the public at large. The club owner says, "Sure, you can play, but you have to sell your own tickets and do your own marketing, and I take a cut of the ticket sales." Translation: You're more than welcome to play if you do all the marketing work required to bring customers to the club. What club owner wouldn't take that deal? Bands are so desperate to be performers that they'll stop at nothing to get on stage and have glamour shots taken of themselves as they play "Brown-Eyed Girl."

While we all like to pretend that we're great local rock stars, we're really just selling free marketing to club owners for the sake of a feeling. We don't bring musical value to the world, we're just willing to pretend that we're doing it in order to have the club owner give us validation.

And, yes, my blog comments generate hits for the economics blogs on which I comment. I feel like I'm participating in a brainy discussion - and maybe I am, to some extent - but the major value I'm adding is to pad the hit counts of the blogs I frequent. I'm not really adding any value there. If I were, my own blog would be huge.

But Fear Not
While this might seem like a pessimistic, self-deprecating blog post, it actually has a huge upside.

I am not as bad as a lot of other people out there. That is, I've never taken my Facebook account too seriously, I've never invested any time in "cultivating an online persona," and I do not live my whole life in pursuit of a value-fetish. I'm as guilty of doing these things as anyone else - on the margin. But on the whole, I'm doing pretty good.

I might not have been able to "run the show" at work, but I have been able to pack away enough savings that I can invest in value outside of work. On some level, value does matter to me, and I pursue it; just not relentlessly. I'm not a workaholic, but I have things on the go, and that gives me a little more security than the hypothetical "Randi Zuckermans" out there of which The Last Psychiatrist writes.

So this is what I'd like to leave you with today: the sooner you figure out your illusions, the sooner you can overcome them. When you free yourself from fetishizing value, then you can get to work adding real value to your life. When you stop pretending that Facebook matters and start acknowledging that the only thing that really counts in life is your own memories, your own happiness, your interactions with those you love, then you win the game.

Yes, life is a game, and yes it's possible to win or lose. You don't win by becoming a millionaire or being interviewed by Katie Couric, though. You win by having a deeply satisfying home life and a long list of treasured memories. To be sure, for some people that might mean spending long hours at the office. If that's what you love, I say go for it. Those memories will count for you on your death bed.

But if it's not career success that gives you the best memories, then don't sweat it. Focus on the things in life that give you stories to tell your grandchildren about. Add value to those things, and do so relentlessly. Never stop adding value to those things, never give up. Your own happiness is the only fixed point in the universe; head straight for it and never stop. If you only ever take one thing from my blog, take that.