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Markets, Morality and Monday Night Football

November 19, 2004

With the election over and the Scott Peterson trial completed, the American media apparently has little else to report but the supposed scandal over the raunchy Terrell Owens Monday Night Football pre-game skit.
For conservatives like the Heritage Foundation's Rebecca Hagelin, ABC and the NFL joined to open yet another front in the war against the traditional values and decency of the American family. For those on the left, the Disney-owned ABC network's cross-promotion of its Desperate Housewives during MNF brought back the Mandingo and other stereotypes of yore. For the media, this once again was an opportunity to discuss the overblown electoral importance of "values voters" and "moral issues."
For my part, I believe this mole hill-turned-mountain reflects something much more important, and in the long term, more interesting. That is, the belly-aching on the right highlights once again the tenuousness of the alliance between "social" conservatives and "economic" conservatives. The traditional religious Right sees a culture at risk; the laissez faire free marketeers want media markets, concentration and ownership unfettered by the heavy hand of the government. Unfortunately for them, they can't have it both ways.
The MNF episode is a clear demonstration of Perrspectives' Iron Law of Markets that states while free markets produce economically optimal results, they can also produce disasterous consequences for society as a whole. In this case, ABC, which is owned by family-focused Disney, offered the American consumer the product it desired, in this case, raunchy titillation.
In theory, angry viewers-cum-consumers could express different preferences by changing the channel and watching something else. Alas, the rapid consolidation of U.S. media markets, from television and cable properties to radio and print, means Americans' alternatives are decreasing - and fast. Disney owns ABC, ESPN and Miramax; Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire is larger still. The much publicized Sinclair Broadcasting reaches 25% of American homes. Clear Channel dominates radio. America's values voters, put off by the scatalogy and innuendo on ABC have little choice; they could tune in the conservative Murdoch's Fox network and see any one its huge array of reality shows. Sick of Terrell Owens? No problem. Fox has Paris Hilton waiting for you.
We know that American viewers in fact are not fed up with Hollywood. Economic conservatives will tell you that they are clearly expressing their content preferences when they swarm to shows like "Who Wants to Carry My Baby to Term?" or other similar abominations.
For social conservatives, there are two three-letter answers: FCC and GOD. The former could censor or otherwise regulate content to change programming; the latter could change Americans' hearts. But while Michael Powell's FCC might implement fines and other sanctions at the margins, he and the Bush administration have made it clear that media concentration is of no concern to them. And while Jesus may have frowned on "The Bachelor" and "Who Wants to Marry My Father?", it's not at all clear his followers in the United States are actually hitting the remote. (Note to sociology grad students: this could be an interesting thesis topic.)
We're not, of course, the first ones to highlight the potential for socially undesireable outcomes in the operation of free markets. Robert Kuttner in his book Everything for Sale detailed this danger in depth as it applies to the "markets" for health care, education and energy in the United States. 45 million uninsured sounds like a "market failure" to most Americans; so does $2 a gallon fuel and power blackouts in California. And the reigning Republican orthodoxy on media concentration means Americans can expect fewer choices - and more trash - on TV.
This chasm between social and economic conservatives may yet unravel the current GOP hammer lock on American government. Limit payments to welfare mothers and the anti-choice forces scream about increased numbers of abortions. Push for the punishment of China for its suppression of Christian faiths and the American business community (and the permanent GOP foreign polocy establishment of Kissinger et al) will cry foul and call for the maintenance of the existing trade relationship.
Ultimately, Americans may come to see the wisdom of the Democrats view of balancing market incentives and market limitations. In the meantime, they'll just have to see Nicollette Sheridan disrobe before kick-off.

7 comments on “Markets, Morality and Monday Night Football”

  1. Interesting post. I'd suggest there's a "third view" that resolves the tension between economic and social conservatives. It's something that's really taken hold in the exurb and suburb churches in the past decade or so. It's epitomized by the work of people like Joyce Meyer who espouse a sort of "Prosperity Christianity." One's economic success is God's blessing for one's faithfulness. The more faithful a person is, the more God will bless that person.
    All the handwringing about how folks vote against their pocket books misses the point. It appears to me that the thinking amongst these people has evolved to the "Prosperity Christianity" view. Voting against one's pocket book is an act of faith that will be rewarded going forward. Likewise, protesting content on TV and radio or in movies is an act of faith that will be rewarded. Censorship may be anti-market, but it'll pay off anyway. God isn't limited by markets!

  2. Jon,
    "Posperity Christianity" does seem to describe very well the economic theology of the fundie churches I've been to.
    I guess there are anticedents to this in good, ol' fashioned Calvinism. But in good, ol' fashioned Calvinism, the reason why the elect are rich is so they can give more money to the poor. In Calvinism, capital should neither accumulate or be spent (BTW - why isn't anyone calling GWB for saying he wanted to "spend" capital rather than "invest" it?) ... but invested in your future salvation by giving it away to the poor or building a business, etc.
    Still, Calvinism seems rather off from what Jesus supposedly said about wealth and "Prosperity Christianity" is 180 degrees out of phase.
    I guess these so-called Christians figure that if they worship Jesus and say his name enough (isn't it taking the Lord's name in vain if you keep saying "Jesus this" and "Jesus that" and you believe "Jesus is Lord" -- as a non-Christian, I cannot understand the Christian definition of "taking the Lord's name in vain" for the life of me), they can freely ignore what Jesus has to say.
    The interesting upshot is that, for all the fundie complaints about decadent Blue-state liberalism, the preaching in fundie churches far more emphasizes self-improvement and self-fulfilment and de-emphasizes discussion of sin and redeption relative to preaching in liberal churches, synaguogues, mosques, Hindu temples, etc.
    It has been suggested to me that the reason is expensive mega-Churches cannot afford to piss off congregants by calling them sinners. I guess a sociologist should investigate this. Still, when a reactionary fundie calls a liberal Congregationalist decadent, it makes me wonder what kinda projection is going on given what is actually taught in their respective churches.

  3. DAS -
    I hadn't thought of Calvinism in regards to PC, but I can see the connection. As regards more fundamentalist churches, I'm sure there are many that preach the sin/redemption concept pretty hard yet still easily fit into the mega-church, prosperity Christianity mold. Which just brings it around to the questions you're raising, like what constitutes sin and what is wealth for?
    I've been thinking about how complex this alliance between economic and social conservatives really is. There's the Prosperity Christianity aspect to it. There's also what I'll call "funding immorality" side to it was well. By that I mean that while economic conservatives want lower taxes and smaller government because they believe in the efficacy of the market, social conservatives want lower taxes and smaller government because they don't want tax dollars funding what they believe to be immoral things like sex education programs, dissemination of birth control (condoms, prescription medication) and agencies that counsel abortion. It's different lines of reasoning that leads to the same conclusion. Of course, in terms of the materiality of any of the "immoral" programs or expenditures, they really don't make even a small dent in government size. But it's the spirit of the thing that matters to them anyway.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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