Parasites are a huge force in the natural world. For the most part they simply feed on their hosts. But there are a number of cases in which they exert a more insidious influence: they actually change their hosts' behavior, in ways that benefit the parasites but damage and perhaps eventually kill their victims.
And lately I've been wondering if that's what's happening to America. How much of our political sickness is the result of a parasitic infection? What I have in mind specifically is an infestation of direct-marketing scams that exploit and reinforce political partisanship, largely on the right, basically to sell merchandise.
If this sounds absurd to you, bear with me a bit. I'm not the first person to make this suggestion – Rick Perlstein, our leading historian of modern conservatism, made basically the same argument (without the biological analogy) back in 2012, and as I'll explain, a lot of things have happened since then to reinforce his point.What set me on this trail initially was learning that Ben Shapiro, theYoung Conservative Intellectual du jour, is using his talk-show presence tomarket dietary supplements:
I'll come back to that. First, some notes on political economy.
When I try to understand political behavior, I, like many others, often find myself thinking about Mancur Olson's classic The Logic of Collective Action. Olson's simple yet profound insight was that political action on behalf of a group is, from the point of view of members of that group, a public good.
What do we mean by that? A public good is something that, if provided, benefits many people – but whoever provides it has no way to limit the benefits to himself or herself, and hence no way to cash in on the good's provision. The classic example is a lighthouse that steers everyone away from shoals, whether or not they've paid the fee; public health measures that limit disease are in the same category. As a result, the fact that a public good is worth providing from society's point of view is no guarantee that it will actually be provided; it has to be worth some individual'swhile.
As Olson pointed out, the same goes for political action. Just because a political candidate's victory would be good for, say, farmers doesn't mean that farmers will give him or her money; each individual farmer will have an incentive to free ride on everyone else's contributions. So political action is normally undertaken by individuals or small, organized groups that stand to benefit directly. Either that, or it's a byproduct of other activities that are advantageous for their own reasons and can also be harnessed for political action, like memberships in trade associations or unions.
But don't rich people give money to support the interests of their class? Actually, a lot of the money we see in politics ends up being money spent in the givers' own, personal interests. For example, you can think of the Koch brothers' political spending as an investment in themselves: they have benefited immensely from the recent tax cut, with a payoff that far exceeds the amount they spent promoting it.
So a lot of political action is driven by people trying to shape policy in a way that benefits them personally. But what the Shapiro/brain pills story drives home to me is that there's another important factor in our current political scene: the use of political action as a marketing ploy, by people out to make a buck selling stuff that has little to do with politics per se.
As I said, Rick Perlstein has already written the basic text here. As hedocuments, right-wing websites largely act as marketing centers for stuff like this:
Dear Reader, I'm going to tell you something, but you must promise to keep it quiet. You have to understand that the "elite" would not be at all happy with me if they knew what I was about to tell you. That's why we have to tread carefully. You see, while most people are paying attention to the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big institutions have their money somewhere else . . . [in] what I call the hidden money mountain . . . All you have to know is the insider's code (which I'll tell you) and you could make an extra $6,000 every single month.
And some of the most influential voices on the right haven't just sold advertising space to purveyors of snake oil, they've gotten directly into the snake-oil business themselves.
Glenn Beck in his heyday juiced up his viewers by telling them that Obama was going to unleash hyperinflation any day now; he personally cashed in by hawking overpriced gold coins.
Alex Jones makes a splash by claiming that school massacres are fake news, and the victims are really actors. But he makes his money by selling diet supplements.
Ben Shapiro writes critiques of liberal academics that conservatives consider erudite (remember Ezra Klein's lineabout a stupid person's idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like?), but makes his money the same way Alex Jones does.
Why should marketing scams be linked to political extremism? It's all about affinity fraud: once you establish a persona that appeals to angry, aging white guys, you can sell them stuff that will supposedly protect their virility, their waistline, and their wealth.
And at a grander level, isn't that what Fox News is really about? Consider it not as an ideological organization per se but as a business: it offers cheap programming (because there isn't much reporting) that appeals to the prejudices of angry old white guyswho like to sit on the couch and rant at their TV, and uses its viewership to help advertisers selling weight-loss plans.
Now, normally we think of individuals' views and interests as the forces driving politics, including the ugly polarization increasingly dominating the scene. The commercial exploitation of that polarization, if we mention it at all, is treated as a sort of surface phenomenon that feeds off the fundamental dynamic.
But are we sure that's right? The Alex Joneses, Ben Shapiros, and Fox Newses of the world couldn't profit from extremism unless there were some underlying predisposition of angry old white guys to listen to this stuff. But maybe the commercial exploitation of political anger is what has concentrated and weaponized that anger. In other words, going back to where I started this essay, maybe the reason we're in a political nightmare is that our political behavior has, in effect, been parasitized by marketing algorithms.
I know I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Charlie Stross argues that "paperclip maximizers" – not people, but social systems and algorithms that try to maximize profits, market share, or whatever – have increasingly been directing the direction of society, in ways that hurt humanity. He's mostly focused on corporate influence over policy, as opposed to mobilization of angry people in the service of direct-order scams, but both could be operating.
Anyway, I think it's really important to realize the extent to which peddling political snake oil, whether it's about the economy, race, the effects of immigration, or whatever, is to an important extent a way to peddle actual snake oil: magic pills that will let you lose weight without ever feeling hungry and restore your youthful manhood.
Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography.