McMansions, cable news, and Capitol Hill High School

Give the people what they want.

Systems such as free markets and democracy are good at giving the people what they want. Some people don’t like that fact. I’ll give a few examples, but there are many more that could be cited.

When I Iived in Newton, MA, I used to enjoy walking around and looking at the gorgeous old homes. Newton is one of America’s most beautiful towns. When I travel to fast growing sunbelt cities, I now see an endless sprawl of ugly McMansions. Hideous neo-Palladian monstrosities. Mock Georgian excrescenses. An orgy of nouveau riche bad taste.

But these houses are not being built for me—architects are giving the people what they want. Don’t blame the architects; they are capable of designing whatever people want. You still see beautiful homes being built in places like Newton, or Laguna Beach, or Irvine. The “problem” is that America has a vastly enlarged upper middle class, and the newest members tend to have poorer taste than the small upper class of the early 20th century.

When I was young, TV news was somber and tasteful. Now you see popular networks full of blond bimbos screeching nonsense at the top of their lungs. But don’t blame the networks, they are giving the people what they want.

When I was young, politics was a serious business. Party officials acted at gatekeepers, assuring that lunatics would not receive their party’s nomination for national office. (Local government has always been messy.) Since then, America has become more democratic, and we are finding that what voters want most of all is for Congress to resemble their experience in high school:

1. Remember the mean girls that slut shamed each other?

2. Remember the lazy guy that pulled the fire alarm because he wasn’t prepared for the test?

3. Remember the devious guy that sucker punched people in the kidneys when they weren’t looking?

4. Remember the dumb guy who challenged the fat guy to a fight in the back alley?

Welcome to Capitol Hill High School.

The elites are appalled by all of this. But you cannot deny that we are getting what the public wants.

The founders put a 35-year age minimum on the presidency to prevent the election of a high school student. Doesn’t matter. Next year, a high school student will be elected president of the United States. We’ll get what we want—good and hard.

PS. Want more examples? Hollywood films. Reality TV. Professional wrestling. The list is endless.



56 Responses to “McMansions, cable news, and Capitol Hill High School”

  1. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    15. November 2023 at 10:33


    I’m torn between basically agreeing with this post, and remembering that older folks have been claiming the newer generations are worthless and destroying the country back to at least Socrates.

    Probably because I’m getting old myself (not your age yet but on my way)

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. November 2023 at 11:04

    msgkings, There’s no conflict in those two views. Perhaps you misunderstood my post.

  3. Gravatar of MSS1914 MSS1914
    15. November 2023 at 11:47

    “When I was young, politics was a serious business. Party officials acted at gatekeepers, assuring that lunatics would not receive their party’s nomination for national office. (Local government has always been messy.) Since then, America has become more democratic, and we are finding that what voters want most of all is for Congress to resemble their experience in high school”

    Is America more democratic than when you were younger? I don’t think the voting franchise has been meaningfully extended since the civil rights era. In fact, the only change I can think of is the lowering of the voting age to 18 from 21 in 1971.

    I agree that politics is taken less serious and treated more like entertainment than in the past, but I don’t understand what you mean by saying America has become more democratic.

    Are you referring more to changing values in our society such as glorifying anti-intellectualism and increasing distrust of “elites”?

    My own theory is that politics get taken seriously in proportion to foreign danger. Less danger of war impacting the voter, less interest in treating politics as anything other than entertainment.

    Politics was taken very seriously during the world wars, Korean and Vietnam wars. After all, you, your husband, or son might be taken away and killed in a far away place. After the end of the draft, the Cold War and potential nuclear annihilation kept politics serious until the late 90’s when we get things like the Monica Lewenski scandal. 9/11 made politics serious again for a few years, but the resulting wars were fought by small segment of the population, with most peoples lives unchanged, so politics drifted back to entertainment. Short of another major military conflict impacting the majority of voters, I don’t see politics being treated seriously again anytime soon.

  4. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    15. November 2023 at 12:30


    The ‘conflict’ is more to highlight that surely your parents generation thought all the stuff the younger people liked and wanted was also tacky/ugly/gauche and that the world/politics/life was going to hell.

    Maybe this time it really is but ever since Socrates they’ve been thinking it’s getting worse. Has it really?

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. November 2023 at 14:18

    MSS1914, Were people like Trump running for president during the 1920s? You had Huey Long in the 1930s, but he never became president.

    I think we are now more democratic in the sense that the gatekeepers have less control over who the parties choose as their nominees. In 1968, it wasn’t the voters who picked Humphrey, it was the party officials.

    msgkings, Yes, I see you have misunderstood my post. I’m not criticizing the younger generation. I view their political judgment as vastly superior to that of the older generation (who are Trumpistas.)

    This post has nothing to do with the age old complaint by each generation that the next one is worse. This is about elites vs. average people. The elites still had power in the old days, so you have quality houses, quality TV news and quality politicians. So I’m making an entirely different point. The elites have lost power as gatekeepers.

    During 1900-30, I don’t think people thought “These new upper middle class houses are much uglier than the houses of the 1800s”

  6. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    15. November 2023 at 21:08

    Where you see the public getting what they want, I see gerrymandering, single member districts, winner take all elections, voter ID laws, the electoral college, the Senate, voting on a single Tuesday, etc. of different ways the public doesn’t get what it wants.

  7. Gravatar of Solon of the East Solon of the East
    16. November 2023 at 04:00

    The referees in the WWF wrestling TV shows remind me of WTO rules enforcers.

    So…there is some instructive value in the WWF. Sometimes, the real world works that way too.

    I am also dismayed by the coarsening of American life.

    Also, houses and rents are now unaffordable anywhere along the West Coast—and largely affordable only in the Rust Belt.

    So, try telling people anywhere along the West Coast, or in the Rust Belt, “life is better than ever.”

    Since profanity rules, you will probably entertain a vulgar response.

  8. Gravatar of Tsergo Ri Tsergo Ri
    16. November 2023 at 04:31

    And you want China to have more democracy?

  9. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    16. November 2023 at 05:53

    Not sure what your major point it. It appears you are saying more people are “ getting what they want”—but with poorer taste than the smaller group of elites that apparently used to exist.

    There is so much “news media”, it is not surprising it is filled with what you call “blond bimbos”. But the absolute number of intelligent people in media dwarfs the number during the 60’s—-even as the percent of them is massively lower.

    Do you think choosing Biden was a function of a Democratic process? I don’t. Remember when Casey’s Stengel was brought before Congress (one of my favorite all time baseball people)? Was that “somber and tasteful”? It was funny, but not somber and tasteful——it was a mockery willfully executed.

    Let’s assume Trump is the worst ever President. It does not excuse the extreme false accusations made by FBI and former CIA leaders. That’s not more Democratic.

    You say politics was a serious business back “when”. I would say it was massively corrupt——The Kennedy’s , LBJ, Nixon, were serious——but also seriously corrupt.

    However, they were more intellectually intelligent —-but with really poor judgement.

    If you are saying we are kind of dopey and absurd, then I agree. But no worse than our historical figures of the 20th century——just stylistically different.

  10. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    16. November 2023 at 08:06

    “America has become more democratic”

    By what metric? It seems to me that gerrymandering and voter suppression have increased and gotten more sophisticated (i.e., effective).

    On a policy level, there’s a large disconnect between what people want (as reflected in polling) and what politicians support, at least on many major issues.

  11. Gravatar of John S John S
    16. November 2023 at 08:11

    I think this phenomenon may have something to do with the fall of the importance of classics throughout the 20th century (by classics I mean not just ancient languages but also the best high culture of the past).

    For nearly all of recorded history, elites dominated high culture, and that culture primarily consisted of the best of what came before: myths, ancient literature and philosophy, skaldic poetry, chivalric romances, what have you. New material was added to this corpus (Shakespeare, Dickens), but there always seemed to be a sense among elite tastemakers that maintaining an appreciation of the past was important.

    This attitude persisted for a surprisingly long time. Thus the founders of the American republic were all thoroughly familiar with classical allusions and literature. Even Washington — who John Adams derided as “too illiterate, unlearned, [and] unread for his station” — was likely more familiar with classical writings than any president since Wilson. As late as the end of the First World War, during negotiations about the possible partition of Turkey, the participants were all sufficiently familiar with classical literature to use ancient geographic designations like Cilicia without difficulty.

    This veneration of the past seems to have greatly weakened starting from the second half of the 20th century. I can’t pinpoint the exact reasons for this, but as alluded to in previous comments it seems to be related to the democratization of cultural tastemaking away from elites toward the masses. Mass media technology developments — movie theaters, record players, television, home video, YouTube — hastened this process. With each step, our collective cultural attention span has shrunk from weeks (the latest hot single in the 60s) to literally seconds (the latest trending video on TikTok).

    The result is that most people today seem to completely lack the patience required to absorb and reflect on “the classics” in any field (which inherently possess deep and long-lasting significance) and thus are reduced to chasing ever-higher levels of momentary stimulation and amusement (thus causing the endless production of new Marvel and reality TV series). In this environment, is it any wonder that our news and politics have come to resemble professional wrestling (or high school, as you put it)?

    (As a side note, I don’t even think the “elites” of today value the classics. I don’t even know who counts as elite anymore, but ask any 35-year old Ivy League graduate what their favorite book is and I bet there’s a shockingly high chance it’s one of the Harry Potter novels.

    Also, my criticism of modern people isn’t limited to the young. The majority of people over 50 can’t stand “old movies”, i.e. anything before 1980.)

  12. Gravatar of John S John S
    16. November 2023 at 08:39

    What saddens me more than the profusion of low and middlebrow culture are the sorry excuses for what passes as “high culture” today. Take for example Denis Villeneuve, the current flavor of the month (to film nerds under 40 he seems to be the new Kubrick).

    I had only seen one of his films (Blade Runner 2049) until recently. It wasn’t terrible and he did a serviceable job in an unenviable position, so I decided to watch Sicario, one of his more highly regarded films.

    I won’t give any spoilers, but I encourage you to watch it and then compare what you just saw to the reviews on Letterboxd. I think you will be shocked by the disparity between the two.

    Sicario feels exactly like what an AI filmmaker given the prompt “dark moody Mexican cartel film” would produce. To call this one the all-time greatest examples of filmmaking, as many of the reviews do, leaves me speechless. (The film does have several beautifully composed shots, but to see them in service of such a forgettable work annoys me even more.)

    When even the “best” (i.e. most acclaimed by elites) culture is this lifeless, I feel there is little hope for the culture at large. The best I can do is to carve out my own little space where I can enjoy the best of the past for whatever time I have left.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. November 2023 at 11:59

    Dale, Sure, I agree with that too. But the Electoral College doesn’t determine who sits in the Senate.

    Solon: No one lives there anymore–it’s too crowded.

    Foosion, You asked:

    “By what metric?”

    In terms of who gets the nomination.

    Tsergo, You mean like Taiwan?

    Michael, You said:

    “Not sure what your major point it.”

    That happens a lot.

    John, You said:

    “Take for example Denis Villeneuve, the current flavor of the month (to film nerds under 40 he seems to be the new Kubrick).”

    Yeah, that’s nuts. He’s OK, whereas Kubrick is the greatest director of all time. Lots of other directors working today are far ahead of Villeneuve. So I agree with you on that.

    But I suspect that great art is being produced right now in areas that we don’t even recognize.

  14. Gravatar of John Hawkins John Hawkins
    16. November 2023 at 13:14

    Y’all chose Villeneueve’s two worst movies! “Prisoners” is an all-time great, probably most intensely chilling movie made in the last 20 years? “Enemy” is also very good, though I probably thought the concept was executed better in the “Counterpart” tv show. He made a thoroughly watchable “Dune” film (not a small feet). “Arrival” also has to be a top 3 sci-fi movie of the past 20 years? “He’s OK” is a nuts thing to say!

    If we want to talk about overrated, we need to talk about Guillermo del Toro.

  15. Gravatar of John S John S
    16. November 2023 at 14:48

    John Hawkins,

    I don’t have an issue with Villeneuve’s work per se. I plan to watch both Arrival and Dune, and in fairness Taylor Sheridan’s awful script probably deserves most of the blame for Sicario.

    What does bother me is the way his work is appraised, seemingly in a vacuum without reference to the great films of the past, by viewers aged 20-40 who will soon become the dominant cohort of cinephiles.

    On Letterboxd, Blade Runner 2049 is already rated slightly higher than the original, with many reviewers believing that it’s unquestionably superior. I thought 2049 did a decent job in a bad situation (the project should never have been greenlit), but I’m baffled that anyone would rank them in the same tier. (The praise for Ex Machina similarly puzzles me; I feel it would barely qualify as a decent episode of Black Mirror.)

    One of the reviews for Sicario said something like “the first 40 and the last 40 minutes were some of the most perfect filmmaking I have ever seen.” What? I don’t even know how to begin to respond to this, it’s like hearing someone say that 2 + 2 = pineapple.

    Take a look at this article linked at the beginning of this Reddit post (“Millennials seem to have little use for old movies”). The gist is that for many people under 30, films from just 10 years ago feel totally irrelevant.

    This is why I wonder whether the severing of the link to the past has something to do with the drastic fall in cultural standards over the last few decades. Without a corpus of time-tested material against which one can judge modern works, standards can veer way off course.

    To many young people, the word “classics” unironically brings to mind old episodes of Family Guy and South Park. What sort of culture can be built on that foundation? I’ll stick primarily with the old stuff, at least I know that it was made for humans.

  16. Gravatar of John S John S
    16. November 2023 at 15:05


    You wrote: “I suspect that great art is being produced right now in areas that we don’t even recognize.”

    Any inklings of what those areas might be? (Video games? Microtonal music?)

    You may be right, but what is the significance if that art is lost in a torrent of dreck?

  17. Gravatar of Matthias Matthias
    16. November 2023 at 15:34

    Why would the great art be lost in a torrent of dreck?

    On Netflix or Steam you can pick exactly what you want to watch or play. Your web browser or the local library let you pick exactly what you want to watch. (I recommend using an ad blocker with your web browser.)

    You can enjoy most of these things a few years after the fact, so you can wait for other people to sift through the dreck and then act on their recommendations. You won’t even notice that there ever was a torrent of subpar stuff.

    Scott, you are probably right that voters are to blame for politics. But eg voting systems still matter: in the German sort-of-proportional system you get a party like Alternative für Deutschland that gets a sizeable proportion of the votes, but leaves the other parties relatively (!) unhanged and basically functioning as before.

    In a first past the post system that lost its gatekeepers, you get Trump.

    (Keep in mind that the modern German system was explicitly engineered to provide more resistance against the kind of tricks the original Nazi party used in their rise to power, and also the kinds of temptations for the establishment that lead to weaknesses that the extremist managed to exploit.)

  18. Gravatar of McMansion Owner McMansion Owner
    16. November 2023 at 16:52

    I have a McMansion (I think?). You’re talking about the mostly cookie cutter houses in big developments that are 2500-3600 square feet right?

    I don’t think it’s poor taste. It’s just bang for your buck. If you buy some high brow looking custom built house it’s going to look unique and nicer from the outside but you’re going to pay much more for it or sacrifice on space. The cookie cutter houses are still really nice on the interior (or can be at least) and are much cheaper for obvious reasons (easier to supply lots of them quickly). People just want more space for less money and are still getting pretty good quality. It’s just balancing trade offs.

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. November 2023 at 18:19

    John, OK, maybe better than OK. But certainly not in the top 20 directors making films since 2000. (I thought Incendies was his best film.)

    John S, I’m with you on Blade Runner 2049. Rating it above the original is bizarre. It’d be like saying Godfather 3 is the best of the trilogy.

    “Millennials seem to have little use for old movies”

    Yes, but you need to consider that most people of any generation have bad taste. I’m sure millennials who are serious film buffs are aware of older films.

    “Any inklings of what those areas might be?”

    There are still great films being made, often in obscure corners of the world. (Iran, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, etc.) I consider Wes Anderson to be a great director.

    Music isn’t my area, but I’m sure Tyler Cowen could point to examples. Great novels are still being written.

    Matthias, You are preaching to the converted.

    McMansion owner, Yes, the interiors are now far more convenient. I was referring to the ugly exteriors. But it’s possible to put an attractive exterior on a convenient interior. Here I’m thinking of things like a Tuscan style house in California. This post explains my views on architecture:

  20. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    17. November 2023 at 02:39

    Scott, “In terms of who gets the nomination” seems a very odd metric for measuring how democratic we are.

    Election results reflecting the will of the majority of eligible voters and few limits on eligibility would seem a much more standard definition.

  21. Gravatar of JMCSF JMCSF
    17. November 2023 at 03:37

    For whatever reason, many folks insist on maximizing the square footage of their home over all other factors (quality of materials, design, construction, etc). Money certainly doesn’t buy taste. To a lesser degree I suspect we have regulated our way less attractive buildings.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. November 2023 at 09:31

    Foosion, I don’t agree. Trump reflects the “will of the people” (admittedly with only 48% due to the EC). But when elites ruled the country they never would have let him get the nomination.

  23. Gravatar of TMC TMC
    17. November 2023 at 10:43

    Our ‘elite’ are also much more pedestrian than in the past. My theory is that as the Federal government has a larger presence in our lives, the more people participate at that level. The fact that local politics has always been like this is evidence for this. Used to be the Feds would handle foreign policy and very large issues, but it has increasingly crept into everyday life over the past 60 years or so. This might just be my preference for a small federal government though.

  24. Gravatar of John S John S
    17. November 2023 at 11:03


    “most people of any generation have bad taste”

    Certainly, but it really seems to me that the taste of the majority has gotten much worse over the last 50 years.

    Consider this: in 1964, Goldfinger (the Marvel movie of its day) sold about 65M tickets in N. America. So action blockbusters were available. But in 1967 The Graduate sold 87M tickets. Can you imagine a film like that blowing away the latest Marvel monstrosity by such a margin in 2023?

    For context, in 2018 Avengers: Infinity War sold about 75M tickets and in 2019 Avengers: Endgame sold 94M tickets (US population in 1970 was about 200M, now around 330M).

    Here are some other tickets sold figures:

    1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 43M
    1969: Butch and Sundance, 72M
    1971: A Clockwork Orange, 16M (adjusted for population it would be in the top 10 today, unimaginable)
    1972: The Godfather, 79M
    1973: The Sting, 90M
    1975: Barry Lyndon, 10M (would be top 20 today, unimaginable)
    1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, 53M

    Compare these figures to the top grossing films of 2019 (the last year before the pandemic). It sure looks to me like the average movie goer has much worse taste today than in the 70s (or in previous decades).

  25. Gravatar of TMC TMC
    17. November 2023 at 11:15

    Dale: “I see gerrymandering, single member districts, winner take all elections, voter ID laws, the electoral college, the Senate, voting on a single Tuesday,”

    Gerrymandering is probably down considerably than in the past, voter IDs laws are an improvement, the electoral college is a good way to stopgap tyranny of the masses, and Tuesday in-person voting is also a nice filter on voter fraud.

    Frankly I’d like to limit voting to those between 25 and 70 years old. I’m even willing to say that while I support women’s suffrage, it hasn’t worked out too well.

  26. Gravatar of John S John S
    17. November 2023 at 11:37

    “I’m sure millennials who are serious film buffs are aware of older films.”

    I would say at best that **some** of them appreciate older films, and I suspect that percentage is decreasing every year. Many are aware of older films, but they have, shall we say, unenlightened opinions of them. (If you want to test your sanity, try reading some of them comments on Reddit TrueFilm about Vertigo and “how it doesn’t make sense.”)

    Just look at the Letterboxd 250, a list of the highest rated films by its userbase. There are only 9 films from before 1940 (and one is a mistake, in my view; The Great Dictator is entertaining but doesn’t belong). There are some very questionable entries. Parasite is great, but #7 of all-time? How about The Shawshank Redemption (9), Return of the King (20), or The Dark Knight (24)? And let’s just forget about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (35) and its sequel Across the Spider-Verse (17).

    As Letterboxd’s userbase grows larger and younger, we can only expect to see more of this nonsense and more older films getting pushed aside.

    “There are still great films being made, often in obscure corners of the world.”

    Sure, but what’s to stop elite gatekeeping from collapsing in those countries? The same forces that have led to the decline in taste in the Anglosphere will happen there as well.

    I’m sure Wes Anderson is great (I haven’t yet explored his filmography, it’s high on my list), but Asteroid City only sold 2.67M tickets in 2023, placing it 54th in 2023. Lost in a sea of dreck.

    “Great novels are still being written.”

    Perhaps, but who’s reading them (aside from a tiny sliver of literary fiction enthusiasts)? Average TV viewing **per day** is up to around 8 hours (up from 4 hours in the 50s), with another 40 min for video games and an equal amount on Youtube. And even among the “readers”, a huge chunk of the books being read are romance novels or trashy YA (“young adult”, although increasingly read by adults) fantasy or light sci-fi (i.e. Marvel in book form).

    So while it may be technically true that great works are still being produced, I can still only conclude that it’s having a negligible (and declining) influence on the culture at large.

  27. Gravatar of John S John S
    17. November 2023 at 11:46


    Netflix is a primary source of the dreck from which I’m trying to escape. I don’t play video games, so I don’t know much about Steam. (I’m aware that there are some thoughtfully crafted games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, but I just don’t have enough time for them.)

    Don’t worry about me, I’ve got 100 years of cinema and thousands of years of literature to keep myself occupied. But I still have to live in this world and its culture (which is inescapable). That’s the part that saddens me.

  28. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    17. November 2023 at 11:52

    I would argue people are not getting what they want. Zoning laws, health inspections, and other regulation all contribute to the lack of romance in architecture.

    Many towns will not give permits to real estate developers who build outside the box: Ayn Rand spoke about this 90 years ago in the book Fountainhead. City managers are not risk takers. Indeed, if they were, they wouldn’t be city managers. But architecture, and real estate developent, is handicapped by their risk adverse, safety first (to the detriment and process of individuation) and to lower prices, and thus you have what you have: sprawling, incoherent, urban and suburban centers, and ugly, homogenous, buildings.

    As scruton alluded to, maximizing profit at some borg like, communitarian altar, also plays a role in the size and shape of commercial and residential buildings because maximizing space at the lowest budget, produces big, boring, structures.

    To build something romantic, you need to build something transcendent. To build something transcendent, you need to — to borrow Hayek — believe in something bigger than yourself. You cannot reduce every action to rationality and produce the Taj Mahal, because the Taj Mahal doesn’t make sense. It’s not a rational structure. But it is an intriguing structure. It tells a story; it captures the zeitgeist of an avante garde.

  29. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    17. November 2023 at 18:48

    “The elites are appalled by all of this. But you cannot deny that we are getting what the public wants.”

    In other words, Sumner places himself in a category of so-called elites and considers himself separate from the general public.

    There are many tyrants in history who thought the same.

    The General public, btw, is a misnomer. Everyone, including those who work for the government, are part of the general population, which is of course the general public.

    The very fact that he thinks he’s different speaks volumes about how dangerous he can be.

    To him, and to others like him, the “general public” is a nuisance that needs to be coerced (remember his draconion views on vaccines), and who exist for the sole purpose of obeying their “elite” masters who of course always know best.

    This is the type of man who, if he was living in the 19th century, would have studied phrenology or eugenics, or sat around an ostentious table of community aristocrats (the no fun crowd), calling themselves “elite.”

    This is the type of man that is very similar to Klaus Schwab. He is arrogant enough to believe that he’s better, superior, and thus destined to “shape” events on behalf of the mindless neanderthals known as the “general public”.

    The biggest threat to the American republic is people who think like this. People who can’t have a hotdog and a beer with a member of the “general public” and who place themselves into an isolated skybox with the belief they are “superior” to those beneath them.

  30. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    18. November 2023 at 00:19

    Woa, woa, woa – Ricardo, why do you say that ‘community aristocrats’ were ‘the no fun crowd’ ??

    Also, what is a community aristocrat?

  31. Gravatar of David S David S
    18. November 2023 at 07:08

    Don’t give architects too much credit or blame for the architectural features of either Newton or sunbelt McMansion communities. Most houses aren’t custom designed by architects, although the stock plans that builders used in old Newton and McMansionland can be traced back to a trained designer.

    The carpentry craft that gives Newton its character is uneconomical for the stucco and vinyl hellscapes of Southern California, Texas, and Florida.

    Also, most houses in Newton couldn’t be built under its current zoning regulations.

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. November 2023 at 10:01

    John, The people who once watched quality films now watch TV. They don’t go to the movie theatre.

    When I look at recent rankings like Sight and Sound they seem pretty reasonable. Any ranking made by average people will be garbage, obviously.

    In the past, I’ve argued that all of the arts get more difficult over time, as the low hanging fruit is exhausted. That’s why the audience for great art gets smaller and smaller. Compare the popularity of Mozart to modern examples of “classical” music.

    David, Zoning rules don’t typically prevent attractive exteriors (which are still being built in Newton.) It’s possible to build attractive Italian or Spanish style homes in the south, and in a few areas they are being built.

    I’m not blaming the architects; I’m blaming the taste of the nouveau riche.

  33. Gravatar of John S John S
    18. November 2023 at 15:26

    “The people who once watched quality films now watch TV. They don’t go to the movie theatre.”

    First, are you sure this is completely correct? Don’t you think it’s possible that they do still go to movie theaters, but their tastes have shifted at least partially away from quality films towards supehero/Pixar schlock? (This actually seems more likely based on what the people around me watch.)

    But let’s assume you’re right that the 2023 counterpart of the Graduate or Godfather ticket-buyer now watches quality TV at home instead of quality films at the theater. So high-quality TV series should be dominating the ratings like high-quality films dominated the box office in the 60s & 70s, right?

    Doesn’t seem to be the case. The biggest shows of the 2010s were The Big Bang Theory (20M per episode), Game of Thrones (20M incl. cable & digital), and The Walking Dead (abt 28M across all platforms). Big Bang and Walking Dead are brain-dead shows (even their fans wouldn’t defend them as “high-quality” in an artistic sense).

    So Game of Thrones is the only one that might possibly qualify as a high-quality drama. Two points:

    1. On Serializd (Letterboxd for TV), GoT doesn’t even rank among the top 50 shows (with over 5,000 ratings). So even TV fans don’t think highly of its artistic merit.

    2. I’ve only seen a few episodes of GoT, but just from pop culture osmosis I know what it’s about. And it seems pretty clear that its high ratings came from the 3 B’s: blood, boobs, and backstabbing. In essence, it’s an R-rated soap opera on steroids. (We could add a fourth B: budget. At $10-15M per episode it set new records for spending on effects, costumes, and sets. A modern sword & sandals spectacle.)

    So what about the “high-quality” dramas? Succession (#3 on Serializd) only got around 7-8 million viewers/episode. And can it really be compared to the great films of the 70s? I haven’t seen it, but would you rank it in the same tier as The Godfather (#5 on Letterboxd)? I doubt it.

    (The other popular TV shows are your standard cop/doctor/lawyer crap.)

    “Any ranking made by average people will be garbage, obviously.”

    I cited the Letterboxd 250 list precisely because it wasn’t made by average people. Letterboxd is one of the last redoubts of hardcore cinephiles on the internet. I checked the popular films, and Letterboxd has about half as many ratings per film as IMDB. The LB 250 list is quite good, but EVEN THERE we can see the first signs of classic films being pushed aside (casting doubt on your view that young film buffs value old films).

    If you want to see a terrible list, try the IMDB 250: Shawshank at #1, Inception #14, Usual Suspects (puke!) at #43. And even the IMDB list is far superior to what a truly “average” list would look like (Fast & Furious, Harry Potter, Marvel etc).

    So it still seems to me that the tastes of the majority have declined considerably. The working age population of N. America was around 150M in the 70s, so a huge portion of film-watchers saw high-quality films. That’s unimaginable today.

  34. Gravatar of John S John S
    18. November 2023 at 15:46

    “When I look at recent rankings like Sight and Sound they seem pretty reasonable.”

    Well, just wait a few years. Today’s top Letterboxd Pro reviewers will be tomorrow’s S&S voters. The same process is happening there, just more slowly. And LB is far more influential among actual viewers than the S&S poll.

    “In the past, I’ve argued that all of the arts get more difficult over time, as the low hanging fruit is exhausted. That’s why the audience for great art gets smaller and smaller. Compare the popularity of Mozart to modern examples of “classical” music.”

    But I’m not talking about avant-garde arthouse stuff, I’m wondering why the median film/TV viewer is obsessed with superhero crap. I’m sure good, thoughtful films and series are released every year, but the numbers seem to indicate that not many people care. As you said, the public is getting what it wants, and what it wants seems to be overstimulation.

    I shudder to imagine what the situation will be like in 10-20 years when VR video games can use AI to keep users hooked into a never-ending stream of procedurally-generated storylines. Any type of “movie” will probably be seen as hopelessly old-fashioned.

  35. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    18. November 2023 at 18:07

    Sumner’s “elite” just canceled Jill Stein. She is a green party phony, subscribing to the psuedoscience that the world will end in 2030, but nevertheless, her right to speech is protected under the law. A law the “elites”, time and again, try to erode under the pretense of “misinformation” or “for your safety and security”.

    Media Matters, another organization representing the so-called “elite” is now pressuring advertisers to ditch companies that don’t support their hard left narratives, including “X”.

    Sumner’s “Elite” are on the march, portending a very bleak future for the rest of us.

  36. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    19. November 2023 at 08:41

    Have you actually rewatched the original Blade Runner recently? I found it was not nearly as good as I remember. It is obviously historic and hugely influential, but I think for this reason people tend to remember it as being greater than it actually is. I think the sequel is clearly superior, but film critics are also film historians and give influential films extra credit.

  37. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. November 2023 at 09:26

    John, My point is that art films get more difficult over time. When Godfather came out, it was an innovative art film. Today, an ambitious film director would try something different, and probably inferior. The low hanging fruit are taken.

    It’s not just film, we aren’t getting more Hamlets, more Sistine Chapels, more Beethoven 9ths, etc. Those have been done.

    We also don’t have Edisons, coming up with dozens of new inventions for consumers to use.

    “hardcore cinephiles”

    They may watch lots of films, but if they give the ratings you suggest then they obviously are not very knowledgable about film.

    Dale, Yeah, I rewatched it, and in my view it’s far better than the sequel. They aren’t even in the same league. I’d say it’s one of the 5 best sci-fi films ever made, and the sequel isn’t in the top 50. Your mileage may differ.

  38. Gravatar of John S John S
    19. November 2023 at 09:32


    Did you watch the theatrical cut or the final cut (2007)? The final cut is significantly better.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but in my view the only interesting aspect of the sequel was the Joi character. To me the 2nd half of 2049 just fizzles out. The original has many great sequences (too many to name), I wasn’t really captivated by any in 2049. I prefer the original’s soundtrack. The digital sheen of the sequel was unavoidable (and produced some nice Windows backgrounds) but I much prefer the grittiness of the original’s set design.

    I don’t think this is a case of historical extra credit. If I could only choose one of the two to be preserved for future generations (straight up as films, w/o considerations of influence) I couldn’t possibly pick 2049. But that’s just my opinion.

  39. Gravatar of John S John S
    19. November 2023 at 15:35

    “My point is that art films get more difficult over time…. The low hanging fruit are taken. It’s not just film, we aren’t getting more Hamlets, more Sistine Chapels, more Beethoven 9ths, etc. Those have been done.”

    This is a different issue from what I’m talking about (and the topic of your original post). I’m not mainly concerned that we have fewer masterpieces at the top, I’m decrying the fact that the quality of works consumed by the masses seems to have declined precipitously over the last few decades. (Just as the quality of the news and politics has declined.)

    I don’t think it’s crazy to say that The Graduate and The Godfather are better than Transformers and Harry Potter (and as I wrote, TV’s not filling the quality gap). Something caused this decline; my guess is technology combined with the idea that we have nothing to learn from the past (a rather unprecedented attitude, except for a few crazy years after the French Revolution). Both of these are related to the fall of elite gatekeeping; preservation of the classics has always been an elite value, and technology has allowed the masses to bypass elite tastemaking and to gain economic control of art production (displacing patronage). I think we are largely in agreement.

    “if they give the ratings you suggest then they obviously are not very knowledgable about film”

    It’s a very heterogeneous group. Before the pandemic, Letterboxd had a much smaller userbase (1.3M) and the proportion of highly knowledgeable cinephiles was much higher. But during the first two years of lockdown, its membership exploded to 6.5M, and now it’s over 10M. Naturally this unchecked expansion has led to a decline in the average user’s film knowledge.

    Still, in spite of the egregious examples I’ve given above, its ratings are consistently better than other crowd-sourced film rating sites such as IMDB or RottenTomatoes.

    It’s put up a remarkably good fight, but if Letterboxd sharply declines in quality (which I think it will), it will lead to a very lonely landscape indeed for film lovers. CriterionChannel’s paying membership probably doesn’t exceed 100,000. (Its predecessor, Filmstruck, topped out at that level.) MUBI claims to have 10M accounts worldwide, but it disclosed in 2017 that its paid membership is also around 100,000 (maybe it’s 200K now, based on its revenue).

    A ghetto is better than nothing, but it still feels pretty lonely.

  40. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    19. November 2023 at 16:19

    I thought the sequel had better set designs, better acting and far better sound design and screen writing. I can’t think of a single aspect of filmmaking that I thought the original did better. I know it’s highly regarded so whatever makes it great probably just went way over my head.

  41. Gravatar of John S John S
    20. November 2023 at 04:56

    Dale, I am curious to understand your film appreciation thought process. First, are there any films from before 1970 that you enjoy simply as films, without regard to their historical significance?

  42. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    21. November 2023 at 19:48

    I think there are lots of old films that hold up quite well to today’s standard of filmaking, although I do think some suffer from past technology/costs. The most obvious of these to me being sound and acting. Old films had large and limited number of microphones, whereas modern films can use many more smaller microphones so scenes have a much better sense of sound direction and balance. The other aspect that stands out to me is bad acting, particularly in smaller roles. Older films seemed to use nonprofessional actors too often that are just distractingly bad and that rarely happens even in a modern low budget film. All that being said, I do think the good filmmakers were aware of these issues and others and did clever things that modern directors just don’t have to worry about as much, so many classic films still do hold up to modern standards.

  43. Gravatar of Peter Peter
    22. November 2023 at 11:21

    100 years ago even upper middle class households had “help” in the form of in-house servants/cooks/carriage drivers/ etc. When you have servants you need to put on airs and live in houses that look like they’re worthy of your social and economic status. Today, unless you’re truly wealthy, you just rely on tradespeople and part-time help to come and go as needed. When you have the help actually living with you, you probably psychologically need to live up to the class difference and have higher standards of dress, design, comportment than is needed today.

  44. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    22. November 2023 at 11:31

    Yes, democracy and markets do give people what their choices imply.

    Hence the use of the non-electoral politics of institutional capture as ways of generating outcomes voters collectively don’t want. Hence in turn increasing levels of alienation from democracy.

    Hence also audience alienation from captured movie franchises: as Disney is discovering. Turning boy franchises (MCU, Star Wars, Star Trek) into princess flicks, not an audience winner.

  45. Gravatar of Axel Kassel Axel Kassel
    22. November 2023 at 12:09

    Apologies if I missed this point in others’ comments, but it seems to me that a large factor in the generally low quality of Congressfolk and the decay of civic deliberations is the near disappearance of party caucuses and the rise of primaries, which encourage mass-media buys to draw turnout, discourage any policy thinking that won’t fit onto a cue-card chant or a 10-second sound bite, and reward polarizing positions. The party elders in smoke-filled rooms were certainly capable of putting forth mindless and/or corrupt hacks as candidates, but at least it was in their interest to consider whether a candidate could actually win–a thought process alien to many energized primary voters.

  46. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. November 2023 at 14:13

    John, You missed my point. We aren’t getting films like Godfather because it’s been done. And the median quality of film and TV has not declined over time. There was lots of lousy film and TV when I was young. There’s lots of good stuff today. But in almost any art form, the number of masterpieces will decline over time, at least the number of masterpieces that are accessible to average people (like The Godfather and The Graduate.)

    Dale, I agree with John. The original had lots of memorable scenes. The sequel is utterly forgettable, even if the technology it used was superior.

    Alex, That’s what I meant when I mentioned the declining role of the elites.

  47. Gravatar of John S John S
    22. November 2023 at 15:37

    Dale, I appreciate your thoughtful response.

    I think our different methods of film evaluation may lie in deep differences in personality traits. I know there’s lots of criticism of pop psychology tests like MBTI and OCEAN/Big 5, but I do think they hint at some basic differences. I suspect you and I would differ greatly on the “Intuitive vs Sensing” axis (I’ve always tested as intuitive, although I deeply appreciate the sensory qualities of films).

    I think all films (or at least all good ones) try to provoke some type of response in the viewer. This is mainly done by telling a story, although as our blog host Scott often mentions, a film can be effective without a discernible plot (he cites Jacques Tati’s PlayTime as a prime example). However, even PlayTime tries to communicate a specific notion (in this case, the idea that modernity — symbolized by glass buildings, corporate dronespeak, and Americans — is ridiculous).

    For lack of a better word, I will use “intention” as an all-encompassing term to describe what a film’s creative team is trying to accomplish, i.e. the response they are trying to provoke in the viewer.

    When evaluating a film I first consider its intention and whether it has any significance to me. Often that intention can be pure entertainment (e.g. Singin’ in the Rain). Or it could be to give a plausible portrayal of worlds I’ve never experienced such as high-finance boardrooms or underground poker (Margin Call, Rounders). All of these interest me. Sometimes a film’s intention can captivate me even if it’s outside my normal areas of interest (The Devil Wears Prada).

    Next I judge how successful a film was in achieving its intention, i.e. whether or not I reacted to it in a way that felt satisfying. That reaction could be emotional or intellectual; I tend to slightly prioritize my intellectual reaction because relying on my emotions alone can cause me to overrate films that manipulate me without saying anything of value (Forrest Gump).

    When it comes a film’s technical qualities and/or execution, I primarily judge these based on whether they helped or hindered the film’s intention. (However, since film is primarily a visual medium, I do give extra credit for cinematography; Butch & Sundance is a film that would lose a lot of value without its great visuals.)

    So for example, The Terminator (1984) is a film with lots of cheap and bad production, even for the 80s (Cameron got the last shot of the Terminator in the hydraulic press using some spray-painted boxes, a head made of tin foil, and cigarette smoke from a crew member). The acting is quite spotty at times. But to me these limitations don’t really detract from the film’s ability to achieve its intention. In fact, if I were to compare it to The Matrix — which tells essentially the same story with the added wrinkle of VR, plus some prophecy mumbo jumbo — I’d probably rate The Terminator a bit higher, even though The Matrix objectively outclasses it in all levels of production.

    Is it possible for a film’s execution or technical qualities to be so bad that I will downgrade it, even if it achieves its intention? Yes. I recently watched Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s first American film. Lang’s intention was to show how rumor alone could incite a mob to commit a terrible act. The film has scenes of great power and largely achieves its aim, but in certain spots its dialogue is unbearably clunky and there are many scenes which feel are out of place. So because of its poor screenplay, I would give it 2.5 out of 5 stars (interestingly, Letterboxd rates it at 3.9, so I think I’m being quite fair w.r.t. historical extra credit).

    Can a film’s technical achievements be so great that I will rate it highly even if its intention doesn’t particularly interest me? This is probably rarer for me but not impossible. Perhaps Das Boot qualifies. I’m not that crazy about war movies in general, let alone punishingly grim ones, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by what the film accomplishes. (OTOH, the aforementioned PlayTime doesn’t quite work for me; it’s a visual marvel and its sound design is incredible, but while I admired it I did not love it. I will probably revisit it in a few years.)

  48. Gravatar of John S John S
    22. November 2023 at 16:16

    @Dale (cont)

    I’m genuinely not trying to provoke an argument, but your method of film evaluation seems to be a checklist of sorts: __ for cinematography, __ for visual FX, __ for sound design, __ for screenplay, __ for acting. To me this seems very strange, like putting the cart before the horse. (However, I do appreciate your sharing your thoughts. It’s always good to know how others think, and it’s given me a chance to think about why I like and don’t like certain films.)

    I get the feeling that many film enthusiasts under 35 (I have no idea how old you are) take a similar approach. Since production values have generally increased across the board, I think this leads to an unfortunate bias against older films. I say unfortunate because I think there are a great many films that younger viewers would appreciate if only they would give them a chance.

    Two quick examples: based on a podcast recommendation I recently watched The Nice Guys (2016). (I thought this was an absolutely terrible and unfunny movie, but that’s not the point.) There’s a scene that involves Ryan Gosling and a toilet stall door. Many of the Letterboxd reviews said that this was by far the funniest bit of physical comedy they had ever seen in their lives.

    A little part of me died when reading that. These people had clearly never seen Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd. And many of them never will because they imagine that it’s all just slipping on banana peels, and who the hell wants to see that? But the truth is that most of the silent gags were very carefully constructed with clever setups and visual (and sometimes textual) punchlines. Hardly any of it is just random pie in the face stuff.

    The Gosling bit, OTOH, was essentially a random pie in the face. There was no logical setup, so it’s just a guy engaging in some random silliness with a bathroom stall door. That anyone would consider this to be the height of physical comedy makes me sad; the artform has far greater possibilities, but you have to visit the silent era to know that.

    The other example is Joker. Again, same routine — young viewers saying they’d never seen anything like it, what a masterpiece. But as you may know, it’s almost a complete cribbing of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (with a seasoning of Taxi Driver). And it’s nowhere near as good, in my view. The King of Comedy has a clear intention: to show the costs of celebrity to those who have it (Jerry Lewis) and those trying to attain it (DeNiro and Bernhard). As for Joker… I’m not sure what it was trying to achieve. To me the storytelling seemed muddled at best, poor plagiarism at worst. And all the best cinematography and sound design in the world couldn’t bridge that gap.

    Now I’m sure I won’t change your mind (experience has taught me that’s nearly impossible). But perhaps you can understand what I’m getting at with my complaints about how the youngest generation of film fans seem to judge films. Focusing on spectacle and the latest round of technical improvements seems like it will lead (and has led) to a rather hollow brand of filmmaking. But maybe I will be proven wrong.

  49. Gravatar of John S John S
    22. November 2023 at 16:21


    “the median quality of film and TV has not declined over time”

    If we include reality TV, I’m not sure. But even if true, I think we’re at least far behind where we should be. Call it being way below the Cultural NGDP trendline of 1975.

  50. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    23. November 2023 at 19:35

    To be clear, I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 was a great film by any means. In general I mostly agree with critical consensus and don’t think technology was a major barrier to great filmaking. I just personally didn’t think Blade Runner was that great. I also don’t care much about ranking films, but I happened to watch 2049 shortly after rewatching the original so it was easy to compare to given their similarities.

  51. Gravatar of John S John S
    24. November 2023 at 10:20

    I don’t care about ranking films myself, at least not to the degree the Sight & Sound poll does (I don’t think it’s meaningful to say Film A is #45 while Film B is #68). In fact I think the S&S method (name 10 films, then count all the mentions) is terribly lazy and sloppy. I much prefer Ebert’s unranked Great Movies list, which has appropriate breadth at 300+ films.

    But I do think it’s important to develop some kind of canon for future generations that includes the most important and best films from film history, and there needs to be some kind of criteria for deciding what’s in or out. I just think relying on purely technical considerations is way too narrow a lens.

  52. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    24. November 2023 at 12:55

    Someone could right now remake any classic film shot for shot using better actors and better technology, or maybe someday entirely with AI. And critics would pan any remake as derivative even if it was objectively better. Which version should be canonized? The original or the one that looks and sounds better? I’m fine preserving the originals, but only because they’re historic, not because I would somehow think they’re actually better.

  53. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. November 2023 at 19:29

    Dale, A good painter could produce a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, but so what? One of the factors in a great film is the invention it embodies.

    I also think it’s harder to find modern actors to recreate an original than you might assume. Which modern actors would work better than Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca? Who would be better than Brando and Pacino in Godfather? That’s not obvious to me.

  54. Gravatar of John S John S
    25. November 2023 at 08:12

    Agree with Scott’s comment. I wrote my previous comments w.r.t. enjoying classic films simply as entertainment, an aspect which I think is highly underrated. (How many people today even recognize the name Billy Wilder?) But when you also consider the innovations they brought about, it’s a slam dunk to canonize the originals over remakes. This isn’t mere antiquarianism; it’s important to get a sense of how the medium has evolved over time.

    And who determines what is “objectively better”? Does colorizing b&w films make them “objectively better”? Most people would agree that the b&w version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far superior to the colorized version. Robert Dowwney Jr. does a decent Chaplin impersonation in the biopic, but there’s no way I’m choosing those bits over the originals. Who today could replicate what Keaton did?

  55. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. November 2023 at 19:01

    John, I agree.

    One might also ask which modern writers are better than Shakespeare. Which modern painters are better than Velazquez? Which modern composers are better than Bach?

    I’m very dubious of the claim that the arts are advancing over time.

    And how about Japan? Are there any current directors in the class of Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi?

  56. Gravatar of John S John S
    26. November 2023 at 06:49

    Good points. Explaining the causes of evolution (or devolution) in the arts is a puzzle.

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