Politics Is Boring

Annual Report from The Tracinski Letter

This year, I’m starting a new tradition: an end-of year “annual report” discussing what I’ve done in the past year and what’s coming for next year, both in terms of the logistics of the newsletter and in terms of its intellectual content.

This has, of course, been a big transitional year, with the change in the name of the newsletter from TIA Daily to The Tracinski Letter, along with a new website and a new and improved subscription management system. Speaking of which, here’s a quick pause to remind you, if you haven’t already taken advantage of it, that this is the last day of our Holiday Sale

I did not produce quite as much content this year, partly because I was very sick early in the year (a casualty of the harsh epidemiology of pre-school), partly because of my new newsletter for RealClearPolitics, which took a lot of extra time during the election, but mostly because of the time required to get the new website and subscription system up and running.

The basics of that task are done, which is huge relief and is already saving me a lot of time compared to the old system. The basic problem I confronted was the task of collapsing three databases (e-commerce, subscription management, and mailing list) into one, so that I no longer worry about having to migrate data from one of these systems to the other. This task is now mostly done. It is not perfect, and a few of you have been so helpful as to locate the remaining glitches for me. I also have a list of refinements that I want to add, but they are small enough that I can get to them one at a time over the coming months.

I also plan to get the full archives of the newsletter up on the site and available to subscribers, but right now I’m adding old articles only as they become relevant to current news events. When the time comes, which is pretty soon, I will be calling for volunteers to help me migrate a massive archive—more than eight years of the e-mail newsletter, plus some material from the old print editions—onto the new site.

The new system is not perfect, but it’s a lot better than what I was doing before. The biggest advantage of new system is that when all goes well, no humans are involved, so you will get a faster response with fewer errors. The biggest problem is that no humans are involved, so there is no one to exercise judgment and spot problems. I think in balance this will all work out in the customer’s favor, because when I was doing things manually, there was an awful lot of scope for operator error. On my end, I’m already finding that not having to manage the things that are now done automatically—as well as having only one database to look at—gives me more time to promptly solve problems when I do have to intervene.

This publication has been a brave new experiment in how the Internet can make it possible for one man to run all aspects of a publishing business, while leaving plenty of time for the most important task: writing the content. This keeps the operation very lean and makes the economics of publishing on this scale feasible.

For a RealClearMarkets update, I recently linked to an article on how 2013 is the year in which the media “continues its quest for a sustainable business model” in the Internet age. I’m not surprised. I’ve known for years that old-style publishing—where you have a stable of paid authors and a big fat print publication that goes out in the mail and on newsstands (which are particularly expensive and unprofitable and are rapidly disappearing in the 21st century)—was not going to survive. The lesser-known secret is that the economics of publishing on the Internet, where people have been conditioned to get huge amounts of information for free, is no great shakes, either. You have to work very hard to distinguish yourself and offer unique content. You have to be creative about finding new sources of revenue. And you have to work hardest at keeping your expenses ridiculously low.

This last was my big experiment this year, and I’ll go into a little detail on my experience because I think it has some bearing on what’s going on in the wider economy.

I set up the new site entirely on my own using free or inexpensive off-the-shelf software. And I am most definitely not an “IT guy.” Let’s put it this way: the last time I wrote any code, it was in Applesoft Basic. So I’ve usually had to go out and hire a computer guy, at pretty steep rates.

Eleven years ago, when I took over publishing The Intellectual Activist and knew that we had to have a decent website, I got a bid to do all of the things I did this year. It came to about $25,000, which we couldn’t afford. About five years ago, I actually paid about $12,000 to set up this kind of system, and what they gave me never worked properly. (File that one under “lessons learned.”) This year, I did the whole thing myself for about $750.

To be sure, it took me several months, and it wasn’t the best idea to attempt it while also writing two political newsletters in the middle of a presidential election. And like I said, there are still a lot of refinements to add. Some I will have to do myself, and for some I will probably have to hire someone to do little bits of customization piecemeal. I’ve found that the subscription management software that is affordable also leaves something to be desired, no doubt because the small size of the market doesn’t make it economical to build something better. We live in an era when billions are invested to help people share information for free but little investment is put into figuring out how the actual producers of content can get paid.

But I have found that the software has gotten just far enough along that someone who is not a professional can figure it all out. Where I had trouble was not because any concept or process was particularly difficult or complex. It was simply because they were unfamiliar. Let’s just say I haven’t had to use FTP in a good long while, so I had to clamber back up the learning curve.

This story has some interesting implications for the economy. If you’re a web designer, the value of your services has basically collapsed by 97%. And a really determined individual, such as myself, doesn’t need you at all.

This is the same pattern I’ve observed elsewhere: a lot of people are getting paid middle-class, professional salaries for a skill that amounts to memorizing how to fill out forms. Any such job is unstable and will be eliminated by the relentless march of technology. So in one sense we’re all doomed. But in another sense, we’re all going to prosper, because that means more money is left over for conceptual thinking and higher-level productivity.

In my case, the collapse of the price of web design and development means that the vast majority of your subscription to The Tracinski Letter goes to pay me for thinking and writing and sifting through an awful lot of news stories so that you don’t have to. So it’s very productive, very efficient—and very sustainable.

The other big thing I’ve done this year is my work for RealClearPolitics, which provides a conduit for bringing the ideas in this newsletter to a wider audience. But it has led to one unexpected problem, which you might call “brand confusion.” I occasionally get a comment from a reader complaining that I’m mostly just summarizing the views of other writers and not giving my own, or that I’m focusing exclusively on politics and not writing about philosophical issues. And then they say that they liked what my newsletter “used to be.” What they are complaining about is precisely what my RCP newsletter is supposed to do, and I don’t think they realize that I still have my own newsletter which is still very much publishing my own views and addressing deeper philosophical issues.

I also think some of this is a result of the website transition, which depressed my output for The Tracinski Letter just as I was ramping up production for the RCP newsletter during the height of the presidential campaign—a time when I was naturally focused more on politics than on anything else.

But that is going to change, for a reason I mentioned in my overview of the top stories of the year. I wrote:

“With voters choosing gridlock between a far-left president and a Tea Party-influence House of Representatives, I expect that for the next few years not much new will be done for good or ill. (As of this writing, it looks like the latest ‘fiscal cliff’ compromise is just another attempt to kick the can down the road for a few more months. [Another day’s examination hasn’t improved that estimate any.—RWT]) So we are simply waiting for a new crisis.

“That will not be very much fun, which is why I am planning a change of direction in my coverage for 2013 to address some areas of our culture where important things are being done and where there is a lot happening that really is fun.”

To put it differently, politics is going to be boring for a while. If the election had gone a different way, we might have some interesting things to talk about—a battle royale over entitlement reform, for example. Instead, we are likely to see the same old battles fought over and over again among the same combatants, always ending in some kind of muddled, inconclusive draw. That’s what the voters get for not really making up their minds in the contest between big government and small government.

For advocates of small government, there will be a particular tedium to the next four years. Part of the point of advocating free-market reform is the possibility that someone, somewhere in government might listen to you and act on your ideas. In a Romney administration, or with a Republican-controlled Congress, there would have been some chance. For the next few years, we might as well be talking to a brick wall. We can scream all we like about entitlements and the debt. The administration and the Democrats in the Senate just don’t give a damn.

There is a lot we can still do in the realm of politics, but this new era of boring politics will also induce me to spend more time on issues that are truly interesting. One of those is a new set of innovations in technology—the Internet, robotics, “artificial intelligence,” biotechnology, and how they are all integrating together—which I think are about to launch a new era. I’ve been storing up links on this issue for more than a year, but I haven’t had the time to integrate them together into a big picture. And the big picture is very, very big, so it will take a whole series of articles to deal with it.

All of this is happening despite the stagnation of the economy. Remember that even during the disaster of the Great Depression, technology still managed to march forward, and the way people lived in 1949 was very different from how they lived in 1929. The forces of science and technology unleashed by the Industrial Revolution are too big to be stopped by a mere decade of economic decline. If they weren’t stopped by the Great Depression, they won’t be stopped by our current Lost Decade.

I am also finally going to launch my new series, “An Atheist Reads the Bible.” The idea for this began about five years ago on something of a whim, when I began thumbing through the Bible very, very slowly in my spare time (of which I have none), trying to understand its actual meaning and cultural influence. I came up with enough interesting observations to reward the effort, and I will start sharing them with my readers.

I will also attempt to provide some more movie reviews. I gave up on this a number of years ago when Hollywood produced a particularly awful string of turkeys, and with small children at home, my time became too scarce to waste on that kind of dreck. But there have been some better films recently—Les Misérables, of course, and I’ve heard good things from reliable sources about Lincoln—so I think it’s time to get back into the movie reviewing business.

Finally, I have a couple of larger projects I have been wanting to work on, which I will start doing a little bit at a time in this newsletter. The first is an exploration of what is happening in the increasingly crowded field of “ed tech”: the educational technology that is rapidly making the traditional universities obsolete. The second—well, I’ll wait on that to see if I have time to start it this year.

So while it might seem as if it’s not a great advertisement for a political newsletter to say that politics is going to be boring, the world is much bigger than politics. There is an awful lot going on that is both good and interesting and will reward the time spent examining it. This will also serve as an inventory of the reserves of cultural strength that we’re going to need in the new era.

So stay tuned.—RWT


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