Reality TV Economics

PBS has recently been re-airing a series of TV shows that put a historical spin on reality TV. In each series a group of people volunteer to subject themselves to a few months of living in the past. In Frontier House, several families were placed in 1883 Montana. They had to grow their own food, build their own shelter, and basically eke out an existence. In 1900 House, a family was asked to live in a historically-authentic townhouse fully-equipped with the all the conveniences of a townhouse in Victorian London - complete with no electricity, and a hi-tech coal stove for heating and cooking.
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The attention to detail is impressive. Each family is asked (and made) to live only with what was available to a typical family at that place and time - everything from the medicine, the food, to the number of underwear owned is made to be as authentic as possible.

While the shows have the popular elements of any reality TV series (allowing one to vicariously watch "real" people placed in weird situations), they are interesting for other reasons:

1) They allow one to observe the subtle changes in the way a person thinks and acts when placed in a different environment. (Maybe that's the same thing).

2) They allow one to catch a glimpse of "Crusoe economics".

3) They allow one to observe the subjective nature of value.

4) The obvious one, of bringing "history alive", or something like that.

Forced to grow their own food, and live in relatively harsh conditions, with scarce resources, a family in Frontierhouse needed to prioritize, and decide how to spend their time, labor, and resources. Since there were several families, they were able to trade with each other (and a simple trading store 10 miles away) for resources, products and services. Importantly, they then had to live with the consequences of their actions. While no-one starved, choosing poorly, or making mistakes, meant the difference between a plentiful and varied diet, or a monotonously deficient one.

What got me excited was that in one instance, one could actually see an economic calculation take place that was the antecedent of the creation of money. One of the participant of Frontierhouse, Nate Brooks, was doing relatively well. He was a hard worker, had made wise choices, and was rewarded with a relatively comfortable existence. However, at one point in the show he decides to grow wheat because he thinks that one of the other families is not choosing wisely, and is going to need more wheat to feed their animals later on. He tells the camera crew that he thinks the wheat will come to be a valuable commodity later on, and so having surplus wheat would be a good idea.

Right there one could see that Nate had made a decision that could have huge ramifications for one of the other families. Nate was purposely working for their betterment - but not necessarily out of the goodness of his heart. Nate might be rewarded for a good calculation - by posessing something of high value at a later time.

One could also get a sense of Nate's time preference. Because he was relatively comfortable, he could afford to invest his labor in a task that would not bear fruit for a few months.

There are other interesting examples of Crusoe economics. At another point in the show, Nate trades his labor (chopped wood) for some pies, baked by one of the women in another family. In another, a family builds an illegal distillery, hoping that the whiskey will be valuable.

While I have not seen all of the episodes of any of the series, and I have issues with the nature of PBS funding, I do recommend the shows. I believe 1900 House is currently being re-aired, and a new production, Colonial House, will be released this Spring. I have high hopes for this series, since I believe there will be several families - and hence more opportunities to see capitalism in action.

More importantly, I think that the reality TV format, might be an extremely powerful tool for libertarians and Austrian economics. Not only is this genre extremely popular, and relatively cheap to produce, but it has the added benefit that it is the ideal format for showcasing Crusoe economics.
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My dream show would be a reality Tv show that directly exhibits and elucidates principles of Austrian economics. On such a show one can imagine a laundry list of principles to exhibit:

- Demonstrating how an initial condition of the "unfair" distribution of wealth would be overturn by an industrious person who can offer a valuable service or innovation.

- Demonstrating how an innovation by a "greedy" individual will serve to increase the standard of living of everyone

- Demonstrating the effects of inflation and deflation by introducing a currency redeemable for some commodity, then creating more or destroying some of it

- Demonstrating the effects of different degrees of socialism by taxing the participants, and spending the proceeds for some good cause.

- Demonstrating the effects of some well-intentioned regulation

The possibilities are endless, but I think if nothing more than even one of these principles were demonstrated, the effects would be immeasurable. Imagine: a pro-liberty, economically-correct, message embedded in a format that is at the forefront of popular culture, and appealing on many levels. While the rules and scenarios would have to be well thought-out, and creative enough to elicit the desired effects in a somewhat entertaining manner, what is not needed is a talented set of writers to make the lessons seem real. One benefit of this format is that, to the extent that the participants are motivated to participate and "survive", their actions will be perceived as "real", and hence the lessons taught will be perceived as real - as they are.

Similarly, as reality TV may be as "real" as you can get on TV, it's probably hard to subvert it with false messages. To the extent that the participants are not actors, and are not reading a script, and are motivated by "real" concerns, their actions and experiences won't lead to lessons of socialism or anti-capitalism. Although it could never be truly "real" (it's still a centrally-planned format), it might be a close approximation.

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Bill - The series you

Bill -

The series you mention was interesting but there was one distinct reality factor that the families needed to live without. Firearms. In that time and place no man or family would have been without at least a rifle and, more than likely, a handgun of some type. This was mentioned by PBS, I cannot recall their reasoning, if it could be called such, as to why the families were denied access to firearms. So though the series portrayed the families as being in a reality situation, for that time period, in actuality it was not that realistic.

i am going to guess the

i am going to guess the reason was liability. :):):)

qwest - Now that you mention

qwest - Now that you mention it, liability, I think PBS did mention something about that, but still, not having firearms in the West in 1883 is quite unrealistic.

It's an excellent point.

It's an excellent point. There are plenty of episodes I haven't seen, so maybe there are even more such examples.

Even without the firearms, though, I still think there are valuable "truths" that can be gleaned from the show, or shows like it.

Bill, I agree that there

Bill, I agree that there are, as you said, "valuable "truths"" that could be gleaned. I like your idea about an Austrian economics show too. Enjoy the remainder of the PBS series.

Thanks for the heads up. I

Thanks for the heads up. I have never heard of those shows before, but then I don't watch PBS. They sound very interesting from an economic point of view.

Here is a suggestion for a show. How about a show with two seperate "economies". The first economy has private property and in the second economy property is owned in common. The two economies can be compared. Would the producers of the show let the participants in the second economy starve to death? Nah.

I like it. Starvation

I like it. Starvation wouldn't be necessary. 3/4 of the way through the series, trade can be established, and the prosperous economy can save the day - preventing the communists from starving.

One aspect of this

One aspect of this particular form of reality-based show that hasn't been discussed is the impact on the participants by their knowledge that they're being watched. It's impossible to measure how much effect being observed has on people. In fact, the information derived from such a situation could be SEVERELY skewed: because we're such a "voyeurized" society, neither we nor the participants can know if their responses would be different in the pre-electronic world their situations are meant to mimic.

Your review was interesting

Your review was interesting

One aspect of this

One aspect of this particular form of reality-based show that hasn?t been discussed is the impact on the participants by their knowledge that they?re being watched. It?s impossible to measure how much effect being observed has on people. In fact, the information derived from such a situation could be SEVERELY skewed: because we?re such a ?voyeurized? society, neither we nor the participants can know if their responses would be different in the pre-electronic world their situations are meant to mimic.