What South Park Teaches Us About Economics – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on What South Park Teaches Us About Economics.
Written by: David Radcliff
Research by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Production Assistant: Samuel McCoy
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
What South Park Teaches Us About Economics – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker sure do make us laugh — but they make something else, too: a metric crap-ton of money. It’s a tale as old as time: create a stop-motion animated Christmas card, nab a Comedy Central series, a movie, an Oscar nomination, yadda yadda yadda, enjoy a collective net worth of eight-hundred million dollars. Yet despite being an ad-supported, business like some other people we know, South Park has never been afraid to bite the hand that feeds it. So let’s take a look at how Stone and Parker lampoon the financial world across four of our favorite South Park adventures. Cash rules everything around us, in this Wisecrack Edition on Economics in South Park.
In “Gnomes,” the sleepy town of South Park readies itself for a classic David-and-Goliath battle- a real showdown between massive corporate coffee chain Harbucks and the homegrown, mom-and-pop coffee shop, Tweek Brothers. South Park challenges our natural bias towards the little guy by demonstrating, hey, sometimes, the little guy is actually a total asshole. And in South Park, this particular asshole isn’t above keeping his own son hopped up on caffeine or exploiting children for the media if it helps his business stay afloat. The very notion that a small business might be driven by impure capitalist motive is a message we’re not used to hearing. And the townspeople of South Park aren’t ready for it, either, which is why the Tweek and Harbucks rivalry is neatly stereotyped as just another innocent family business versus: “A big, fat, smelly corporate guy from New York.”
In fact, throughout the episode, most arguments in favor of big business are immaturely shouted down not with reason or facts, but, well, with immature shouting. So who’s the real bully, here? “Gnomes” demonstrates how bald-faced appeals to emotion can be used to disguise the cold, hard mechanisms of profit. Although he may be a staple of the community who charms people with his folksy marketing, Mr. Tweek proves himself to be an even more cutthroat capitalist than his rival. And it isn’t long before the pre-teen protagonists of South Park become convenient pawns in his agenda, as they’re forced to pass his anti-corporate words off as their own. Without knowing much about Mr. Tweek’s true business practices or even about the superior quality of the Harbucks coffee, the people of South Park demonstrate a programmatic response that boils down simply to “small business good. Big corporation bad. And does it matter if the big corporation is actually an ethical business and if the children in question are foul-mouthed hellraisers?
Fuck no, it doesn’t. And that’s thanks to a principle called the backfire effect, which says the presentation of any new and contrary information will be dismissed outright if it threatens your basic belief structure. Try arguing with people on facebook about politics. We’re confident you’ll change their minds! The “Gnomes” episode of South Park lampoons this idea of hardwired biases by demonstrating small businesses, just like small children, can be just as scummy as their larger counterparts, they’re just not as prolific about it. Because, after all, as the underpants gnomes of the episode adorably demonstrate, both small and large businesses are geared towards making a profit – even if there might be some…ambiguity about the path towards that objective.
Where the “Gnomes” episode satirizes exploitation of children for emotional sympathy, “Cash for Gold” satirizes the exploitation of the elderly for massive profit. And how better to demonstrate this con in action than by way of the Home Shopping Network? In this episode, Stan learns his grandpa has routinely fallen victim to television scams that are draining his retirement funds. Meanwhile, Cartman’s rank opportunism drives him to take advantage of those same scams to feed his insatiable greed. From these two angles, “Cash for Gold” examines both the predator and the prey through the lens of value theory. There are different theories of value out there, you’ve probably heard the kind dictated by “supply and demand”. But value might not necessarily be a financial value, but instead be rooted in a social, emotional, or historical value. And, much like financial value, these alternatives can be situational and fluid, hinging on a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Let’s take a look at some examples. After Stan’s grandpa gives Stan a bolo tie that was bought off the TV for $6000, Stan almost immediately learns the very same tie is actually worth $15 at the local appraiser. Then, after pursuing third and fourth opinions, Stan watches the bolo tie diminish in financial value, right before his eyes, until it is worth no more than a seven-layer burrito at Taco Bell.
To answer Stan’s question, the episode introduces us to multiple forms of value, beginning with the market value displayed on the Home Shopping Network. As Dean, the Home Shopping Network host, uses his authority to convince his elderly viewers they’re getting amazing deals, those same viewers reliably line Dean’s pockets, even though what he’s selling is, in the frame of material or resale value, pretty much a piece of crap. This disconnect is the very mechanism that drives any great scam: high perceived value married to low actual value. Where a purely labor-oriented view of economics might consider the work that went into producing an item, South Park here exhibits a more nuanced idea – one that proposes value is determined, not by quality or by effort of production, but by the nature of supply and demand. And, boy, does Dean know how to drive and exploit that demand. And later, when Stan urges Dean to commit suicide, Dean is able to conceptualize his life’s worth only in the monetary figure it might draw in a lawsuit: two-point-seven-million dollars. For Dean, there is literally no useful value beyond the financial frame of value — just how much cash he can squeeze from people’s wallets. However, we clearly see the impact of emotional value when Stan’s grandpa tells the story of his dog.
Through this monologue, we learn Grandpa’s reckless purchases have little to do with the perceived market value of the items in question. No, Grandpa is trying to add emotional and historical value to himself — by creating memories and sentimental connections that will last long past his death. Elsewhere in the story, we learn these fluid and disparate notions of value call into question the true value of nearly everything. We see the perceived cultural value of an Academy Award evaporate, as it’s simply melted down to be resold in new forms. Stan’s gift to his grandfather — a framed photo of Grandpa with his beloved dog — arguably has astronomic emotional value but low market value. And Grandpa’s $6000 gift to Stan is ultimately written off as being “gay as f**k.”
But just how loose is that relationship between labor and profit? That question sits at the foundation of “Go Fund Yourself,” an episode in which the South Park kids launch a successful brand that doesn’t even bother to put a business behind it. In fact, the official slogan of their company is… Their business, which ultimately calls itself the Washington Redskins, draws its success from the bastardization of modern Kickstarter culture, accepting monetary donations in exchange for no effort at all. Throughout the episode, South Park suggests that, in the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the success of a brand or company can now be rooted purely in its appearance rather than in its function. One of the central arguments of this episode is that what a business does is less valuable to that business than the relative power of its brand.
When Stan sets off to find “the perfect startup name,” this moment carries more import than any objective pursued by Cartman’s, uh, “leadership.” The episode’s thesis mirrors an argument by philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who argued in 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation that all previous definitions of “value” had been woefully inadequate. Baudrillard’s work presented that value isn’t determined by how much work has gone into making something, or by the nature of its materials, or by its overall usefulness — no, value is determined purely as the appearance of value. In other words, according to Baudrillard, an item or brand is only valued as it exists as an image in relation to other things that are also images. Value, then, is determined only in the relationship that exists between things or among a set of things. Through this frame, it’s more important for a business to have a great brand than it is to make great stuff. It’s more important to be trendy for investors than it is to make fat stacks of cash. Uber being worth billions of dollars while still losing billions of dollars? Yeah, Baudrillard more or less predicted that decades ago. In “Go Fund Yourself,” the South Park kids take this concept of value to absurd heights. Much like the protagonists of HBO’s Entourage, they embrace idea that the ultimate success lies in not doing anything at all — just: “Start up, cash in, sell out, bro down”.
But, we still gotta love ‘em. Because, like so many in the real world, the South Park kids are just squirrels trying to get a nut. Today’s economy is awash with side-hustles, independent contractors, and guest lecturers. But economic power lies not with them, says South Park. It sits with the fat cats at the top who know how to work the system with minimal effort. Or does it? Ultimately, the kids’ Washington Redskins venture is left in shambles because of the brand’s missteps on a social issue. Here, the episode argues that a business built only on aesthetics has nowhere to turn — and no foundational beliefs to hold to — once public opinion turns against it. It turns out even a business that does almost nothing can be threatened by doing or saying or being the wrong thing at the wrong time. In South Park, that outcome leaves our young entrepreneurs fated to the worst punishment of all… Scratch that. There is in fact a worse punishment than going to school, and it arrives at the forefront of the episode titled, “You Have Zero Friends.” This episode examines the absurdities of our growing social media economy. As in the “Cash for Gold” adventure, South Park here tackles, head-on, the true meaning of value. Are our friendships and social worth measured by our “likes” and Facebook connections?
Or are they determined by the interactions we share in what the cyberpunk community derisively refers to as “meat space?” From the outset of the episode, our protagonists stand, side by side, in the “meat space” and debate their respective levels of social status, as quantified solely by their collections of online friendships. In this framing, Facebook friendships, like money, create an easily measurable hierarchy of personal value. Cartman, unsurprisingly, sees relationships not as intrinsically joyful but as status symbols by which to elevate some people over others. If this calls to mind Baudrillard again, well, it should. Because in his work, The Consumer Society, Baudrillard warned that, instead of enhancing life, a transactional approach to relationships “leads to an individual lack, since everything possessed is relativized in relation to others.” Cartman’s troubling view of relationships begins to infect even Kyle. When Kyle’s digital farm is depleted due to economic hardship, he turns to his long-time meat space friend, Stan, for help. But even after Stan has offered Kyle his real-world support, all Kyle can think about is how much his own social media cache must be suffering.
Shortly thereafter, Kyle drops the sweet but socially toxic Kip from his own roster of Facebook friends, in order to salvage his own social standing. South Park asks, who are we, really, when our online presence outweighs our real-world engagements? Wendy insists her relationship with Stan be validated on the internet, and even Randy doesn’t believe in his connection with his own son until Stan agrees to add him on Facebook. In our reality and in South Park, this disjunction between our digital and real-world lives threatens to place a greater premium on our digital behavior – and it makes our physical life seem less significant and less like an experience.
Perhaps that’s why Kyle pushes back against friendships with real people, like Stan and Kip, when doing so means preserving his digital status. And while everyone else is trying to pump up their digital lives at the expense of their meat space lives, poor Kip is desperately trying to force his digital friendship into the meat space world by taking his laptop to the movies. But the argument in favor of cultivation of an online brand is as simple as it is daunting: although it may not be as authentic as the quote-unquote “real you,” your profile, your cyber-influence casts a much wider net than you do alone. So what ever will you do with all of that incredible power? Thanks for watching guys! Peace!