Fred McKinney (opinion): The market for lies

Advertisements featuring Fox News personalities, including Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, adorn the front of the News Corporation building in New York City.

Advertisements featuring Fox News personalities, including Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, adorn the front of the News Corporation building in New York City.

Drew Angerer, HO / TNS

“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Mark Twain

As an aging economist whose tools and abilities are not what they once were, I believe the media crisis of the century (the Fox News, House Republican Leader McCarthy and Donald Trump crisis) lends itself to an economic analysis of lies. There is unquestionably a market for fiction that sordidly cloaks itself as fact — that is, “alternative facts” Analyzing any market, you start with the fundamentals of demand and supply. These simple tools can inform us on what is happening and the likely outcomes in this market of lies.

The demand for lies, particularly political lies, must be understood by looking at what economists call utility functions. Economists take it for granted that every individual seeks the maximum amount of happiness, or what economists call utility. The problem is our resources are insufficient and our desires for more stuff unlimited.

Economists also assume everyone is different in the things they desire. My happiness might come from being on a beach in Montego Bay. Your happiness might be skiing down the Alps, or simply feeding your family. With these simple assumptions that underpin human behavior, the question is; Why would anyone demand to be lied to?

When you lose and you think you won and there is someone else out there supporting your claim of victory, you will demand, not just more, but ever-increasing amounts of this hogwash. Believing in lies requires repetition and increasing levels of message intensity. This is how Fox News boosts the demand for lies, literally growing the market for lies.

When the millions of middle- and lower-income white Americans latch their wagon to a snake oil salesman because he convinces them that their problems are not with economic factors that have created their environment, it is with Blacks, gays, Jews, anyone different looking or not believing like them. The demand for being lied to is the result of deep and real harm caused by global economic forces. It is this harm that feeds the racism, anti-LGBTQism and anti-Semitism. The current governor of Florida is promoting his own new set of lies related to wokeness, but this too will fail, crushed under the weight of untruth. Ron DeSantis’ hogwash is the result of the same factors that led to belief in the ”big lie.”

The supply of any good or service in capitalist markets is driven by the desire for profits and wealth. Individual consumers sometimes tell the truth and sometimes don’t. In this way, all of us are potential suppliers of lies. And now with social media, we can broadcast those lies as fast as Twain predicted. But the shocking nature of this recent week’s event around revelations disclosed in the Dominion voting machines defamation case against Fox News is as earth shaking in the media world as January 6 is in the political world..

There are big generational events like Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK in the 60s, 9/11, and more recently, Jan. 6 that defines the times. The Dominion defamation case might be just as big as these seminal events, but it is fundamentally different because in Dominion, the news is the “news.” Fox’s deceit, hypocrisy and maliciousness is directly counter to how the press is supposed to work, particularly in its relationship with political news. “We report — you decide” became we decide, and we fabricate. Fox became an immensely profitable wealth-generating machine in the business of producing and selling lies.

Fox owners and on-air personalities knew what they were saying on air was lies. They broadcast the lies that Trump and his team also knew were lies, to millions of Trump supporters whose eyeballs are valuable to hundreds of American corporations, who also did not care what the lies were, so long as Fox viewers witnessed their commercials. In these symbiotic relationships between Fox, Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox’s advertisers, there is no need to be overtly conspiratorial. This is a business model that works for all the players except the Fox viewers if the bubble does not burst.

In 1634 in the Netherlands, tulip bulbs started going up in price so fast that by 1637, just before the bubble burst, the choicest bulbs would sell for what is equivalent to $1 million today. As is the case in any pyramid scheme, or “once in a lifetime” opportunity, these events are driven by lies and they are all eventually exposed.

More recently, the Silicon Valley Bank collapsed in seemingly a nanosecond. Collapses with tulip bulbs or runs on banks happen because the truth is revealed and the hoodwinked try to salvage their dignity and/or their assets.

Fox's market for lies is looking more and more like the insanity of the Dutch tulip bulb market than normal markets. Understanding this, I see a bursting bubble where Fox will lose large chunks of its audience because of its brazen hypocrisy and hubris. It is interesting that the tulip bubble lasted about as long as the big lie. Some forlorn Fox viewers will find new media homes supporting their delusions. Twitter, One America and Newsmax may attempt to fill the void, but millions will wipe the scales from their eyes and rejoin us here on Earth One and leave Earth Two and its alternative facts forever.

We will always have a demand for lies, but if we are to survive as a democratic society, the cost of supplying and broadcasting those lies must be grave. History shows there is no avoiding the inevitable crash when behaviors are based on lies.

Fred McKinney is the co-founder of BJM Solutions, an economic consulting firm that conducts public and private research since 1999, and is the emeritus director of the Peoples Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University.