Saturday, August 30, 2008's Big Gay Blunder

Recently, ran the following commercial, on various cable networks. I've seen it on Discovery, BBC America, History Channel, and Food Network.

Now, color me surprised when this ad got pulled fairly quickly.

Do women generally like this sort of thing? Yes. Go check the comments at the Youtube site, see for yourself. I'm sure it's "cool" with the trendy set as well.

Do men who are likely to want to use like this sort of thing? No. They'll hate it. Desperate, lonely guys wanting a girlfriend get ... gays on the screen? just killed their brand. Since men make up the paying customers. Women don't need and don't form the majority of the customers of dating sites.

Dating sites generally fail, because it's like that "nude beach scene" in "Eurotrip." A total "sausage fest." Far too many men, not very many women. Men can need dating sites, it's hard for some to meet women, particularly those shy, without much of a social network, and new in town. Women don't need dating sites and therefore mostly don't use them, except occasionally as either an ego booster, or more often as a screening device (and that only for income, really).

This stands as another monument to the lack of competence in the creative class. It should be a simple task: sell lonely, desperate guys that will solve their romance problem. Instead, the ad agency made a "statement" which no doubt made all their ad buddies proud and boosted their own status in the ad business.

But now, for every guy who saw that ad, is not for them. It's for gay men. Not straight guys looking for a date. Made worse of course by the choice of the actors, who resemble the target market of cube dwellers too much.

More evidence of lack of simple competence among the creative class. Even simple things can't get done right, because no one has a clue about the social realities beyond the terminally trendy.
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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Comics Books Dirty Little Secret: They Don't Make (Much) Money

Everyone is interested in Comic Book movies these days. The Batman movie's domestic box office of $480 million dollars and rising will do that. But what people don't understand is the dirty little secret of Comics Books. They don't make much money. And the success of the movies is based on work done in some cases, more than fifty years ago.

First, you can get a sense of the Comics industry by going to the SEC and using their EDGAR search engine to read the Marvel Entertainment reports. You can find the most recent 10-Q (Quarterly Report) here.

Marvel's management states that their target market is 13-18, but concedes their readership can consist of men into their mid thirties. The probable readership is likely even older. If you look at their operating information for Publishing, their operating income is 12% to 16%, over the six month periods June 30, 2007, and June 30, 2008. Clearly, Comic Book publishing is not a big money maker, compared to the Licensing (Toys and Movies) and direct movie making lines.

This is because of the unique nature of the Comic Book business. Around 2001, there were 3,000 Comic Book shops. That number is believed to be less than 2,000 nationally, in 2008. This is a huge blow, because of how Comic Books get to readers. Most "monthly" Comic Books, which can now retail around $5 or so (more evidence they are not aimed at teenagers, when you consider many readers buy 6 or 7 comics at a time, totalling $36-$42 a week), are sold in Comic Book shops. They are mostly distributed by Diamond Distributing, which has a lock on most comic books distributed to Comic Book shops. If you want to know, why the heck can't you find Comic Books in Drug Stores, Supermarkets, and Bookstores, this is why. It's true even for DC Comics, which is owned by Time-Warner. You can buy Time Magazine almost anywhere, including your local Supermarket. You can't buy "the Adventures of Superman" there.

Even if Comics appealed to younger readers (they don't) they couldn't buy them in places where it's convenient.

"Trade Paperbacks" which are collected arcs of comics are available in Bookstores, like Barnes and Noble. But, they depend on the comics that originally were sold in Comic Book Shops. You see the problem here? The Trade Paperbacks are not original work.

There are even more problems for Comic Books. The number of younger readers potentially available, is declining year after year. Because of the birth dearth. The bulk of the population, is in their 30's to 40's.

Unfortunately for Comics, most writers don't write for mass audience success. Instead they write for acclaim and admiration of their peers. For being "daring" and "edgy" and above all PC and Multicultural. Roughly half the voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections voted for George W. Bush. One would think it would not be good business sense to routinely insult the values and deeply held beliefs of half the potential customers, but Comics writers do this all the time. America is often the villain, Republicans and Christians the main villains, and Muslims put-upon innocents.

DC's Editor in Chief, Dan Didio, has a habit of killing off beloved characters with generations of fans, to replace them with gay, or hispanic, or other multicultural variations of the character that worked for in some cases 40 years or more. This is just poor business, since there are not many gay, or hispanic readers. Mexican boys have their own comics, produced in Mexico, by Mexican writers and artists, about Mexican themes, in Spanish. They won't be reading any DC comics.

What accounts for such poor business practices, the politicizing of Comic Books to the point where half the potential customers are alienated, the emphasis on PC and Multiculturalism to a slavish degree, the dependence on Comic Book shops and Diamond Distributing? When for DC Comics at least, the existing Time-Warner infrastructure can be used to get Superman comics out with Time Magazine?

Several factors. Both Marvel and DC Comics don't really expect to make any money at all with Comic Book Publishing (and Marvel's SEC filings confirm that). DC seems to publish a few titles like Wonder Woman just to keep the rights (which would otherwise revert back to the estate of the creator). Thus it's a playground for PC and Multiculturalists, the same way "Independent" movies like "TransAmerica" (about transvestites) are a playground for the same thing. No one expects to make any money, just show how "cool" one is. It's just status-displays among a hothouse of "creative" people playing with other people's money. Like Independent Films, a situation not likely to last forever.

The real money is in films and licensing. Everything from major movies, to toys, to the series "Smallville" on first the WB and now CW network, and of course video games create streams of revenue, on work done decades ago. All bring in money with no real requirement to invent new characters and universes. DC is rolled up into the Time-Warner behemoth, but there is no reason not to think that their own internal balance sheet would not look like Marvel's public one on the SEC EDGAR system. On a lesser scale, that would be replicated by independent and privately held smaller comics publishers, including Dark Horse, Top Cow, and London Knights.

My own thinking is that Demographics is playing a part in this. The following chart, from the US Census Bureau 2006 survey, shows the population breakdowns:

[Click on the image to see the full size.]

Much has been made by any number of commenters, from Steve Sailer, to John Derbyshire, to Spengler, to Mark Steyn, to in particular, Ed Driscoll, about the pathetic state of popular culture. Blogger Ed Driscoll in particular is fond of reminding us that in popular culture it's always 1968. In many ways, at best, popular culture only made advances into the 1980's. A time when innovation and new genres last appeared in rock music, movies, television, and in particular, Comic Books.

While many praise, justly, Christopher Nolan's two Batman movies, and how they rebooted that moribund franchise after the campiness of Joel Schumacher's versions, the two Nolan movies built on the work first done by Batman writer Dennis O'Neil in the late 1970's, and the follow-up work done by Frank Miller in his immortal "The Dark Knight Returns" in the early 1980's. The Frank Miller version of Marvel's Daredevil also dates from this period, where the character was taken from light-hearted "joke" to the current, dark, brooding, Catholic-Irish sin and redemption character that he's known as today.

Comic Books are probably a good a model as any to examine what happens ... when you start running out of young people. Without a constant turnover of new, younger readers, demanding imagination, novelty, and above all, fun, in their entertainment, creative people end up all too often appealing to an ever more "selective" (in the Spinal Tap sense) audience. Who will be older, and will consume entertainment as a status symbol.

Yes, in short, Comic Books became too much like Jazz. Once the music for the young to dance and romance to, now ... exemplified by the Riverside CA concerts featuring Branford Marsalis. Tickets available in the "cheap seats" for $100 a person. Not exactly a young man's music. Certainly not a young man's price.

When Comics were great, when as (one wag put it, Marvel got the characters right the first time) the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and other great characters were created, there was a whole new generation of comic book readers, young geeky boys in their early teens. Who wanted cheap, fast, and new entertainment. The virtues of this on creative people was obvious. There was no time to create uber-angsty characters and storylines designed to promote status within the creative community. Being cheap meant lots of risks could be taken, and rapid feedback from readers (who would write letters to the Comic Book companies explaining what characters they liked and hated, and why) helped creative people understand what worked and what did not for their readers.

Stan Lee and his counterparts at DC would have laughed at the idea that a multi-arc storyline would take all year, with frequent delays, and sometimes never finish at all, because artists and writers went on to other projects. Let alone replacing existing, popular characters with gay or latino versions. Lee and his compatriots knew their audience. They had enough letters from them. The writers and editors back then knew the innate conservatism (in some senses) of young, geeky boys. Boys who wanted to uphold the traditional values of heroism, monogamy, and the nuclear family. Because while they had no real ability to envision themselves as "players" they could see themselves as getting the girl through traditional heroism. If they just got bit by a radioactive spider. Or got a power ring from a dying Alien. Or got exposed to Gamma Radiation from a "Gamma Ray Bomb." All variations of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone (or Siegfried and the Branstock Oak) and playing to the deep cultural impulse in Western civilization to point boys to the "proper" way to get the girl. Which is be the brave and good hero. Stan Lee just updated him, and made him modernly weird. So he might crawl up walls like a spider. Or shout, "Flame On" and turn into living flame and fly about, hurling fireballs at bad guys. Or nerdily create a high-tech suit of armor.

Youth culture has it's own energy (and among young men, innate conservatism in gender/sex matters). Among it's principal benefits, is the ability to take these risks and still keep going. It's not an accident that Comic Book's greatest characters and the versions audiences in movies love, result from the flowering of that youth culture in the 1940's, the 1960's, and the last gasp in the 1980's. Along with pop music, movies, television, and much else. Quite a bit of our cultural stagnation can be traced to the lack of ... young people.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

The Secret of Superhero Movies

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article detailing Warner Brother's new strategy for Superhero movies. Make them dark, "just like Batman." More proof if any was needed that Hollywood lives in a bubble and just does not understand their audience. Much less, the secret to Superhero movies.

"The Dark Knight" made $478 million as of Friday, August 22, 2008, not because it was "dark" or "edgy." Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov believes:

Creatively, he sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.' DC properties. "We're going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it," he says. That goes for the company's Superman franchise as well.

The correct term for this is stupidity. "The Dark Knight" was successful because it hit the emotional and story core of the character, when he was created back in 1939. Which was and is, the "moral revenge" story, with a character who takes revenge (and action) within strict moral limits. That's why Batman does not kill, even though he might have good reason to do so. Moreover, Batman is an ordinary man. Unlike the other Superheroes, he has no powers whatsoever other than what an intelligent and highly motivated and disciplined man could potentially have, with the aid of money and technology. He's the direct descendant of Edmund Dantes, and Sherlock Holmes, with a dash of Zorro. Batman, lacking any superpowers, pretty much has to be intimidating and ruthless (right up to the strict moral lines he'll never cross).

Batman in the comics and movies consistently beats, dangles over great heights, and otherwise terrifies the worst and least of crooks, but never, ever kills anyone.


Because Batman is a power-fantasy for guys.

The secret to comics is who created and read them, back when they were popular, first in the late 1930's and early 1940's, and again in the 1960's (the "Golden" and "Silver" age respectively). The Comics creators were mostly Jewish, nerdy-smart guys, who liked the pretty girls who had no time for them, and preferred the wealthy athletes in High School and College. In wish fulfillment, these mostly Jewish artists and writers, who in the 1930s and early 1940s lived at a time when actual, real Nazis were active in America (the German-American Bund), created (almost exclusively male) characters that provided wish fulfillment to every young man and boy who was not a high-status, wealthy athlete, liked by guys and pursued by girls.

Which is about 90% of the male population, at one time or another. That's what comics were, and the reason for the characters success. Superman is the most globally recognized fictional character. Because of that secret.

Yes, it's really that simple. Male wish fulfillment is the secret to Superhero success.

Spider-Man's nerdy guy element of suddenly having a superpower, and winning the girl, harkens directly back to Superman, and Shuster and Siegel's empowerment fantasy. Complete with High School Jock foil to defeat and beat for the girl's affection. Even Iron Man fits this mode. While Tony Stark may be a wealthy, billionaire playboy, at heart he is a nerd, and is happiest playing and building and experimenting with technology. He builds his own superpower. No wonder nerdy guys love him. He's one of them, as a Superhero.

The problem for Studio execs, and in particular Robinov, is that comics today are not what they once were. Kids and nerdy young men mostly don't read them. Comics can cost in excess of $5 each, and are available only in Comic Book shops, which are few in number. They are written for a much older audience, median age of 40, the hipster crowd. An audience seeking not male empowerment fantasies, but uber-PC, ultra-liberal critiques of average people (and their politicians and values). There is either the grim-and-gritty ultraviolent superhero only marginally distinct from the villain (if at all). Or superteams of politically correct gay, addict, lesbian, latina, etc. superbeings who rule America to protect "the world" from un-PC Americans. Such as DC/Wildstorm's "The Authority". Remember them?

There is a reason you don't.

The dirty little secret behind comics and comic book writers today is that the writers have completely repudiated the male empowerment fantasy, where the hero has some power and gets the girl or at least defeats the bad guy (within acceptable moral limits) and saves ordinary people. "The Authority" is merely the dream of the hipster and what he/she would do if they ruled America and/or the world. Very importantly, the male empowerment Superhero does not want to rule the world (that's the Supervillain's department). He wants to save it, and do so within the kinds of rules that ordinary men and boys set for themselves. No sadism. Mostly no killing. Protecting innocents. Following all the rules.

Because, in the world of the original Golden and Silver age empowerment fantasies, the rules were quite explicit, and the reason for the characters success. Superman's been popular since 1938 for a reason. And it's not being "dark," "hip," or "edgy." Certainly not identifying with an evil side, or the villain. Lex Luthor is Superman's main villain, and other than being bald, his persona can be extremely variable. Superman is always the same. The Ultimate American (along with Captain America).

Here are the rules:

1. A character with great power must show great restraint, lest he fall into villain territory. The amount of restraint and humanity a Superhero shows is directly proportional to his power. Superman must be everyman empathetic to even the villains, whereas ordinary Batman can do pretty much anything but kill people.

2. The character must be someone the male audience can identify with and reasonably project themselves into, because the character is a male empowerment fantasy. Villains and characters indistinguishable from villains won't work, no matter how "edgy" and hip they might be among the creative class and upper-income urbanites.

3. The character must actively defend the conventional morality and beliefs of the average person, who after all forms the audience/readership for the Superhero. This means, among other things, the assimilationist Patriotism of the Golden/Silver age, mostly Jewish creators, which most ordinary Americans still hold today. Captain America, punching out Hitler in 1940, a year before America's entry into the War, at a time of deep isolationism and pro-Hitler sentiment, from Charles Lindbergh to Woody Guthrie to the Daughters of the American Revolution, is a superhero, because he embodies the values and beliefs of the average guy. "Apollo" and "the Midnighter," openly gay Super-couple (and thinly disguised Superman/Batman clones) who believe themselves better than the average guy and act accordingly as dictators, are not Superheroes.

4. The Superhero is the enemy of PC, and the embodiment of doing the right thing, even at the cost of social isolation. What hipsters and the cool people don't understand, is that the average male audience is often socially isolated, particularly in High School, where social cliques abound and a strict social hierarchy rules. For the hipster, secure at or near the top of the urban social hierarchy, there is nothing worse than being cast out from the glitterati. The average guy who read comics, felt it was acceptable since that social reality already informed their existence.

5. The Superhero must have a sense of wonder. The Superhero is not merely a hero like Indiana Jones or John McClane. He is above all else, a sense of possibility, of wonder, excitement, and strangeness. The villains are scared of this wonder.

6. The Superhero's costume must reinforce the sense of wonder. The costume is important, it visually distinguishes the hero from a two-fisted ordinary man, into a sense of possibility and wonder, or terror and menace (to villains), or awesome power, or any combination thereof.

7. The Superhero must embody a deep emotional truth or sense of aspiration in their audience/readership. Superman and Captain America embody the optimism and power of American patriotism at it's best. Batman the moral revenge fantasy, Spider-Man the power of puberty and it's body changing effects, Iron Man the ability to make world-changing tools through technology as an uber-nerd, Captain Marvel and the Hulk every little boy's fantasy of being big and strong. Through either a magic word or massive temper tantrum. Green Lantern is a cop with a power-ring, and the Flash is speed personified, able to save many by being just fast enough. There are many, many possibilities, but each has to appeal to some part or aspect of the readership and audience.

8. The villain defines the hero, in what the hero will not allow, and will fight to stop. For Superman, it's Robber Baron greed in Lex Luthor. For Batman, it's the insane desire of the criminal to inflict sadistic pain for the purpose of inflicting pain and misery (the Joker). For Green Lantern, it's Sinestro who wants to rule the world with a power ring the opposite of his own, to create chaos and war instead of law and order. The villain might be the complete opposite of the hero (Lex Luthor to Clark Kent) or similar but with a huge difference (Sinestro and Green Lantern). But the hero must always fight the villain's plans and his morality (or often, lack of it). That's why he's the hero. And why the audience loves him.

9. The hero must win, and the villain lose. This is a male empowerment fantasy, after all, not an art-film for hipsters in Greenwich Village or Santa Monica.

Hollywood bubble figures like Robinov don't get it. Today's Comic book writers don't make stories or characters who appeal to much of anyone beyond the tiny, hipster and aging crowd of today's comic book readers. Comics today circulate at a fraction of the readership they held as recently as the speculation boom of the early 1990's, let alone WWII or the Silver Age. Some marginal comics circulate at 30,000 copies a week. Superman in the early 1990's sold 2 million copies a week, and had several titles a month, to boot! Most of the new characters (or PC-updated ones) created in the last few years have failed to catch on in any meaningful way. Nearly all the iconic, widely recognized, or even popular Superheroes were created at least forty years ago, by pulp-energy, fringe writers and artists seeking to connect with socially isolated, nerdy young men. The cool and the hip crowd did not read comics. Which is why these characters, even relatively unknown to the general public characters like Iron Man, are popular.

And why "The Authority" or "Watchmen" are not. "Watchmen" will be a flop.

My suggestion to Robinov, to make DC Superhero movies that will make money:

1. Yes, follow Marvel's plan of introducing Superheros in solo adventures with cameo cross-overs to create anticipation and excitement for a team movie.
2. Don't hire any DC Comics writer or editor, in fact keep them far away from your movies with no input.
3. Don't use anything story-wise done in the last fifteen years or so, because it will violate the secret of Superheroes -- the stories will be about how cool and hip and edgy the writers are, not male empowerment fantasies.
4. Repeat constantly, "male empowerment fantasy" to understand what your movies will be and what they won't (everything else).
5. Understand that demographics means that your male audience will be older than 17, by a large margin. They'll be in their twenties, thirties, and forties, but will still want stories that provide "male empowerment," see #4. This means themes that are mature, while still delivering the "male empowerment fantasy" such as Iron Man. With it's forty-plus lead and adult (but light) story.
6. Use writers and directors who understand the core of the character (and his villains), as originally conceived and proved by time to be popular. This means no Bryan Singer tributes to Richard Donner. Or inserting of any "cool" and PC subtext that subverts the male empowerment fantasy. You may need to search outside of who you thought would be appropriate, and should beware of those seeking to make an art movie instead of a well-crafted male empowerment fantasy (Angst Lee would be a good example of who not to hire).
7. The right casting is critical, and as shown by both the Batman and Iron Man movies, the audience is older, so an older and more experienced actor is certainly appropriate, and no barrier but rather often a critical element to success.
8. Don't rush the movies. The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, and Hulk movies all show what happens: the stories move away from the core of the character's male empowerment fantasy and changes into star vehicles, special effects seminars, or arty angst fests.
9. Understand, not every character is Batman, and don't be afraid to sparingly use Batman to show that many DC characters are unlike Batman. The Flash is a sunny optimist, as befits a speedster. Green Lantern is a conservative, "right-stuff" supercop with a power ring that can do nearly anything. Captain Marvel is an eleven year old boy literally inside "Earth's Mightiest Mortal" and possessed of magical super-strength and speed and invincibility. Green Arrow is a notorious womanizer (Batman is a semi-monk) with a personal life beyond messy.
10. The villain is important, but only so far as he makes the hero the hero. Die Hard was not about Hans Gruber, but John McClane. Don't make the mistake that too many writers, particularly current comic book writers make and fall in love with the villain. He's there to be defeated in the end, after all.
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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hollywood's Romantic Comedies for Men: Demographic Reality?

Recently, Hollywood has found a lot of success in Romantic Comedies. But not with women, rather with men. Films like "the Wedding Crashers," ($209 million domestic box office) or "Knocked Up," ($148 million domestic box office) or "the Forty Year Old Virgin" ($109 million domestic box office) have done well, featuring men as the Romantic Comedy stars, not women. By contrast, "27 Dresses" ($76 million domestic box office), and "P.S. I Love You" ($53 million domestically), featuring female stars like Katherine Heigl and Hillary Swank, respectively, have not done as well.

Hollywood may be stumbling upon a demographic reality: in the marriage (and relationship market), it's women not men who are in control, and due to demographics, there are more men seeking to marry women than there are available and willing women. Creating a buyer's market for romantic fantasies aimed at men. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, in that women seek commitment and men wish to play the field. But demographics don't lie, and the US Census Bureau (again) has some fascinating data to back this up.

First, a word of caution. The Census Bureau no longer collects data on marriages and divorces every year, and makes it very difficult to tease out marriage data for men and women. Whenever a government agency conceals statistics and numbers like this, it's wise to assume that the bureaucracy wishes to hide something. The Bureau of Justice Statistical Reporting, available here, for example, goes through contortions to conceal the relative crime rates for Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and Asians, as well as the absolute number of crimes committed by each, and cross-racial crimes, although the rates and numbers can be teased out by careful analysis. The reason for this obfuscation is obvious -- no one inside the Justice Department wants the statistics to be part of public discussion. My instinct would be to assume that a similar dynamic is occurring with marriage rates among men and women, and the increasing ages of first-time marriages, which would be embarrassing to career-ending to disclose to the general public. Who might well demand action that conflicts with political correctness and powerful interest groups that effectively sponsor career advancement.

Be that as it may, the Census Bureau has conducted what it calls the "Survey of Income and Program Participation," which provides a 2001 snapshot of marriage and divorce among men and women. You may find (the 2001 Survey) here.

One of the fascinating things is the number of men and women who were ever married. The 2001 SIPP survey queried birth cohorts, that is men and women born in four year ranges, starting in 1935-1939 (i.e. the men and women were born in those years), and ending in 1975-1979. Bear in mind, the data from this survey is seven years old, dating to 2001. Nevertheless, it paints an interesting picture. Men in the various cohorts at age 20, who were ever married, formed a small percentage, around 20% or so, until the 1955-59 cohort, where it steadily declined to about 10%. Which makes sense, early marriage for men became less socially acceptable, and less affordable as well as incomes for blue collar work declined starting around the 1970's (when the 1955-59 cohort reached twenty, around 1975 or so).

Here's a graph produced from the report (sadly, PDF only for Excel/Open Office Calc jockeys):

[Click on the Image to Enlarge it.]

Women ever married at age 20, interestingly, show up at the first cohort, 1935-1939, at around 50%. Yes in the mid 1950's, about 50% or so of women had been married by age 20! That number steadily declines to slightly under 20% for the 1975-1979 cohort (who would have been twenty around the mid 1990's). Certainly the social effect of women marrying later is obvious here. Also, you can see the preference for older men in women's marriage pattern for this (ever married at age 20) group. Their male peers are significantly lower in marriage rates (ever married at age 20) for each cohort, so obviously the women in each cohort were marrying mostly older men. Various surveys have put the age gap in most marriages at around six years, with the man being that much older than the woman.

Men at 25 years ever married peaked at the 1940-1944 birth cohort (in the mid to late 1960's) at around 70%, and began a slow decline to slightly under 40%. Men ever married at age 30 peaked in the 1935-1939 age group (in the mid to late 1960's) at an astonishing 85% !!! Yes, folks, most men by age thirty, had overwhelming been married at least once (even if they did not stay married).

The extended adolescence and delayed marriage of men well into their thirties is a recent development. Very likely, an unhealthy one as well. By the 1965-1969 cohort, men ever married by age 30 had declined (this would be in the mid 1990's) to 65%, only slightly more than half.

Extended bachelorhood went from something only 15% of men past 30 would experience, in 1965, to 35% by 1995 or so. This is a huge change. Driven partly by economics (declining real wages for young men in their twenties pushing marriage ages for men upwards). But there are other factors involved as well.

Women ever married by age 25, in contrast, comprised 82% of the 1935-1939 cohort (again, around 1965 to 1969), and began a long, slow decline to about 53% of the 1970-74 cohort (around 1995 to 1999). [Note, for every cohort, women marry at higher rates for each category, i.e. married at age 20, age 25, or age 30.] Women ever married by age 30, have the highest rates at all, starting in the 1935-1939 cohort (again, from 1965-1969) with 88% of women by age thirty being married at least once, and declining to 74% in the 1965-1969 cohort (from 1995-1999).

What can we say about this data? A few things. One, the mid to late 1960's were an optimal time for pretty much all groups to get married, men and women, but especially men by age 30. Second, women got married and still get married at much higher rates than their same-cohort male counterparts, even if those rates have declined. More evidence (as if any were needed) that women do prefer men as husbands who are older.

Is this a problem? Yes. It is not just declining real wages for men in their twenties, which forces them to postpone marriage (renting rather than owning one's own home puts a man at a disadvantage in the marriage market). [Tthings like electronic toys are much cheaper than in the 1960's, however back then, the average man in his twenties could and did purchase a home before he reached age 30, significantly improving his chances of marriage.]

This graph shows it all:

[Click on the Image to enlarge it.]

The problem with men besides declining real income is demographics. The baby boom peaked in 1960-1964 when around 11 million men and 11 million women were born. Men and women both (marriage is consensual thankfully in the West) prefer an age gap of about 6 years or so between men and women (the woman being on average 6 years younger than her husband). Can you see the problem? For each successive cohort starting at 1935-1939, the increasing birth rate means there are more women around four to six years younger for men to choose from, and fewer older men for women to choose from. Thus, women who want to get married must compete with others, making it a man's market, allowing much higher rates of marriage for men. It's an example of supply (women four to six years younger significantly outnumbering the older male cohort) and demand (which we will assume will remain constant for men). This is admittedly an oversimplification, as noted economics, real wage declines, changing social attitudes among women towards marriage, and many other factors will affect marriage rates.

However, no matter how you slice it, declining birth rates means more older men competing for the fewer younger women each cohort. Leaving inevitably, an ever increasing amount of men out in the cold. Unmarried.

Back to Hollywood. Recall the box office numbers for the male and female romantic comedies? Even allowing for better, and worse execution of movies, Hollywood is facing a reality that it's only slowly comprehending. Women have a lot of male suitors, due to ever-declining demographics. They don't need a Romantic Comedy fantasy since they only need to look around them. This is likely why, Romantic Comedies for women started a slow but significant decline around the 1990's, when women started to realize their power in the marriage marketplace and take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, men likely need the fantasy of romance and marriage. It's no accident that good and merely pedestrian films covering the theme of "ordinary guy" meets, and after struggles, marries, his "Dream Girl" (usually orders of magnitude more attractive than himself) have done very well indeed in the box office. Any studio that recognizes this reality, and consistently implements it, is likely to be a big winner. Those that cling to outmoded demographic ideas are likely to fail just as consistently.

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Advertising's Disdain for the White Male: the Hipster Sneer

You've probably seen them, all over Television. No matter what show or channel you're watching, ads will show up that depict the straight white male as a complete doofus, whom the "cool people" condescendingly tolerate. Often the "cool people" are either the straight white guy's wife and children, or office mates. In the case of the latter, a "cool" Black male and white female often look at the man with disdain.

This ad is likely the worst:

Why do advertisers make these commercials? Surely they know it must tick off their customer base, which for many of these products will be straight white men. If their customer base is female, they'll object to being made to look like idiots themselves, for choosing such unsuitable husbands, or having such idiot sons, fathers, or brothers. Advertisers do it because of the Hipster Sneer.

Creative people just can't help it. The straight white guy, particularly engineers, cubicle dwellers, anyone who smacks of nerdiness, in an un-cool, live in the suburbs, drive a boring car kind of way, is the natural social enemy of the hipster. [And his competitor in the struggle for a mate -- surprisingly, Advertising is still a male-dominated activity. It's not women who are making these ads, it's men.] Hipsters, after all, have to sell attitude and elitism. While there are credentials for advertising jobs, they are surprisingly flexible. Top management of creative agencies for Nike, Reebok, or Cadillac often got their start writing copy for print ads, and worked their way up the ladder. While Ad Agencies bear little resemblance to AMC's "Mad Men," they do have a hierarchy based on how "cool" and hip each individual is, and how cool and hip they can make a campaign. The late Jay Chiat, for example, founder of Chiat/Day, got his start writing recruitment ads for Orange County, California Aerospace firms. He had no special training in design, art, consumer behavior, psychology, or anything of that nature. He certainly did have a flair for the dramatic, and a sense of how to impress people.

Many senior Advertising Executives come from similar backgrounds. As such, their stock in trade is the ability to surprise, shock, and sometimes appall their clients and consumers. But always, the Advertiser must be seen as hip, cool, and edgy. Clients hire and fire ad agencies more frequently than NFL teams hire and fire head coaches. There is very little loyalty, and few metrics to measure the success and failure of campaigns while they are ongoing, and adjust accordingly.

The process goes something like this: a Company finds itself with a dull and stodgy image, or fears it's being left behind by competitors in awareness by consumers. Company management looks around for a controversial, and above all, "cool" and hip Ad Agency known for being both shocking and "cool." Personal presentations are key here, since often only concepts and images are available, not finished ads made on spec. An ad execs ability to both build relationships with a client, even a short-term one, and appear "cool" is paramount. The execs often have nothing else. Shockingly, very little is publicly reported on ad campaign effectiveness. At least NFL coaches all have very public won-lost records.

Now the company has a new ad agency. Which will spare no effort to appear hip and happening. The Straight White Guy can be both safely mocked, and is the "enemy" of the hip creative person who often has a fairly chaotic business life, moving from one project to the next with all the uncertainty that creates, in a boom-or-bust cycle. It hasn't escaped the notice of the hip, creative person that the Straight White Guy(tm) often has the stability in his professional life that is lacking in project-oriented advertising. [Or that his stability offers an alternative to the cachet of the hipness of the "creative" ad person, in the relationship market.] Note the ad above, the Straight White Guy(tm) is both "boring" in a parody of the non-fashion oriented bad office dresser, and is presented as incompetent in dealing with any minor change. The implicit message is both: "don't date this guy" and "don't promote this guy." Remarkable since the main purchasers of ink for Dell printers at Staples are likely to be ... Straight White Guys.(tm)

Most of these ads are about the superiority of the hipsters who create them. The Hipster Sneer at the square office dwellers who work on boring day-to-day stuff. It's all about the creator. Not the consumer. The message is, the hipster is far more worthy than "this guy" in the ad, whoever he is. Even if the hipster never appears, his attitude towards the envied and resented "ordinary joe" is always present. This won't change either, until companies start moving more and more ads onto the Internet.

Internet Advertising is different. Not just with Google Ads, or various banners, surveys, and the like. No, what makes Internet Advertising so different is that it is interactive. Internet ad views, and click-throughs, can be measured day to day. Marketing managers can see daily, how well their campaign is doing, in reaching consumers, how much it costs, and what the return is (best result, viewers click "through" on the ad taking them to the site featured on the ad). As companies expect more and more Internet like reporting, and demand results from Television campaigns, room for hipster sneering (at the ordinary joes who work in ordinary offices) simply won't exist. The requirement for true professionalism will drive it out. That day is likely to be coming quite soon.

But until then, we will just have to put up with the Hipster Sneer.
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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Red Harvest: Putin's Plan for Russia

A recent article by the pseudonymous columnist "Spengler" at the Asian Times has provoked a lot of discussion. Briefly, Spengler points out that Putin plans to address the catastrophic demographic decline of Russia (abortions outnumber births, younger people of reproductive age 20-30 will soon exist at half the rate of present demographics due to well, Russians not having kids years ago) by Russifying neighboring countries. Spengler is quite correct when he notes that Russia's scarcest resource is people. He's off base however in figuring out Putin's strategy for Russia, and particularly the assertion that Russia and America, and the West in general, have no fundamental interests in opposition.

Vladimir Putin is a frighteningly intelligent man. While he is brutal, his brutality, which includes the assassinations of domestic critics, and those abroad (such as Alexander Litvenenko, poisoned in London by Polonium 210 tea) is made far worse by his intelligence. His assassinations are not the mere lashings out, but the Mafia-like sending of messages to all who would challenge his regime for control or even criticism. His rise in the KGB assures all that he is not stupid, since that organization did not tolerate second raters. Vladimir Putin's strategy is straight out Dashiell Hammett's "The Red Harvest". In that novel, the pseudonymous "Continental Op" is sent to a Western Mining town to clean out the corrupt elements, who had been brought in to suppress strikes. Angered by an attempt on his life, he decides to set the various gangsters and crooked politicians against each other in a death struggle. This basic plot was used also in Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film "Yojimbo", starring Toshiro Mifune, and the Walter Hill 1996 remake "Last Man Standing" starring Bruce Willis.

A former Judoka, Putin knows, like the Continental Op, and the Mifune and Willis characters (also nameless), that he's good, tough, and strong, but not good enough, tough enough, or strong enough to take on everyone. However, greed, fear, and betrayal can be manipulated to take advantage of the stronger and more numerous West, and China, to pick up the pieces in Central Asia and Europe.

Spengler believes that Russia has more at risk from nuclear weapons in the hands of the Mullahs and Pakistan than the West. In this he is mistaken. Putin is urging Russians to settle in villages instead of the cities of Moscow and St. Petersberg. With Russians in spread out villages, the city-killing effects of nuclear weapons is nullified. Western and Chinese and Japanese cities produce tremendous wealth. But they are very vulnerable to nuclear attack, particularly by forces that don't have a return address. Such as Al Qaeda, or merely elements within regimes in Tehran or Islamabad. Russia's weakness, the lack of great cities that produce tremendous amounts of wealth, like New York City, London, Shanghai, or Tokyo, is also a strength. A lack of targets for a few nuclear weapons, for one. Which can devastate the economy of the West and China, but not Russia's economy.

This strategy is why, like "John Smith" in "Last Man Standing," Putin has been arming the weaker rival. Russia has assisted Iran's nuclear program, not out of spite, or pique, but because it's in Russia's interest for Iran to attack the United States. Russia will never be a winner in global economy defined by efficient production of quality goods and services. It certainly can be the Last Man Standing. Just like the Continental Op, or Mifune's nameless Ronin, Putin has done his best to provoke the two sides for a fight. I would not be shocked to find that Putin's regime has provided discreet assistance to Uighur and other Muslim terrorists within China. The shocking (for those who know China) gun and grenade battle in XianXing province two weeks ago with police and terrorists, is unlikely to have taken place without someone assisting the terrorists in weapons and training.

Putin's goal is to be assiduously courted by all sides: the United States, China, Turkey, Iran, Al Qaeda. While playing obviously for himself. Putin, and Russia's endgame is not peaceful. Except in the way that the dead are "peaceful." Putin wishes for the US, Iran, and perhaps China to engage in a series of nuclear exchanges that severely weakens all parties, allowing him to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Unlike the gallant Willis and Mifune characters, however, Putin is unlikely to be sidetracked by damsels in distress. Nor is he operating out of a highly individualized code of honor and deep offense like the Continental Op. His aim is not to ride off into the Sunset, but take over.

Is this goal realistic? Yes. Putin does not believe he will destroy either China or the US. Merely weaken them, and his rivals in Central Asia, Iran and Turkey, so that Russia may seize the great prize, Central Asia's oil and gas fields, for it's own profit. To do this he needs more people, and broadly seeks to Russify by force neighboring countries like Ukraine and the Baltics. He also cannot permit missile defense against Iranian missiles, which is why Russia has protested US plans to put just that into Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia can easily overwhelm any such system with it's own missiles, and Putin knows well NATO consists of ceremonial border guards, a few Special Forces from various European countries who are good but very small in number, and the United States. Outside the US and Russia, there is no real military in Europe. Great Britain, for example, has fewer ships in the Royal Navy than the Belgian Coast Guard.

Missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic is no threat to Russia, but it is a threat to Putin's plan to egg on Iran into attacking the US. It's why Iran's nuclear efforts have been protected at every turn by Russia. Yes, long term Iran and it's nukes present a big threat to Russia, but one that Putin plans to deal with by creating a series of wars between Iran and the US. Primarily over who will control the Persian Gulf and thus the price of oil that travels through it. Which in turn determines the world price of oil being merely affordable or astronomically expensive. A boon for failed nations that have nothing but oil for sale.

What can the US do in order to forestall Putin's "Yojimbo" strategy? Peace is not the answer. One of the reasons why both Mifune and Willis's characters had so much success was that only one gang could rule the town they wandered into. Only one power, either Iran or the US, will rule the Persian Gulf, control it, and thus limit or not the global price of oil. It was not so much a question of starting a conflict, but rather stretching it out so that the stranger could extort the maximum amount of money from each side, while bleeding them dry, so that when the takeover came, there was no one left to oppose it. This is exactly why Putin has been helpful on many occasions with intelligence on Iran and Al Qaeda.

There is no way to "keep the peace" between the US and Iran, since Iran wants to rule the Gulf and have oil at sky-high prices, and the US wants to keep control and keep oil to manageable prices. Any attempts to bargain will be easily undercut by Putin, just as peace attempts between the Strozzi and Doyle gangs were undercut by Willis's character, "John Smith." Or the Continental Op, or Mifune's Ronin Samurai, in their stories. Only one can rule. This situation is made worse by the Chinese, who absolutely must have cheap oil and can be expected to make their own bargains to get it.

Therefore, the US must, to avoid playing out these stories, take action and undercut Putin's ability to play "John Smith." By eliminating Iran's ability to threaten US Naval forces in the Gulf, either directly by anti-ship missiles and patrol boats, or indirectly by deniable nuclear attacks through proxies (Hezbollah, Al Qaeda) on US cities. This would include surprise naval action along the lines of Reagan's 1988 attack on Iranian naval forces, and an air campaign to take out Iranian infrastructure: power, roads, bridges, train tracks, etc. Without power and transport, the spread-out Iranian nuclear program will just sit, elements needed to make warheads safe, but useless since they cannot be put together, or machined any further.

This course of action is not pretty. But it's the only way for the US to avoid playing out Putin's script, and paying a far more serious price. Putin would gladly trade the lives of three million New Yorkers, DC residents, or Chicagoans for a chance to win it all.

In that, he's fundamentally different than "John Smith," the Continental Op, and Mifune's Ronin. It's why Putin is the villain. America needs to recognize that, and act accordingly.
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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why Advertising Sucks

Two ads, currently running, demonstrate why Advertising today is just miserable, and a symptom of a creative class in terminal decline. One pushes agendas and messages the audience knows is just not true, and the other is determined to push hipness and edginess to an audience supremely uninterested, and indeed hostile, to those particular attributes.

First, the Circuit City Back to School Ad, seen here:

Next, the Reebok and NFL Commercial, seen here:

The Circuit City Ad, in case you don't want to watch it (I don't blame you either), opens with a nerdy High School age Circuit City salesman dreaming and drooling over Rihanna. He's interrupted in his reverie by a cute High School girl shopping for a computer, with her parents, who semi-flirts with him. It ends, jarringly, with the low price and features of the computer on sale.

This ad is a disaster. It pushes the agenda of ad agencies that seem to think that whites and blacks closely associate with each other, like the tedious ads where the dorky, nerdy white guy desperately seeks the tough masculine black guy's approval. This ad pushes two things the audience knows are not true.

First, nerdy white High School guys don't care for or even know about the existence or R&B singer Rihanna. Female singers who interest those guys are obscure, invariably waifish, girlish, "sensitive" singers in foreign or College Radio bands. They are invariably white and present a shy, "innocent" image.

Second, the Ad is likely to provoke negative reactions by men. The patronizing attitude towards the nerdy guy is palpable, and it shows the lack of understanding by a largely female-oriented advertising group, used to lazy advertising oriented to women by showing men as clueless idiots. It's true, advertisers lost the ability to sell to men. For too long, advertisers focused almost exclusively on women, and lost any ability to sell things without gratuitous insults towards men to appeal to women. You've seen the Home Depot, or other ads depicting the clueless "Dad" with the Mom and kids rolling their eyes.

It's Marketing 101 that women make most household purchasing decisions. Oddly, for hipster-oriented marketing and advertising people, one would think that current demographic realities would intrude on that myth, since they'd observe the truth enough in their own lives. Single mothers imply men outside that household, on their own. Presumably, buying goods and services. Later marriages and more divorces mean men live alone longer, as presumably, consumers and buying decision makers and not in suspended animation. While it is probably still true that men in two-parent households don't do much of the shopping, that hardly describes the vast majority of the population. Advertisers simply lost the ability to sell to men. That might have been sustainable in a good economy, not in a recession. Next time you're watching TV, look at the ads. You'll probably only see the loathesome Viagra ads and the Football-related ads directed towards men. Nearly everything else will be directed mainly towards women consumers. Because it's "cool." Or simply lazy force of habit.

This ad by Apple Computer featuring Feist, is what nerdy white guys like:

Now, the disappearance of the shared Black-White culture of popular music may be mourned. Perhaps there should be attempts to revive it. But depicting a nerdy white guy enthralled by Rihanna, when everyone knows that nerdy white guys don't even know she exists, is just dumb. Particularly if your goal is to sell the idea of shopping at Circuit City for a computer. You've just told one lie. A lie everyone knows is a lie. To what end, what advantage?

Certainly, ads far over-represent demographic reality of the racial makeup of the United States. Blacks make up 13% of the population, yet appear about half the time humans in ads are shown. Blacks and whites are shown as friends/acquaintances, often with a nerdy white guy desperately seeking a "cool" black guy's approval. Yet survey after survey confirms, that blacks and whites rarely socialize and are self-segregated. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that white and black Obama College-age volunteers did not socialize after rallies, and organized in segregated groups, all black or all white. This reflects social reality: blacks and whites don't (outside of Rap and some sports) share many interests and interact socially. Why then insist in Ads in saying the opposite?

That's the mark of an insular, removed, and ultimately declining creative class.

But there's more lies to come. A cute girl flirts with a nerdy guy? In what universe, exactly? That again is another lie. One everyone, young and old, knows is a lie. Why tell that lie? Again, it's because the ad creators are simply removed from direct, social experience, that would tell them cute girls only flirt with "hot" guys, none of whom work at Circuit City. Or shop there, for that matter.

Ask yourself these questions: Is the ad effective in reaching a particular demographic about the relative advantage in shopping at Circuit City for a new computer? Is the Ad even trustworthy? Or does it tell the viewers things they know are false, and thus undermine the entire message (of shopping at Circuit City for a new computer)? Are nerdy guys (there's a lot of them) likely to resent this commercial?

As far as I can tell, the ad means to invoke a mild contempt for the young men (he's foolish, daydreaming, geeky, the girl leads him around) to mildly appeal to women and nothing more. I don't seem much else as the ad's objective. How did this ad get approved? Credentials I suppose. The ad's creator and agency no doubt have impressive credentials, client lists, etc. Advertisers reflexively make men and boys into fools thinking it's an easy appeal to women. Women with sons or husbands or brothers or fathers oddly enough resent them being made into fools. Yet that trend continues.

Too many in our creative class are just resting on their credentials and past laurels. It's why nearly everything they create has declined in quality over the last fifteen years. There is little new blood, very few new and hungry creative people, and a lot of message pushing.

Sometimes it's just dang stupid! Consider the Reebok "Migrate" commercial. Now, quick, what is the commercial selling? Achy, emotional female folk singers? NFL players? Nope. Believe it or not, the ad is supposed to sell Reebok's new performance wicking T-shirt. Designed to wick the sweat away during hard work outs. It's like the mutant spawn of a Calvin Klein perfume ad mixed with Direct-TV ads featuring Peyton Manning touting the NFL package.

Would you have any idea that was the purpose of the Ad? No of course not. Because the ad is not about selling things. It's about how cool and hip the ad's creators really are. Compared to just dumb proletariat you, of course. And everyone else in the intended audience.

There's the various NFL players, the overly-breathy voice of Vashti Bunyan, an obscure 1960's folk singer reputed to be a descendant of "Pilgrim's Progress" author John Bunyan. The "hip" idea of NFL players "migrating" like geese, in V-formation, to football stadiums. That's the ad. It ends with the Giants in V-formation in the parking lot of the Meadowlands stadium, with a quick flash of the wording for the T shirt.

Now, how many NFL fans sit around thinking, dang, I need to be really cool and hip. Let's put on some achingly hip folk tunes! While NFL fans like watching their favorite players, the ad is confusing and silly, and doesn't feature any ... football. It's made, obviously, by people who don't know or like the NFL. Or understand their fans. The contempt and ignorance is obvious and is likely to be returned with interest by the NFL audience watching the commercial. Again, advertisers don't understand the largely male NFL audience. Who are not, to put it mildly, Madison Avenue hipsters. The reflexive dismissal of the male consumer by advertiser is likely to hurt them as the economy hits bad times and sponsors need to reach male consumers.

You can tell a lot about how healthy an industry or trade group is, by the attention to detail and craftsmanship. These two commercials, in miniature, present an advertising industry that can't even get the basics right, and have no commitment to quality. One commercial tells outright social lies, in service of mild contempt for the geeky young man. The other attempts to target NFL fans by not showing any ... football. Which is the reason for the NFL in the first place.

Advertising may not be the pinnacle for modern creative achievement, but it's not difficult either. That ad creators cannot even get the basics right, bodes ill for creative people in more demanding endeavors: film, music, television, and literature.
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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Russia's War on Georgia: It's Not the Cold War, It's Worse

Russia's war with Georgia would seem to return to the Cold War days. That's a fundamental misreading of the situation. While the Cold War featured the United States and the USSR facing off over world wide alliances and a divided Europe, it was an anomaly. An anomaly in that each "empire" was not really an Empire. But rather client states that required a good deal of military advisors, cash, discounted commodities, and all sorts of civilian assistance to keep compliant regimes in power. Think of it as a reverse Empire of sorts. Instead of money and resources flowing inward to Moscow and Washington, money and resources flowed out. To Cuba, or Greece, or Turkey, or Iran, or Egypt. Sometimes, as in the case of Egypt, or Greece, from both sides depending on who was ascendant locally.

The fall of the USSR coincided with the fall of oil prices. Gorbachev could literally not afford to pay for the secret police of the USSR's client states, and the rest was history. Regime after regime fell, as there just weren't enough secret police being paid (along with the military) to crush the revolts. This is not to discount the bravery or sacrifice of those protesters who toppled the regime, but explains why the USSR and the regimes themselves did not act the way they did in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. There simply was not enough money.

Enter Vladimir Putin. Taking over from disgraced drunkard Boris Yeltsin, Putin was and is an able and ruthless man. You don't rise to the top of the KGB, then FSB hierarchy, without being both ruthless and producing results. Whether it's Alexander Litvinenko drinking Polonium-210 laced tea, or Anna Politkovskaya shot to death in an elevator, or Ivan Safronov falling to his death out a window, Putin is a man of action. His threats are not idle, and his enemies and critics mostly dead.

Putin is a man who understands, more than anyone else, the violence gap.

The West, today, is simply unable to cope with, and cannot respond to, extremely violent and well-organized men. Men like Osama bin Laden, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or Vladimir Putin. Almost no Western leaders has any direct experience with men like these, men who kill. Not for passion, or insanity. But profit. Men who kill directly. By both taking up the pistol and firing into a prisoner's head, as alleged with Ahmadinejad, and by direct order. These men understand that there's no reason at all to do all the dreadfully boring and very difficult things that are required to generate and maintain wealth. Building infrastructure, educating the populace, having a fair and level economic playing field, keeping religion out of politics, a fair and transparent rule of law, suppressing cronyism, and more. All that is for the West, fat and comfortable and peaceable.

No, what these men each in their own way is exploiting is their own ability, through the people they command, to inflict lots of violence on fat Western targets to extort concessions. Extort them with no real consequences.

Osama hopes to extort concessions leading to the World Wide Caliphate. This is unrealistic, but he has taken advantage of the violence gap (he can inflict far more violence than Western Society, excepting the US post-9/11, can retaliate with). Denmark, or Sweden, or Norway, or Spain cannot retaliate with violence directed at Osama and his followers, much less his protectors in Pakistan's military and intelligence circles, even if a city block is blown apart. Even if those nations had the means they would lack the will to retaliate, and in any event lack both means and will. Osama takes advantage of that gap to conduct terror attacks, as do his followers around the globe.

Ahmadinejad hopes to use nuclear weapons to exploit that violence gap. Not only against the United States, but also in Europe where already Iran is positioning itself as Europe's Muslims protector. If Muslims in say, Denmark demanded the execution of Danish cartoonists for the Mohammed cartoons, and Iran backed that demand with nuclear threats, what could Denmark do? Nothing but submit. The United States certainly will not go to nuclear war with Iran to save Danes from nuclear destruction, much less save Danish cartoonists. Nor will France or Britain which have their own problems. Conveniently this makes Iran, and Ahmadinejad, the rival of Osama bin Laden for title of "Leader of the Muslims" in the struggle to establish the World Caliphate.

But Vladimir Putin is a man fully apart in exploiting the violence gap. He has no particular ideology. No world-domination goals. He merely exploits internally the desire among Russians for order, discipline, and leadership along with restoration of Russian power, with the gangster instinct of the KGB. Putin's aim in making war on Georgia is not "freedom" or "liberty" for the South Ossetians. Rather it is crushing Georgian independence, and particularly the non-Russian controlled oil pipeline, the Baku-Tibilsi-Ceyhan pipeline that bypasses Russian control. Crushing this independence makes nearly all oil and gas moving westwards to Europe, move through Russian controlled pipelines. Which can be turned off and on at a whim.

Putin understands the power of the gun. Which can be used to simply take from those lacking guns (or enough of them). Georgia is a useful example, just as the thugs who chase the head of BP's investment in Russia was an example to the West of how things run in Putin's Russia.

Europe is a very rich, old, and weak place. With a lean and hungry Russia on it's eastern doorstep. Lacking any ability or will to defend itself, and any meaningful desire to re-arm, only the United States keeps from simply annexing whatever it wants in Europe. Most Americans have a hard time comprehending that Europe has essentially no military at all. Almost all European spending goes to the Welfare state. This problem only got worse after the fall of the USSR. It's gap, in the ability to inflict violence, with it's neighbor to the east, invites Putin's strategy.

The United States is obviously not going to go to war to save Georgia. While it may be costly for Putin to roll up Georgian independence, he has no choice but to do so, otherwise his critics at home who matter, that is men just like him, will arrange something along the lines of Litvinenko's Polonium-210 tea. Having done so, and made an explicit example of Georgia (along with the failure of NATO, a hollow and make-believe force, to do anything meaningful about it), places like the Ukraine, or Romania, or Moldova, or Hungary, or Bulgaria, or Poland, or the Baltics will simply fall in line.

But they will not be the classic Cold War client states. Rather, they will be tributary nations sending money and resources to Russia. Which lacks the ability to gain wealth any other way.

That this war also halts the slide in oil prices that coincided with Bush's desire to drill in the US, is a bonus. Russia, like other failed states (Saddam and Iran come to mind) lives and dies by the commodity price of oil. On a daily basis. These nations cannot survive when oil is at a price that makes the West prosperous.

Suggesting strongly that sooner or later, the West and Russia (and it's ally, Iran) will go to war over the price of oil, globally. While Europe may be fading into old age, demographically, and exists as a permanently disarmed dependent of the United States, the US is a different case. Both younger demographically and unwilling to live lives of poverty sure to follow oil permanently at $150 a barrel or higher.

Sadly, Vladimir Putin may find that the violence gap is not permanent, and in the end "fighting spirit" as the Imperial Japanese, Wehrmacht, and Al Qaeda in Iraq suicide bombers found out, is no substitute for resources, will, and ability.
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