TCS Daily

Hi-Stakes Reality TV

By Stephen W. Stanton - March 29, 2004 12:00 AM

The Apprentice is one of the hottest shows on TV. Sixteen contestants compete for a chance at a six-figure job within Donald Trump's organization. Each week, two teams compete fiercely to outperform the other at an assigned task. Someone for the losing team gets fired. Everyone else survives for the next round in what amounts to a grueling fifteen-week job interview.

In theory, the worst performer on a particular assignment gets the axe. However, "worst" is a subjective term. Who was worse? A competent leader who made one bad call, or someone who did nothing and literally fell asleep on the job? The Donald hit the snooze button for a tired Sam and fired Jason, the project manager.

Many viewers disagreed. The show's fans flock to water coolers around the country every Friday morning to second-guess Trump's decisions. Omarosa should have been fired much earlier. Bowie deserved a second chance. Trump made the right call on Jesse. Or not. Opinions vary widely, and some are surprisingly strong. At the end of the day, their opinions do not matter. The choice is Trump's to make. Fans have no say.

They will have some influence in a much more important contest this November. Bush and Kerry have already embarked on the longest job interview since Jack Welsh began planning his succession at GE. On Election Day, after a year of campaigning, voters will tell one candidate, "You're fired." The winner gets a six figure job, and the loser packs his bags for the trip home.

Alas, the voters have a harder decision than Donald Trump has to make. On the show, Trump evaluates hopefuls one task at a time. One week, he fired the poorest salesman on a lemonade stand. Another week, he cut loose the weakest link when teams attempted to purchase a basket of rare items for the lowest cost possible.

What if Trump only made one decision on the last week of the show? Rather than judging performance week by week, he would simultaneously take into account all fifteen tasks to pick a single victor. He might not hire the person who performed well on the largest number of tasks. Some tasks provide a far better measure of a candidate's fitness for the position. Perhaps managing a large restaurant is a better indicator of executive skill than tending a flea market booth or lemonade stand. Trump would weigh all factors, and choose the best person for the job.

Voters have to do just that on Election Day, with just one decision to make. They will evaluate Bush on his record as president, governor, businessman, and pilot. They will judge Kerry on his long tenure as a Senator and war hero and protester. Voters will compare candidates' policies on homeland security, Iraq, and the broader war on terror, as well as their competing views on unemployment, taxes, environment, abortion, marriage, education, trade, agriculture, healthcare, and much more.

Each voter must decide which issues are the most pressing priorities and which policies best address those issues. Few people will find either candidate a perfect match and, therefore, can only choose the least imperfect.

At least, I hope that is what most voters do. Some will cast ballots to reflect their views on a single issue, perhaps one that will not be affected by either potential administration. Some will ignore the candidates themselves and vote based on party labels. Still others will be swayed based on humorous misinformation supplied by mock news programs and late night TV monologues.

But even among the millions of Americans who attempt a thorough and dispassionate comparison of the candidates on the issues, many lack the ability to do so. Running a country is more complicated than running a lemonade stand. Effectively judging a candidate's position on key issues requires a level of sophistication not present in the majority of voters.

For example, how many Americans grasp the macroeconomics of trade? Reputable economists may argue about optimal income tax rates, but they are practically unanimous in their support of freer international trade, both in theory and in practice. Protectionism may be popular with voters, but it is asinine policy.

Similarly, what fraction of voters understands corporate finance? How many can articulate the impact of runaway torts on risk premiums, driving up the cost of capital and stifling economic growth that we depend on to reduce unemployment, raise standards of living, and grow the nation's tax base? How many instead choose to believe that the costs of frivolous lawsuits are borne entirely by "big corporations" with no impact on workers, suppliers, customers, and investors (including blue-collar pension funds)?

How many voters are versed in the problems of the healthcare sector and the proposed solutions? Millions of working Americans have employer-provided healthcare. They may know the cost of their co-pays and monthly premiums. Beyond that, they rarely see just how costly and inefficient our quasi-socialist healthcare sector has become. A routine surgery and overnight hospital stay can generate a trickle of paperwork that takes dozens of man-hours and more than a year to resolve. Politicians pile on labyrinthine regulations to "protect" patients, yet this cumbersome paperwork is largely responsible for rising costs and reduced coverage.

Without understanding the issues, it is impossible to judge a candidate's plans to address them. However, even the most sophisticated policy wonks will have to act on incomplete information. The candidates rarely articulate clear and comprehensive positions. In addition, their public image might not reflect their ability to govern.

On "The Apprentice," fifteen weeks of competition are distilled down to just fifteen hours of television. Some quick math proves the viewers must miss more than they see. Producers can choose the most flattering or damning footage. A competent competitor can seem like a star or a goat.

Election campaigns work in much the same way. Most voters cannot and will not delve into the details of each candidate's decades of public service. Instead, citizens rely on pundits, journalists, and peers to edit down a lifetime of accomplishments and shortcomings. As on reality TV, what gets left on the cutting room floor often matters more than the story that gets told.

For far too many voters, the decision will be made without adequate knowledge or context. Instead, it will be a choice between Curious George and Herman Munster. One is seen as an unintelligent primate always getting into trouble. The other is a lumbering oddity that lives in a mansion. (In fairness, I'm told I look like Ralphie.) The choice is not between candidates, but caricatures.

Politicians capitalize on America's short attention span. They spin their resumes, nuance their policy positions, and make the best possible case for themselves in made-for-TV messages. Many voters' opinions can hinge a one-hour debate, a twenty minute speech, or a thirty second commercial. It seems an arbitrary way to select the leader of the free world.

There is no such thing as a perfect meritocracy, especially in politics. Democracy is flawed. As Churchill put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." Sometimes, good people get fired. "The Apprentice" shows that even an informed executive like Trump can make bad calls. (How else did Sam escape firing for two weeks?) We put less care into hiring a president.

Come November, voters will make their choice. Roughly half of all Americans will be disappointed in the outcome, but almost everybody will have an opinion. Water coolers will be abuzz with a more consequential topic than the spat between Omarosa and Ereka.

Regardless of this election's outcome, it will provide high-stakes reality television. I'm a fan.

Stephen Stanton is a frequent TCS contributor.


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