Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Briefcase: A Weird Reality Show

I was wrong in a tweet.  No really, I was wrong on the internet, AND I am admitting it.  Here's how it all started.

A few weeks ago my wife sent a link to an article about a new show, "The Briefcase."  I can't find the article she sent me, but here's a link to a similar article.

A quick summation, is that this show gives poor people money, they get to make some decisions about helping people in need or keeping the money.  It's a fascinating concept, but the press was dubbing it "poverty porn" and claiming that it exploits poverty.


So a few nights ago, I watched the show, and had a bit of a different reaction than the press.  I've talked about on this blog being relatively well off but also very cheap.  As such I drive a 2010 Honda Fit because it's cheap, efficient, and does what I need it to do.  I saw that the people on the show were driving nicer vehicles than me... which led to this tweet:

I thought I had expressed myself fairly succinctly, in a grumpy, cheap, old man kind of way.  Then the producer of the show responded:

So, I thought about this for a couple of hours and realized some things:

  1. He's right.
  2. The show ISN'T poverty porn in a general sense.  This is distinctly something else.
  3. The media got this one really wrong, which indicates a lack of understanding of poverty.


So, some background, you could read elsewhere, but the quick summary:
  • A "poor" family is given a briefcase with $100K.
  • They are also given information about another "poor" family,  this information increases throughout the show.
  • They have to choose how much money to keep for themselves, how much to give to the other family.
  • The family is completely blind to this, but the other family is doing the exact same experiment, but looking back at the original family.
So, what does the output of this game look like?  Fairly simply, the players believe their "win" will simply be the percent of 100K that they choose to keep, represented by this simple graph:

In reality, their "win" will be what they keep, plus what the other team gives them (this is the blind part of the game, that they are unaware of.  Represented by a more complex graph (percent family chooses to keep on bottom, percent other family chooses to give at right):

So what does the output of this game give us? It's actually fairly simple and doesn't require fancy charts or equilibrium calculations.  

Some people may assume that this is a prisoner's dilemma problem, as it is a blind, two player game.  But it's not.  At all.  The reason?  There is no interdependence of results.  I will get the amount I choose to keep, no matter what the other person decides to do.  Thus the rational solution is to keep all the money.  But what about the other couple?

Two main factors deter from keeping money for self, thus undermining rational action:
  • Guilt over the plight of the other family (they need it worse).
  • Fear of the optics of keeping all the money on public television (looking bad).


So, back to the episode I watched, and why my initial tweet was wrong.  It's fairly simple:

The people featured on this show aren't poor, and are generally better off than median Americans.  On the show I watched, the two families made $60K and $70K, compared to $51,900 for average Americans. (source 538)
The families both had a lot of debt, but that debt seemed largely due to poor decision making, which means this is a story about highly leveraged middle class Americans.  This is IN FACT a story about the new American middle class.  Which leads us to our next point...


Time to coin a phrase.  DECISION PORN.  Effectively this show is creating a spectacle of already over-leveraged middle American's trying to make decisions to benefit their financial situations, weighed against the those of another family (or, just the desire not to look selfish on TV).  And it is somewhat entertaining.

Am I writing off the plight of these families?  Somewhat, but keep in mind they are generally better off than average Americans.

The part of the show that struck me most as an analogy to middle-class Americans: upon seeing a potential financial windfall, the initial reaction of both families is to put themselves into a MORE leveraged position.

  • Family one: Wants to buy a boat.  Granted it's to start a new business, but it would still cost more than they would receive from the show, and it's a hugely speculative move.
  • Family two: Wants to adopt a foreign child.  Certainly sounds like a nice thing to do, but also is a huge immediate cost, and creates a high ongoing cost of raising a child.

Now for the big question, will I be watching the show in the future?  Probably not.  While the concept is fascinating, I get really uncomfortable watching other people make bad decisions, especially regarding large sums of money.  I think that watching this show would actually give me a good amount of anxiety.

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