29 April 2014

Vox Day

In case you need it, Avicenna at A Million Gods has a good review of why the repugnant Theadore “Vox Day” Beale is repugnant.

27 April 2014

Liberals, libertarians, and conservatives

In the course of a critique of Ron Paul, David Atkins at Hullaballoo says some incisive things about the fundamental differences between liberals, libertarians, and conservatives.

Liberalism is and has always been about intervention. It is the opposite of libertarianism, and always has been. Liberals understand that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Left to their own devices, people with weapons and money will always try to exploit and dominate people without weapons and money unless they are stopped from doing so. It is not because we are taught to do so. It's just innate human nature. If this were not the case, libertarianism would work as an ideology. It does not, and never has at any point in history.

When the government steps in to stop a corporation from dumping noxious chemicals into a stream, that is intervention at the point of a gun, by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless. When the government steps in to enforce desegretation in schools, that is intervention at the point of a gun, by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless.

When Abraham Lincoln and the North decided not to allow the nation of the Confederacy—and make no mistake, it was a separate nation with separate laws and an entirely separate culture—to secede from the Union, in large part because the North had an interest in ending slavery in the South and in striking down a competing agrarian economic system, that too was intervention by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless. To this day, many Southerners feel that their land is being occupied by an illegitimate and invading power, and theirs a Lost Cause that will rise again.

This is what liberalism is. It is unavoidably, inescapably paternalistic in nature. It is so because it understands the inevitable tendency of human beings to be truly awful to one another unless social and legal rules are put in place—yes, by force—to prevent them from doing otherwise.

Conservatives use force of government as well, of course, but not in defense of the weak and oppressed, but rather to maintain the power of money, of patriarchy and of the established social pecking order. Where the oppressive hand of government helps them achieve that, they utilize it. Where libertarian ideology helps them keep power in the hands of the local good old boys, they use that instead.

But a liberal—a progressive, if you will—is always an interventionist, because a liberal understands that society is constantly on a path of self-perfection, in an effort to use reason and good moral judgment to prevent insofar as possible the exploitation of one person by another.

24 April 2014

Bundy vs Occupy

A Facebook friend asks, in a discussion of Cliven Bundy:

Occupy San Francisco was permitted to illegally occupy Justin Herman Plaza for a month. Where was the liberal outrage?

This is a fair question.

There are a number of meaningful differences between Occupy and Bundy.

Occupy was an act of classical non-violent civil disobedience, violating the law while recognizing the legitimacy of the government. If and when cops would arrest Occupiers, while they did not coöperate, neither did they actively resist.

The case for civil disobedience as part of the democratic process is well-defined and well-accepted; we make kids read King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience in school. Civil disobedience is a way of getting a democracy to change unjust laws by revealing the injustices they produce; it fundamentally respects and supports liberal democratic institutions and seeks to improve them.

Bundy and his supporters, in contrast, engaged in active armed resistance, rejecting the legitimacy of the duly-constituted and democratically elected government. When cops came for them, they drew guns and promised a fight.

The case for active armed resistance is also well-defined and well-accepted; we make kids read the Declaration of Independence in school. And it says that armed revolt is justified when a government is not a liberal democracy, when it is regarded as illegitimate by its citizens.

But the US government is regarded as legitimate by its citizens, and while its liberal democratic mechanisms are not as strong I would like them to be, they are there. Bundy's movement does not fundamentally respect the US's liberal democratic qualities; it actively rejects and attacks them through threat of violence.

There is a name for a “populist” movement by an armed minority which attacks the legitimacy of liberal democratic institutions in the name of the nation's “true spirit” which must be rescued from the corrupting influence of lesser races through acts of redemptive violence. It is not “civil disobedience”. It is something else.

Update: Historian Rick Perlstein observes:

Here is a truth so fundamental that it should be self-evident: When legitimately constituted state authority stands down in the face of armed threats, the very foundation of the republic is in danger. And yet that is exactly what happened at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch this spring: An alleged criminal defeated the cops, because the forces of lawlessness came at them with guns — then Bureau of Land Management officials further surrendered by removing the government markings from their vehicle to prevent violence against them.

23 April 2014


Today the news is Adam Nogourney's New York Times article A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience That Rallied to His Side about Cliven Bundy.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here's the money quote. (And you can see it on video. And there are more quotes, of course.)

He said he would continue holding a daily news conference; on Saturday, it drew one reporter and one photographer, so Mr. Bundy used the time to officiate at what was in effect a town meeting with supporters, discussing, in a long, loping discourse, the prevalence of abortion, the abuses of welfare and his views on race.

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Update: In a follow-up interview on CNN defending this statement, he said:

You know when you talk about prejudice, we're talking about not being able to exercise what we think and our feelings. We're not freedom — we don't have freedom to say what we want. If I call — if I say “negro” or “black boy” or “slave,” I'm — If those people cannot take those kind of words and not be offensive, then Martin Luther King hasn't got his job done yet. They should be able to — I should be able to say those things and they shouldn't offend anybody.
I don't even know how to talk about these ethnic groups.

Interviewer: Then don't.

But I'm going to because I'm interested in those people. I think they should have freedom and liberty.

I'll leave it to others to elaborate on how unsurprising his rank, racist bigotry is ... and how comfortable he felt in expressing it ... and how that bigotry connects to the “Patriot” movement which has rallied to his side and whose language he has used, to American conservatism at large, and to the whole American project.

Instead, as someone attentive to American political language, I want to seize on the way he uses the word “freedom”. The way he says that Black slavery was freedom.

Do not lose yourself in bafflement. Do not lose yourself in disgust.


Take it as a kōan, a mystery story, a riddle on which you may meditate. Read it again and again. Remind yourself of it every day. Make it a part of you. What does the word “freedom” mean to Cliven Bundy?

Think of him every time you hear Americans talking about “freedom”.

He is not alone. He spoke those words expecting us to understand, and to accept, and to regard them as insight.

He speaks for many Americans who love America because of American “freedom”.

Learn their scent.

18 April 2014

The San Francisco tech boom crisis

photo of MUNI bus vs Google bus by defabulous

There’s a lot of talk out there about the changes that the city of San Francisco is going through during the current tech boom. A lot of it is blather, as satirized in Joe Garofoli and Peter Hartlaub’s What Out Of Town Writers Need To Know About SF and A.I. Algorithm’s In a Constantly Changing San Francisco, Change is Constant.

Step 6: Get your adjectives straight. There are decisions to be made. What double-barreled description will you give the Mission? “Gritty and trendy”? “Seedy and hip”? “Vibrant and overpriced”? Is it populated by “Latinos and the technorati”?

These are the articles I regard as actually illuminating:

Google Invades (2013) by Rebecca Solnit is the article which gave us the Google Bus as symbol. I note that it has a much more ambivalent sense of those busses than later protestors have expressed.

Other days I think of them as the company buses by which the coal miners get deposited at the minehead, and the work schedule involved would make a pit owner feel at home. Silicon Valley has long been famous for its endless work hours, for sucking in the young for decades of sixty or seventy-hour weeks ….

Updated to add: I admire Solnit. Her book about how people respond to natural disasters, A Paradise Built In Hell, is an important work. Her touchstone memoir of mansplaining, Men Explain Things To Me, is well-circulated for good reason. She often writes beautifully about the reasons why I fell in love with San Francisco.

But I confess to growing frustration with her as a commentator on the turn San Francisco has taken. She responded to a critic of the Google Invades article the following year with Resisting Monoculture, which is instructive in many ways but rejects building housing as a way to address the city’s housing crisis.

The Brooklyn-based Adler’s proposals for “fixing” San Francisco are not apparently drawn from local knowledge—or reality. “To house more people, which is what San Francisco must do to accommodate the new tech workers and the lower-income immigrant families and artists who live there now, it must build upward.” He blames San Francisco for not being as dense as Manhattan, the densest major urban area in the country. San Francisco is actually pretty dense, more so than any other major city in the West and most cities in the US—and it’s already pretty fully developed: you can’t erase most of what’s there and start over. There’s no practical way to turn it into a land of mega-highrises anytime soon when the unparallelled transit, water, power, and other systems that run under Manhattan would also have to be developed to accommodate such a boom. Finally, a nanosecond of reflection might reveal that Manhattan is not exactly a Shangri-la of affordable housing. Most of the island is exorbitantly expensive.

And the mechanism whereby excellent new housing will be built here for lower-income families? I think it’s called socialism. I’m for it, but it’s not on the horizon, and it’s not what a corporate boom is bringing, especially not one headed by libertarians with little sympathy for the poor.

Returning to the subject in 2024 with In The Shadow Of Silicon Valley, Solnit calls shenanigans on pop narratives of “crime” in San Francisco, but is so eager to place every real ill San Francisco at the feet of the “tech” industry that the only things she has to say about housing names “tech” as the singular cause destructive both through its presence …

Levels of violent crime are actually lower in San Francisco than in many American cities. Theft is a bigger problem, but like homelessness it has been exacerbated by the tech boom, which brought an influx of well-paid workers and a steep rise in housing prices over the past three decades

and through its absence.

San Francisco is said to be in a ‘doom loop’ because so much office space and so many shops have been abandoned since the pandemic. Tech layoffs drove some of the shutdown, but the industry also enabled a mass white-collar withdrawal from the workplace – employees working from home, sometimes leaving the region to work remotely. More than the shrinkage of the population and the emptying out of downtown, the new mood of the city seems to be influenced by a kind of shrinking from human contact.

I share Solnit’s love for the lost Arcadia of San Francisco and her critique of the worst of the “tech” industry, but leaving things there is irresponsible.

Big Tech Isn’t the Problem With Homelessness. It’s All of Us is a very good overview of the policy failures which produce the bizarre situation in the Bay Area.

The city is turning into a Brechtian horror show where young men wearing Airpods and backpacks emblazoned with the names of gig-economy apps weave e-scooters among people passed out in their own filth.

That’s not even the most frustrating part. This is: Everyone who works on homelessness agrees on the way to fix the problem. Build more homes. Not coincidentally, more places for people to live would help alleviate all sorts of other problems, from climate change to income inequality. But the kinds of housing California needs are not the kinds that get built. The reasons amount to an obstacle course built from policy mistakes, economic vicissitudes, and prejudice. “This is not something like pancreatic cancer, where thousands of scientists are striving to find a solution for a really difficult problem that we literally don’t know what to do about,” says Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UCSF who studies homelessness. “We actually know what to do. We just lack the will.”

How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained) by the reliably illuminating Kim-Mai Cutler is smart about policy and history. Follow her if you are interested in this topic.

San Francisco’s orientation towards growth control has 50 years of history behind it and more than 80 percent of the city’s housing stock is either owner-occupied or rent controlled. The city’s height limits, its rent control and its formidable permitting process are all products of tenant, environmental and preservationist movements that have arisen and fallen over decades.

A tale of two cities: how San Francisco’s tech boom is widening the gap between rich and poor by Laurie Penny does a good job of getting the flavor of the current state of the City right.

There are two things every child knows about bubbles: they are beautiful, and they burst. Time and again, I am told that San Francisco is “a bubble” — referring both to the gorgeous, insular never-neverland where workers in the city’s tech and associated industries live and play and to the localised economic boom that has fuelled the fat years.

Living in a Fool’s Paradise by Mark Hogan provides a look at the complex history and policy failures throughout the Bay Area which have produced the current situation.

Caution is warranted when considering construction projects in such a beautiful place. But the current state of permitting regulations for building and the glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city. If there was ever a time when San Francisco needed to embrace a dynamic, expansive policy for building housing, offices and transportation, it is now.

Demolishing the California Dream: How San Francisco Planned Its Own Housing Crisis by Hunter Oatman-Stanford takes a very deep dive into the full history of zoning and housing policy in San Francisco.

In July of 1978, the San Francisco Chronicle also reported that even Rai Okamoto, director of the planning department, had reservations about downzoning the city, echoing fears that it would raise housing costs and force middle-income residents out of San Francisco.

It’s clear that many San Franciscans were well aware this rezoning would lead the city toward a housing crisis. The planning commissioners, however, were not moved. Their testimony throughout the hearings made it clear they valued maintaining the city’s predominately suburban layout over affordability. In response to a homeowner who was unhappy that his property would be downzoned to allow fewer units, commissioner Sue Bierman gave a quintessential anti-growth response—countering that San Franciscans were concerned about parking, traffic, and sunlight reaching their backyards, embracing a shift toward zoning that would preserve “more comfortable neighborhoods.” Instead of listening to those folks worried about becoming homeless, the commissioners focused on the single-family homeowners worried about shadows on their yards and parking for their cars.

What’s the Matter With San Francisco? by Eve Bachrach and Jon Christensen is smart about the mechanics of housing and income inequality. (The lead article of a whole collection of good stuff at Boom Magazine.)

Longtime San Francisco residents who fought for so long worry that the city they love is disappearing. They’re too late. That city is gone and they, in some ways, have aided its demise. Cities are like living organisms, not flies trapped in amber. Protestors long fought the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco—not wanting to see their mostly low-rise city dominated by high rises and dark urban canyons. Instead they’re getting the other kind of Manhattanization—a playground for the rich with little room for the artists and regular folk who held down the fort for so long.

Why housing costs keep rising in San Francisco from transit planner Michael Rhodes describes a few economic fundamentals that should be obvious.

  • The number of employed residents in San Francisco has grown at almost twice the rate as the number of additional homes since 1990, exacerbating our housing shortage.
  • As a result, the cost of renting in San Francisco has doubled since 1995, when a two-bedroom apartment cost $1,700 a month. In the 54 years since 1960, San Francisco has added about as many housing units as we used to add every 15 years, even as the city and region have seen steady job growth.
  • Our current housing building boom is the result of a long backlog during the recession, and won’t be enough to catch up to demand unless it is sustained for a long period of time.
  • Housing costs will only continue to rise unless we support adding new homes in San Francisco and other transit-oriented areas of the Bay Area. By building near transit, we can accommodate this growth while preserving and enhancing our region’s quality of life.

What's the Matter With San Francisco? from Gabriel Metcalfe at Citylab describes a little history of the politics of San Francisco housing policy.

It’s our own version of What’s the Matter With Kansas?—the 2005 book in which Thomas Frank tries to explain how working-class Americans came to vote for right wing politicians against their own economic self-interest. In San Francisco’s case, many tenants came to vote against new development in an attempt to show their disdain for monied interests. The problem is that this stance happens to result in very expensive rents in the long run.

As the city got more and more expensive, progressive housing policy shifted gradually to a sad, rearguard movement to protect the people already here from being displaced. No longer would San Francisco even try to remain open as a refuge for immigrants and radicals from around the world. The San Francisco Left could never come to terms with its central contradiction of being against the creation of more “places” that would give new people the chance to live in the city. Once San Francisco was no longer open to freaks and dissidents, immigrants and refugees, because it was deemed to be “full,” it could no longer fulfill its progressive values, could no longer do anything for the people who weren’t already here.

Airbnb, Proposition F And The Shared Hypocrisy Of Bay Area Housing from Kim-Mai Cutler at TechCrunch is a discussion of a particular San Francisco ballot measure which provides a lot of great background on the weird politics of housing in San Francisco and the Bay Area at large.

Why Are People Blocking Housing Development?

It varies by jurisdiction. In most of the 101 cities around the Bay Area, tenants are just outnumbered by homeowners, who don’t have a strong reason to add more homes because they’ve already got theirs. In many Californian cities like Palo Alto, there’s almost nothing you can do because you may never mathematically have the votes.

But in San Francisco, it’s different. This is a majority tenant city.


Tech founders, are, of course, frustrated. They’d like to hire thousands of engineers over the next several years, but the competition for housing is driving up rents and salary costs higher and higher.

And again, the city can’t coerce land owners into selling their property to non-profit developers. So unless the moratorium is permanent, land owners might sit it out until the end because they don’t want to sell at a discount.

Blame Zoning, Not Tech, for San Francisco’s Housing Crisis from Kriston Capps at Citylab makes some smart observations about NIMBYism and gentrification.

As Rick Jacobus explains for Shelterforce, building new housing units anywhere—whether they’re set-aside affordable units or penthouse condos—goes in the win column from a regional perspective. But when new units mean penthouse condos in a low-end neighborhood, the region may prosper at the potential expense of the neighborhood.

What happened in South of Market and parts of Brooklyn and what people fear in the Mission (and the rest of Brooklyn!) is that high-rise luxury housing was dropped into otherwise distressed neighborhoods. These luxury projects dramatically changed the perception of these neighborhoods—they sent a clear signal to the market that these places were safe—both in the sense that they were safe for wealthier residents to live in and in the sense that they were safe for more investment in residential development. However much these projects decreased rents regionally by increasing supply, they had a larger impact of increasing rents in the immediately surrounding neighborhoods by increasing demand.

Yet this signaling happens with or without the luxury condos. Prohibit new building in the high end, developers turn to the low end. Decline to build new luxury condos, buyers will turn to the existing housing stock. It is, as Jacobus describes, “the new planning dilemma: where to put the rich?”

The new wealthy are ruining everything because the old wealthy decided not to let them live anywhere near them.

Carpetbaggers is a comment on the effect the two tech booms I have seen have had on San Francisco. Forgive me linking a post of my own: as a pre-Boom San Franciscan and a tech professional, I literally embody the split.

The San Francisco I loved was raffish and queer and weird, and it attracted people like me who didn't quite fit anywhere else. But ’99ers weren't moving to San Francisco because it was San Francisco. They were moving here to get rich. And they resented that San Francisco was weird; they wanted it to be like anyplace else and they did their level best to make it that way.

Don’t Say This To A NIMBY is a little example of the weird psychology of longtime residents who want to personalize the causes of change.

This actually happened and is paraphrased to the best of my memory.

Me: Thanks for creating this Facebook group about Palo Alto’s history. Since I’ve only lived here a couple of years, I feel I have a lot to catch up on. How long have you lived here?

Admin: I’ve lived here since the Seventies and it’s crazy now. Did you see this rental ad for a van? Someone actually lives in a van! What if they need a bathroom?

Me: I dunno, bedpan and use the shower at the gym? You’re right that it’s crazy. I blame voters who block development. If it wasn’t for that housing shortage, people could live in proper apartments instead of spilling out into vans, illegally-converted garages, and cardboard boxes.

Admin: It’s those tech workers, is what it is. They raise rents and make mortgages unaffordable for anyone but themselves. Thank goodness we bought our house back when this area was quiet.

Me: Did you grow up here?

Admin: No, we moved here when my husband was hired by IBM.

Me: Oh, so he’s a tech worker like my husband. The only difference is you came here forty years earlier so you lucked into an affordable market while we pay top dollar for a clapboard apartment. You’re just like us!

Admin: *kicks me out of group, blocks me on Facebook*

Me: Whoops.

Unpacking SF’s Moderate / Progressive Divide provides a good description of how housing, tech, politics politics, and cultural politics come together.

There is one policy area where the moderate/progressive divide seems to have sharpened in recent years. Nearly every academic and political insider contacted for this article highlighted housing and land use as the biggest cleavage between the two camps.

“That is the seminal issue in San Francisco that divides all politicians,” says Agnos. “It’s not the environment. It’s not healthcare. It’s not homelessness. It’s not voting rights. It’s not any of the traditional issues that we see in this country that define progressives or moderates. It is land use.”

“The moderates will look to the market more for solutions,” Agnos adds, “whereas the progressives will look to government more for solutions,” emphasizing that it’s not zero sum.


Housing is also where the mutual “strange bedfellows” critique emerges, making it harder to map each sides’ voting bloc. By opposing policies that would allow new housing to be built throughout the city, progressives are accused of allying with wealthy homeowners who don’t want their pristine neighborhoods to change. In their quest to make housing more abundant and, hopefully, more affordable, moderates are accused of running interference for billionaire developers and supporting gentrification.

Nobody says hi in San Francisco by Noah Smith from 2020 calls San Francisco “a great city in decline”.

I wonder — are poor transit and low density an effect of San Francisco’s culture of alienation, or a cause?

In NYC, the high and mighty of the finance and law and publishing industries ride the same subways as checkout clerks and hairdressers. The city is so dense that poor neighborhoods are shoved right up against rich ones; everyone walks past everyone on the street. There is certainly class separation and racial division in New York, but there is an inherent camaraderie to the city itself, a shared feeling that everyone is in the belly of the same vast urban beast. NYC is bigger than any of its industries, bigger than any of its neighborhoods. Its richest and most famous residents are supplicants to its glory, not the conveyers thereof.

Maybe if SF had dense housing and good trains, San Franciscans would be forced, if not to be interested in each other, than at least to recognize each other’s existence. But it’s a chicken-and-egg problem (or as econ dorks like to call it, an inefficient equilibrium). It might be that SF can’t have a sense of civic unity until it has functional urbanism, but can’t build functional urbanism without a sense of civic unity.

16 April 2014

The Washington Somethings

Dear Washington NFL Team:

I'm not a football fan, but I've been talking with friends about you lately.

I'm afraid we've not been saying nice things. The trouble is the name of your team being offensive, for reasons that should be familiar to you. I respect your attachment to the name, I really do, but that doesn't make it okay. Ya gotta do something about it.

Now maybe you're thinking that you have no cause to listen to me, seeing how I'm not a football fan. But I think you do.

See, I've thought this was a problem for a long time, but I've not been excitable about it because there's only so many hours in the day, and your team doesn't come up much in my day-to-day conversation. But with the subject in the news again lately, I've made a little personal resolution to look for excuses to mention it.

You're going to a ’Niners game tonight? Who are they playing?

I guess there will be a few Chargers fans out rooting for them tonight, right? Rooting against the home team has gotta be rough, but I guess at least they aren't Washington fans, who aren't just rooting against the home team but rooting for a team whose name is kinda racist. What a bummer that must be.

See how easy that is? I bet I can find lots of opportunities to bring it up. And if I'm doing this and making the effort to tell you, I'm guessing there are a bunch of other folks quietly making a habit of it, with a few more joining in each day.

Drip, drip, drip.

I suppose you think that capitulating under this kind of pressure makes you look weak. Maybe it does, to some people. But this situation is only going to get progressively worse for you. The longer you wait, the more you're going to look bad, both to the people who don't want the change and to the people who do. You don't want to become America's Racists' Team. It's best to get ahead of it.

At this stage, the change is still mostly an opportunity. There must be a bunch of sports marketing people whose dream is to re-branding a first-tier sports franchise. Think of the free media you'd get, the merch you'd sell, and ... if you do it right ... the better brand you'd be able to design for when you get to the other side. Become the Rockets or the Tricorns or the Fierce Charismatic Megafaunas or whatever will sell the most jerseys. Go ahead and cash in on one last round of merchandise for the old team name when it becomes valuable collector's items with the change — it's dirty money, but take it, since guys like me will be too distracted to notice.

Heck, do a round of merch of wacky “rejected team names” and make some money that way. I, for one, would buy my first football jersey if it had a potato on it.

Update: More propaganda —

06 April 2014

The perfect media franchise

One cannot help but notice that the mediasphere has become filled with sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations of old classics. It’s tempting to lament the failure of originality, but the fetish for originality is actually a modern phenomenon; for most of human history, storytelling has been story re-telling, and I have a great love of an old story re-told well. Some of the greatest writers of all time — Shakespeare, Homer, the Jawhist, Murasaki Shikibu — were mostly re-tellers.

Like it or not, we seem to be stuck with it. For a host of reasons, media companies want franchises they can milk for years of sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and crossovers. It makes things easier to create and easier to sell. A strong entry in a franchise doesn't just sell itself, it sells the franchise as a whole.

The advantages are not only crassly commercial but artistic, as a franchise can build something real and interesting: consider how the Jason Bourne movies with Matt Damon were able to do some surprisingly interesting things with their interlocking narrative.

A while back I had a realization about what makes these things successful. Let's do a little thought experiment into what would make the perfect franchise.

A known quantity

It's best if the franchise is already known to people. It saves a lot of trouble marketing the material if people have already heard of it and have some positive associations with it.

Example: Tarzan. Everybody's heard of him and knows his basic story. Bring him onstage, and people are already bought in.

All kinds of fans

Ideally, you want a franchise that most people vaguely know and like, many people know well and like a lot, and a few people know intimately and love passionately. Each of element of the fandom provides its own benefits to the material. The not-quite-fans give you the advantages of being a known quantity, providing a bit of a head start in selling the material. The casual fans give you the advantage of a minimum baseline of audience: unless you really screw up, they can be counted on to show up to buy in. The hardcore fans are a mixed blessing: they can be fickle, but if you do a bit of work to please them they will work hard to generate buzz for you ... and buy up all the directors' cuts and collectibles and ancillary materials you can invent.

Example: Star Trek. Just about everybody has seen a bit of Trek, and most people have at least a little soft spot for it. Plus there’s a big body of people who grew up on it and have a lot of affection for it and will give any new Trek offering a try ... and there's a core fandom that is notoriously enthusiastic.

Multi-media opportunities

Ideally, you don’t want just a series of movies or just a TV show. You want to be able to make movies and a TV show and books and comics and video games and on and on.

Example: Star Wars, which has even been adapted to radio.

A range of possible scales

If you want to go multi-media, that means that you want to be able to make big blockbuster movies with lots of big budget razzle-dazzle or cheaply-produced television shows.

Example: Dracula can be done as a simple play enacted on a single set, or an elaborate costume drama with spectacular special effects.

Merchandizing opportunities

Indeed, you don't just want stories in various media, you want to be able to sell stuff: toys and t-shirts and jewelry and mouse pads and Hallowe'en costumes and collectable Pez dispensers and on and on.

Example: Batman. You can sell the Batsymbol on anything.

Age range

Ideally you want something that doesn’t just give you variants that appeal to either children or adults, but that actually gets you both at once.

Example: The Muppets. Their multi-layered appeal reaches little kids and bigger kids and adults ... and adults are now drawn in not just by their goofy charm but also by nostalgia.

Strong characters

You want a franchise anchored by characters which have a strong presence as characters ... in part because you want them to have a life beyond the actors who play them. Ideally you want a built-in ensemble of several characters.

Example: Robin Hood. Any dashing, handsome actor can play him. (Heck, these days you could cast an actress as Robin Hood and it would be even better. Somebody should get on that, actually.) And he comes with a whole supporting cast of cool and familiar characters, including some great villains.

Appealing roles for actors

For those movies and TV shows, you want good actors to take the roles, which makes it help if the roles are ones that actors want to play.

Example: James Bond. Who doesn’t want to play him ... or better yet, to ham it up as a Bond villain? Plus there are legions of sexy actresses — both good actors or just good-looking ones — who will line up to boost their careers or have some fun with a role.

Appealing material for backstage creators

Material that writers and artists and directors love have an inherent advantage in attracting the talent to make the next entry in the franchise a success.

Example: Star Wars again. The world is full of filmmakers, animators, sculptors, painters, and countless other artists who were inspired to take up their art by seeing Star Wars as kids, and would kill to get a chance to contribute to it as adults.

A tested framework

Re-telling a familiar story gives you the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of other tellings, borrowing from those experiments into what worked and what didn’t.

Example: Superman. There have been 75 years of writers trying all kinds of crazy stuff with Superman. We know a lot about what you can and cannot do with a Superman story.

A range of possible stories

Many franchises are committed to a single tone, but some franchises are a big stage on which there's the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories.

Example: Star Trek again. Part of what was crafty about the original series was that each week the show went to a new planet that could be anything, making it possible to deliver a horror story about a monster one week, a military drama about submarine warfare the next, a political allegory the next. The original series even included a comedy about Chicago gangsters.

A big backlog

It helps if you have a lot of material already done in one medium that you can adapt to another medium.

Example: Tolkien. When Peter Jackson went to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film, the biggest challenge was trimming it down to a trilogy of long films. And when it came time to go back to the well, it was easy to create another overstuffed trilogy. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

A big, interesting universe

Setting can be as much a character as the characters; a sufficiently interesting setting can in fact be more interesting than the story itself. Experiencing and exploring a setting can be a driver in and of itself, and creates a lot of opportunities for fun ancillary stuff in the franchise.

Example: Harry Potter. The Hogwarts School alone is a treasure trove of an interesting setting, but the Harry Potter world as a whole is expansive and delightful, with magic to learn about, creatures to encounter, and endless interesting people, places, and institutions.

I'm going somewhere with this.

The examples of franchises I’ve pointed to all have some of those virtues, but of course none have all of them. James Bond is fun and actor-friendly and offers a lot of opportunity for spectacle, but there’s a narrow range of kinds of stories to tell. Star Trek lets you tell a lot of stories, and has a great relationship with fans, but frankly other than Spock and Data, the characters are not that interesting. Robin Hood gives you a great ensemble of characters, and there are literally centuries of retellings refining how to use them so we really know what works, but the Robin Hood universe is small, and there's only so many stories to tell.

But there's one franchise that has it all. Plus a couple of magic ingredients.

Marvel Studios

Magic ingredient #1: Superheroes

I read a screenwriter saying once that Hollywood had figured out that love stories are the cheese topping of storytelling. You can take almost anything and make it better by stirring in a love story. Cowboys & romance. Spies & romance. Corporate intrigue & romance.

It turns out that superheroes are the same way. Tired of those old WWII movies? Mix in Captain America and all those old tropes are fresh and fun again! Never want to see another movie about a middle-aged guy wrestling with his mortality and his drinking problem? You do if he’s also Iron Man! Bored of brothers fighting each other over who will inherit the throne? Give one of ’em a red cape and a magic hammer!

Superheroes are silly, but they’re fun, and they go with anything. Which brings us to ....

Magic ingredient #2: The Marvel Universe

Everything that Marvel publishes takes place in the same universe. They’ve been publishing dozens of comics a month for decades, making it the biggest fictional universe ever created, with more named characters than Balzac and more stories than anyone could read in a lifetime. When I was a teenager, they took their in-house index that they used to keep track and started publishing an encyclopedia that ran to well over a thousand entries.

Along the way they’ve figured out how to make a gonzo everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sensibility work. The Avengers film — in which you have a Norse god, Howard Hughes in a flying robot suit, a spy femme fatale, Robin Hood in sunglasses, a WWII soldier, and Dr. Jeckll transformed into a big green version of Mr. Hyde fight off an alien invasion — is only scratching the surface of what the Marvel sensibility can do. There are sorcerers fighting off demons from Hell, vast empires of space aliens at war with each other, vampires and vampire hunters, cowboys and detectives and mad scientists, giant monsters from deep beneath the Earth, secret kingdoms in every corner of the globe, powerful cosmic entities from before time meddling in human evolution, and much, much more. And you can mix them together to make all kinds of wacky cocktails: when I was a teenager the X-Men fought off a goblin invasion of New York City with a little help from the Ghostbusters.

It’s goofy and fun and a huge canvas, and now they’ve built the brand to bring it all before a general audience. How many people saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy with its jokey style, weird space aliens, and a gun-toting raccoon and thought what the heck? ... and then saw the Marvel logo and thought, “Okay, maybe that sounds like fun”? The only other folks who have earned that kind of trust with strange ideas is Pixar ... and they don’t have a vast back-catalogue of stories to tell that they’ve already tried.

So when I saw the other day that Marvel Studios has plans for a decade’s worth of movie releases, I was not at all surprised. It’s been evident for a while that they are playing a very long game. They still have a lot to work with.