Movie and TV violence begets violence in our real world just as surely as our nation's politicians will make toothless proposals to attack such violence after every teenage massacre. President Clinton has now added his voice to the post-Littleton cacophony, and his words were as empty as they were insincere.
Here's a way to really get serious about the problem without relying on either unconstitutional Draconian censorship or toothless Panglossian calls for voluntary restraint.
The proposal is a simple violence tax on TV programs, movies, and yes, the president's latest whipping boy: video games.
Here's how it would work: Simply charge each television station or movie company for every on-screen murder, shooting, knifing, rape, assault or other violent act depicted on the screen.
Ideally, this violence tax should be tied to viewership. That is, the bigger the audience, the bigger the tax. Such a system would be reasonably easy to implement for both movies and TV given the availability of both box office receipt and TV rating data.
For example, suppose one episode of "NYPD Blue" airs two homicides, a rape and an assault to a national audience of 20 million people. At a violence tax of a quarter-cent per act of violence, the network would have to ante up $200,000 for the right to air all these violent acts. And of course, what makes this tax work is that it confronts the show's producers with an obvious choice: Eliminate or move one of more of the violent acts "off screen," and the show will make more profit. In this way, a violence tax goes to the very heart of why there is so much violence on TV and the movies: Violence is profitable.
In fact, such a violence tax is firmly grounded in economics. The underlying concept is "the negative externality" problem. A negative externality arises when a private business produces a product that imposes costs on society not reflected in the business' balance sheet; and indeed, the goal of "internalizing negative externalities" underlies a wide range of policies currently in place by the government.
For example, by taxing cigarettes and alcohol, the government reduces their consumption and thereby the costs of health care for smokers and drinkers--costs that are typically borne by the broader society. Similarly, we tax polluters like electric utilities to encourage them to reduce their pollution by installing new technologies or burning cleaner fuels.
By analogy, television programs and movies filled with violence produce the negative externality of increased crime and social violence. But with a violence tax, the television or movie producer who tries to make a killing by marketing murder and mayhem must pay a tax to help defray or internalize these social costs. This makes violence less profitable and leads profit-maximizing producers to reduce media violence--the desired result.
How might such a violence tax be implemented, assuming that taxing content would not be an infringement of the 1st Amendment? Besides political will, all it would take is a simple legislative act by Congress authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to implement it. Moreover, the revenues collected from the violence tax could be used for any number of salutary purposes, from reducing the national debt or other taxes to, better yet, setting up a crime victims' fund, financing educational programs to reduce crime or simply paying for more police.
It is clear that a violence tax is hardly a magic bullet for the broader problems of crime and violence in our society. It is a problem that must be attacked from a hundred different angles--more police, courts and jails, more jobs, drug treatment programs and expanded recreational programs for our youth. Nonetheless, it has become increasingly clear that at least part of the violence afflicting our society is being fed by an almost relentless parade of dehumanizing media violence. Isn't it long past time to do something about that?